Janet Witt has racked up loads of mileage riding lawn mowers, but she has yet to cut a blade of grass with one of the mini-tractors.

She and her husband, Jim, are among a growing number of lawn mower racing enthusiasts. It's a quirky sport heavy on fun and puns -- a sticker on Janet's mower reads "Girls Kick Grass" -- until the ladies and gentlemen start their engines.

"All the funny stuff stops when the green flag goes down," Jim Witt said. "It's serious then."

The Pensacola, Fla., couple are among the nation's elite. Each has won a national series championship, and Janet Witt was voted the 2003 driver of the year after she kept running -- and winning -- while fighting cancer.

"It's just a hoot," said the 41-year Witt, a secretary at Pensacola (Fla.) Junior College. "When you are out there it's just you, just like you're one of the NASCAR drivers. It's you and your equipment."

That equipment ranges from stock mowers putt-putting around at up to 10 mph to souped up machines capable of 70 mph. Some were rescued from junkyards while others are new and have never cut grass. The blades are removed for safety.

The drivers wear helmets, neck collars, gloves, boots and heavy pants. While most are men, a few women also compete.

"It's cheap fun," said eight-time national champion Bob Cleveland of Locust Grove, Ga., a 46-year-old customer service representative for mower-maker Snapper. "We just use the event for an excuse to socialize. It's for trophies and bragging rights."

Cleveland and the Witts belong to the U.S. Lawn Mower Racing Association, which was launched by the Chicago-based Gold Eagle Co. in 1992 to promote one of its products, an additive to keep stored gasoline fresh.

The association's president, Bruce Kaufman, at first thought the gimmick might last a couple years.

"The thing just took off," he said.

The Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, a trade association, opposes lawn mower racing, saying it's unsafe. That hasn't stopped these dedicated enthusiasts.

"We don't fish. We don't golf," Jim Witt said. "There's nothing wrong with all those things. This is just what we do."

-- Associated Press

Lawn mower racers go at it at a competition in Chipley, Fla., last month. "When you are out there it's just you, just like you're one of the NASCAR drivers," said Janet Witt, the 2003 lawn mower driver of the year.