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Racing for a cure

A team touched by cancer plans to mow down barriers for people fighting the disease. Before the Douglas County Relay for Life fills Wessman Arena, the Cure Mower Cancer Race will heat up Copper Creek Motorsports Park. The inaugural lawnmower race...

Lawnmower races
Brice Johnstad, a 6-year-old from Foxboro, sits on a racing lawnmower next to Shannon Kayhart, president of the Wisconsin Lawnmower Racing Association, during the Sports Show at Wessman Arena. Brice combined his interest in racing with lawn mowing - a chore he helps his father with on the farm - to come up with a unique event, the Cure Mower Cancer Race, to raise money for the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life. (Submitted photo)

A team touched by cancer plans to mow down barriers for people fighting the disease.

Before the Douglas County Relay for Life fills Wessman Arena, the Cure Mower Cancer Race will heat up Copper Creek Motorsports Park. The inaugural lawnmower race takes place May 22 on the gravel track eight miles south of Superior, organized by the Gary's Ray of Hope Relay for Life team.

These are not your backyard variety of lawnmowers. Racing rigs can reach speeds of up to 80 mph and pop wheelies.

"I think it would be fun to watch," said Brice Johnstad, 6. That's why the Foxboro boy suggested holding the race to raise money for the American Cancer Society. At first, his mother Brooke said no. Although their team holds rummage sales and poker runs, lawnmower racing was something they knew nothing about. But Brice persisted.

Finally, Brooke Johnstad jokingly mentioned Brice's idea to Joni Tauzell, senior community relations staff partner for the American Cancer Society, at a meeting.

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"She loved it," said Johnstad, co-chairwoman for the Douglas County Relay for Life.

The concept caught Tauzell's imagination, reminding her of the lawnmower racing scenes from the movie "The Prince and Me." She did some online research and found the Wisconsin Lawn Mower Racing Association. It took one call to hook the association's president, Shannon Kayhart, into adding the event to their schedule. Then Paul Wrazidlo, owner of the go-kart racetrack at Copper Creek, stepped up to donate the site.

The event has grown like a weed. A field of 50 racers has already been confirmed, with room for more. Race day will begin at noon with a chance to meet the riders. Races start at 1 p.m. with six adult classes, two children's classes and two provisional races for local amateurs who want to see just how fast their machines will go. Do you think your mower has what it takes to be a champion? The registration fee is merely $10 and there are still slots available.

Even for those not racing down the track, Tauzell said, the event promises fun family entertainment for a great cause. Brice encouraged people to come watch the races.

"Because they care about their family and they remember their families," the 6-year-old said. Brice hopes the green they raise will help cut a path to a cure.

Four years ago, the Foxboro boy lost his great-grandfather to cancer.

"My grandpa had cancer, but he tried different things," Johnstad said, including experimental therapies. "After he passed I said if grandpa could try something we could try something."

That's how Gary's Ray of Hope began. Last year, the team was one of the top five contributors to the relay, raising $6,000 for the American Cancer Society. In all, 33 teams raised $91,000 for the 2009 Douglas County Relay for Life, the largest amount in the event's 16 years.

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"The volunteers did a phenomenal job," Tauzell said. "Douglas County is very generous." The county ranked fourth in the state for per capita donations to the American Cancer Society, she said.

This year, Brice has raised the bar for his team. The 6-year-old wants to earn $18,000 from the lawnmower race.

"All the money we bring in at the relay stays in our area," said Josh Rich, entertainment chairman for this year's relay and a 16-year veteran of the event. "It goes to help people struggling with cancer."

Money raised through Relay for Life provides no-cost lodging for local cancer patients undergoing treatment in the Twin Cities and Rochester, Minn. and their caregivers. In addition, at least 32 people from Douglas County accessed services through the American Cancer Society's patient navigator last year, Tauzell said. Such services included transportation, counseling, support groups, financial assistance for items like wigs and more.

When you chop it down to the basics, the race is about clearing a path to a cure. And it's something, organizers say, involves everyone.

"Every single person is touched by cancer," Tauzell said, whether they are a survivor or know a family member who has battled the disease.

Sponsors are still being sought, as are racers. For more information about the event, to lend a hand, sign up your mower or register a Relay for Life team of your own, call Johnstad at (218) 591-2404 or Dan Klarner at (715) 391-0098. You can also register to race online at www.wilmra.com .

Tickets for the lawnmower race are $5 for adults, $3 for children with all the proceeds going to the American Cancer Society. Tickets are on sale at Kari Toyota and the Superior-Douglas County Chamber of Commerce. They will also be available the day of the event at Copper Creek Motorsports Park.

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To access cancer patient support services, call ACS Patient Navigator Toby Sillanpa at (218) 786-8541.

Related Topics: SUPERIOR
Maria Lockwood covers news in Douglas County, Wisconsin, for the Superior Telegram.
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