ELLERBE — Lawnmower racing at the Lions Club track is on hold after the race manager waved the red flag in a dispute with the civic club over who can sell food at the racetrack.
Race operator Kermit Perkins canceled Saturday’s U.S. Lawn Mower Racing Association-sanctioned event at the Ellerbe Lions Club lawnmower track and says the races won’t return unless Lions members open the doors to more vendors. Lions leaders said they, not Perkins, manage concessions at the club-owned facility.
“I’m in it for the racers and the fans,” Perkins said. “It puts a big damper on the race because the spectators and the racers ask for certain vendors and we cannot get them back.”
Perkins said he canceled Saturday’s race shortly after the gates opened at 2 p.m. because Lions organizers gave a vendor who is a Lions Club member exclusive access and would not admit a second vendor who showed up at the track.
“I said, ‘If this vendor goes, I go, and that’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back, buddy,’” Perkins recalled.
Lynn McCaskill, a member of the Ellerbe Lions Club’s executive board and the Lions’ district governor-elect, said Perkins invited the second vendor without club members’ knowledge. That vendor, he said, had not completed the club’s application process.
“Our agreement with Mr. Perkins was that the Lions Club would have full control over the vendors,” McCaskill said. “This vendor was not invited to attend and Mr. Perkins evidently specifically asked him to come. When he was told he wasn’t approved as a vendor, Mr. Perkins said that if the vendor that he had invited left, he was going to be leaving. That’s the reason the race was canceled. It was not because of the actions of the Lions Club. We did not cancel the race.”
McCaskill said any vendor can apply to sell food at the Lions Club lawnmower races and said it’s simply not true that the club member who’s provided concession services has a monopoly.
“We do not have an exclusive agreement with anyone,” he said. “It so happens that one vendor is a member of the club and has been at all the races with maybe the exception of one. There is no exclusive agreement. We have been open to other vendors and there have been a number of other vendors in the past.”
Neither Perkins nor Ellerbe Lions Club President Joey Bostick would name the Lions member who sells food or the vendor who was sent away.
Bostick spoke in advance of an emergency meeting of the Ellerbe Lions’ executive committee held Monday night. He asked not to be quoted before club officers met, but explained that selecting and admitting food vendors is the Lions’ responsibility. Bostick said it had no bearing on Perkins’ ability to run the races.
McCaskill added that additonal vendors are welcome if they complete the club’s application process and are approved.
Perkins, who previously managed go-kart races at a track in Marlboro County, South Carolina, said he notified the sanctioning body and the company that provides race insurance that he had suspended operations at the Ellerbe track.
“It’s dead right now,” he said. “There’s nothing that can be done right now until we change it as far as insurance being available to them.”
Perkins said Monday morning that he’d consider resuming lawnmower races at the track if the Lions Club would agree to operational changes, but he didn’t believe the two sides would be able to reach a compromise.
“I told David (Poland, club vice president) that if I do, there will be a lot of changes,” Perkins said. “But I don’t see it coming back, buddy. They’ve killed it this time for sure.”
McCaskill said Lions Club officers decided during their emergency meeting Monday that they would try to meet with Perkins to iron out their disagreements and bring lawnmower racing back to Ellerbe.
“We have been discussing that,” he said. “We want to have a meeting with Mr. Perkins and see if we can resolve any problems. We don’t know whether that will be successful or not.”
Proceeds from the Lions Club lawnmower races fund two $1,000 Lions Club scholarships for Richmond County students and allow the civic club to purchase eyeglasses for the needy and make donations to the library and local schools, McCaskill said.
“We think we’re providing a good service to the citizens around here and giving them something to do on a Saturday night,” he said. “The money from that goes right back into the community.”
Lawnmower racing resumed at the 306 Millstone Road track last fall with four races in 2013, Perkins said. He worked with the U.S. Lawn Mower Racing Association to bring a national race to Ellerbe last month and had slated nine races with a possible 10th bonus race for 2014.
Drivers have been racing souped-up riding mowers for more than 30 years, according to the association, which formed in 1992 and bills itself as the United States’ oldest and largest sanctioning body for the amateur motorsport. Racers compete for fun, trophies and bragging rights rather than purse money, the association says on its website.
While the Lions Club and its former race operator are at loggerheads over concessions, both agree that the nonprofit civic club deserves support to further its mission of helping the blind and visually impaired in Richmond County.
McCaskill said the Ellerbe Lions Club recently purchased 10 fans it will donate to the Richmond County Council on Aging for low-income elderly residents.
“You do not want an organization like the Lions Club to lose the faith of the community,” Perkins said. “They do a lot of good work.”
Reach Editor Corey Friedman at 910-997-3111, ext. 13.