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Carts are in demand, never mind the golfing

Although no one definitively keeps track, as many as 40,000 of the estimated 200,000 carts built each year end up being used by non-golfers.
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Checking the mail. Visiting neighbors. Taking the kids to the bus stop.

For residents on the outskirts of Washington, using a golf cart doesn't necessarily mean playing golf. Marty Scanlon, for one, appreciates his cart foremost as a piece of furniture.

"When we're together," the 45-year-old says, sitting on his cart next to his buddies, "this garage exudes knowledge."

Parked next to him is a neighbor who recently pulled into Scanlon's garage on his own cart. They face a TV, watching football highlights, smoking cigars and drinking beer. Conversation veers from politics to pontoon boats to cheese dip.

"It's a think tank," said Rick Rickson, 44, lifting a cup of Bud Light out of his drink holder.

The trio of former Navy chief petty officers, who live outside Leonardtown in St. Mary's County, are hardly alone. In spread-out subdivisions across the country, cart owners no longer have to hoof it a quarter-mile or climb into the car when they want to visit a neighbor at the end of the street. Residents in retirement villages also like carts, including aging car buffs looking for a substitute vehicle to tinker with.

Although no one definitively tracks this kind of cart use, as many as 40,000 of the estimated 200,000 carts built each year end up being used by non-golfers.

Lots go to businesses, such as apartment complexes, car dealers and the like. But a sizable number end up with homeowners, said Don DelPlace, publisher of Golf Car Advisor, a trade magazine and wholesale catalog with products for the residential set. Among the Advisor's offerings: alloy wheels, rifle holders (for hunting) and kits to convert carts to roadsters resembling a Hummer H2 or a Buick Lucerne.

Inside Scanlon's garage, as many as five Navy veterans -- all in their 40s, all working for the government or for government contractors -- gather to watch football. In their Navy careers, they logged a combined 20,000 hours of flight time. These days, those without carts sometimes drive over aboard riding lawnmowers, giving them a place to sit to watch the games.

Like all their garage gatherings, the one held the evening before Thanksgiving was conducted on the clock. By 7:30 p.m. the three on hand had to return to their non-cart lives: wives, kids, adulthood. Rickson had pumpkin pies to check on. Tom Garrahan, 43, had to get ready for a trip the next day to Ocean City.

"I'll catch you guys on Sunday," he said, flipping on his headlights, pulling out of Scanlon's garage and riding off into the darkness.

About 40 miles north, along the Anne Arundel-Calvert County line, Christopher Van Wie, his wife and their three kids live on a three-acre lot at the end of a cul-de-sac.

Van Wie owns an excavating company. Working near Brandywine earlier this year, he repeatedly drove by a long fence, behind which were rows of golf carts. One day he pulled in.

Walking through the front door of Metro Golf Cart, he took a left into a showroom displaying options available: $220 dashboard covers, custom paint work with flames, CD players.

He and Danny Crescenzi, a co-owner of the business, walked out to the lot and approached a cart painted bright orange, bearing a No. 20 decal to match the Monte Carlo driven by NASCAR racer Tony Stewart.

"Can you do an Earnhardt car?" Van Wie asked.

"We can do anything you like," Crescenzi said.

Crescenzi's operation sells about 200 carts a year for non-golf use, a segment he says is growing and will spend between $2,600 and $10,000 per cart, depending on options. Crescenzi owns one decked out with a DVD player and so much Spiderman detailing that a comic book magazine wrote about it. The 41-year-old has never played a round of golf in his life.

For Van Wie's cart, Crescenzi's mechanics took a used cart, cut it in half and welded a new midsection to extend it by two feet. They installed middle and rear seating, bringing the capacity to six adults. They installed a CD player. It was painted bright red -- like Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s car -- complete with Budweiser decals.

Golf carts generally travel up to 18 mph. Authorities frown on driving them on roads with fast traffic. On certain kinds of public roads, though, "probably several hundred townships, cities and local governments have adopted rules" or regulations addressing the use of golf carts or similar vehicles, a lawyer with the National Golf Car Manufacturers Association said. And at least one local town has embraced them wholeheartedly.

Colonial Beach, Va., sits about 70 miles south of Washington, along the Potomac River, and has become a popular draw for weekend living. Since July 1, 2002, golf carts have been street-legal.

Regular inspections
Owners must get carts inspected at designated stations. Among the requirements: lap belts, good brakes, proof of insurance and speed regulators (if the cart is gas-powered). Owners then take their paperwork to Town Hall to get their permit stickers. Cart riders also must stay off state Route 205, which runs on the edge of town.

"The first year, I have to admit, I thought, 'Boy this is a bogus thing,' " said Colonial Beach Mayor G.W. "Pete" Bone Jr. Now he is one of more than 400 estimated golf cart owners in town.

In the winter, riders can enclose the sides of carts with thick curtains akin to soft convertible tops and warm the inside of carts with a propane heater that fits into the drink holder. On Saturday, up to 25 Colonial Beach residents are expected to climb into their carts for an annual holiday parade, following Santa in their carts. This follows a golf cart scavenger hunt earlier in the year.

Back in Calvert County, Paul Curtis, now 81, purchased a cart about a decade ago, shortly after he and his wife, Rebecca, now 73, moved into the Asbury retirement community in Solomons. Riding along in the dark one night, he heard himself run over something.

Terrified he'd hit someone, he jumped out. Just a pylon. Curtis bought headlights and installed them himself.

In May of last year, he and Rebecca climbed into their Mercedes, heading to Annapolis for the first of Paul's radiation treatments for skin cancer.

An oncoming car drifted into their lane, plowing into the Mercedes. From her passenger seat, Rebecca reached over to try to stop Paul from pitching forward. That shattered her arm. She also broke her ankle. Paul fractured his neck.

The crash laid Paul up in a neck brace, not only delaying his treatments but making it hard for him to get around. The cart, he said, became a godsend.

Later, lying in bed one day after a round of treatment, he thought through what his longtime wife might need if he should die. The cart, he realized, was getting a little tired.

He talked to his neighbor, Ron Altman, 70, who took Curtis to the Brandywine cart shop. Curtis bought a replacement cart with a headlight package. He sold the old one to Altman for $900.

That the cart needed an overhaul delighted Altman. The retired Army intelligence warrant officer had always worked on cars, rebuilding a 1965 Thunderbird convertible, among others.

Altman bought new lights, signals, mirrors and a battery gauge. He rewired the cart and used a plastic epoxy and sandpaper to smooth out the dings. He plans to repaint the cart in Washington Redskins colors, and he might buy a CD player and lift kit.

The tinkering sure beats golf. "Takes too long for me to play," Altman said. "I've got be moving."

He also helps maintain Curtis's new cart, having jacked it up and crawled under it recently to give it a lube job. Curtis wants to still be riding it on his birthday in February.

"I'm going to try hard," he said. "I like the sound of 82."