And so the BLMRA was born. But what's an association without a motto. Gavin suggested Sic biscuitis disintegrat (roughly, "That's the way the cookie crumbles"). "But it didn't convey the right image," he says. The barflies eventually settled on Per herbam ad astra (Through the grass to the stars). "It invoked everything spiritual in lawns," Gavin says.
That night Gavin hung a sign on a wall of the Cricketer's Arms: BRITISH GRAND PRIX FOR LAWN MOWERS IN MURPHY'S FIELD. INQUIRIES HERE. He was back in the pub with the boys the following evening when he heard the now familiar sputter. "I looked out the window and saw a guy running a mower back and forth, full out," Gavin says. "I thought, Holy god! What have we started here?"
The six events at that first grand prix ranged from a mower relay to a three-legged mower race. In the jousting competition, mounted mower knights brandished bamboo poles fitted with boxing gloves. "That went over like a sack of manure," says Ian Saunders, proprietor of the Cricketer's Arms. The tug-of-war was more popular though more perilous. Six machines in tandem tugged from each side. "Unfortunately, the rope stretched across a red-hot cylinder head," Gavin recalls. "Suddenly, boom! The mowers shot out this way and that. Why we didn't kill half the population, I don't know."
The sought-after prix were cucumbers. "First place got one cucumber," says Gavin. "Second place, two." Even today the BLMRA offers no cash prizes: Trophies at the '91 world championships included a busted crankcase, an old teapot and a chrome-plated mower blade in a glass case; typically, prizes for this year's tournament (Sept. 19-20) have yet to be determined.
Commercialism is definitely not in the spirit of the sport's regulations. Lawn mower racers would rather cut grass—which is also never done in competition. For safety's sake, machines are divested of their blades. "I know it sounds ridiculous," says Gavin. "It's like gelding all the colts in the Kentucky Derby."
For a sport in which speeds approach 50 mph, lawn mower racing has an enviable casualty record. The only serious mishap occurred in 1978 when a runaway machine careered into a portable toilet. "It frightened the life out of the lady who was in there," says Gavin. "She fled screaming into the night, trailing a kind of blue chemical liquid. It was not a pretty sight." A competitor is now required to wire his body with an ignition cut-off switch; if he's thrown, the engine stops.
Rules are many and strictly enforced. Alterations can be made to the gearing, but the engine can't be tinkered with. And you may enter only machines designed for home lawns. "Not public parks or the rolling foothills of the Canadian prairies or the steppes of Russia," Gavin says with scrupulous and impeccable seriousness.
One or two nonsporting types have tried to infiltrate the sport with soupedup machines that looked like everyday lawn mowers. One cutup installed a motorcycle engine. He was banned for life. Another tried to juice his mower with methanol. Banned, too. Mutant mowers abounded at a race in Limoges, France, in 1990. One Frenchman cannibalized the bodies of two Citroen 2CVs and bolted a grass catcher to the grill. "We were scared to death that those mammoth French machines would overturn and mow us down," says Gavin. A compromise was reached: The French agreed to race separately in a new class called "super prototypes."
The 12-hour Endurance Classic, also known as Le Lawn, is held in August in Wisborough Green and is the sport's best-known event. Best-known, that is, despite the fact that publicity is pretty much discouraged. Legendary Formula One driver Stirling Moss was allowed into the 1977 classic only if he promised not to tell anyone he would be competing. Lead-footing a Templar Tiller sit-upon, Moss teamed with five-time Le Mans winner Derek Bell to capture the title two years running.
The 12-hour has the merry air of a convocation of Druids at Stonehenge. Ungenteel pleasures await the 2,000 or so mower buffs in attendance. They bring beach chairs and beach umbrellas and hampers full of comestibles, or they eat burgers and chips from stands set up for Brinsbury Agricultural College's handicapped-student fund, the charity designated as the primary beneficiary of all this activity.