Saturday afternoon in Wisborough Green. September sunlight, contentment. Copies of the London Times and the Daily Telegraph rustle in the breeze. The smell of freshly cut grass fills the air. Clumps of Brits spread quilts, ground cloths and numerous offspring strategically on this dung-dotted pasture, claiming territory like colonialists dividing a distant continent.
The drowsy languor is shattered by a racket. Smoke and dust billow across the field as dozens of men in crash helmets yank on lawn mower starter ropes. The whine from the Westwoods and the Ransomes and the Qualcasts settles down to a stuttering rhythm, revs up again, then stops completely while five or six men align their mowers between bales of hay.
The union jack is dropped, and with a cry of "Gentlemen, start your mowers!" the 19th Annual World Championships of Lawn Mower Racing is under way.
For the rest of the day, dozens of blade runners bounce around the rutted track in 10-minute heats. Bruised and battered, sleek and stripped for action, the mowers battle head-on for lawn supremacy. The brain-rattling cacophony peaks in the cross-country event—six miles of bumping, thumping chaos.
"The idea is to provide keen, well-organized and inexpensive motor sport in a daft sort of way," says Jim Gavin, general secretary of the British Lawn Mower Racing Association (BLMRA). Sanctioned by Britain's prestigious Royal Automobile Club, the BLMRA has held mowing events every summer since 1973, including several in France. Membership hovers around 200, depending on who has paid the annual $9 dues. "We're not attempting to cut grass or set standards for cutting grass," Gavin says. Speed, rather than mowing ability, is the criterion for success.
Britain, of course, is exceedingly conscious of class, and the sport of lawn mower racing has three: run-behinds, sit-behinds and sit-upons—the last are the little tractors Gavin calls "the Rolls-Royces of this most English of sports." An amiable Irishman with fine white hair, Gavin has the bluff, ruddy, round-faced ingenuousness of a character actor in a British film about murder in a rectory. "Over here," he says, "competing is more important than winning. And what you compete in is not particularly important."
Mowmen, he says, tend to be rugged individualists. "We don't attract bank clerks or schoolteachers or anyone who works in the civil service," he says. "Our members are plumbers, mechanics, doctors, lawyers, pilots—people who see it as a curious challenge and dive in." Gavin owns four mowers himself, most notably a 1923 Atco. But he never races them. "It's too bloody painful," he explains. Sit-behinds have very little suspension. Sit-upons, none. And run-behinds? "It helps if you're a masochist," says Gavin, who puts out Cuttings, the BLMRA's "reasonably regular" newsletter.
"You might want to write this down so that it'll alleviate the whole condition," says Gavin, with the authority of a pharmacist advising an antacid. "The driving force behind mower racing was boredom." One evening in 1973, Gavin and his drinking buddies had been moaning in a West Sussex pub, the Cricketer's Arms in Wisborough Green, about the commercialization of auto racing. A former rally driver, Gavin was hot from officiating the trans-Sahara rally. He gazed wistfully around him and saw not sand but green fields.
Someone said, "What about lawn mowers?"
"You're right," said Gavin. "Everyone in Britain has one."