F1, eat your heart out: the lawnmowers have it

A Slice of Britain: As the British racing season comes to a finale, competition among the tractor-style grass-cutters is intense
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The Independent Online

A buzz comes over the radio and the roar and splutter of engines halts, abruptly. "First aid, first aid," crackles the speaker. "There are two casualties in the lawnmower field." The sarcasm dripping off the request is to be excused: an ambulance speeds over to find that the "casualties" consist of a cut knee and a broken lawnmower.

Lawnmowers, most commonly associated with sunny, Sunday afternoons, make unlikely racing vehicles. But for a dedicated, not to say eccentric, few they provide more drama than any Ferrari or McLaren.

This weekend, the keenest members of the British Lawn Mower Racing Association gather at the Knebworth Game and Country Show in Hertfordshire for the British championships. Although there is a tented pit stop of sorts, the track itself resembles a harvest scene: scattered hay bales make up the chicanes and turns.

The season, which runs from May to October over 12 separate meets, builds to a finale this weekend. Two races decide the finals. The 40 entrants seem oblivious to the smell of gunpowder and crack of shotguns from the alarmingly close clay-pigeon shooting competition. Each man (and all but one of the competitors are men) is focused on one thing: making his mower go fastest.

The British Lawn Mower Racing Association began in 1973 over a pint at the Cricketers' Arms pub in Wisborough Green, West Sussex. Dreamt up by a group of disillusioned petrolheads fed up with the prohibitive cost of motor sports, they looked in their gardens and decided motor mowers were the answer. Although mowers can be lowered and the bodywork modified to add a seat and back wheels, souping up the engine is banned, keeping costs down and preventing "the sport" from being hijacked by professionals.

Roger Knowlson, a 50-year-old plumber from Bristol, is on his third cup of tea of the morning. Dressed in a bright red BLMRA sweatshirt and a deerstalker hat, he is perched on a trailer and talking engines. He explains that the attraction of his chosen pastime is the social life. "To be honest," he says, "the racing's the least of it. We come down on a Friday with a barbecue and a few crates of beer, and camp out. It's brilliant."

Which is just as well: in the main category, only one man stands a chance. "Mike Cresswell always wins," he sighs, glancing across at a man tinkering with a motor. Mr Cresswell is leading Group 2, the category for normal roller mowers attached to a drag-racing seat on low back wheels.

Mr Cresswell is a mechanic by trade and he has created the ultimate drag-mower. "It was probably about 200 hours of work to get it how I wanted it, but now it's brilliant," he says. "Originally, this was a push mower, but now it's got a great engine and a low seat and it goes like the wind." Going into his caravan, he pulls out the mower-racing newsletter, Cuttings, and proudly shows off his points in the rankings pages: 136 earned over the season. Ten points are given for each win. The nearest competitor is trailing far behind with 88.

Tension is much higher in the tractor-style racing category, Group 4. Tractor-style mowers are the largest of the racers and the battle for the British title is closely fought.

Paul Lovett is dragging hard on a roll-up. The 41-year-old appliance engineer from Diss, Norfolk, claims not to be nervous but his hands are shaking. With a mere five-point lead, there's a chance that victory could be snatched away in today's final race.

"All it takes is a belt going and that's it. I've been like a bear with a sore head the past fortnight. I've been doing it 13 years and this is the first time I've led the championships. Last year I broke my collarbone in a race, so it would be brilliant to win."

Chris Thompson, 21, is one of the young guns. Like Mr Lovett, he races in Group 4, but he has no expectation of glory: "I have no points at all because I keep crashing, but it's just so much fun to drive them."

Looking at his prized black and white mower, he suggests tentatively: "You should have a go." The words are hardly out of his mouth before I'm in the seat.

After a heavy wrench on its pull cord, the engine roars; a quick release of the clutch and it careers forward at an alarming speed. It is painfully clear how he has managed to crash so often. I rattle and bump at velocity straight towards some hay bales, hit the brake sharply and return the mower to an anxious Mr Thompson. Laughable a concept as it seems, this is skilled motor racing and, as such, best left to the professionals.

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