Thursday, March 19, 2009

Cheers to the British Lawn Mower Racers

In the dusty, salty, uniquely American landscape of the the Utah desert, you could almost hear Sousa playing in the distance.

This week Bobby Cleveland of Locust Grove, Georgia, celebrated Independence Day by trying to set a land speed record on the Bonneville Salt Flats. On his racing lawnmower.

Racing and mowing. How American is that?

Turns out, it's not. At least, not completely.

The sport of lawnmower racing is a British import.

In the 1970s, an Irishman who got fed up with the high cost of automobile racing, was looking for a cheaper alternative. He and some friends gathered at a West Sussex pub to discuss it, looked across the way and saw inspiration. A greens keeper mowing a cricket field.

They founded the BLMRA, the British Lawn Mower Racing Association.

The same nation that brought us Teletubbies, extreme ironing, and the lawn mower itself, gave the world a new grassroots sport.

It wasn't until an April Fools day about two decades later that the first official race was held in the States.

Gold Eagle, an automotive additive company, the same one that sponsors Cleveland, formed the USLMRA, the US Lawn Mower Racing Association, as a funny PR gimmick.

The idea, as a USLMRA president said, spread like crabgrass, and now the organization sponsors more than a dozen events across the country. (None, sadly, in Utah.)

Racers haven't drawn big lawnmower sponsors because, no doubt, those companies think doing 30 to 60 miles an hour on your Toro could get you hurt and get them sued. (Well, it's not like they leave the lawnmower blades on or anything.)

And the now sport has "legends."

Like Bobby Cleveland. A Snapper engineer who started popping wheelies on an in-house mower at the factory. And ended up an eight-time lawn mower racing champion.

When he became Gold Eagle's "Engine AnswerMan," (He drives around the country dispensing advice and company PR) he told Gold Eagle executives he could build them a 100 mile-an-hour lawn mower. They eventually gave Cleveland the green light.

This week Russ Wicks brought a 225 mile-an-hour stock car to the Salt Flats. And Bobby Cleveland brought his lawn mower.

He wasn't geared up to break the 100 mile an hour barrier. But was clocked at a respectable 80.79 miles an hour. A new world lawn mower racing record. Because, he said, there is no other.

Cleveland said he thought this was a fitting way to spend the Fourth. When I asked his girlfriend Diletta if she felt especially patriotic about it all, her eyes teared up. It was very special, she said.
Bobby Cleveland is an American original on a really fast lawnmower.

But he owes a little something to the British. And their lawnmowers.

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