Races can last up to 12 hours, with drivers reaching speeds of 50mph. Neil Hudson finds out why lawnmower racing could soon be coming to Leeds
It’s fast, it’s furious, it has more teams than Formula 1 and it’s not a case of if you will fall off but when... welcome to the slightly crazy world of lawnmower racing.
The sport has been described as a cross between rally cross, go-karting and F1 and if organisers have anything to do with it, it could soon be coming to Leeds.
Darren Whitehead - Daz to his friends - is chairman of the North West Lawnmower Racing Association and said they had long harboured plans to bring the sport back to the city.
The 45-year-old, who works for an insulation firm, said: “We’ve raced in Leeds before, in Garforth and Sherburn-in-Elmet and at places nearby like Huddersfield and Halifax but to be honest, we would love to return to the city because it’s right in the middle of out patch.”
There are five lawnmower racing associations in the UK, each holding regular fixtures to race against each other during their season, which runs from April to October.
The North West Association, which now covers everything up to the Scottish borders, has something like 150 members and runs sprint and endurance races, the next of which will take place on October 29 in Cheshire, with drivers taking part in a series of sprint races.
“I became interested in it back in 1990 after my brother, who was doing work experience at a mechanics in Holmfirth, was invited to go along to an event. I just got hooked.
“It’s a bit like F1, except we have more teams and a lot more fun. We race in all weathers, we’ve raced in snow before. We basically don’t stop for the weather. The people who do this absolutely love it, so they will compete come rain or shine.
“We just had an event this weekend which was a six-hour race but some can last 12 hours and go on into the night.”
I’ve picked up a few injuries. I once broke my back, I’ve banged my knee so hard it came up like a football. It still bends.Darren Whitehead talks lawnmower racing
That means the lawnmowers need to be equipped with headlights but other than that and a few other minor modifications (such as the very important step of having their mowing blades removed), all the machines used in the race began life as grass cutters. Typically, they are 13hp and can reach speeds of up to 50mph, with fuel lasting around an hour. Vehicles are also equipped with the latest timing chips, with results posted live on their website - nwlmra.org.
On endurance races, which Daz says “is still like a sprint, because everybody just goes for it”, they even have dedicated pit crews and on that front they can even give an F1 crew a run for their money, averaging around 12 seconds for a refuel and change of driver.
“Some of the races can be close. We have had some endurance races where the gap between first and second has been a matter of seconds, whereas other people will be 20 laps down on the same race.”
Races are often white knuckle affairs and it’s not uncommon for drivers to fall off their vehicles, something Daz says is “inevitable”. As if to underscore the point, they even have an annual ‘Rollover Trophy’, awarded to the driver with the most rollovers.
“People wear the proper protective gear, like helmets and body armour. There are regulations. But I’ve picked up a few injuries along the way. I once broke my back, I’ve banged my knee so hard it came up like a football.” When I ask him whether it’s ok now, he adds in a matter-of-fact way: “It still bends.”
He goes on: “There’s a great social side to our club, we like to think of ourselves as a social club which races lawnmowers. Up to 40 per cent of our entries to events are visitors. It’s a great way to spend your weekend.”
But racing mowers isn’t even the craziest thing they do with them, as Daz explained.
“We converted some to make them road legal and we drove them from John O’Groats to Lands End over five days and last year we visited every coastal town in England over seven days, which was 2,200 miles and we raised about £6,000 for charity. I think we were getting about six hours sleep a night and had to average about 40mph to complete it. We have another event coming up in aid of the children’s charity Safe At Last.”
So what do other people think about the pasttime?
“To be honest, I think most people think it’s a bit funny and perhaps some of them have this vision of me following a Flymo round a field but it’s not like that. When people see it for the first time, they are amazed. Most people don’t believe just how fast these things go.
“We welcome anyone to come and have a go. Our youngest member is 15, our oldest is 70, we have men and women racing. We’re always happy to hear from people, just get in touch with us via our facebook page or tweet us.”
The sport is nothing if not grounded. Organisers discourage sponsorship and award no cash prizes to race winners, in the hope they will be content with “bragging rights.”
While the North West association can trace its history back to 1982, the UK sport itself was started in 1973, when two men having a discussion in their local cricket club came up with the idea, although in America lawnmower races have taken part since 1963.
Daz added: “It is eccentric but it’s also a lot of fun and if you’re going to spend your weekend in the middle of a field, I can think of worse ways.”
Contact them via twitter @nwlmra
The North West Lawnmower Race Association is one of five associations in the UK.
For the last four years, the NWLMRA has won the annual 12-hour race
Drivers race 13hp sit-on modified lawnmowers, which can reach speeds of up to 50mph
The group has 48 teams (with three drivers in each team) and about 150 members overall
Contact them via facebook at: facebook.com/NWLMRA