Blade runners go along for the ride and a cut of the action
IN THE world of American motor racing, Bobby Cleveland is a living legend most people have never heard of. Despite his 69 first-place victories and eight national titles, he probably won't make the cover of Sports Illustrated any time soon.
When Cleveland conquers a race track, he does it with a ride-on lawnmower instead of a car.
His is not your granddad's lawnmower. The souped-up weed-whackers on the tracks he races on can go faster than 100 km/h. The lawnmower racing association, with 540 members, has more than 110 races in 19 states. Cleveland isn't officially scheduled to race again until the national championships over Labor Day weekend in Mansfield, Ohio, but in coming weeks, fans can see major races at places from New Jersey to Texas. But then Cleveland, 48, of Locust Grove, Georgia, doesn't drive for reasons like big purses or the adoration of fans.
"I had a guy ask me one time about the groupies that come to the racetrack," he said. But in his world, he added, "the women that you could pick up at a racetrack you could just as easily pick up at the Waffle House".
No one knows when or where the first lawnmower race took place; it's safe to assume informal racing began soon after the advent of the ride-on mower. What is certain is that on April Fool's Day 1992, the United States Lawnmower Racing Association had its first race, and mower racing as a sport has been growing since, with crowds now from 100 to 5000 people for the races, which are over distances of about three kilometres.
Humour plays a natural role at these events, but the association provides a structure and rules. Cutting blades must be removed, and kill switches must be installed to shut off mowers automatically if drivers fall off. Drivers must wear helmets and protective clothing. There's no "paint-trading" as in Nascar racing; intentionally bumping one's opponent is prohibited.
There is no prizemoney, which "keeps the cut-throat nature out of it", said Bruce Kaufman, president and founder of the association, which is based in Glenview, Illinois. Still, "when the TV cameras go on, the intensity goes up", he said. "It's every bit as intense as Nascar."
And just as Nascar has its Nextel Cup championship circuit, the lawnmower drivers have their own point-series races sponsored by the fuel stabiliser Sta-Bil. As part of a car show last Sunday, roughly 100 people showed up on the grounds of the Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee for the Sta-Bil Dixie Chopper championships, at which drivers competed on a small grass oval track delineated by hay bales.
At the command: "On your mark, get set, mow!" the drivers sprinted to their mowers, started their engines and zoomed around the track, kicking up clouds of dust and smoke. The air filled with that familiar summery smell of lawnmower engines and freshly cut (or, in this case, pummelled) grass.
Diana Gentile, a real estate developer from Etowah, Tennessee, said she enjoyed these kinds of races because they got her out of the house and she didn't have to dress up. "I think it lets everybody get out, and anybody get out, just to enjoy themselves and get a little speed excitement," she said. "They don't have to have hundreds of thousands of millions of dollars just to let their hair down. Everybody needs that."
The line between fan and driver can be fuzzy. Competition is open to anyone with a ride-on mower who registers. Drivers range from the weekend warrior to the hard-core enthusiast.
Cleveland, who has a fleet he describes as "10 mowers that won't cut grass", represented the US in the 2004 World Championships in England and said he had exceeded 145 km/h on lawnmowers.