Derek Bell

Busman's holiday

The Le Mans-winning sports car star attempted to add another long-distance victory to his tally during the '79 season. On a lawn mower. With Stirling Moss...
Interview: Rob Widdows. Photography: BLMRC

I've been lucky. In a career lasting more than 40 years I've raced almost every type of car, starting with my Lotus 7 and graduating to F1 with Ferrari before winning at Le Mans and getting the World Endurance Championship. But then I've also raced lawn mowers.

It was in 1979, early in my sports car career, when a mate called Jim Gavin created a 12-hour race for lawn mowers in Wisborough Green, Sussex. This was probably the result of a particularly good night in The Cricketers, his local pub.

'Fancy racing a lawn mower this year?' Jim asked me at the beginning of a busy season with Renault. Well, it sounded like a fun idea and I was used to endurance racing.

I should explain, for those not familiar with the sport, that racing lawn mowers is not about a bunch of yokels running round in circles with old Atcos. No, this is serious stuff, with regulations just like real motor racing. Jim was a rally organiser so he knew about staging events and the Wisborough Green 12 Hours was to be an event run under the Lawn Mower Racing Association rulebook.

There were various classes. Starting with the slowest, you had those who walked pushing their mowers. Then there were the sit-on jobs with a seat towed behind and up at the sharp end were the four-wheeled tractor mowers with brakes, gears, lights and all the mod cons.

So it was a bit like Le Mans with, you know, the really quick ones lapping the slower ones and you had to watch out for backmarkers and those running along behind. At Le Mans at least everyone has lights but of course at Wisborough Green the night stints were tricky in that only the big boys on their ride-on tractors had the advantage of being able to see properly.

And it was bumpy, I mean bumpy like a field, because that's where the track was laid out, the racing line defined by straw bales and flag marshals.

My co-driver was Stirling Moss. We made a good team and won it a couple of times in later years when John Watson also joined the team as a driver. Local favourites were the lads from The Cricketers with their crew of runners and mechanics fielding a squad of 'run-behinds' and the team of garden machinery man John Penfold.

Stirling and I were entered by Westwood, a full works team, so we expected to be on the pace and to have the latest tweaks on our tractors. The rules dictated that, for safety, the blades had to be removed. Not many other mods were allowed as I remember, just the usual racers' tricks such as making them as light as we could and trying to get the centre of gravity a tad lower than it would have been in normal lawn-mowing trim.

The race was hilarious and a great spectacle. We did well, leading for much of the race until something broke early in the morning, and Stirling went charging off the track and disappeared through a tent. Huge fun.