Life is pretty surreal sometimes. Like when you're dressed head to toe in leather and skipping off ruts in the road at 70 mph perched atop the world's fastest lawnmower. Yes, really...
How on Earth did I get here? I blame Honda, who wanted to show the world that it makes far more than cars and motorcycles. There's a whole Honda world outside of our own, with boat engines, leaf blowers, and, yes, ride-on lawnmowers. So the U.K. arm of the company had the idea to put its moto racing expertise into its gardening equipment and take a record.
Two years ago, the fruits of its efforts stormed to 116 mph at a proving ground in northern Spain and, technically, it's good for 130 mph. For that, we'd need a glass-smooth track that's much longer than the Heritage Loop at Donington Park that we have to test the mower. We have a bumpy, straight, and short circuit. We're told in no uncertain terms that if we threaten to set a new record, we'll be flagged in and slapped on the wrist-inside, I'm kind of glad.
Because this is a weird, intimidating machine, I have a kill switch strapped to my wrist, and aside from the leathers and helmet, that's the only real safety equipment I can see apart from the ambulance that rolls up ominously before I'm allowed to start.
My knees are up around my head and I can feel the seat that must have been built for a teenage girl physically rejecting my body inch by inch. Before my run, two big men force my shoulders down and knees back to get the most grip, but this is literally a 100-mph balancing act.
There's no feel to the clutch or throttle, which is so famously difficult to moderate that it now has a roller on the peg to help work it. The lever is also nerve-rackingly close to the brake pedal, which would be a problem if we were chasing lap times. I'm warned off it. This, I'm told, is a straight-line missile and nobody's quite sure if it will drift or flip if I power through the corners.
Sometimes in this life, though, you just have to grab your balls and go for it. So, mindful of the stall warnings, I pile on way, way too many revs. Seconds later, I'm bounding down the straight like a baby kangaroo suffering an epileptic fit and then, with a second bite at the clutch, I'm away. And laughing maniacally at what could just be the most ludicrous machine I've ever driven.
Soon I'm bouncing across the tarmac, thumbing the left button to launch the next gear. Revs fly by in that typically high-flying bike engine style and I'm out of straight before it even stretches its legs. I hit maybe 70 mph at one point with plenty of runoff for my safety. Here on the straights, it's fun, but on a circuit, this understeering beast would be a much more serious challenge.
Team Dynamics, which has built numerous British Touring Car Championship-winning cars for Matt Neal, was given the task of turning the Honda HF2620 mower into a world record beater. If it seems like overkill, it is, but if you're going to do this kind of thing, then you might as well do it right.
The 1,000cc engine from the Firestorm produces 109 hp and 71 lb-ft of torque. ATV brakes have been seconded for the front, the rear stoppers and axle come straight out of a 250cc go-kart, and the wheels and tires are stolen from a quad bike.
The seat sits 14 cm lower than it would normally, and really only the plastic body panels and the pedals come from the standard mower. Even the cutting deck, complete with blades that spin at 4,000 rpm and could shred our whole body before we can run away crying, is a lightweight number. It's an awful lot of work before you even get to the really cute details, like the electronic-actuated shifter buttons on the wheel that manage the six-speed sequential.
As a pure piece of engineering, it's inspiring. There's even a chain-tensioning system rigged up between the engine and rear axle, and it's been lined with plastic to make it run quieter. It's like a professional racing team built a lawnmower, because they did.
But I'm not looking at pure engineering, I'm looking at the end of the straight through tear-filled eyes as my rear end forms the only meaningful suspension. Think a go-kart is tough? It's a Rolls-Royce in comparison to this thing. But, by God, it's fast!
It hits 60 mph in 4 seconds flat and feels a lot faster than it is when you're bouncing off the tarmac like you're in an inner tube being dragged behind a boat. But I'm not in an inner tube. It hurts and it messes with my concept of speed.
I'm limited to short blasts of acceleration followed by a relatively ham-fisted cornering attempt and another clumsy attempt at smooth throttle input.
The steering rack, perversely, comes out of a Morris Minor. It's just one of the many awesome small facts about the record-breaking lawnmower that makes it genuinely brilliant. I love the racing wheel, I love the jittery progress, I love the raw sound of the VTR 1000 that brings the noise police over to check on us even though we're working at a racetrack and we're next to an airport.
I love the fact that Honda built it, I love the fact they took it to the Nordschleife and tried to run on the full circuit before the famous German sense of humor brought an end to that plan. I love that a works Touring Car team got so into the project. I also love the fact that all the additional cooling means that when we finally hit the grass for the obligatory drifting shots, the whole thing gets clogged up every few minutes and it needs a blast down the runway and back to cool it down.
It's more fun on the grass, but again, that epic overdose of power means I spend more time recovering from spins than I do arcing gracefully across the lawn.
Even if Honda sold this on the open market tomorrow, it would be utter lunacy to buy one. But then that's not the point. The point is to show that Honda makes lawnmowers and what a few crazy engineers can do if you give them a challenge and the most unlikely vehicle in the world to do it with.
Mission accomplished, I'd say.