I had a choice yesterday. Watch Rossi disappear up his own exhaust, or watch the area heats for the Tracteur Pulling 2009 European Championship. Or do the ironing
I opted for second choice on the grounds that it was at least in the fresh air on a stifling 34 degree day.
The venue was a small village in the Lot et Garonne, not too far from the old ligne de dÃ©marcation of 60 years ago. The mairie had closed the main road through the village for the day and turned it into a carpark. (Locally devolved power can be a brilliant tool in the hands of an enterprising maire) Surprisingly, for one of the first things you notice in France is that there is rarely any disruptive noise, Iron Maiden was pumping out of a trailer full of amplifiers. The local farmers were out in force, wives, grandmothers, dogs and children in tow. Perfect timing for the event, for hay had been baled throughout the night with the forecast of rain yesterday, and they were in holiday mood. Extended family groups of 20 and more had arrived with picnic tables, crates of oysters, wine and baguettes lined the tables.
The sloping field picked for this âboys toysâ version of âtest your virilityâ, held a variety of souped up tractors, lovingly tended by their owners, who judging by the number of sleeping bags lying around, had spent the night beside their beloved. The health and safety elves had apparently mislaid the address of this event, for wires trailed across the ground to tents where an army of wives churned out a production line of home made crepes, a slightly battered pig iron fence was all that separated the crowd of some 2000 from monsters that proudly boasted of their âpuissanceâ virility in five figure numbers.
A traffic jam was forming in the car park, and curious faces turned to see the reason why. Three vast pantechnicons, in glaring yellow and identically sign written, had pulled into the competitors space, they boasted a legend announcing that they were a professional tracteur pulling team, and were financially supported by several well known German companies. Still, this was a heat for the European championship, no reason why they shouldnât be here. If the local boys were put out by their presence, they didnât show it.
The contest started, in time honoured French fashion, with the junior event. Proud mothers watched as 12 year old sons strode out to Dadâs old tractor, heavily adapted, to try their hand at pulling the weighted trailer over the 100 metre course. Polite applause greeted every effort that made it past even the 20 metre marker. More applause followed their footsteps as they undertook the traditional âwalkâ back to the starting point. Only those who complete the 100 metres are accorded the honour of a ride back with the marshalls.
By now Fritz and his attendant immaculately dressed mechanics had disgorged their gleaming behemoth of the tracteur pulling world, and pulled into the main ring. An army of marshalls and officials surrounded them. Rule books were consulted. Weights commensurate with the power of Fritzâs two v12 Rolls Royce engines were added to the trailer; a portable generator arrived, capable of turning over Fritzâs âin yer faceâ mockery of a tractor. Fritz strutted and preened, never dirtying his hands for a second. Willing German hands adjusted his racing overalls, strapped on his crash helmet, and he stepped up to the cab to show these French peasants what real power was.
The engines fired with a deafening roar, black smoke billowed from the twin exhausts as Fritz took up the strain of the trailer. 4000 fingers plugged into ear drums, and Fritz set off. 20 metres, 40 metres, and Fritz was now enveloped in black smoke, 60 metres â and with a bang to rival any sonic boom, Fritz stopped dead. Everyone ducked as clods of earth fell from the heavens onto the assembled crowd. When a propshaft breaks under that sort of load, it digs a mighty impressive hole.
Say what you like about the French, but they do know how to behave when a defeated warrior undertakes the long walk home. Experience I suppose. As an embarrassed and dejected Fritz started his walk of shame, immaculate overalls now stained with soot, there was no whooping or hollering, no jeering or booing, instead an air of indifferance was perfected, French jaws jutted imperceptible higher in the air, and the corners of mouths struggled not to twitch as the disc jockey picked that moment to play Nancy Sinatraâs âthese boots are made for walkingâ.
I was struggling to understand the Occitan accent of the commentator relayed by tannoy, so didnât quite gather the significance of his announcement that owing to the rain which was just starting to fall and which would make the track greasy, he was altering the order of competitors to allow some of the souped up cars to appear next, instead of last. The crowd nodded their satisfaction at this decision. People moved forward from their tables to line the pig wire.
So it was that a local lad, in the car pictured at the top of the post, appeared next. It might have started life as a 2cv, but it had overdosed on vehicular Viagra since then. Weights on the trailer were adjusted in accordance with the regulations, but the driver wasnât happy. He gesticulated and shook his head. He wanted more weight. Still not happy. More weight. The crowd round me had become emotional and started dancing with the music. Finally with everything to his satisfaction, he climbed aboard and fired her up.
Smoke billowed, not just from the exhausts, but from every orifice, the cab filled in seconds, he couldnât possible see where he was going, and there was just that scant line of wire between him and me if he ran amok. I edged further back.
With front wheels some three foot off the ground, and snaking alarmingly from side to side, he blasted past the markers, 20, 40, 60, 80, 98.2 metres before he finally expired, a spent carcass of French farming pride.
The crowd was ecstatic, burly rugby players leapt over the barriers and carried him aloft to save him from walking back. The music went up another 50 decibels, and portly grandmothers danced with their son in laws, glasses were raised, and finally, they lost their manners. They whooped and hollered, cheered and whistled, to do any American drag racing crowd proud.
The rain teemed down now, but no-one cared.
Fritzâs shame was complete. So stylishly too.