TWELVE MILE — A moment of silence was held for Cannonball Robbins on Saturday prior to the 58th running of the Twelve Mile 500.
Oren “Rob” William Robbins passed away at age 64 on Jan. 3 of this year.
John Troyer was good friends with Robbins and has an old newspaper clipping with Robbins pictured falling to the ground with his lawnmower flipping upside down while racing in the Twelve Mile 500 in 1983.
“If there’s no Cannonball Robbins, there’s no me, I probably would have never got on a mower. Gary, my brother, Randy, all of us Troyers, I’d say we would have never raced. I think between us, 27, maybe close to 30 wins,” said Troyer, whose family has earned the moniker “The First Family of Mowing.”
“Not just that but there were some years that sport got pretty lean. I remember one year we had 25 mowers or something like that total back in the ’90s. But who knows, there was a whole bunch of people who never would have raced if it weren’t for him,” Troyer added.
Robbins helped keep the Twelve Mile 500 and in essence lawnmower racing going.
“I don’t know if the sport would have survived,” Troyer said. “If you think about it the USRA jumped on it back in 1992 and made it bigger, but this has been going on since 1963. I think he was racing in the early ’70s.”
Troyer’s brother Larry, who is a lifelong crew chief, was good friends with Robbins growing up in Caston schools. They ended up starting a racing team together, which led Robbins to introducing the entire Troyer family to the sport.
Robbins liked to drive fast and had a unique style, Troyer said.
“Cannonball was a little crazy. There was no secret there. And I don’t think he would take offense to that. In fact I think he kind of liked it,” he said. “That’s who Cannonball was. You see the mower upside down. There aren’t that many people ... I still am puzzled, I don’t know how you do that. I don’t know how you get enough energy, physics just doesn’t explain it, I don’t know. I’ve been through a lot of physics classes, I still don’t have a good explanation, with 1983 technology, how do you get enough energy at home plate to turn a mower upside down a few feet off the ground. He found a way.
“That’s just how he was. He would just go after something and give it his all.”
Troyer tried to go fast on Saturday but in the estimation of officials went too fast. He was black flagged a total of eight times, four in each race, which took him out of contention.
Darren Ulerick, a 23-year-old from Peru, swept the wins on Saturday.
Troyer said he understands why they were watching speeds so closely for safety concerns.
“Maybe there will be a happy medium,” he said. “Last year we went really fast and this year we were a little bit slow.”
Robbins liked working on his mowers and made a long-lasting impact there as well.
“Cannonball was the first true Modified racer,” Gary Troyer said.
John Troyer said Robbins first put in a 340 snowmobile Rotax engine in his lawnmower.
“He was kind of a trailblazer,” he said.
Troyer described the two Twelve Mile 500 divisions.
“Briggs has to have a lawnmower-type engine, the type of engine you’d find on a typical lawnmower. But Modified means you can put anything on it you want — motorcycle engine, snowmobile engine, all that stuff,” he said.
“Mine’s a dual purpose on-road off-road motorcycle engine. Some use ATV engines, streetbike engines, etc.”
More than anything else, the Troyers lost a good friend in January.
“Cannonball was the kind of guy who helped everybody,” Troyer said. “That’s one of the reasons we ended up in it, he was always helping others.”