The Reality of Being A 'Kart-Racing Kid'
The highs and lows of trying to make it on a shoe-string budget.
I got my first taste of it when I was a very young child. My dad bought me an off-road ‘buggy’ from a dodgy friend in Crayford. It was an off-yellow colour, carried some serious rust and smoked like Keith Richards. My mum called it a ‘death trap’. She was probably right. But to 4 year old me, it felt like I’d just been handed the keys to Damon Hill’s Williams. I used to get all suited and booted just to bomb about the garden, in a figure of eight around two big cherry trees. My dad would be jumping up and down, forever with a stopwatch in hand; mum looking pale-faced out of the kitchen window. I caught the bug right there and then.
Fast forward a couple of years and I’d upgraded to a ‘proper’ kart- a 60cc Cadet with slick tyres and no rust in sight. I remember my first time out- in the car park at the Tilbury Kart Circuit. Two Jerry cans replaced the cherry trees and I went round and round until my dad was confident it was safe for me to hit the track. That first lap is seared into my memory. Tilbury became my Silverstone- I must have done hundreds of laps there, learning that winding, bumpy circuit like the back of my hand. It was a great place to learn your chops- it really flowed, allowing you to get into an almost trance-like state, going faster and faster until you ran out of fuel and had to pit, or ran out of talent and crashed. I obtained my competition license there too, passing alongside my friend Del, who’d go on to be an ever present comrade throughout my racing years.
Tilbury was a great place to cut your teeth, but it certainly wasn’t the most salubrious of places. It’s ‘facilities’ (if you could call them that) made Chernobyl’s exclusion zone seem well maintained, and kids from the local estate would try and rob your tools. Sometimes horses would roam in from the surrounding grasslands and end up on the infield. But I loved it there, and would be filled with nervous excitement everytime we emerged out the other side of the Dartford Tunnel, because that meant only one thing. I’d be racing.
'MONTE-CARLO IT 'AINT'
So we’ve established Tilbury was a bit of a dump. But there’s really not much glamour anywhere in karting, especially in the UK. There were no corporate boxes, no magnums of champagne, no yachts. This was the true grass roots of it all, not Monaco or Abu Dhabi. We did it for the love. Throughout my karting career, the one over-riding memory I have is just that it was always so bloody cold. I shudder, remembering waking up in the dark, scraping ice from car windows, putting up awnings against the wind with frozen hands, shivering in the trailer huddled round a cup of hot tea to keep warm. 'Character-forming', I suppose you’d call it. And if it rained, which it often did, you’d be left to decide whether to keep your soaked race suit on and risk hypothermia, or strip it off and risk freezing to death anyway. The food in the paddock was almost universally bad too: anaemic chips and vindictively bad burgers, all washed down with a coffee made with pure hate.
I raced at both club and national level and for every professional aspect befitting such a money-driven and technological sport, there were far more facets of pure Dad’s Army amateurism. Marshall’s falling asleep at their posts, leaderboard balls-ups, lost chequered flags. Ever-present in my time racing, was a Victor Meldrew figure in the form of the ‘Clerk of The Course’, who would regularly manage the meetings I attended. He’d parade around the pits in a Hi-Vis jacket, blowing his whistle, desperate for some semblance of power after a long week working in middle management. One day, he - let's call him Victor - decided that he didn’t want drivers using the kerbs. The KERBS. Maybe his wife had finally realised what an arse he truly was and had left him, or maybe he’d missed out on that promotion at work, but for whatever reason, that day he was acting like the Kim Jong Un of motor-racing. He gave everyone points on their license for their heinous crimes and sent petrified looking marshals out to stand on the kerbs during the next race, so that if we drove over them we’d all be murderers, as well as disobedient. Obviously, we all went on strike and refused to race, so he had to relent and allow us to use the kerbs in order for the meeting to continue. I wish I could say these farcical situations weren’t common, but they were. They taught me from a young age that those in power are not necessarily always right. It’s a theory that seems to apply to most aspects of life, still.
Many of the more moneyed drivers would have a team of mechanics in branded polo shirts, working from a truck filled with shiny new components and tools. They’d just be able to turn up and race. We didn’t have any such luxuries. Sometimes my dad would bring along a bemused friend, but generally it was just him and I doing everything ourselves. It was certainly stressful and often we’d find ourselves running just to make the grid after an axle change or whatever else had gone wrong- but I learnt a lot by being so hands-on. I learnt my T-Bar from my Spanner, my Nipple from my Grub Screw. I learnt that the feedback I gave on how the kart was handling dictated which way we’d go on the set-up for the next race. I learnt that adding a centimetre spacer to the front wheels changed how the kart turned in. I felt how a couple of extra teeth on the back sprocket affected my speed on the main straight. It made me think practically, logically. It gave me a real foundation of mechanical knowledge that I often draw upon now. Because of everything I learnt whilst manning the tools all those years ago, I’ve been asked to fix many a friend’s Vauxhall Corsa- and like the martyr I am, I duly oblige.
Tibury, where dreams are made...
'MONEY MONEY MONEY'
‘Money doesn’t talk, it swears.’ I think Bob Dylan said that, and it’s certainly true of karting. It was a spectre looming large over us, piling pressure on me to perform, on my dad at his work. It was the reason my sister always got rubbish birthday presents and why we only ever had cars that were as old as Moses himself. Whichever way you do it, it’s an expensive hobby. But when you're trying to win at the highest level, the costs skyrocket exponentially. In my early teens, I began to win more regularly and managed to get sponsorship from a forklift truck company. It wasn’t exactly Petronas or Marloboro, but it was a lifeline for us. They would buy our tyres, and in order to win even at club level, you need new tyres every race. Their funding helped us get on a level playing field with the big boys. Plus, I could brand my kart all over with their stickers, so I looked and felt like a real pro. That alone had to be worth half a second a lap.
But no matter how much Jungheinrich (the forklift truck company - big shout out to them) gave us, however hard dad worked, it was never quite enough. There’s just so much money involved in the sport that if you don’t have it, you can quickly feel demoralised. It gets into your head. At Sittingbourne Raceway I remember sheltering in our old Ford as the heir to WHSmiths' helicopter landed in the adjacent field. Gravel and dust peppered our windscreen and had everyone else running for cover: the peasants had well and truly been put in their place. I put him in his place by beating him that day, but as good as it felt, it certainly felt like swimming against the tide. Charles Saatchi (the famous art dealer) came to race once. I’ve no idea why he was racing against a bunch of 12 year olds, but I do remember him arriving in a white motorhome, with a pristine white kart and overalls. A bunch of us decided it would be funny to rub up against his kart on the warm-up lap, painting big black tyre marks all over his white sidepods. That felt good too. Another time I was privy to a bet between two dads. £5,000 that their son would win an F1 race before the age of 27. They shook hands over the bonnet of a Ferrari 458. If you’re interested, neither driver did win an F1 race, but hey, to them it was just chicken feed anyway...
But, inevitably, around the age of 16 we ran out of money. I was decent, but never a prodigy, and with little financial backing I was never going to realistically go places. Lewis Hamilton is one of the few examples of drivers who came from an average background and made it, so it can just about be done. But then again, he’s quite good isn’t he?
Gawky early teen phase. Note the proud placement of Jungheinrich stickers...
Like most father/son relationships, we hit a rocky patch when I hit my teens. It’s always going to happen when you both live under the same roof and think you’re a man but still act like a kid. But motorsport gave us a way to put aside our issues with each other, for the weekend at least, and focus on a common goal. We’d problem solve together and work constructively to get the best out of what we had. It’s a cliche to use the term, but karting for us provided some much needed ‘male bonding’. Now, I’m not for one minute suggesting we never argued at a race-track. We had some blazing rows. Maybe I'd binned it while leading on the last lap, disagreed with him about set-up, or was just plain off the pace. You saw similar rows bubble up all over the paddock too - karting is very much the realm of the pushy parent - but when so much time, effort and money has been put into a weekend, a simple mistake can inevitably lead to flare-ups. I say ‘flare-ups’- I mean full blown fist-fights, tears, sabotage. And that’s just the dads…
But generally speaking, my relationship with my dad benefitted from those long weekends away in Kimbolton, Lydd or wherever the championship would take us. It was certainly intense, but I look back with fondness for the sport and a respect for my dad that might otherwise have been lost in a cloud of testosterone.
I will admit however, that there were times when I wanted to quit. When all the arguments and early mornings, the bad weekends and cheap hotels really made it feel like it wasn’t worth the effort. I know that might make me seem ungrateful for something many kids would give a left leg for, but at the time it was true. I felt like I was missing out on certain aspects of growing up- I’d often be away racing and miss the parties that everyone talked about at school on monday morning. I rarely got to hang out at Bluewater shopping centre. I never really had girlfriends. These kinds of things seem kind of trivial to me now, and maybe to you too, but back then they really mattered. I had a serious case of F.O.M.O and I yearned to be getting off with girls and vomiting up Smirnoff Ice in a field somewhere. Yet I was always somewhere else.
Having said all that, karting gifted me its own kind of formative experiences. Being sent to the stewards’ office and fighting my case, dedicating my time to improving the smallest of details, resolving conflicts and overcoming fears all shaped me as a person. It was a steep learning curve, but one that prepared me for my impending adulthood. No party, however much Smirnoff Ice it had there, would have taught me those kinds of lessons.
It also gave me some of my best friends. My fondest memories are of hanging out with fellow drivers between races, messing about on scooters, having water-fights in summer. The racing was almost a sideshow to the fun we had. These were people you’d be racing wheel to wheel with one minute, and chasing them around with a Super-Soaker the next. Of course, when you’re competing at such close quarters you’re going to tangle at some point, but we’d almost always sort it out maturely. I guess that the respect you have to give each other on the track translates into respect off it. You can see that rapport with a lot of the younger drivers coming through into F1 now- drivers like Lando Norris and Carlos Sainz. These guys literally did grow up together, shared the same goals, the same passion. So it’s testament to the camaraderie that exists between drivers when you see friendships continue into the high pressure environment of Grand Prix racing.
Aerial view of Buckmore Park, scene of my greatest triumphs.
'THE THRILL OF IT ALL'
And what of the racing? I intended to write more on the personal side of karting, to give a glimpse into what it really felt like to be in that world, but of course I can’t ignore the reason we were all there. Quite simply, on a day where you’re quick and slicing through the field, it’s the best feeling in the world. Add to that the fact that we were still just kids, and you’ve got incredible experiences that will stay with you for the rest of your life. At any age, I'm sure it’s the most fun you can have with your clothes on. But as a kid, it felt like being strapped to a rocket on its way to the moon. Steve Mcqueen said it best when he said, ‘Racing is life. Anything that happens before or after is just waiting’. I truly miss it.
I had many great moments on circuits all over the country, but for some reason there's one race that stands out in particular. It was a wet, autumnal day at Buckmore Park- a fast undulating circuit that I’ve always loved. The final race of the national championships. We line up on the grid and can see a dry line forming on the tarmac. We decide to bolt on dry tyres, as does almost everyone else. I qualified directly behind the the pole-sitter, but he's stuck with his grooved, wet weather tyres. I begin to think maybe he knows something we don’t.
The race starts and sure enough, he quickly stretches out a lead. I’m in second with the number 74 right behind me. Behind him, the others fall away. By lap 5 I can’t see the leader anymore and I really do think maybe we’re on the wrong tyre. But lap 7 comes around and like the flick of a switch, my tyres find grip. The driver behind feels his rubber bite too- so now it’s just us two, chasing down the leader. The win is on. I know from experience that if my dry tyres are starting to work, his wets will be massively overheating. And so, within a lap I can start to make out a faint dot in the distance. Within two I can see the colours of his crash helmet- gold and green. Within three laps we both get by- he'd slithered off into the grass, rejoining behind covered in mud.
Still the number 74 is right behind me. I can hear his engine, see a flash of red everytime he tries a tentative move up the inside. No luck; outside of the racing line is too wet to overtake. He tries again, this time getting past but can’t slow down enough to make the corner- I repass him on the cutback and slowly begin to settle into a rhythm. A couple of laps go by and I can’t hear the scream of his engine anymore, but I never look back, only forwards. I pass the start-finish line; two laps to go. The next time round I do dare to look over my shoulder and he’s a second back, maybe two. Space to breathe. 1200m to go and it feels like it takes an age, keeping off the white lines, staying on the dry parts of the tarmac, braking just a touch earlier- all the while aware that if I let up too much, he’s likely to try a last-gasp lunge. And then finally, out comes the chequered flag and I punch the air. Jubilation, relief, exhaustion.
I coast into the pits and see my dad running over, with that same stopwatch in his hand from all those years ago. He slaps my crash helmet with his big oily hands, I feel my brain rattling around in my skull. He pulls me out of the kart and lifts my wet boots off the floor. “We did it!” He shouts through my steamed-up visor, “We’re the A-Team son, the f*ckin’ A Team!!!”
You’d obviously have to be mad to get your son or daughter into kart-racing. You’ll most likely end up divorced, bankrupt, sleep deprived. Bald from the stress of it all. You’ll be spending your precious weekends with trench-foot, staying in some crap hotel in the arse end of nowhere, just so your kid can stand a chance to win a plastic trophy. But if I were to have kids? Just put it this way: they're probably not going to be playing much football...