55 years ago, when karting was just starting to get established over in America, Manchester United met Aston Villa in the FA Cup Final at Wembley. Villa mounted their first real attack on United’s goal and Peter McParland body checked the keeper Ray Wood with such ferocity that he knocked him out cold, breaking his cheekbone.
In those days, such brutal tackles were deemed to be perfectly legitimate and didn’t even warrant a word of warning from the referee. Treatment for injured players back then amounted to a bucket of water and the omnipotent “magic sponge”. Wood was roughly hauled into a sitting position so that his goalkeeper’s jersey could be removed and handed to another player. He was then helped off the field before reappearing on the wing 10 minutes or so later, clearly still concussed. After a brief run his legs wobbled so much that he was forced to retreat into the dressing room once more. With no substitutes allowed, however, he was expected to soldier on and came back out in the second half to resume his goalkeeping duties.
That incident wasn’t particularly unusual. In matches up and down the country similar events occurred and football professionals were often forced into early retirement as a result. Soccer players and goalkeepers in particular now receive far more protection from referees. In addition, medical facilities are much improved so that career threatening injuries have been greatly reduced. In motor racing, too, all sorts of safety measures have been incorporated and statistics now show that fatal accidents are very much the exception rather than the rule. 18 years have elapsed since Ayrton Senna became the last person to be killed in an F1 car.
Karting has followed a similar path. Circuits are designed to be much safer and, whereas medical facilities were virtually non-existent in earlier times, they must now be of a high standard at all MSA events. Racing suits that were once optional have become compulsory and crash helmets must meet certain specifications. Competitors are now surrounded by plastic that undoubtedly minimises the impact of any crash. The one area that hasn’t shown any improvement is accident statistics. Back in the sixties it was unusual to see a red flag being produced at any race meeting. During the first 20 years of karting at Rowrah I can think of only two racing incidents that resulted in drivers being admitted to hospital. The story today is rather different, as George Robinson recently pointed out in his “Max” column.
On February 19th the air ambulance was called out to Shenington following a serious accident there. It was required again at Whilton Mill a week later. You could argue that these were isolated incidents but there’s no denying that karting accidents are occurring with greater frequency. Clearly, something has gone wrong and it’s time we started asking why. It’s not a question of speed because, if anything, karts have actually got slower over the last four decades There are also less people competing than ever before, although it’s probably true that many of them tend to race more often. I believe that the big change has been in age and attitude.
45 years ago more than 90% of race entries were in the senior categories. The average competitor was married with children and more than likely involved in an occupation that penalised lengthy absences with loss of earnings. He or she tended to view racing as a weekend leisure pursuit. That situation has been totally reversed today as cadets and Juniors make up the bulk of any racing programme. As anyone in the insurance industry will confirm, this group is statistically more likely to take risks. On top of this comes pressure from the parents, many of whom are probably spending more than they can realistically afford. There’s no doubt, too, that some of these parents view karting as a make or break step along the road to F1.
I also believe that some measures originally intended to reduce injuries have had the opposite effect. I confess to a little bias on this score. I particularly don’t like plastic front bumpers and would argue vehemently with all those who claim that they’ve made the sport safer. What they have done, in my view, is make it easier to run into the kart ahead without fear of incurring injury to your own person. It would take a brave regulator to rule that plastic bumpers should be removed so, unfortunately, it looks as though they’re here to stay.
At one time everyone raced with white numbers on black plates and it wasn’t until 1967 that different colours were allocated to various classes. Some years later it was decided that black plates should be reserved for novice drivers. It seemed like a good idea at the time but I wonder now if this system should be scrapped. Placing “L” Plates on a car makes experienced drivers show more consideration, but the same concept certainly doesn’t apply in racing conditions. Few competitors like being overtaken by a raw novice and many of them show their disquiet by immediately making impossible Iunges in reply. I certainly think that it’s right for inexperienced competitors to start their Heats from the back, but identifying them as targets no longer seems to be such a good idea.
I’m all for making progress, but every now and then it is better achieved by adopting reverse gear.