Perhaps two of Karting magazines more well-travelled reporters are the ace commentator Ken Walker and photo/journalist Mike Hayden. Occasionally they meet up at the same event, either in the UK or at some foreign port. In quieter moments between races there is an opportunity to catch up on each other’s karting travels, with often fascinating but untold stories behind the reports that appear each month in Karting magazine.
In the last few years Mike has visited all the European countries several times, including Canada, Egypt, Norway, and Japan, whilst Ken can add South Africa, Malaysia, United Arab Emirates and a number of visits to the USA to his other destinations.
At the end of 2009 they both recently embarked on another pilgrimage to Monte Carlo for the Monaco Cup, where once again Ken could be found behind the microphone, with Mike behind the camera trying to find the safest place to stand. So whilst Ken was escorted to somewhere comfortable to ply his craft, Mike scoured the barrier landscape for places he could try to hide behind. Over a beer on the promenade, which acts as the Grand Prix pit-lane when the Formula 1 circus arrives, the chance to swap a few stories presented itself.
“I often see some of the places where photographers stand and think ‘no way!’ After a few near misses over the last few years, risk has become one of the first hazards that I tend to assess, especially as I became older,” Mike said. “It is easy to describe it as a sixth sense, but taking photographs usually needs two eyes. It is hard to forget how I once thought, crouched safely behind a marshal’s post, that the picture I had just taken did not feel ‘right’. Glancing up, the sight of a backward travelling Jules Bianchi confirmed that ‘not right’ feeling, as he looped around the marshal’s post. I can still move quick if I have to, but one of his rear tyres still left a sticky black mark across the toe of my right shoe! At least I got the pic just before he lost control…”
Ken, on the other hand, tends not to have to worry too much about wayward racing drivers. “Everybody reminds me how lucky I am to be able to travel all over the world doing karting commentaries and journalism,” Ken said. “I often reflect that I am indeed a very fortunate guy. Just occasionally I do mention that it can be hard going at times, involving hours upon hours in the air on long haul flights, and then long days (often over 12 hours) at the track. But nobody bites on that so I back off.”
“Yeah,” Mike nodded in agreement. “There can be long hours spent travelling, and probably a lot of people do not appreciate what we do. It is very satisfying when drivers stop for a chat though, and sometimes you do get a ‘what are you doing all the way out here..?’ Last year, and the year before, I covered the Asia-Pacific Championship at Suzuka in Japan, which for me was 24-hours door-to-door, so with the jet-lag it means going to work the day afterwards is never going to be easy.”
On the whole though Ken probably spends more time airborne, visiting as he puts it “some rather nice destinations”, although it does not mean all in the garden is rosy. “Perhaps the worst aspect is that I often get to some very exotic places, only to find after a tight arrival time that I also have to make a hasty exit, to be on time for my next gig somewhere else thousands of miles away.
“Probably the worst of those experiences was in South Africa for the National Championships at Zwartkops raceway. Staying with Ed Murray, South Africa’s Mr. Karting, he reminded me that I was just a few hours’ drive from one of the best Game Reserves in the World, and that I could stay indefinitely with him and have the use of a car to get out and see the wonderful wildlife. Then I had to remind him, and myself, that I was due at a track back in Europe just four days later, and was booked on the overnight flight back home from Johannesburg that night!”
Both Ken and Mike have been to Sharm-el-Sheikh in Egypt, where true life has not been experienced unless a trip with a local taxi driver has been added to a CV. “It is hard to forget,” Mike said, “when I first met up with you in 2004 for the Rotax World Finals, when the rasp of metal-on-metal every time the taxi driver pressed the brake pedal, suggested that the brake linings of his ageing Peugeot were perhaps a thing of the past. After that I tended to walk as much as I could..!
“It did give me the chance though to experience a touch of the desert life, when I joined up with Tristram Oman and his crew, including Ian Lawson from Warden Law, when nine of us hired quad bikes and went off into the mountains, escorted by two locals. It was a bit silly of me though to wear contact lenses, which meant at one stage when I could no longer see, and contact lens wearers will know what I mean, I just had to stop. Fortunately Tristram and Ian stopped with me, but it meant we lost touch with the group. It also meant that after clearing my eyes, and by the time we re-started we were also lost anyway. We had a half hour to kill, with Tristram demonstrating his quad biking prowess over the dunes, before a frantic and worried looking guide had come doubling back, after he noticed his numbers were lower than he had started with!
“There were two other highlights that week though. One was testing the then new Rotax DD2 at Ghibli Raceway the day after the finals. When such offers are made they have more often than not always been accepted! The other was when it rained mid-week… in the desert..!”
Sharm-el-Sheikh, however, is not alone for dodgy taxis and taxi drivers. In Dubai, Ken and the Officials at the Middle East Kart Cup booked a taxi, were duly picked up, and then endured a nightmare tour as the driver, clearly without a clue where the Kartdrome was, telephoned his boss on his mobile at every high speed on the approach to a junction, with Ken grimacing at the memory, to ask ‘which way next?’
2009 meanwhile also marked Ken’s return to the Ghibli Raceway in Egypt, where things did not work out completely as expected. Plying their journalistic/photographic craft to the karting masses is not without its rigours. “I had a great break in my favour this summer, or so I thought. Ghibli is one of the more glamorous venues I visit. Back-to-back weekends for successive rounds of the Middle East Kart Cup would allow time in between for some genuine tourism. Night time racing on the second weekend would ensure that we would not be too hot, and the days to ourselves would be a treat.
“The trip did not get off to the best of starts when after a six hours flight, a tight late night connection in Cairo was very nearly missed. We just made it on to the plane, but shortly after 2.30am in Sharm’s baggage reclaim hall, we all had to accept that the cases hadn’t made it. So, after just three hours sleep we were at the track at 7.30am, less than bright eyed and bushy tailed, unshaven, and in yesterday’s travelling clothes! Still we got through that little ordeal, delivered the goods in the sweltering heat, pausing for a break between 11.30am and 4.00pm to avoid the harshest of the Egyptian summer sun.
“The Monday after that first round weekend called for an early 6.00am start as we skipped breakfast, and set off the 100 miles or more inland into the desert to St. Katharine’s Monastery, the sight of the Burning Bush where God spoke to Moses, and on the mountain where Moses was given the Ten Commandments. It was a very dramatic drive and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. The last 200 yards to the Monastery were uphill, but there were Bedouin Arabs offering camel rides for that last leg of the journey, and it made sense to clamber up and have a rolling ride.
“I had ridden a camel previously with no problems and this ride was pleasant and uneventful. Until, it was time to dismount that is. The normally sure footed ‘ship of the desert’ managed to slip as he knelt down, and I was dealt a massive thump in the small of my back from the short hard pommel behind the saddle, sufficient to make me yell out loudly. Then just to even things up as he completed his sitting down exercise, and with my guard well and truly down from the back pain, I got another clout round the front this time.
“So there we were, camel sitting comfortably and me sitting not nearly so comfortably and completely unable to move or even to think about clambering off the beast. Fortunately, Dick Newton was the scrutineer in the team, and being a big burly fellow, he lifted me down and for the rest of that day, and indeed for all subsequent days in Egypt, more or less carried me about.
“To the amazement of all of us in the group, there was a small desert hospital only a mile away and so that was where we went. None of us spoke Arabic of course and the doctor didn’t speak English, but when we pointed to my painful areas and mentioned the word camel, he immediately nodded and clicked into action. We all got the impression that I was not the first patient with this particular affliction, and the thought crossed our minds that maybe this was the purpose of having a hospital there in the first place.
“It’s a matter of personal and professional pride that I turned up for all of the following weekend’s karting sessions and did what I was there to do. I didn’t do too much kneeling down for grid interviews before the Finals, and possibly my commentary was delivered in a higher pitch voice than usual! The anticipated CIK clearance for the races to take place under floodlights was not forthcoming, so we raced on in the July sunshine in temperatures over 40 degrees Celsius!!
“The one bonus, if it can be called that, to come my way, was that for our flight back home, Egyptair gave me the full ‘Assisted Passenger’ treatment of wheelchair, Hoist Lift on to the plane, extra dedicated seats at the back of the aircraft, and very welcome in the circumstances, an assisted by-pass of the delights of the departures hall at Cairo airport.
“I was a bit sore on the long journey home, but had my spirits lifted considerably by the kindness and thoughtfulness of my colleagues. They had put their heads together and bought me a couple of souvenirs: a soft toy cuddly camel, and a packet of crushed nuts!”
Amused by Ken’s lost luggage story, Mike’s trip to Wackersdorf in Germany in the summer of 2009 for the KZ2 championship, offered a similar experience. The flight to Nuremberg needed a change in Zurich, “only Swissair neglected to transfer my case onto the flight into Germany. We were already running late from London City after the pilot announced that the plane was too heavy for take-off. Maybe they unloaded my case there and then? So once in Nuremberg, having made the mistake of packing into the missing case the place where I was staying, Lufthansa loaned me a computer so I could go on-line and find where I needed to be.
“Like you though I had to spend the following day with the on-set of early beard growth, wearing an XXL size t-shirt Lufthansa had kindly given to me. Most foreign photographers have a reasonable grasp of English, although the kind comments of “nice t-shirt Mike” wears off after a dozen or so mentions. Had it been windy I reckon airborne images would have been possible!”
“By the way,” Ken warned, “be wary next time you are on a flight and the captain announces that the aircraft is too heavy for take-off. That’s the tale they told me when I was leaving Denver in Colorado, after the USA Rotax Grand Nationals,” Ken recalled. “The flight to Newark, New Jersey, for a transatlantic connection to Birmingham back in England was scheduled to take three hours or so, with another hour and a half before the connection. But the captain, very unconvincingly, spun us a yarn about unloading some fuel to become light enough for take-off. We would then put down in St. Louis for a re-fuel and be at our destination with no more than 20 minutes overall delay. We were four hours in St. Louis and missed the Birmingham flight by hours. I spent the following day, my birthday, unable to access my bags, so unshaven and bedraggled and trudging round the delights of downtown Newark in the rain, before catching my flight home 24 hours late.”
A glamorous life? Well, yes, in a strange sort of way maybe. And perhaps spooky too?
“Some years ago,” Mike said, “I was with Chris Walker in Germany and we got lost travelling to the hotel, arriving too late after the place had locked its doors until breakfast, so it meant a night in the car. Chris can apparently sleep anywhere, but around 3am, through the misted up windscreen, I saw some flickering lights. A minute or so later around 20 or so people walked slowly past the car, chanting like something out of ‘Damian – The Omen’. Chris had taken the keys out of the ignition, so I remember thinking, ‘sorry mate, but if this turns nasty, I’m legging it across that field, big time!’ After they had passed, maybe it was his own photographer’s sixth sense, but Chris opened an eye with a ‘what?’ ‘Never mind,’ I said, ‘just go back to sleep…’ A couple of dozen burnt-out tea-lights were found near the hotel door the following morning – weird or what?”
But whilst most international travel is carried out alone, and more often than not with few problems, just occasionally co-incidences arise. On the way to Japan in 2008 Mike bumped into two of the KSP guys, Philippe Kalmes and Frederic Billet, who had arranged for a car to take them from Nagoya to Suzuka. It saved on a long train ride. And then for the more recent KF2 World Cup event at Alcaniz in Spain, after a 250 mile Friday late evening drive from Barcelona, Mike bumped into… Philippe and Frederic at the same hotel in Sastago, which was absolutely miles from anywhere, and both of whom just happened to know the way to the track on Saturday morning..!
”I think that there are probably far too many incidents and coincidences to recall here,” Mike offered, “and we could be doing this all day long, but never let it be said that travelling abroad is always boring..!” to which Ken readily agreed. “No, never boring. There’s always the prospect of the racing to think about, and the people you are going to meet. And no matter what trials and tribulations come my way, I still reckon it’s a real privilege to be able to do what I do.”
“I’ll drink to that,” said Mike. “Whose round is it anyway? Is the editor paying?”