Features: A karting tale

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Kenny and his amazing Komet
Kenny and his amazing Komet

Funny how the past sometime catches up with you when you least expect it! I recently bumped into Kenny Brown in a pub and this chance meeting brought back a few memories that I would like to share. To start with, the name might not mean a great deal to most of you. Back in the early seventies however, Kenny was a bit of a hot shot in southern karting circle. Clay Pigeon was his local circuit and on a good day, when everything was going right and his head was clear, he was hard to beat round there. He was fiercely competitive, but karting was however just a hobby for him, something that he did for a bit of fun. More importantly, team Brown was a one-man band and was intended to remain that way. Kenny would run himself, mechanic for himself, make the tea and could strip and rebuild his chassis with his eyes closed if required! Do not read anything exceptional into this dear reader because, back then, it is what most people did anyway! Kenny did admit to having a manager within the team, but most race Sundays she would elect to stay at home in Andover to cook dinner! What made Kenny a bit different however is the fact that he would work on his own engines as well, which is where our paths would cross. You have probably guessed by now that he could best be described as being his own man, with strong ideas and beliefs on most subjects and his own way of doing things. Perhaps I should illustrate my point at this stage. When I, and probably the rest of the civilised world, was using a length of solder to check squish clearances (the distance between the top of the piston and the cylinder head, for those of you with little interest in technical matters), Kenny would use a wedge of butter. Obviously, being who he was, things were not as simple as this. It had to have been in a fridge for a precise period of time to achieve the right texture and he even favoured a specific brand for the task. I am obviously keen to avoid a stampede by would –be engine builders down their local supermarket and will not reveal the name of the brand selected. Let’s just say it came from New Zealand and leave it at that. Needless to say, I tried his recipe. It just did not work for me. Maybe I just did not have the required ingredient knowledge of a chef. All I truly achieved was facing a series of probing questions from the lady of the house, who had noticed a rapid and unexplained rise in the family’s butter consumption. And some engines were smelling funny too! Anyway, you probably have got the picture by now, so let us get into the story.

Clay Pigeon late in the season, back in the early seventies. Kenny was about to finish his second heat of the day, when his KOMET blew up in a big way. For those of you too young to know, this was then the engine of choice for a lot of people. You bought a couple of them from Alan TURNEY, who was then the importer, bolted one to a ZIP, a BARLOTTI, or something foreign if you really wanted to be different and off you went racing. Life was that simple then! Kenny knew straightaway it was a bad blow up when he ground to a halt. The crunching noises in his right ear were typical of a conrod failure and, when he got out of the kart, the sight of an assorted mix of twisted aluminium and hardened steel bits spewing out from the carburettor mouth confirmed it (we didn’t have air boxes back then). His best engine was bolted on for the rest of the meeting and the blown-up one finished up under his workbench at home, where it stayed for quite some time. What happened next is something that Kenny is still not sure about, even to this day. Was it the boredom that the Christmas festivities bring with regular monotony each year, was it the itchiness to do something karting related during a break made longer by the fact that the Dorset club never considered a winter series? It could even have been the object of a bet! Kenny cannot remember. And so the KOMET was pulled out from under the bench for a rebuild. There was after all always a need for a “cooking” engine to set a chassis up, scrub some tyres or let a mate have a few laps at the end of a test day. Stripping the engine down confirmed what he had thought right from the beginning. Things were bad. The conrod had snapped in half and created havoc. A lump of liner had broken off, deep gouges had appeared all over the bore, where mechanical wisdom normally dictates that there should not be any. The crankcases were a mess too, looking more like the aftermath of a road accident than the beautifully machined items they once had been, but at least they did not need welding. Kenny did the best he could on these, filing this, dressing that, smoothing out the other. It did not look pretty even at the end, but it was going to do for what he had in mind. He then took his barrel to Dave Hockey for some attention, or a rebore if you insist on being technical. The late West Country wizard took one look at the component in his hand and, being the man that he was, sensed that there was some business to be done. As it happened, he had a brand new barrel in stock and this surely would be a more sensible proposition! Kenny stuck to his game plan and Dave, who would not turn down the prospect of earning a few quid from anybody, duly obliged after the usual badinage and expected leg-pulling. Half an hour, three boring bar cuts and a substantial pile of cast iron dust on the floor later, things really hadn’t improved at all as far as the barrel was concerned. It wasn’t looking any better, but definitely bigger! There was no point in removing any more metal, it would not have made a scrap of difference in any case, and so Dave sent Kenny packing with a new piston and the other bits required to put the thing back together. Building the KOMET is probably not the right terminology to use at this stage. Throwing it back together would without question be a more appropriate description of the process that took place back home.

Leading Barry Greenham, Paul Elmore and George Robinson at Clay in 1971
Leading Barry Greenham, Paul Elmore and George Robinson at Clay in 1971

Our story moves forward several weeks now and we are at Clay yet again. A crisp February afternoon is probably not the best time to get a kart out, but Kenny by that time was keen to blow some of the winter blues away. There were only a few short weeks left until the start of the season after all and what better way to kick things off than a spot of running in on the rebuilt KOMET? The initial session did not produce any drama and a quick lifting of the cylinder head confirmed that all was well inside. Kenny gradually increased his speed and after a few laps an odd feeling started to creep in. The engine actually felt quite good. This initial perception was however quickly dismissed. After nearly three months of enforced layoff from the track, anything was bound to feel good! But, as one lap succeeded another and Kenny’s right foot became heavier, the true reality became glaringly obvious. The thing was just flying! It had everything. From low down it would pull like a train, pull again, then some more and when the approach to Billy’s meant you had to start considering the option of slowing down any time soon, the KOMET would find some more steam from somewhere, as if an imaginary turbo had kicked in. It was uncanny, it would happen lap after lap without fail. Kenny even looked over his right shoulder a couple of times, just to make sure that he wasn’t on the receiving end of a playful push from one of his mates! By then a couple of stopwatches had appeared on the scene and confirmed what Kenny had started to suspect. On a cold Sunday afternoon in February, when Clay Pigeon, grip and good lap times are not words that you normally put together in the same sentence, he had been going round the place faster than he had ever done before! At this stage, a mere mortal would have thanked his lucky stars, whipped the engine away and saved it for a special occasion. Kenny however would have none of it. He was going to find out why, only because he knew that he just had to! And so began the highly technical process known throughout the karting world as “swapping bits about”. A different carburettor was bolted on. It did not make any difference. If anything, it went even quicker. Another exhaust perhaps? No joy there either. Different ignition maybe? Nope! Fuel next. Kenny had bought petrol for the kart from the same place that he had always used but maybe they just had some rocket fuel delivered by mistake this time. He drained his tank and borrowed enough for a quick test, but this did not provide the answer. By the end of that short winter afternoon, when the cold was making the prospect of returning to Andover in a warm van an appealing proposition, Kenny had basically ran out of ideas and was looking at what you would call a “short” engine for an explanation: a pair of crankcases, a cylinder with head and the collection of bits and pieces that go round and round inside. The mystery wasn’t solved, but at least he had narrowed down the range of possibilities as much as he could. The next two evenings were spent checking the freak against his other engine. Kenny measured and compared everything that he could think of. There were some differences for sure. Half a degree in port timing here, the odd cubic centimetre in volume there, but otherwise nothing. Nothing at all. Nothing anyway that could explain a metamorphosis of such a magnitude. Kenny kept going back to his comparative studies time and again, secretely hoping that something that he had missed previously would jump at him all of a sudden, but to no avail. The plot was now as thick as pea soup. And then, in a flash, the penny dropped. The damage! Of course, what else could it be? How obvious it was, how could he have missed what was staring at him in the face!!

At this stage, I feel that some of you readers are somehow well ahead of the story. If you are in this category, your inkling will be confirmed shortly. But, before that, I must warn the others. If you are of a nervous disposition or just like things to be just right, please take a break now. Take your dog for a walk, put the kettle on or maybe go straight to my friend George Robinson’s column for some lighter reading. What follows will probably make you cringe a little bit.

We have established Kenny’s credentials earlier on in the story. It will therefore not surprise you to learn that he decided there and then to reproduce the damage of the wreck onto his other engine. The largest collection of cold chisels, files, punches, drifts, hacksaw blades and scrapers ever assembled in Andover found its way onto Kenny’s bench and work began. It took hours after hours over several evenings of solitary work. Talking to anybody about what he was up to would have been the best way to loose the substantial edge he felt he was about to gain over his competitors and since he had stumbled across the secret by a total accident, utmost discretion had to be of the essence.

Anticipation, expectation, trepidation even, are probably the best words one could use to describe the way Kenny felt when he returned to Clay next. If you have ever experienced the elation of discovering something special, something unique, you will understand. Throw this into the adrenaline filled cauldron of a kart environment and you are in heaven. Let us however get back to reality and answer your underlying question. To say that the copied version was a disappointment would be a major understatement. It was worse than no good, it was completely useless. In actual fact and to be totally honest with you, I am not doing justice here to Kenny’s ability to narrate the story at all. What he told me in that pub was far more detailed, far more colourful than my written word can convey. He used culinary terms to start with. I distinctly remember the words “pancake” and “rice pudding” being used. He then went on to bodily function terminology that a family orientated magazine such as this one could not possibly publish. By then, we were both laughing so much anyway that making detailed notes for your benefit was no longer a priority. We were also getting more and more sideways glances from our landlord, who was no doubt wondering by now what planet the both of us were coming from. The evening had just flown by, we had both thoroughly enjoyed a return to our misspent youth and it was time to go home.

Every story deserves a fairy tale ending. This one is going to be different. You are probably wondering what happened to the freak. Well, it got more than its share of use and brought quite a bit of success to Kenny. And then one day, it seized heavily on its last bore. Kenny could not get a bigger piston for it and reluctantly retired his favourite KOMET. The engine was unsaleable and so, after yet another long spell under his bench, he finished up giving it away to a friend of his who had just built a boat, instructing him to fill it up with concrete and use it as an anchor! Kenny has lost touch with his mate and the boat has probably changed hands several times by now, but if you have recently bought one and not lifted anchor yet, pull the chain and check what is at the end of it. You never know, it might just be Kenny’s KOMET!

This story has been written with the kind permission of Kenny BROWN and is dedicated to the memory of Dave HOCKEY, a mutual friend, gone but not forgotten.

Philippe EVRARD / Scorpion Engineering