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Features: OFF TRACK!

Rotax competitors may recognise this dashing young chap from 1974

Rotax competitors may recognise this dashing young chap from 1974

Much has been written recently about the Hamilton effect on motor racing in general and karting in particular. Certainly commercial operators such as Bill Sisley at Buckmore Park and Kevin O’ Malley from Rye House are in no doubt whatsoever about the impact Lewis has made on their turnover recently. “The interest has been phenomenal,” Kevin confessed “and whilst there may be other contributory factors, I’m sure that Hamilton’s success in 2007 has been the main reason why we are attracting so many members of the public right now.” Bill echoes these sentiments and claims that Buckmore Park is now attracting customers from a much wider ethnic mix than previously. The MSA, also, has been quick to recognise the opportunities that Lewis Hamilton has brought. Chief Executive Colin Hilton has reached deep within the coffers and produced £125,000 for a scheme designed to exploit this new phenomenon and introduce many more young people into the sport. The title chosen for this exciting new initiative is “Let’s Go Karting”.

Rod Taylor, chairman of the Kart Committee, has devised a strategy to make full use of this windfall by involving both clubs and commercial operators almost in equal measure. Rod acknowledges that he has been influenced by the Racing for Buttons schemes currently being run at both Rowrah and PF. A circular has already gone out asking clubs to submit detailed proposals for similar schemes and grants of £5,000 will be available to each of 12 participating clubs. So far as commercial operators are concerned, it is envisaged that 60 sessions will be held on various circuits with members of the public paying £5 each. To make such sessions commercially viable, the MSA will chip in with £750 per session accounting for a further £45,000. Presumably the remaining £20,000 is being held back to cover contingencies and administration costs. Depending on results, the grants can be extended in future years.

Special T-Shirts were even available free with a can of oil

Special T-Shirts were even available free with a can of oil

Everyone is agreed that Lewis Hamilton’s first season in Formula One produced many positives for the sport. On the debit side, it also brought to light a deeply disturbing trait that I can only describe as Motor Racism. Sports personalities of all creeds and colours have been accepted for some time now in football, rugby, boxing, athletics, cricket and a whole range of different activities. It seems, though, that some people regard motor racing as the last bastion of white supremacy and are determined to keep it that way. I was shocked to discover the results of a recent poll which found that Fernando Alonso had been McLaren’s best performer in 2007. He actually received over 74% of the vote compared to less than 26% for Lewis. If this poll had been conducted in the Spanish Press, or amongst members of the British National Party, then such a result might perhaps be understandable. However, this was an Internet survey carried out by ITV-F1.com. Everyone is entitled to an opinion but you can’t convince me that there wasn’t a strong element of racism at play here.

Thankfully, racism in karting is something I’ve never actually encountered although it’s true to say that in a sport dominated by white male Caucasians and there’s always been some evidence of sexists attitudes. Carolynn Grant-Sale (better known as Carolynn Hoy) spearheaded an assault on this male preserve almost 30 years ago and soon established herself as one of Britain’s top gearbox contenders. In more recent times, her example has been followed by the likes of Susie Stoddart, Kathryn Legge, Linda Playfair, Alice Powell, Laura Tillet and Abigail Gerry, together with Tiffany and Tamsin Chittenden. Some 15 years before Carolynn stunned her male rivals, a young Italian lady was causing something of a sensation in European karting circles. The Italian team at that time was filled with hardened professionals such as Guido Sala and Guilio Pernigotti, who had learned their trade by racing motor cycles. It caused a few raised eyebrows when a petite young female broke into their ranks. Anyone who thought that Susy Raganelli would be the weak link in Italy’s formidable lie up was in for a shock, however. In 1966 she became only the second driver to be crowned as karting’s world champion and still remains the only female to have won this title.

Many found it hard to accept that Susy may actually have been a talented driver

Many found it hard to accept that Susy may actually have been a talented driver

You might think that Susy’s incredible feat would have won her plaudits from around the world. However, her victory was greeted with sullen scowls in many quarters. Soon, stories began to circulate about preferential treatment from race officials who were prepared to hold up races for 15 minutes or more whilst Susy applied her make-up. References to a special motor were also made and it was claimed that she could afford to coast around corners on half throttle before killing off her rivals down the straights. This must have been music to the ears of her engine tuner Gianfranco Baroni who suddenly found himself inundated with requests for his services. Soon many of the world’s top drivers were using Baroni prepared equipment, but it perhaps says something for Susy Raganelli’s own skill that she still kept winning races and came very close to capturing a second consecutive world title in 1967.

It seemed impossible for us to accept that a woman could beat all these top stars on equal equipment and Susy became something of a hate figure outside of her home country. In Britain, Endurol produced promotional T Shirts that were supplied free with every gallon tin of their oil. They bore the legend “DOWN WITH SUSY’s (knickers)” It causes me some embarrassment to confess today that I laughed along with everyone else. Were all the knockers right in claiming that it was Baroni’s motors and not Susy’s own ability that had won her the world title? Roger Mills raced against her on several occasions and became a firm admirer. “Susy’s father was a multi millionaire and I don’t doubt that his money bought her the very best equipment available,” he concedes. “However, having tried to follow her around the corners I can confirm that she was also a very talented driver and would have found a place in any international team of that time on pure ability alone.”

Whatever advantages, if any, Susy may have had back in 1966, we should recognise her unique achievement and celebrate the fact that a woman was able to emerge on top of the karting world well before their ascendancy in other sports. Some might suggest the quality of opposition back then wasn’t as high as it is today but that’s a lot of nonsense. Apart from beating drivers like Mickey Allen, Francois Goldstein and all of her considerably talented Italian team-mates, she also showed a clean pair of heels to Ronnie Peterson and Keke Rosberg who would later go on to become top Formula One stars. A few years ago not many people would have bet on a coloured driver reaching the top in motor racing. How much longer will it be before we see a lady driver taking her place on the rostrum at an F1 Grand Prix? Whenever that happens then I hope a thought will be spared for the slightly built young woman who proved 42 years ago that gender isn’t quite as important in motor-sport as most of us had previously imagined.

Looking through some old photographs recently, I came across one taken in May, 1974, during an international team match between Britain and Holland at Long Newnton. In fact, I think it might possibly have been the last race meeting to be held at this famous old venue. The British squad that year was made up of Mark Hewetson, Derek Bliss, Biff Harris, Hugh Patton, Derek Price, Owen Jones and a seventh team member who may be familiar to Rotax competitors today. I’m asking readers if they can identify this handsome young driver who is standing at the end of Britain’s line up.

The answer to last month’s poser is that Gianluca Beggio won all five of his world titles in the Formual C category, or KZ1 as it’s now known.