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You never forget: Your First Kart Race

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After years of jumping in karts at all types of circuits, I finally bit the bullet.

I never thought I’d be on pole but then again, I never thought I’d be sat in 16th place, so far from the front I needed a pair of binoculars to see the polesitter.

Just a tenth quicker and I’d have been 6th on the grid for this, the Daytona TW Steel DMAX Endurance at Sandown Park; my first karting race. However, I wasn’t a tenth quicker, clearly, which was why I was languishing in a forgettable mid-pack grid slot.

I’ve messed around karts since I was a nipper but I’d never felt the need to go racing over and above the level of simply trying to beat my mates at any punter’s arrive and drive session.

I travel a lot for work and whenever I’d get an email telling me the next place I’d need to visit, I’d almost always Google the cloest kart-racing circuit, well before I’d even thought about packing my bags. On a trip to the Nürburgring some years ago, we were cursed with snow and didn’t want to risk it out on the already infamous ‘Ring so we headed in convoy to Schumacher’s indoor karting track and that was one of the best karting experiences I’d had.

I like to win but like I said, I never felt the need to race. Perhaps that was down to the fact that I assumed kart racing was a serious business: I’d need to buy my own kart, have the means to get it to a circuit and the ability to set it up properly. Any post-arrive-and-drive pub chats were always littered with ideas to go racing as a group but the intention was only ever skin deep.

I’ve spent the last couple of years racing motorcycles at a decent level. I had properly got the racing bug, the need to compete, to prove myself but motorcycle racing was too expensive. Crippling infact. I had a year out but in that year out, I tried and failed to find something to replace the buzz I had sampled from racing motorcycles. That focus, the nerves, the feeling of putting yourself through the ultimate challenge. It’s hard to replace.

So I didn’t have to think hard about getting involved with the second DMAX round of the season at Sandown Park. I needed a bit of competition in my life. I’d only driven a two-stroke kart twice before but what the hell. I was up for the challenge!

DMAX is a series organised by Daytona who own three (soon to be four) circuits around the country. The series runs over 10 rounds from February to November and visits six different circuits across the country. The DMAX karts are 125cc two-stroke karts, lightweight and fast, they’re true racing karts and make the four-strokes seem slow and agricultural. The series is split into two championships, Sprints and Endurance. I was signed up for the Endurance series, a 15-minute qualifying session, followed by a 1-hour race.

Bearing in mind I usually get of a kart after a 30-minute session with sore knees, back and cramp in my arms, I was in for an interesting experience! My tactic for qualifying was to learn the circuit in the two-stroke kart, then put in a fast lap, back off for a lap and repeat. Obviously, all that went out of the window as soon as I put my visor down and left the pits. As I made my way through the plumes of two-stroke and onto the main straight, I was focused on the pack infront and eager to reel them in.

15-minutes disappeared in no time. I didn’t really feel like I had made my mark, I felt like a bit of a spectator but one with the best seat in the house. Drivers were clipping tyre walls, just about keeping it on track and stitching each other up with last-gasp overtakes. Somewhere in the middle of it all, I made a conscious effort to string a decent lap together and hope that I wouldn’t coem across a slower driver or get stood up by a faster one. You could say my only tactic for the whole of qualifying was to try and follow the whoever came past me with the lairiest custom-painted helmet. Logic dictates that if they spend that kind of money on getting a helmet sprayed up, they ought to be quick. On my one hot lap, I stuck with a guy who’s outfit looked fast, even if he wasn’t. He’s probably bagged pole and I guess that means I must be second or maybe third, I thought to myself. I was 16th and realised I probably wasn’t following the form man and had plenty of work to do in the race.

The 10-minute break between qualifying and the race was just about enough time to flush out any threat of cramp in my arms, drink a bit of water and throw a few excuses at my girlfriend as to why I was all the way down there. Just wait for screen two to load. Yep, there I am!

If I had one small shred of optimism going into the race, it was that I only had to find a tenth, or maybe two tenths and I’d be right up there at the sharp end. The trouble is, there was 10 people behind me that only had to find a few tenths to relegate me to the back of the class.

If I learned one thing from motorcycle racing it’s this: go hard at the first couple of corners and any gains you make there will take the following pack the rest of the race to undo. However, I late text from a friend and former successful karter put doubt in my mind. “Don’t shunt on the first lap or you’ll spend a lonely 70-laps playing catch up” he said. Helpful, thanks.

The rolling start did its best to prevent a first corner pile-up, we were fairly well spread out as we crossed the line for the first lap. My ideas of a ‘take no prisoners’ opening lap quickly simmered down into more of a mild and fairly unforgettable series of half-thoughts at going in for a block pass, only to fall into line. However, the group ahead of us had other ideas and before I had taken in what was going on, I found myself threading my DMAX through a series of twirling karts that were quickly exiting stage left, right and straight on.

That’s three down, only about another 10 or so to go, I thought to myself. If we carry on like this, I might win just by virtue of staying on. I kept thinking like this for the next few laps but my optimism was quickly challenged by the driver behind, who seemed to make an attempt to overtake me on every other corner. We drew level, he lunged and ran wide, we drew level again, he yielded but I sensed another lunge wouldn’t be far off. It went on like this for three or more laps. “Bugger off!” I thought to myself, but then I realised it was me who needed to do the buggering off. The trouble was, I couldn’t. the driver behind was matching me corner by corner. I didn’t look around, I just kept pressing on. Some laps he’s challenge me once or twice and other laps I’d go without seeing him in the corner of my eye. I’ve broken him, I thought. But a tap on my rear bumped proved otherwise. Balls.

I resigned myself to the fact that I definitely wasn’t going to win my first kart race.

I remember thinking the race would last about 70 laps and I must have been 20 laps in. Rounding the last corner, I was slightly diappointed to see that I’d completed 9, yes 9 laps. My brain started doing sums that I didn’t want to know the answer to. “Can I carry on like this for seven times as long as I have?” No. Then, five laps later: “Can I carry on like this for 5 times as long as I have?” Maybe. The adrenaline was up and I was on a mission. That mission turned out to be a 40-lap mission in no-man’s land. The pack ahead were four-strong and only about a corner, or 10-metres ahead. I chipped away and they started to get closer. Then they seemed to chip away and they started to increase the gap. I spent 40 laps grinding it out; all of my laps within a few tenths of each other and not far off my qualifying time.

The trouble is, I wasn’t making any progress.

I had lost any idea of where I was. I hadn’t overtaken anyone for ages, a few drivers had come past me but they passed me at such a rate I was sure I was getting lapped. I passed a couple of people who had spun out too, but was I gaining position or just unlapping myself. I didn’t know, I didn’t care. This was the longest I’d ever spent in a kart and I was into get-me-home mode. I dug deep. I wasn’t going to let the pack ahead stay ahead.

I could see them overtaking each other or at least trying to and I could feel myself inching closer. Ha! They didn’t know I was going to pounce in, ooh, about 7 laps at this rate.

70 laps in, my seat felt like razor wire, I was trying to push my knees against the steering column to stop them banging into it everytime I threw my DMAX into a corner. I was battered and cursing my lack of rib protector, neck support or knee pads. Still, I only had a few more laps to go and I wasn’t gettng out of this kart until I had overtaken the pack infront.

If I can’t win, then I want to be the first driver over the line wearing Daytona’s overalls. That would, I thought, be some consolation.

I got within a few kart lengths of the pack ahead but over a couple of laps I couldn’t get any closer. Then, just like that, two people overtook me. One, two. They pounced and quickly caught up with the pack ahead. I was obviously shell-shocked because out of nowhere, another driver pounced. What made it worse was that he too was wearing Daytona’s overalls. I was no longer leader of the ‘Completely Amateur’ race. Just my luck!

The late charging duo who had just lapped me were tangled up with the group ahead and in getting through them, they split the pack in two. I was right on the back of the two guys who had lost out, and right on the bumper of the other guy in Daytona overalls.

I did everything just to try and keep pace, I had nothing left to give. Any visions of a last corner lunge were quashed. I was lunging later than ever on every corner but so were they. A better driver would have kept their cool but I did the opposite. Desperate to overtake someone, anyone, I tried too hard. My penultimate lap was over a second off my qualifying pace, it was messy, one to forget. I had blown my chance.

Crossing the line I had no idea what position I was in, convinced I’d given away two if not three places on the final laps. As it happens, I’d only lost one, alas a bitter loss, as it meant I crossed the line as the second fastest ‘Driver in a Daytona karting suit’.

That hour in a kart flew by. Although at times it was gruelling for this amateur. I finished 14th, two places higher than my qualifying position but two people had retired. what was disappointing was that my fastest race time was no quicker than my qualifying time.

I have a lot to do if I want to find the 1-second I need to taste victory and I dare say it’s going to take me hundreds if not thousands of laps to find it.

Thanks to www.daytona.co.uk for the experience.