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Darkness was already descending as the judges made their final decision. By a very small margin, Shanade Gress was declared the 2001 Racing for Buttons winner. It meant that for six months she would be given exclusive use of a brand new Honda Cadet kart. Swallowing his disappointment, the runner up walked over and gave her a congratulatory handshake. None among us that night however believed that we’d seen the last of him. Greg Harper and, equally importantly, his dad Ken, had been bitten by the karting bug. Two weeks later Greg received a surprise for his 11th birthday. Sitting waiting for him in the garage was a brand new Topkart/Comer. Over the next few months it got some heavy use as Greg practiced for hours on end at Rowrah. By September he was ready to take the ARKS test and competed in his first race meeting less than 24 hours later.
“I actually thought Greg was a bit young to start racing,” Ken recalls. “I got quite a shock to find lots of eight year olds looking as though they’d been in the sport for years. Before he started racing, Greg had been a keen soccer player but we suddenly stopped talking about football in our household and the conversation was all about karting instead. His sister Stephanie decided she wanted to get in on the act as well and I bought her a Junior TKM outfit so they were both able to go through the ARKS test together.” Greg had only just got rid of his novice plates when he travelled down to Fulbeck for the Stars of Tomorrow Qualifier in March 2002. Much of the country was covered in snow that weekend but the heats were run in dry conditions.
He won a very well contested ‘B’ Final to qualify convincingly. The Cadet class was very competitive that year, with James Bradshaw emerging as champion in both Stars and S1. Greg proved that he could compete well from a front grid position, although he was still learning the art of successful overtaking. The following year he moved up into Minimax and became part of John Hoyle’s renowned JKH team. Working in a team environment certainly brought out the best in him and he achieved some very good results indeed. Also racing under the JKH banner was his sister Stephanie, this time on a Junior MAX outfit. “There’s never been any great rivalry between us even when we’ve raced in the same class,” says Greg. “We both get pleasure from each other’s successes and so it’s quite a family thing.” After twelve months in the JKH team, Greg started 2004 as an independent. “I’d enjoyed working with John Hoyle and he’s still a friend of the family,” he confesses. “However, we tested out a Tonykart at Rowrah early on in the year and I preferred it to the JKH chassis. By that stage we’d become seriously involved in the sport and I was looking for success at national level. We contacted Strawberry Racing through Justin Edgar and I became a quasi-member of their set up. Today, of course, I’m totally involved with the team which I think Paul Spencer runs very professionally.
He’s exceptionally good at setting up a kart and can instantly put his finger on the problem when things aren’t going quite right. Warwick does a good job of overseeing the kart preparation and Mark Salmon acts as my personal mechanic at race meetings. I still own my own kart and motors which are prepared by John Davies. He provided me with some quick motors in 2005 and I hope he’ll do the same this year”. Greg’s high regard for the Strawberry Racing team is reciprocated. “I think his prospects this year are very good indeed,” claims Paul Spencer. “Realistically there are three or possibly four drivers who could win the Junior Rotax title in S1 or Stars and Greg certainly has to be one of them. He proved several times last year that he’s definitely got the pace and is also exceptionally fit. We’ll all be working very hard to ensure that he’s got the best equipment out there, just as we do for all our drivers. Luck obviously plays a part and sometimes things don’t go according to the form book. Had they done so at Lydd then we wouldn’t be having this conversation because he’d already be the S1 champion. He’d been so much quicker than everyone else on this same circuit just a week beforehand and to lose it all in the final round must have been a bitter blow. He’s put all that behind him and, with twelve months additional experience now, I think that things are looking very promising.” Last year’s campaign had begun in earnest on March 20th when Greg competed in the S1 round at Clay Pigeon. He took 5th place in a race won by Thomas Arme ahead of Chris Palmer and Adam Christodoulou.
A week later Greg was back on home soil when Rowrah hosted the opening round of Stars. Once again, Arme came out on top after a breathtaking final dash to the flag, finishing just inches ahead of Greg and Stefan Wilson. Valuable S1 points were lost at Shenington after a collision with Nigel Moore left him sidelined. Chris Palmer won this one ahead of Sam Smithson, with Arme emerging as a championship favourite by taking 3rd spot. Greg returned to Shenington in May for round 2 of the Stars competition. As Christodoulou romped away in 1st place, Greg enjoyed a tremendous battle with Arme for 2nd spot, eventually snatching this position when they came to lap the backmarkers. Just one week later came the ‘O’ Plate up at Larkhall. Starting off from 15th in the ‘A’ Final he had a fantastic race to eventually finish 3rd behind Christodoulou and Wilson. A fortnight later Greg was back in action once again when Three Sisters hosted the Stars competition. After a tremendous battle with Arme and Wilson, he eventually took 3rd spot. The elusive S1 victory came seven days later at Rowrah. This followed Christodoulou’s exclusion, later resulting in the heaviest fine ever to be imposed in karting. Another week expired before Greg went to Larkhall for the Stars meeting. A freak rainstorm kept him out of the top six but by now everyone was starting to take notice of the young lad from Cumbria.
There was a four week break before the S1 round at P.F. Here, Greg claimed 3rd spot behind Sam Bennett and Christodoulou to keep his championship hopes on track. At Silverstone during round 5 of Stars he dominated throughout but exceptionally heavy rain resulted in this race being abandoned. Next up came the Kartmasters and not even Greg could match Christodoulou for pace in this one. In the end he had to settle for 4th behind David Sutton and Arme. Third position at Llandow was good enough to earn him a top three place in the Stars championship despite a bad round at Buckmore Park. His S1 prospects still looked rosy especially after finishing 2nd behind Christodoulou at Three Sisters. As they went down to Lydd for the final round, we all believed that Greg had one hand firmly on the championship trophy. However this round proved disastrous as he came off on the last lap of his final heat. Another collision on the opening lap of the Final wrecked his championship chances and he had to settle for 3rd, 11 points behind Sam Bennett, the new S1 champion. “It was a shame about not winning the S1 title but I still had a very good season,” says Greg philosophically. “I knew that Sam would be one of my toughest rivals but he got off to a slow start and didn’t figure in the points reckoning until late on. My teammate Stefan Wilson was always going to be a very strong threat. He made a good start in S1 then had a poor middle but managed to finish strongly. Thomas Arme went especially well in the Stars championship and he deserved to win this particular title. I was disappointed that he pipped me for 2nd spot in S1 but that’s the way it goes. Obviously S1 is the best title to win and that’s going to be the focus of my ambitions for 2006. However, I have to admit that the prizes in Stars are a lot better.
I think that the added prestige which the BRDC brings to Stars is also very important. Apart from Rowrah my two favourite circuits are Shenington and P.F. However, I don’t think any of the championship circuits favour a particular motor against another. My best engine tends to be quickest no matter where we go. I’d considered moving into ICA this year and if I’d won the S1 title last season then that’s where I would have headed. However I’ve decided to remain in Junior Rotax and will be trying to leave this class as the champion.” Greg reckons that he took part in over 30 events last year and spent most other weekends testing, usually away from home. “Living just a few miles from Rowrah, people might find it odd that I don’t spend more time testing there, but this circuit tends to be fully booked most weekends and week days are out of the question apart from during school holidays,” he says. “I enjoy keeping fit and have my own treadmill which tends to get a lot of use. My karting activities certainly don’t leave much time for any other sport although whenever possible I enjoy watching football on TV. Like Ross Braun of Ferrari, I’ve always been a Manchester United supporter. I’m afraid that the colour red doesn’t appeal to me in motor racing though, and my favourite F1 team is BAR-Honda. I’m aiming to start a degree course in motorsport engineering and after that I’d love to take up racing full time. I’ve spent some time on work experience at M-Sport which is about eight miles from my home. They have a very professional set up as you might expect from the official Ford Rally team.” For someone so young, Greg has strong views about how the sport should progress. “It costs a lot of money to compete at any level of karting today and people have a right to demand high standards from officials,” he says. “Overall, I think that standards in the top competitions are pretty good. They’re probably a bit stricter in S1 than Stars, certainly so far as scrutineering is concerned, but I think that’s largely down to Paul Klaassen.
I also believe that it’s important to promote the sport. Rowrah’s Racing for Buttons scheme set a standard for other clubs to follow in that respect. I heard about it through our local youth club and curiosity got the better of me and I went to a session at Rowrah with two friends. I never intended to get involved but as I started getting quicker my interest grew. By the time I’d got to the final of this competition, I was right into it. Once I got my own kart, we were up at the circuit two nights a week practicing. You’d find around 25 others regularly attending these evening sessions and we all brought each other on. That probably explains why more than 20 Buttons drivers have raced at national level over the last few years. My initial targets at these sessions were Shanade Gress and Jamie Little. Jamie is now the British champion in Minimax and Shanade has always been a very strong contender, especially at Rowrah.” In other respects, Greg is full of praise for the sport. “I love it,” he claims. “It’s done wonders for my confidence and I find myself able to deal with people a lot more easily. I owe almost everything to my parents who have put lots of effort into seeing that I had the right equipment. Dad especially has devoted a lot of time to my cause. My mechanic Mark Salmon played a big part as also have John Davies and the entire Strawberry team. My uncle Paul also spent many weekends acting as my mechanic, especially during the years in Cadets. I hope to repay them all this year with a good ending to the championships.” If I was a betting man, my money would be on Greg to produce the goods in 2006.