Let’s Go Karting

John Surtees and Ross Brawn, Buckmore Park, June 2008

The story behind Let’s Go Karting and other campaigns aimed at getting kids into karting at a grassroots level.

It’s not every day that you’ll see two motor racing legends at a karting event. Chris Walker’s lens captured John Surtees and Ross Brawn during the launch of “Let’s Go Karting” at Buckmore Park in June, 2008. Brawn had masterminded six consecutive F1 Constructor’s titles for Ferrari and played a large part in the seven world titles amassed by Michael Schumacher. Earlier that year Surtees had been awarded an OBE for services to sport. His 1964 title win with Ferrari, plus seven world motorcycling crowns, had made him the only person to become a champion on two wheels and four.

“Let’s Go Karting” had been inspired by the Racing for Buttons scheme that started life at Rowrah back in 2000. Jenson Button’s F1 contract with Williams provided an opportunity to get young kids involved in karting by touring local schools. The day after Jenson’s F1 debut in March, 17 young kids turned up at Rowrah to try out a Comer powered Wright kart. Four months later that figure had been expanded to almost 100. Apart from loaning us the kart free of charge, Ken Linfoot put in many hours patiently coaching and assessing each child. We were helped two years later by John Surtees who donated a 12 month old Zip Puma/W60 that had previously been owned by his son, Henry. Over a three year period we encouraged 54 cadet drivers to successfully complete their ARKS test and take out MSA licences.

In 2007 Paul Fletcher asked us to start up a similar scheme at PF. In April Chris Quinn and I went down to Lincolnshire, visiting six Junior Schools over a period of two days. Gary Walker had agreed to supervise the scheme and was interviewed about it on local radio. 50 kids and their parents turned up for a meeting on Wednesday evening. Also present was Robert Haynes who had won the first ever British Junior Championship round at Fulbeck 41 years earlier. Robert must have been impressed by our proposals as he volunteered to serve as Gary’s assistant.

Officially, Cumbria KRC had contributed just under £245 towards Rowrah’s Racing for Buttons scheme. In reality, of course, payment in kind was much more significant. This included free use of the circuit and half price race entries for all our novice drivers. Nevertheless, lack of funds did inhibit our progress somewhat. In contrast, Paul Fletcher ensured that the project at PFI was well financed right from the word go. Attendances at the Monday night sessions usually reached around 60 but figures in excess of 100 weren’t abnormal.

When the MSA considered starting a similar scheme, Gary and I were invited down to Motorsports House for discussions. The MSA quite rightly preferred a change of name, although their reasoning later turned out to be somewhat flawed.”Jenson Button’s rather old hat and not many kids will even recognise the name,” declared Colin Hilton. 12 months later Jenson cruised to victory in the opening Grand Prix of 2009 and went on to become world champion. Apart from underlining Jenson’s ability, the 2009 season proved to be an unprecedented triumph for Ross Brawn who had started up his own team following Honda’s premature departure from the sport. It’s the only time that a team has ever won the Constructor’s title first time out.

Brawn first entered motor racing with a Barlotti/Villiers kart, competing for a couple of years in events at Blackbushe and Shenington. His father, Ernie, had been one of karting’s early pioneers and Ross naturally wanted to follow suit. Later he took up slot car racing, forming a partnership with another former karter Barry Magee to design and make the cars. His first full time job in motor racing was as a milling machine operator with March Engineering. He later joined Williams and rose through the ranks to become an aerodynamicist. Spells with Beatrice and Arrows followed before he joined Jaguar, designing their world championship winning XJR-14. After that he was signed by Benetton and the rest, as they say, is history.

If 2009 was a great year in Brawn’s life it proved to be disastrous for the Surtees family when they lost their only son. After selling his Surtees Team to Williams in 1979, John had practically withdrawn from motor racing. In 1987 he married Jane, a former nurse, and they had three children, Edwina, Leonora and Henry. In 1999, at the age of eight, Henry had gone to Buckmore Park with friends. He returned home full of enthusiasm and persuaded his parents to buy him a cadet kart. John found his love of motorsport had returned as he helped Henry to become the 2005 Formula Kart Stars Champion in Junior Gearbox.

“Jane and the girls were into horse riding, but I spent just about every weekend with Henry, driving around in the truck, making his breakfasts, cleaning the kart and helping him get ready to race,” he recalls. “We both shared a great passion for motor racing. Henry wasn’t only my son he was my best friend, too.” Henry lost his life during a Formula 2 race at Brands Hatch. He was struck on the head by a wheel which had come off another car. The previous day he’d driven brilliantly to earn his first podium finish. A week later, Felipe Mass was struck by a flying bolt and it almost ended his career. The difference was that the wheel weighed 30 kilos compared to a couple of grams. John admits that this freak accident almost prevented him from going anywhere near a race track. However, he is still very much involved and recently purchased the Buckmore Park circuit outright.

A campaign was launched recently for John Surtees to be given a knighthood. Sadly, it hasn’t happened yet, although there’s still time. After Ross Brawn announced last December that he was taking another sabbatical from F1, speculation mounted regarding a possible move to McLaren. However, it now seems that his retirement is permanent. Brawn isn’t the only person to have announced his retirement. After almost 7 years running the Buttons scheme at PF, Gary Walker and Robert Haynes called it a day just before Christmas. As reported in last month’s issue, Darren Beavers has taken over the scheme, initially running at Whilton Mill. Meanwhile “Let’s Go Karting” continues to thrive at Rowrah, Shenington and one or two other venues. Long may it continue!