Home » Features » Historic » OFF TRACK!

OFF TRACK!

karting-mag-logo-15“Putting on the agony,

Putting on the style,
That’s what all the young folks,
Are doing all the while,
And as I look around me,
I sometimes have to smile,
Seeing all the young folks,
Putting on the style!”

Belting out those words almost 50 years ago, Lonnie Donegan topped the Hit Parade and established himself as the new king of British pop music. Lonnie followed up this success with such immortal classics as “My Old Man’s A Dustman” and “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour on The Bedpost Overnight?” starting off a new craze amongst youngsters of my generation. Soon, we were all tying broomsticks onto tea-chests and pinching washing boards from our mums to form makeshift bands known as skiffle groups. You could even get a free skiffle whistle with every packet of Rice Krispies. We certainly had the style but it was our parents who suffered the agony as horrible noises started to emanate from coalhouses and cellars across the country. Lonnie’s rise to pop stardom over here was being mirrored in America where a young rock ‘n roll artist called Elvis Presley had recorded big hits with Heartbreak Hotel and Blue Suede Shoes. Amidst this commotion, in a quiet suburb of Los Angeles, racing car engineer Art Ingels and Lou Borelli were quietly building their own motorised vehicle that became known as a Go-kart. They didn’t realise it at the time, but their creation would eventually launch a world wide sport and introduce eleven F1 world champions into motor racing.

Karting, like many other sports, has always produced personalities capable of “putting on the style” every now and then. Ricky Donnan, president of the West Cumberland Kart Club back in 1964, was a typical example. Before racing suits became compulsory, he once went through three heats and a final at Rowrah dressed in a dinner jacket and bow tie reputedly hired from Moss Bros. “Putting on the agony” is a much more modern sporting trend. Soccer fans across the globe will have enjoyed watching this year’s world cup competition. It would be interesting, though, to count up how many free kicks have been “won” by players rolling round in great pain after relatively innocuous tackles. Diving in the penalty area is one thing. Far more reprehensible, in my view, are the cynical attempts to get fellow professionals sent off for offences that haven’t actually occurred. The great irony is that, amidst all this obvious cheating, players are still expected to sportingly tap the ball into touch following stoppages for injury so their team doesn’t gain an unfair advantage.

In karting today we have a situation where “putting on the agony” can pay dividends for competitors who find themselves involved in minor collisions. By playing dead, they can get the race stopped for safety reasons. They’ll suddenly undergo a remarkable recovery and have their karts ready for the restart. You can’t blame individual drivers because they’re merely taking advantage of a loophole in the regulations. Nevertheless, such tactics can be extremely frustrating for other competitors, especially those who have built up a big lead only to see it totally wiped out by the red flag. Invariably those who had previously been up at the front will find themselves victims of a first bend collision once this race gets underway again. I’ve seen major championships lost in this way and in the interests of fair play I believe that the rules should be amended to deter such tactics. However, there’s also a safety issue to consider here. The most critical moments in any race occur on the opening lap when adrenalin is pumping at maximum speed. In this respect, risks are automatically increased when races have been stopped for frivolous reasons. An effective solution would be to exclude any kart that isn’t moving at the time a red flag is issued. That way, there would be no advantage to be gained by feigning injury, we’d see far less red flag incidents and the sport would become safer as a result.

Sometimes, of course, races are allowed to continue long after common sense dictates that they should be stopped. The worst example I ever witnessed occurred at Morecambe during the 1970 World Cup Final. With around two thirds of the race completed, Kelvin Hesketh had opened out a commanding lead. Suddenly a dog ran across the circuit and immediately became stranded as karts screamed past at over 100mph. Incredible as it may seem, this race was allowed to run its full course as the terrified creature made repeated but unsuccessful attempts to reach safety. Animal lovers could only watch in horror and it must have been pretty nerve wracking for the drivers themselves. We all breathed a collective sigh of relief when this race ended without major injury to dog or driver and Kelvin was declared a worthy winner. This situation couldn’t arise today, of course, because no official would ever take such enormous risks and that’s something we should all be thankful for.

Even before this event took place, I’d always considered Morecambe to be an enticing but rather dangerous circuit. Bull-dozed out of a narrow cliff ledge, it was designed to produce high speed racing with absolutely nowhere to go if things ever went wrong. Chris Merlin tells an interesting story about the day when he was asked to carry out a safety inspection there. He found various potential hazards, including an observation that the track width fell considerably below minimum requirements. Of even greater concern was the fact that warning notices had been very carelessly hammered onto posts all around the top corner. Six inch nails had been used for this job and a good inch or so was protruding in each case. Thus, at a corner where karts came off quite regularly, there was a long series of spikes waiting to impale some unfortunate competitor. Merlin’s rather critical report was compared with an earlier version prepared by the RAC Kart Committee chairman himself. However, this worthy document contained only one very brief comment; …. “It’s a long walk to the Gents!”

For all its faults, Morecambe was always able to attract competitors in huge numbers. It certainly had an alluring attraction for me. Even at ordinary club meetings you’d often find over 200 competitors turning up. The biggest single class back then was 210 Villiers and this category alone could account for 150 entries at times. With 40 karts allowed on the starting grid, this meant running A, B, C and D finals. On one rather incredible Sunday afternoon back in 1970, Northumbrian karter Graham Hewitson found himself competing in the D final after a particularly bad set of heats. He won this race and started the C Final from 37th spot, coming through to finish amongst the top four qualifiers. Unbelievably, he repeated this result again but even better was to follow. From the very back of a star studded A Final grid, Graham charged through and snatched victory on the last lap. I don’t know of any other occasion when such a remarkable feat has been achieved and I’d be interested to hear from anyone who can recall an equivalent performance.

The kart circuit at Morecambe closed its doors a long time ago. Today, all that’s left is a narrow strip of tarmac which serves as the footpath to a recently built housing estate. Gone is the tight hairpin bend where Nigel Mansell once crashed horrendously after his track rod came loose. The cliff edge that once acted as a magnet for so many competitors has been washed away and is now simply a graded slope. Standing where the start and finish line used to be, I recalled many famous races that had taken place there. I could almost hear Dicky Davies announcing some of the great names in British karting including Mickey Allen, Dave Ferris, Terry Fullerton, Mike Goodwin, Graham Liddle, Martin Hines and Kelvin Hesketh. I also had visions of a terrified dog running frantically up and down the track with officials helplessly standing by. Many changes have taken place in karting over the last 40 years, some good and others bad. The much higher priority now given to safety definitely rates as a change for the better in my book.