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OFF TRACK! – Age

RyeHouse65 001Tongues were wagging in the tiny West Cumberland village of Aspatria. The gossip revolved around my paternal grandfather who had been born out of wedlock to an 18 year old girl. Rumour had it that Glaister Bewley, a local poacher and renowned Jack the Lad, was responsible. Upon hearing these stories his wife, already a mother of two children approached the baby who was sleeping peacefully in an orange box outside. She took one look at his face, saw the resemblance and immediately marched back home with him. What would now constitute a heinous crime was regarded as an act of charity in those days. Granddad came off pretty well. He was brought up in a loving family and always remained extremely close to his adoptive mother. In later life he became a lorry driver and preached in the Gospel Hall every Sunday. His other great passions were motorcycles and Rugby League, in which sport he served at one time as a referee. He would have made a good kart racing official and had the paperwork to prove it.

Attitudes and legal requirements have changed a lot in the 120 years since my grandfather was snatched from his orange box. Lax regulation may have had a happy ending for him, but in all walks of life we generally need a system of well enforced rules to protect personnel and their possessions. Motor-sport used to be relatively lightly regulated and some good people lost their lives as a result. In 1958 when Mike Hawthorn became Britain’s first F1 world champion two of his Ferrari team-mates, Luigi Musso and Peter Collins had already been killed that year. Even as Mike celebrated winning the title in Casablanca, fellow Brit Stuart Lewis-Evans was being airlifted to hospital suffering from severe burns that would claim his life within six more days. Ten years later, Mike Spence Joe Schlesser, Jim Clark and Ludovico Scarfiotti were also killed. Thanks to much improved safety regulations, more than 16 years have elapsed since Ayrton Senna became the last F1 fatality.

The high profile F1 campaign for greater safety has undoubtedly had a knock on effect in karting. All sorts of rules and requirements have been introduced, most of them entirely sensible. At one time, the only rule regarding clothing was that you had to wear a crash helmet. Many drivers chose to race in boiler suits, but quite a few opted for pullovers and flapping flannel trousers. Joe Eaves, President of the Ribble Kart Club, never raced without a cigar clenched firmly between his teeth, while Zeke Myers often went out smoking a pipe. Many races took place on airfields, with the circuit marked out by disused oil drums. Spectators were allowed to stand close up, often without any barriers separating them from the action. Where fencing did exist, it was often inappropriate. One day at Catterick, two karts crashed into the wire fence, dislodging a concrete post. This went sailing in an arc before smashing into a Ford Corsair parked nearby. Serious injury was avoided, but only by good fortune.

There can be no doubt about the immense improvements made in protective clothing, circuit design and kart construction over the years. Kart racing certainly appeared to be much more dangerous four or five decades ago, yet I stand by my previous assertion that we actually have more accidents in today’s highly regulated climate. How this can possibly happen is a matter for debate. One competitor rather glibly argued that, as today’s karts are much quicker, you’d expect the risks to be higher. The problem with this theory is that the karts of 30 years ago were faster than modern versions, as recent tests have conclusively proved.

An answer may lie in the type of people who are attracted into the sport today. When Moss, Hill, Surtees, Clark and Stewart were all plying their trade, the risks of mortality were pretty high so that very few parents actually encouraged their offspring to take up motor racing. F1 is considered today to be a relatively safe and extremely lucrative business. Suddenly, parents who wouldn’t previously have given karting a second glance are pushing their kids into the sport, believing that this will lead to bigger and better things. It’s brought about a dramatic change in the karting landscape. 40 years ago, only around 5% of kart competitors were aged sixteen or under. Today, that pattern has been almost completely reversed. There’s a simple reason why insurance premiums are so high for drivers of a certain age and it’s all to do with young blood running that little bit hotter.

Average age isn’t the only thing that’s come down. Older hands insist that driving standards have also been greatly reduced in recent years. Many parents are now spending large amounts of money so that their children gain success and they demand an instant return for their cash. It produces greater pressure for team owners as well as young drivers. With professional tuition and lots of time in the seat, it’s relatively easy to produce fast times. Race-craft takes much longer to develop. As more events take place based upon timed practice, it’s possible for some drivers to get good results without ever learning the skills of overtaking. If they suddenly find themselves at the back, it’s no wonder that some of them will react by making wild lunges. The system of allocating every competitor with front, back and middle grid positions in their Heats has served us well for more than half a century and I’d argue that, for club meetings at least, we should stick with it.