Off Track – Clerk of the Course

Many moons ago, my father allowed himself to be suckered into becoming a Clerk of the Course. To my amazement he was actually very good at the job, although maybe I’m a little bit biased. His philosophy was simple. He believed that competitors turned up essentially to race and so everything else should be dispensed with in the shortest time possible. Consequently, he’d chat privately with any novices and then conduct a very short briefing. It usually ran along the following lines. “We want you to have an enjoyable day’s racing and that means going home in one piece with your licence still intact. You all know the rules and those who don’t can have a word with me later. We’ve got a dozen marshals out there to give guidance and observe your conduct. If I don’t see any of you for the rest of the day and you don’t see me, then we’ll all go home happy. Enjoy your racing and please drive carefully!”

Times have changed since my old man’s tenure of office. Today’s officials are generally better trained and need to be more professional in their conduct. Even so, I wonder if some of the long diatribes modern competitors must endure are strictly necessary. Curiously, Drivers Briefings tend to be even longer drawn out affairs at national championship meetings where you’d expect participants would already possess a rudimentary knowledge of the rules. I attended one meeting about ten years ago when the briefing seemed to go on for an inordinately long time. One onlooker nudged me and said, “In your dad’s day we’d have been halfway through the heats by now.” At another top event last year the Clerk of the Course threatened everyone “Never forget that I have the power to wreck your entire season!” It’s hardly the sort of comment that encourages competitors to return and I still believe that my dad’s approach to these affairs was more appropriate somehow.

I once wrote an article comparing kart competitors with diners in an expensive restaurant and looked at the treatment each receives. It was written tongue in cheek but I firmly believe that clubs receive quite a lot of money from race entrants and ought to treat them as valued customers rather than recalcitrant schoolchildren. For the last two years or so, entries at race meetings have been declining at a faster rate than you might expect from the total number of licence holders. This suggests that competitors may be starting to pick and choose their venues with a little more thought. It’s no good greeting entrants in a surly manner, treating them all day like something you’d scrape off your shoe and then complaining when they don’t return. Courtesy costs nothing and a smile or two can work wonders in promoting an atmosphere that makes for enjoyable racing. Any criticism of race officials is tempered by the knowledge that they perform a task for which I’m totally unsuited. They have to view incidents through non-jaundiced eyes and pass judgement without fear or favour. Unfortunately, when God handed out his gift of impartiality, he left me to the very last.

Like others of my ilk I’m very dogmatic in my views and can’t easily be swayed from them by a simple thing like logic. However, at least I know my own limitations. I’d never make a good witness in any court case for example and jury service would be out of the question. For the last 45 years I’ve supported Workington Town through cup triumphs and relegation disasters. I remained a Daily Mirror reader even during the Maxwell years and I’ve voted Labour in every election since 1970. I’m also biased towards British industry and, before making any purchase, look for the ‘Made in Britain’ label. Formula TKM has always appealed to me as a class for British karts and motors, so I was a little disappointed to read Alan Turney’s letter in last month’s magazine. Alan announced his proposal to allow imported karts into Formula TKM from 2007 onwards. There’s no doubt that this has been an exceptionally popular class and, although the introduction of Rotax MAX dented support quite considerably, there are clear signs of a revival. TKM was good for competitors because it offered price stability and relatively low maintenance costs.

It was also good for British kart manufacturers who were handed a ready made market. Forty odd years ago, the top British drivers were nearly all on Italian Tecno karts. Along came the Voodoo chassis, produced by Alan’s father, and suddenly there was a sea change with other home based manufacturers like Zip, Deavinsons and Barlotti also coming to the fore. Today, former Deavinsons’ employee Tim Gillard has been able to build an international reputation and can now comfortably compete against the big Italian factories. Even he must have been pleased at one time to have Formula TKM acting as a cushion, however. If Alan Turney goes ahead with his proposals then this safety net, having already shrunk in recent years, will disappear altogether, and I doubt if we’ll ever see another British manufacturer winning the World Championships. British built karts will be prominent on August 19th/20th when Jim Coulthard once again promotes his Classic Kart Weekend at Rowrah. Even at this early stage, 25 karts are already entered and it promises to be a real bonanza.

While the decline in licence holders still continues, classic kart collectors are multiplying at a great rate. A couple of weeks before Rowrah, the Kartmasters will take place at P.F.I. Paul Fletcher has agreed to provide space at this top meeting for a selection of classic karts. Both these events coincide nicely with karting’s 50th anniversary. There’s an opportunity to create huge press interest here that should be of benefit to everyone involved in the sport, both ancient and modern. All golden anniversaries are special occasions that ought to be celebrated in style. I’m disappointed with the build up to karting’s 50th birthday bash because, on the evidence we’ve seen so far, there doesn’t seem to have been any input from our governing body. Karting magazine has led the way in making certain every reader is now aware of this significant milestone in our history. By placing the world’s first kart on public display at the Autosport International show, Mark Burgess went a stage further and spread the word among motor racing enthusiasts generally.

By the time August arrives, I’ve no doubt that quite a few clubs will have done their bit to ensure this historic moment isn’t forgotten. Yet it could and should be a lot better than that. There is a golden opportunity to use 2006 as a magnet that will attract greater numbers into the sport. Even at this stage, we ought to be getting indoor karting concerns involved in an advertising campaign. There should have been an officially sanctioned economy class already established to entice new entrants but it’s too late for that now. What we need is a carefully orchestrated campaign with all concerned sure of their own individual roles. Competitors and clubs pay the MSA a lot of money to act as conductor but so far our governing body doesn’t appear to have picked up the baton. Publicity is, of course, the key here and it’s something that has always been lacking in this sport of ours. We live in an age when bad news is usually good business for the media. I read the front page of Motorsport News lately and thought instantly of a hit by Hedgehoppers Anonymous. “It’s Good News Week,” they proclaimed. “Someone’s dropped a bomb somewhere to contaminate the atmosphere and brighten up the sky. It’s Good News Week!” It’s a sad situation when it takes a bombshell like the Christodoulou incident to get kart racing on the front pages!