Off Track – Nothing new in karting these days

What’s new in karting these days?  The answer, as any old hand will  readily testify, is not very much!  We’re now into that time of year when many  competitors have put away their karts and  are busy visiting the various shows looking  for some new discovery to give them an extra  edge. They might be surprised to discover  that, just like today’s music charts, all the  best little numbers are revamped versions  from three or four decades earlier.  The constantly variable transmission  revealed by George Robinson last month is  obviously a very technically advanced system  but the concept of an automatic gearbox for  kart engines isn’t entirely new. Back in the  early seventies I recall that someone  converted a KTM engine to incorporate  ‘variomatic’ transmission. This was based on  a cone principle made popular around that  time by DAF cars but which had actually  been pioneered on motorcycles many  decades earlier. Several years later came the  100cc Hewland Arrow motor, originally run  through a reduction gearbox. It had a  successful debut outing at Clay Pigeon  during the 1976 British Championships when  works drivers Ricky Grice and Guy Tipping  both proved to be pretty rapid.

At this same meeting Ken Knox became  the first British Champion in Class 100  Britain. Surprisingly, he was using a  McCulloch motor when everyone expected  the DAP T70s to dominate. Eight years  earlier, Ken had caused something of a stir  when he turned up at Flookburgh with a  Komet K77 complete with centrifugal clutch  and belt drive. This was expected to save vital  tenths of a second through less friction loss.  Fortunately for everyone else, this system  never worked well in wet weather as the belt  tended to slip a lot. Rather more effective was  a remote mechanism favoured mainly by JLO  owners allowing drivers to advance or retard  the timing during a race. I was watching one  event more than 40 years ago when someone  took this principle a little too far and actually  finished up in reverse mode.  I remember James Mills caused some  paddock gossip by appearing with a  watercooled Ital Sistem in 1998. “We’ve been  given permission to run with water-cooled  barrels in 100 National as an experiment,”  claimed his uncle John. “Obviously if things  work out, you’ll see them in all the major  classes within a couple of years.” In actual  fact, the “experiment” had taken place much  earlier, back in March 1968 to be precise,  when Jon-Jon Ermelli appeared at Rye House  with the Ken Hyder Endurol Special powered  by a water-cooled 100cc Vega motor. In  gearbox classes, liquid cooling had arrived  half a dozen years earlier than that even, with  the advent of Paul Biagi’s 1962 Special. John  Dent was another early pioneer of water  cooling and this certainly improved the  performance of his 197cc Villiers engine.

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The elegant 1962 Trak-Kart came close to being a full bodied machine

He  was also the first person to think about  putting three Tillotson carburettors on one  motor and achieved quite outstanding results  with this particular adaptation.  Less successful was the Hav-kart that  actually had a Villiers motor mounted at the  front. 50mm hollow axles could be seen in  those days too, although the fact that they  were often fashioned from steam pipe tubing  may have spoiled the effect slightly. Buzz  Ware’s idea of having a split rear axle  incorporated into his 1967 Miura chassis  really was quite revolutionary and it allowed  him to toe the rear wheels in or out.  Just as constructors today are constantly  looking around for lightweight materials,  there was a similar need for lighter karts 40  years ago. Paul Fletcher and his father  started the ball rolling by constructing their  Bitsatubes out of very fine gauge square box  tubing. Even they didn’t go quite as far as  Buster Clark from MKS however, who in  1964 came out with a chassis made half out of  plywood. Trumping this achievement, Alan  Burgess from Karting magazine produced an  interesting design using Balsawood which he  called a ‘glue-it-yourself’ kart.  Bodywork on karts was actually banned in  the early sixties but one or two resourceful  individuals somehow managed to  circumnavigate this rule. With its beautiful  fibreglass moulding, the 1962 Trak-kart  Starfire came very close to being a full  bodied machine while Bev Bond drove a  horse and cart through the rulebook twelve  months later. He appeared at Oulton Park  with a wrap around front panel on his Buckler  kart and, when challenged by officials,  claimed that it was an oversized Nassau  panel. In appearance it was remarkably  similar to the Kartsmart version featured in  last month’s Noteworthy column. In case you  think these panels are relatively new to  karting, they were first developed for the  1960 World Championships held at Nassau in  the Bahamas and have been named after this  event ever since.

Bev Bond could always be relied upon to  arrive at race meetings with some interesting  innovation, whether associated with the kart  or his hairstyle. Bev’s teammate in the  Buckler outfit was Jack Barlow, who later left  to set up his own Barlotti factory. Almost  immediately, Barlow recruited another  innovative thinker, Les Shepherd, as his  works driver. I remember Les turning up at  the 1967 British Team Selection meeting with  twin Parilla GP15L engines driven through a  4-speed gearbox. It looked spectacular and  caused real concern among his Bultaco  powered rivals, but the stopwatch revealed  that its performance didn’t quite match the  impressive looks. Another Shepherd  innovation was the five wheeled Barlotti  which I’m reliably informed actually worked  a little bit too well. After a couple of outings,  Les was reputedly informed that this kart  would be banned if he tried to race it at any  more meetings.  Jack Barlow considered himself to be  essentially a Class 4 man, yet his 100cc  designs were equally successful. Dave Ferris  dominated Class 1 racing in 1967 with his  Barlotti Imp, a chassis featuring four wheel  brakes as an optional extra.

Ferris soon  discarded them in favour of a more  conventional set up but another Barlotti  stalwart, Roy Mortara, used these brakes  with great effect. 14 years later, Mike Wilson  did a lot of testing with front wheel brakes on  his Birel but actually won the 1981 World  Championships without them. However, it  looks as though this idea may be back in  fashion once again. Following the impressive  performances by Arnaud Kozlinski on a  Sodikart recently, most manufacturers are  now homologating karts with all round  brakes as an option.  If, as seems likely, these become popular in  Formula A and ICA, then there will be a  definite shift in favour of super lightweight  drivers. Compulsory CIK bodywork  introduced two years ago together with front  wheel brakes will have added over 7 kilos  without any compensating increases in  minimum weight limits. Paradoxically, these  brakes aren’t allowed in 100 National and  heavier bodywork isn’t compulsory, yet the  limit for this class has just been increased by  5kg. When the 125cc TAG motors come into  play in ICA and Formula A, I hope that weight  limits are increased accordingly, otherwise  competitors will need to be the size of Riki  Christodoulou.  One development that no one ever thought  about in karting’s early days is computerised  timing. Alas, there’s no sign today of the  wives and girlfriends who could keep a dozen  stopwatches on the go all at once. As  someone who views computers with great  suspicion, even I was impressed by the latest  offering from 2SuperSport Timing Systems.  I’d read about this in Sidney Sprocket’s  column recently and actually saw it being  demonstrated during the November Meeting  at P.F. It certainly provides lots of information  for competitors to digest and should prove a  very good investment for most clubs.  Despite very wet conditions, the racing at  P.F. on this occasion lived up to its usual high  standards. There was one sour note,  however, when Mark Litchfield and Jamie  Croxford went up to collect their awards to be  greeted by a cry of “cheats!” from some  anonymous source. Their  mentor, Paul Fletcher,  gave a dignified response.  “At first, we thought this  had been said in jest but  apparently it was seriously  intended,” he declared.  “I’m very disappointed  because we don’t cheat,  ever! Ask any of my  former drivers or  mechanics and they’ll all  say the same thing.”  Just as the 600th issue of  Karting magazine comes  out next year, Paul will  celebrate 46 years  involvement in the sport.  If anything, his  enthusiasm seems even  stronger today than ever  before. Thanks to his  vision, Trent Valley KC  regularly attracts entries well in excess of 200  even during winter months. However, Paul is  astute enough to realise that no club can  afford to sit back and rest on its laurels.  When we talked together in November, he  was looking at ways of arranging promotional  visits to schools in Lincolnshire and  Nottinghamshire, taking the excellent  karting DVD prepared by Graham Smith as  an aid.  Not everyone would feel comfortable  standing in front of a classroom to talk about  karting. However, most clubs have  memberships of over 200 and it’s hard to  believe that they can’t find at least one person  among their ranks who would be willing to  take on such a task. If clubs were prepared to  encourage these individuals, perhaps with  properly organised back up from the MSA or  ABkC, I’m sure we’d see immediate benefits.  Fletcher himself believes that’s the best way  of ensuring a prosperous future for karting  and there can’t be many who know more  about making dough than the baker’s man  from Sheffield.