Off Track – The world’s first kart

The world’s first kart took pride of place on Karting’s stand at the NEC

Didn’t she look absolutely fabulous? I’m not referring here to Joanna Lumley or Jennifer Saunders but rather the world’s first kart created by Art Ingels that adorned last month’s front cover of Karting magazine. Some people might argue that this photograph appeared seven months too early. However, by showing this wonderful kart off in January, along with a comprehensive account of how it came to be built, Mark Burgess and his team have provided a much needed kick start to the 50th anniversary campaign. Clubs now have an ideal publicity tool with which to tackle the local media. At national and international levels the interest ought to be immense. For example, I can’t think of a better way for Martin Brundle to open ITV’s coverage of the F1 season than showing this kart and interviewing its current owner. This was the machine that started things off 50 years ago and ultimately brought every single one of today’s F1 stars into motor racing. One thing that immediately strikes you about the Ingels kart is its wonderful simplicity that made for low cost motor racing. Art and his friend Lou Borelli were fortunate to build their machine at a time when McCulloch were ridding themselves of their stocks of West Bend engines that could be picked up for as little as $5 each. This was exceptionally cheap even by 1950s’ standards. In contrast, many of us believe that karting has now become overly complicated and too expensive. John Kitson echoed our views perfectly last month with his ‘Karting Rap’. Perhaps an answer lies in the Birel Easykart formula described by George Robinson, also in last month’s issue. Another solution could be provided by the proposed plans for a low cost entry level class based on TKM motors to Club 100 spec. Sooner or later however, the MSA needs to look seriously at rationalising karting in the UK so that we have just half a dozen different classes with at least one of them aimed at providing cheap ‘clubman’ style racing. Cost and simplicity were primary considerations for me twenty years ago when I attempted to keep our kids away from karting by getting them involved in athletics instead. It was quite a shrewd move on my part. Race entries normally cost us 50 pence and we didn’t have to buy new tyres every month either, £50 on a pair of trainers accounted for most of our annual outlay. The club we belonged to owned a 53 seater bus and parents shared the driving. For £2 per head it took us all over Scotland and Northern England or even, on one or two special occasions, to venues in Europe.

Certain fuels were known to enhance performance. We relied mainly on pasta, rice and wholemeal bread that still worked out considerably cheaper than a gallon of unleaded. In some respects though, athletics wasn’t vastly different from karting. You could always find parents who were prepared to push kids well beyond their natural capabilities and they became very agitated when things didn’t go quite according to plan. A degree of cheating took place even at grass roots level and to my eternal shame I once participated in one such dubious act myself. We’d been club members for around six months and were competing in a Scottish League meeting at Dumfries. On the journey up, our coach asked me my age. “Thirty-six,” I said. “It doesn’t matter,” he replied rather undiplomatically. “You look over 40 so we’ve put you down for the Vets 5000 metres. We need the starting points!” I lined up for this race in a borrowed vest and shorts alongside three genuine veterans. To assuage my feelings of guilt I’d decided to finish last. In the end, I didn’t have any choice. The others took off and I finished almost half a lap down on the 3rd placed runner. In the latter stages I heard another club member shouting words of encouragement but it turned out that he was merely anxious to get his vest back in time for the 400 metres hurdles. The level playing field that everyone talks about didn’t really exist even in a simple sport like running. In any particular race, you’d find competitors lining up with totally different levels of experience and training. Some had been carefully nurtured by good coaches with an eye to long term success rather than achieving instant results. Others had been self trained, possibly with the help of printed schedules that were twenty years out of date, while many were running on a wing and a prayer having done virtually no training at all. Quite a few might be competing with the aid of drugs. I’m not talking specifically about steroids here. Soluble paracetamol taken ten minutes before a long distance event reputedly helped runners break through the pain barrier, although this was hotly disputed by most coaches. Another favourite was strong black coffee sweetened with liberal amounts of glucose aimed at raising energy levels. When my son and daughter raced in the national cross country championships I had to sign a declaration guaranteeing them to be free of stipulated drugs or performance enhancing substances. The list amounted to four pages and most of these drugs I’d never heard of.

Close to the top however was caffeine. I asked one local AAA representative what concentration would actually constitute a breach of this code. To my amazement he answered that any detectable amount was illegal and our kids should stay clear of all drinks containing caffeine for several days before a race. I was reminded of this by yet another thought provoking letter from John Kitson in the January issue of Karting magazine concerning energy drinks. These have an exceptionally high caffeine content designed to increase levels of activity and alertness. Should they be banned in karting? It’s an interesting argument and one that will no doubt cause much controversy in future months. Drugs, doped fuel, or any other methods of cheating will often be cited as an excuse for defeat when the plain fact is that you’ve been beaten by a better individual. On one occasion at Rye House many years ago, however, the cry of “We wuz robbed” gained some credibility because it was made by the police themselves. It related to a gold bullion heist at Heathrow Airport. Our friends from Scotland Yard were convinced that the getaway driver was Roy James, who won notoriety several months later for a similar role in the Great Train Robbery. Unfortunately for them, James had a seemingly cast iron alibi. He was taking part in a mid-week kart meeting that day and no matter how they tried the police couldn’t fit such a journey into their timescale of events. They suspected that James had used a ‘ringer’ to take his place in the three heats before coolly returning for the final with just seconds to spare. If that was true, then the list of suspects could have been narrowed down to a mere handful. The competition at Rye House in those days was so intense that anyone who won here had to be very good indeed. Roy James was one of these elite drivers destined, according to many observers, for a place in F1. The record books showed that, on the day in question, Roy had won all his four races. If police suspicions were true, then one of our top karting stars from 1962 must have a dark secret to reveal. Identifying drivers poses problems for me as my eyesight gradually deteriorates. Richie Steele and Stefan Wilson are two drivers that I can usually pick out in a large pack. They are both exceptionally tall and have had to develop distinctive styles. Others aren’t so easily recognised, however. Looking for someone in an Intrepid kart suit can be quite difficult when half a dozen others are similarly attired. This must also cause problems for some of our officials.

Most karting incidents occur at high speed and are over with in fractions of a second. Yet, you usually find there are witnesses who can recall in microscopic detail the entire sequence of events and identify who was to blame for it all. Some of these people are blessed with hawk-like vision, for they can testify what happened from a vantage point several hundred metres away. In this respect, the advice once given to me by an industrial lawyer might seem appropriate. “The more adamant the witness,” he maintained, “the less reliable is his testimony.” Young Max McGuire and his parents might have some sympathy with this view following an incident at Shenington in December. After winning the Cadet final, Max was accused of shunting his main opponent Sam Jenkins off the circuit. Fortunately he was able to prove his innocence on appeal but other wrongfully accused competitors aren’t usually quite so lucky. Max is also fortunate in having parents who are totally committed to his karting activities and their combined efforts may well be rewarded with one or more major titles in 2006. Last year his mum Andrea took the bold step of publishing a Karting Yearbook in conjunction with sports statistician Stephen McCormack. This was an excellent publication that I still refer to on lots of occasions. For karting’s 50th anniversary they’d planned a bumper edition that would surely have become a collector’s piece. Unfortunately, this project had to be abandoned through lack of funding. Several months ago, Stephen contacted the MSA asking them for assistance. For an extra fiver on their kart licence fee, every competitor could be posted out a copy of the 2006 book. Such a plan would immediately make the project cost efficient with all parties benefiting, not least the sport itself. Stephen was dismayed at the total disinterest which his proposal generated. I’d like to think that such a negative reaction was because the MSA had plans afoot to bring out their own bigger and better version in this very special year. Somehow, I think that I’m going to be disappointed.