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When Prince William and Harry went karting

Royalty watchers will instantly recognise the two drivers seated here in Zip/Comer cadet karts. The photograph was taken in August 1992 during a visit to Buckmore Park by Princes William and Harry.

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The visit had been arranged by Martin Howell who had previously been employed by the Greater London Council. Amongst many other duties Martin was responsible for organising the London Marathon. Along with another GLC employee, Bob Pope, Martin had set up a council run scheme using old Lane karts with Honda engines. When Margaret Thatcher abolished the GLC in 1985, Martin and Bob launched Playscape Karting, initially using Deavinson Sprint karts. Within less than a year they had opened up Britain’s first indoor karting centre on London’s Docklands and organised various charity events. To cater for those who preferred a bit more speed they started experimenting with twin Hondas and initiated Pro-kart racing for owner drivers in the early 90s.

Martin organised the first 24 hour kart race at Rye House and Bob followed up with similar events at Le Mans. It was during a charity event that Martin first met Princess Diana and she asked him to organise some private sessions for her son in the grounds of Highgrove House. At one of these sessions news filtered through that there had been a serious blaze at Windsor Castle. “Princess Diana had a well developed sense of humour and I remember her telephoning Sarah Ferguson, whom she always referred to as Duch, asking if she’d been dropping cigarette ends in the waste paper baskets,” Martin recalls. “Our visit to Buckmore took place around that time and I asked Martin Hines to bring along a couple of Zip cadet karts. We assembled a few experienced competitors including my own son Gareth who is now a Research & Development driver for McLaren.” This occasion coincided with the infamous Squidgygate affair. Diana’s telephone conversation with a Lotus car dealer called James Gilby had been recorded back in December 1989. A transcript appeared in the Sun on August 23rd, 1992 and revealed details of Diana’s unhappy marriage.

This made her rather paranoid about Press intrusion and the Buckmore visit had to be kept secret. Only the two Martins and circuit operator Bill Sisley were supposed to know anything about it. Even so, news had leaked out and press photographers were encamped on the other side of the M2 motorway with their high powered lens able to capture every moment. Photographs of the visit appeared next day in virtually all of the major newspapers with extended features later carried by magazines such as “Hello!” More than 30 years earlier, Prince Charles and Princess Anne had taken delivery of two British built “Willgo” junior karts powered by 80cc JAP engines. Manufactured more for fun than competitive racing, these two karts were used on the royal estates and, to my knowledge, never actually ventured out onto a proper circuit. For William and Harry, Martin Hines had prepared two thoroughbred Zip Cadet machines with 60cc Comer motors. Despite their reduced capacity, the Comers produced more brake horsepower and, with lighter materials all round, speeds would have been potentially much higher. Although the other drivers were allowed to overtake, they had been warned against adopting any rough tactics.

The two Princes were encouraged to believe that they’d been involved in “real racing” and they clearly enjoyed their experience. Soon more races at Buckmore were being organised for them. Martin Hines devised a handicap system with William and Harry setting off well ahead of the main bunch. It made for some entertaining racing, but Harry didn’t take kindly to being beaten by his elder brother. Johnny Herbert was supervising proceedings and he once discovered Harry busy with a spanner attempting to remove lead from his kart. Johnny explained that the lead was there to make things even as Harry weighed less than his brother. “I don’t want things to be even, I want to win!” was the seven year old Prince’s response.”

Martin Hines got involved in the argument and told Harry that his lead couldn’t be removed, not least because William had already sussed out what was going on. Impressed by Harry’s competitive instincts, however, Hines decided to give him a helping hand. Whereas William’s petrol tank was filled to the top, he only poured half the amount into Harry’s. It worked well enough and Harry won the next race. “William was a good steady driver who picked up the basics very quickly,” claimed Hines. “However, Harry had that extra something and driving came more easily to him. If he’d wanted, or been allowed to, I think that he might have become a reasonable racing driver, maybe even good enough for F1…”