Karting in the ’60s and 70s

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What you need to understand is that, as a girl, I only went karting for two reasons; firstly, for the sweets, and secondly because to begin with I was too young to be left at home on my own. At the age of 10, being dragged from your bed at six o’clock on a Sunday morning and shovelled into a Bedford van with a piece of toast to munch was not the most inspiring start to the so-called day of rest. Later, I was quite happy to stay at home in bed, at the price of having to prepare my own Sunday lunch! What did I care for names like Martin Hines, Kelvin Hesketh, Rob Kerkhoven or Dave Hockey? Although by the time I was 16 I did have a crush on a certain Nigel Mansell, but apart from a couple of dances at someone’s 18th birthday party, nothing ever came of it!

Going to RAF Little Rissington, home of the Bromsgrove Kart Racing Club, was slightly more exciting to me than arriving at Shenington (Solihull & Shenington KR Club). I can only put this down to the fact that Rissington was on a disused RAF base, which sounded much more romantic. Plus, the sweet shop was better stocked!

When we arrived and parked in the pits there was always an initial flurry of activity. Both of our turquoise green vans – emblazoned with the BKKM logo – and trailers had to be emptied of karts, stands and other equipment, and the back of my father’s van was set up as a mobile shop. (Incidentally, I believe the kart stand was invented by my father, Bill Bagley. Before he put his engineer’s mind to the problem, everyone scrabbled about on the floor, kneeling or lying on cold concrete that was covered in the usual karting debris. However, he never patented it, so …) Dad’s van had windows all down both sides, and enough seats for five or six people to travel in relative comfort. There was also a calor gas stove, and racks of spare parts which lined the back half. I don’t recall much about the contents of these, apart from the occasional mention of ‘gaskets’, ‘carburettors’ and ‘RL49s’. My karting world was littered with names and phrases like that which had only half-meanings to me. For instance, I could tell you what a piston looked like, but had no idea what it did; new sets of “leathers” had a tantalising aroma, but their safety features were lost on me.

By the time I was born, the last of four children, my father owned a small engineering company in Birmingham. In the late sixties I recall being taken along to a strange place in the middle of nowhere, very noisy and smelling of oil, petrol and exhaust fumes. It was cold; there were no toys to play with, and I was unimpressed. Not so my father and brother Ken. Before long I realised that this was to become a regular venue, and go-karts were soon part of my vocabulary.
(Actually, I remember a great campaign to get the name changed from go-karts, to karts – on the basis, according to my father, that “they didn’t always” [Go!])

My father set up a company to sell karts and spares, calling it Bill & Ken Kart Mart – soon abbreviated to BKKM. The shop was based in a railway arch next to his engineering works in central Birmingham. It was open every day but Sunday. After the shop closed, my father would sell his stock from the back of a van outside our home, and we often had callers until nine or 10 o’clock at night. On Saturdays my father would sometimes drive the van to a local track, where drivers were practising for the next day’s races. He didn’t always sell anything to the drivers. Instead, he would help them with their problems, giving advice on how to set up their engines, or just listening to them talk about their machines and past races. Then on Sunday we would be off to the big tracks. It could take us over an hour to reach places such as Little Rissington, and we often set out so early in the morning that I would sleep most of the journey; waking up as we trundled across the concrete roads that led to the pits.

My brother and his mates would push, pull and scoot their karts down to the long line of entrants waiting to see the scrutineer. I was never quite sure what this ‘magic’ person in a white coat did, but it seemed to involve lots of poking around the engine, and much wiggling of the steering wheel. Whatever happened, my brother normally returned without any major problems to report.

Accidents were something that happened all the time. If there were no bumps, spins, or someone hitting the tyre barriers, it just wasn’t a race! Most of the time, these were normal occurrences and didn’t result in any injuries. Occasionally, you would see two karts collide, followed by a spectacular leap into the air and a flip over as they came down to land. Then the race would be slowed or stopped, as people ran out across the track to help. If someone had actually been hurt, the wonderful St John’s ambulance van would appear on the scene. Most times, the injured driver would be treated and released shortly afterwards; only very rarely did the ambulance go off to the nearest hospital. The lack of serious injuries was actually quite amazing, not so much in relation to the drivers, but to the stewards and unofficial helpers, who had very little protection from the machines speeding past them as they traversed the unrestricted race track. I did hear reports back in the pits of someone “coming a cropper” from time to time, but this seemed to be an acceptable part of stewarding!

At Shenington race track, there was a ritual which had to be observed in order to pacify the local villagers, and that was to shut off all engines for one hour during the church service. I’m sure the drivers found this extremely frustrating, but for me it was a peaceful interlude during which I could walk around the pits without being concerned that some over enthusiastic karter would try to bowl me over! I don’t know if this quiet time still happens?

At the end of the day, when all the noise and fury had once again stopped, we would gather together for the trophy presentation. This always seemed to me to go on forever; probably because I was desperate to get home so mum could cook our Sunday dinner. The winning drivers, tired and grimy, looked very different without their helmets and standing upright, but most received their trophies with a sheepish grin of satisfaction. Then it was back to the pits to finish packing cars and vans, and loading successful karts (or their less successful broken pieces!) onto trailers.

At the time I didn’t appreciate the effort and dedication that went into this sport. I’m sure it would be much more apparent to me now, but my adult sensibilities would probably find it hard to accept the dangerous aspects of motor racing to which a girl in her early teens was virtually oblivious.
(Vicky Bagley – April 2010)