Get the most out of a junior – without messing with their head

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MSA British Cadet Championship and the FKS Championship for Mini Max and Junior Max.Putting your child into their first kart is an exciting time, the start of a journey which at best could take them towards motor-racing stardom and at worst should be a fun period in their life where they will make friends, gain confidence and learn things that will stand them in good stead for the rest of their lives.

Before you go and buy a kart, examine your motives, it should be a partnership. If it for you to live you dream through your child maybe its not such a good idea as it might not be possible to guide, motivate and encourage without being the archetypal pushy parent.

Dont place any conditions on the drive, going karting or not isnt about doing well at school or finishing chores at home, if you need to persuade your child to do these find an other means.

A professional relationship?
They are the driver; you are the team manager, mechanic and tea boy rolled into one. Never forget though, that you are also dad or mum. A 10 year-old does not cease to be 10 just because they put on a racing suit and crash helmet, in the same way that school and home need to be a safe and secure in order for them to flourish, the karting environment needs to be too. By safe I dont mean risk free, motor-racing is dangerous, I mean that your child needs to know that somebody that they know and trust is there for them. There will be times where your child is upset, angry or frustrated and doesnt want input from their team manager they will just need their mum or dad.

Let the driver own the kart. A seat fitting session does a lot to make them feel physically comfortable in the chassis and be able to operate the throttle brake and steering effectively. Psychologically it helps to orientate them in the kart and makes them feel special. From this day onwards it is their kart and they should be involved with every decision made about it.

Some kids will be fanatically interested in all aspects of Kart racing and love to get stuck in with the preparation as well as enjoying the driving aspect, others may only be interested in the driving part. The only thing that really matters is that they enjoy some aspect of it. You should be competing because everybody gets something out of it. Heaven forbid that your child only goes racing because they desperately want to please Mum or Dad.

The basics
Before you even venture out to a circuit make sure that your child knows what the flag signals mean and understands what to do when they are used.

At the circuit if at all possible walk the track to give them some idea of where it goes and point out the track entry and exit points, giving them one less thing for them to worry about.

Let them know where you will be standing, and be there. Inexperienced drivers will drive around the circuit looking for you, standing where you can be identified means that they can check that Dad/Mum is there, relax and get on with driving.

First couple of times out forget trying to go fast instead concentrate on the absolute basics. Dont get into explanations about things like understeer and oversteer, this will just complicate things. Merely getting your child to recognise and drive on the racing line will pay dividends. Not only will driving the line start to make their track-craft second nature, it will keep them out of harms way. No matter how talented your child is, for the first few outings they are going to be slow in comparison to the more experienced drivers and they will be overtaken, regularly. Keeping strictly and consistently to the racing line will allow the other drivers to whip smoothly past and it will make them do the work while your child concentrates on getting better.

There is very little that your child could do that would make them more unpopular on the circuit than to be inconsistent with their placing on the circuit. Indeed one of the best compliments that you can be paid early on is for other drivers to say I always know where he/she is going.

Moving on
As a parent, dont expect too much too early. There is no substitute for loads of seat time; be patient and as the laps pass the times will drop. Sometimes there will be a significant improvement within the course of a day at the circuit; other times seemingly nothing will be happening. At this point it is tempting to start to fiddle with the kart settings but unless the kart is visibly demonstrating huge understeer or oversteer problems try to resist the urge to change anything, most of the improvement (and many of the perceived handling problems) still lies with the driver. What they need most of all in order to improve is a kart that handles consistently.

Sooner or later they will start to arrive in the pits with tyres that have picked up quite a layer of rubber, thats encouraging because the driver is now going quickly enough to generate sufficient heat in their slicks to get them a bit sticky but still isnt going quite fast enough to keep them clean. Its a laborious job getting rid of this layer (I used to use a scraper attachment attached to the nozzle of a hot air gun) but doing so will help the kart to remain consistent.

One thing that you can guarantee 100% is that your son or daughter will reach a plateau where despite all help and advice offered they just arent getting any faster, often despite the fact that you can clearly see where there are several seconds to come. Getting cross after being told Im driving as fast as the chassis/engine/tyres will go isnt the way to deal with this. A plateau is a very real thing, so far as your child is concerned they ARE driving the kart as hard as will go, disagreeing with them is calling them a liar.

Some drivers will quickly work through a plateau phase. Especially if you stay calm and gently encourage. If they appear very stuck it can be a good time to employ little race psychology, a favourite of mine was to do non-existent tweak on the kart that would allow them to brake a little later or turn in a little harder (or whatever I had identified might be the problem area). As the responsible adult you had to be darned certain that the mechanical solution you offer is safe. It is fine telling your child that you have done a modification that should allow them to brake loads later when you have identified that they are braking very much too early but telling them the same when they are only a few tenths off a good race pace will either cause an accident or have them never believing anything you say again!

On the pace
As a driver’s times get close to a proper race pace I favour a collaborative approach, encouraging as much driver feedback as they are able to give considering their age and experience. Its surprising how many kids will very adeptly drive around a problem unless given an opportunity to voice their opinion. Ask them to talk you round a lap, telling you in as much detail as they can where they are braking and accelerating and what the kart is doing in the bends.

For younger or less experienced drivers put questions simply. Does it slide worse in some parts of the track than others, which end of the kart has the least grip? More experienced drivers can be asked directly about understeer, oversteer, and in which parts of a bend it exhibits these characteristics. One question I use regularly is, what would you like your kart to do differently today?

Sometimes a straight question works. Where do you think you might be able to pick up a little time, is there any way that I might be able to help you to go faster? Never make a change to the kart that will affect handling without telling the driver about it. Although nobody makes a change that they think will affect the handling in a negative way, sometimes you will make things worse. Letting the driver know what you have done and how it should affect the handling is respectful and sensible.

Make positive suggestions but dont lay down the law, you can be reasonably firm though, Ive noticed that the rest of the field do XYZ between bends 7 and 8, would this work for you? NO..? Well, Id like you to try it for at least couple of laps, if it works, Great! If not Ill shut up about it!

It also doesnt take long for many drivers to latch on to the catch-all answer, I need more power! A well phrased open question will always prompt far more useful discussion.

Rewards? Some kids respond well to rewards, do you think that a 48.5 second lap is possible? Ill tell you what… Ill stand you a square of chocolate (or anything else insignificant but fun) for every tenth of a second you manage to knock off between your current time and our new target. The reward is staged because a few attempts without any success could discourage more than it encourages.

Pep talks and post race appraisals
Im constantly amazed and appalled that some peoples idea of an appraisal is along the lines of That was rubbish… they were all over you… what went wrong… 3 seconds off the pace… un-ruddy-believable!

In management they emphasise that the word appraisal contains the word praise. Dont tell Timmy how brilliantly he drove when patently he didnt. But no matter how frustrated you are with what you consider to be a poor session or race, a calm and steady approach to the post race de-brief is needed. Make sure that you point out where things went well, criticise by all means but make sure that you do it constructively and make sure that come up with a plan for improvements that you both agree. Use what management types call a praise sandwich, dealing with an area that needs work in-between two good points.

Some kids respond to the go-get-em-tiger approach to pep talks, others will go out and drive the wheels off their kart without a word from you, it is down to your childs personality. Self-belief is one of the key weapons in a racing drivers armoury but it is also a double edged sword, persuading your child that they are unbeatable or allowing them to foster a false opinion of their talent can result in shaken confidence if they are soundly beaten. Make sure that pre-race encouragement isnt too over-the-top. I think that you stand a very real chance here bolsters confidence but allows a little wriggle room should things go awry.

We all make mistakes, so it is inevitable that your child will too, you dont get particularly cross if your child spins out of contention while in 23rd position, so why should they get a severe ear bashing if they do the same while in a podium place? No matter how frustrated you are, storming up to them (Ive seen it) yelling you threw that away achieves nothing. What is for certain is that they didnt deliberately spin or crash so they will be as upset as you are. This is the time for empathy, Crikey Ed you must be gutted, what happened? Chat about it, come up with a solution and agree that this is something to work on for the future.

Rather than condemning the kart which needs to be trusted to perform next time out, sometimes you will have no option but to exhibit broad shoulders and take at least some of the blame when a tired driver needs to sound off after a frustrating time. Its part of being an adult…