If you’ve ever competed in Comer or IAME cadets it’s near enough certain that you’ll have done so on a Zipkart. Dave Bewley talks about Martin Hines, ‘Mr Karting’, the man behind this iconic brand for almost half a century.
Back in 1962 a blond haired pop artist called Heinz entered the British singles chart with a song called “Dreams Do Come True”. His backing group was called the Tornadoes. Also that year, another Hines took the first step towards fulfilling his own dream of becoming a famous motor racing driver when he ventured out on his recently acquired kart. His progress through the karting ranks thereafter would resemble that of a tornado.
40 years on from that first encounter, Martin lined his 250cc kart on the grid at Le Mans. It was the final round of the European Superkart Championship and, at the age of 56, Hines was leading after totally dominating an earlier round at Donington. However, two seized motors had seemingly destroyed his chances of lifting a 4th European crown. Frantic efforts by his mechanics had succeeded in cobbling together a complete motor from the broken bits, but a couple of non finishes meant that Martin would be starting this race from the back.
After producing a typically gutsy performance he moved up into 3rd place behind Damien Payart and Bobo Westman. More importantly he was ahead of his closest championship rival Torgje Kleppe. It was a fitting end to his karting career in which he’d claimed 16 major national and international titles. Included amongst them were three world and four European crowns. This race earned him the Autocar award for the greatest contribution to motorsport, beating such notable personalities as Michael Schumacher and Kimi Raikkinen.
When he’d first started racing, most competitors turned out in grease stained boiler suits or occasionally even a baggy pullover. At Le Mans they were all wearing flash looking racing suits with their own personal colour schemes. Karting’s image had changed quite dramatically and for that Martin Hines could claim at least some of the credit
The record books prove that Martin Hines was a tremendous competitor. He was also an extremely good businessman and self publicist. It was this latter quality that occasionally upset some of his rivals. Soon after switching from 100cc racing into 250cc Superkarts in 1970, Martin recognised that big budgets were required and he would need to attract sponsorship. His first deal was with Duckhams Oil. It didn’t bring in very much money but the eye-catching blue and yellow livery made Martin an instantly recognisable figure. In 1977 he began a partnership with Hermetite that lasted for 13 years.
“Sponsorship doesn’t just fall into your .lap, you have to work very hard at it,” he once explained. “It means doing everything possible to promote your sponsor’s products and getting publicity for yourself along the way. I always tell my drivers that they are not just competing against their rivals on the circuit, but also for a share of the sponsorship cake”. Others saw things rather differently. .”Wherever there’s a camera you can guarantee that Hines will be in front of it,” one of his opponents bitterly complained.
One particular photo opportunity presented itself at Donington in 1978. The magazine Cars & Car Conversions had arranged to do a comparison between Martin’s kart and Derek Warwick’s F3 championship winning car. Martin wasn’t familiar with the circuit and, on his first two runs, Derek’s car was quicker. However, after a few tweaks to the settings he was soon producing lap times that left Derek and the Journalists scratching their heads in amazement.
Apart from benefitting Hines himself, this was also great publicity for the sport in general. On a visit to New Zealand several months later Martin stopped off at a shop to buy some wine. The owner had just been reading about his time trial against Warwick and recognised him immediately. They reached an agreement whereby Martin gave him a Hermetite T Shirt and waltzed off with several bottles of free wine.
By that time, the first Kart Grand Prix had been held at Silverstone. During the 1979 F1 GP Martin demonstrated his 150mph Superkart and this led to a Barry Foley cartoon in Autosport comparing him to the legendary Gilles Villeneuve. There’d also been a time trial arranged at Snetterton between Martin and the double world motorcycling champion Barry Sheene. The idea was for each of them to swap machines. After watching Martin in action on his kart, Barry backed out of the arrangement claiming that Hines must be a complete nutcase. “I was quite pleased,” Martin later confessed, “because I definitely didn’t fancy riding his bike.”
Martin was also extremely adept at spotting talent in other drivers. David Coulthard, Jason Plato, Anthony Davidson, Lewis Hamilton. Gary Paffett, Mike Conway, Oliver Rowland and James Calado were all Hines discoveries racing in the Zipkart Young Guns team, as was his own son Luke who became a formidable force in karting at home and abroad. In 1995 Martin did a deal with Ron Dennis and Norbert Haug to establish the “Champions of the Future Championships” exclusively for young karters. This eventually became known as “Formula Kart Stars”. Lewis Hamilton in cadets and junior driver Gary Paffet became the first winners.
One prize that seemed to elude Martin for many years was membership of the British Racing Drivers Club (BRDC). Instead he was offered associate membership and rang up the chairman, Martin Brundle, to find out why. Brundle replied that a majority on the Board didn’t feel full membership was appropriate as his victories had occurred on kart tracks rather than proper motor racing circuits. Hines pointed out that all of his championship wins had occurred on the big circuits including Silverstone, Le Mans, Daytona, Hockenheim and Zolder. At the next Board meeting, Brundle announced “Martin Hines says you can stick your associate membership up your a—.” Another vote was hastily arranged and Hines became a fully fledged BRDC member.
As some of his opponents, and probably a few ex lady friends would no doubt confirm, Martin Hines was no Mr Perfect. Out on the track and in his business dealings away from racing he could be quite ruthless. The quest for publicity occasionally prompted him to exaggerate his own role in various karting developments and that certainly irritated a few people. Nevertheless, none could doubt his indomitable spirit that so frequently snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. In 1990 he underwent major surgery to remove a cyst in his bile duct. Afterwards he claimed that staying alive was his greatest triumph.
Only a tiny minority survive this operation for more than five years. Martin lasted another 21, during which time he added two more European crowns and a couple of world championship wins to his impressive haul. Many of us believed him to be indestructible but, on August 28th 2011, the king of speed lost his last great battle against Cancer.