What’s missing from modern karting?

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img133Should Adam Jones and I ever enter into a political debate, our discussion would be animated to say the least. As a fully paid up member of the Polly Toynbee Hugging Society, Ill definitely be in Adams little black book. On karting matters, if nothing else, our views are aligned much closer together. We both agree that its a colourful and vibrant sport which ought, by rights, to have lots of spectator appeal. Generally speaking, modern day karting is much closer and by implication more exciting than it was three or four decades ago. It has also benefited from better newspaper and television coverage than ever before. Whereas kart races used to attract relatively large crowds of curious onlookers, however, even todays premier events appear to be attended only by friends or relatives of those who are actually taking part. The missing ingredient, in a word, is ATMOSPHERE.

Last month I stood on the site of a former kart circuit at Heysham Head that once attracted huge audiences to its race meetings. The track was constructed back in 1967 on a narrow cliff edge. The space allotted was so confined that only two narrow straights and a couple of tight corners could be accommodated. The pits were, quite frankly, the pits, as mechanics worked on karts with their elbows firmly tucked in to avoid knocking into a neighbouring vehicle. There certainly wasnt any room for any of the fancy awnings you see at modern kart meetings. The track was so short that many drivers were able to complete a lap in less than 22 seconds Quite a number of top stars, especially in Class 1, refused to race there, claiming that it was too dangerous. Yet, for 16 years this circuit hosted one of kartings most prestigious events, the World Cup sponsored initially by John Player.

Today, the site has been turned into a private housing estate which sits under the shadow of Heysham Head Nuclear Power Station. With my eyes firmly shut I visualised it back in the days when around 30,000 spectators would watch races unfold. At one point I could even smell the Castrol R. When you talk about atmosphere, Morecambe had it with bucket-loads to spare. The idea of an annual World Cup had been devised by Bert Hesketh who wished to capitalise on Englands soccer triumph over Germany. He didnt receive CIK recognition and the event needed to be truly spectacular in order to survive. In those days you could also rely on the British Championships to provide a really good showpiece, no matter where they were being held. From the moment when cars and vans first began to arrive, there was a definite sense of occasion at these meetings.

Having the top drivers in Britain competing together obviously helped, but it was by no means an essential ingredient. Mention karting to West Cumbrians of a certain age and many will recall the International event staged at Rowrah in June 1964. It wasnt even an official international match. The Normandy Kart Club had been invited to send over a team to take on seven drivers selected from the North of England by John Mills. Nevertheless, officials worked hard at giving the event a bit of razzamatazz. Since then this circuit has hosted umpteen rounds of Super One and Stars rounds. The facilities are infinitely better than they were back in those days when we had to put up with wooden huts and crackly loud speakers. Even so, no other meeting has come close to matching the atmosphere of that memorable event 47 years ago.

Motor-homes and large awnings certainly add plenty of colour to todays paddock area. They are also responsible for taking away some of the buzz that always used to accompany major events. Whereas competitors once gathered together in little group[s discussing certain developments, they are now likely to shut themselves away inside their motor-home whilst a mechanic works away in the awning making minute adjustments. Occasionally theyll venture out to watch opponents in a particular Heat but thats about the extent of their interest in general racing. Unfortunately, we cant turn back the clock and motor-homes, with all their trappings, are obviously here to stay.

Todays major championships tend to be staged over six or more rounds and I suppose its difficult to generate the same degree of excitement we experienced when British titles were decided over a single weekend. Next months O Plate at Rowrah might go some way towards restoring that situation. For the first time in several decades the non gear-box classes are alol coming together in one big event and Im hoping for a correspondingly large entry. Cumbria Kart Racing Club has arranged for the meeting to be televised and that, in itself, usually helps to swell the ranks. Even more favourable is the timing of this particular event which takes place just a week before Rowrah hosts a Super One round for Rotax and Honda Cadet.

Already there are whispers that nest year the ABkC will revert to its previous policy of splitting up the O Plate into bite sized pieces, with various circuits getting in on the action. In previous years, even the Cadet classes have been split, with Hondas held on one circuit and Comers at another. The end result has been a series of small to middling meetings that dont mean very much at all. Not everyone has sufficient funds to compete at Super One level; whereas a single weekends racing should be affordable no matter where you live. Thats why Id like to see the status of an O Plate title enhanced until it is valued just as much as a Super One crown. A successful event at Rowrah should go some way towards achieving that goal. We might even bring a little of the big race atmosphere back into karting.