YOUNG ‘UNS – A Look At Today’s Bambino Scene

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Rowrah’s squadron of Bambino racers

A few years ago, Mini-bikes for kids were all the rage. If my own area is anything to go by, I’d guess that sales throughout Britain must have been well into six figures. It isn’t difficult to see the reason behind their sudden popularity. Most were made in China using cheap labour that allowed them to be retailed over here at around £250 or £300. Also, they were a nice compact size, allowing for easy storage and transport. On just about every housing estate you’d find them tearing along the roads or pavements attracting looks that varied from tolerant amusement to outright hostility in some cases. It couldn’t last, of course, and soon the police began cracking down on what after all were illegal street machines. This caused problems for many owners who suddenly found themselves with practically worthless lumps of metal that couldn’t be used anywhere. Apart from the full blown racing versions taking part in organised events, mini-bikes have now virtually disappeared without trace.

Bambino karting may well face a similar problem. According to Martin Hines, sales of new machines are buoyant right now, suggesting that the class should have a bright future. However, the venues where these karts can actually be used are still quite restricted. Given the choice, most parents would prefer their kids to run at properly organised MSA meetings where safety considerations and medical facilities are obviously superior. They have the added advantage of running to a clear set of rules, or at least that ought to be the case. Unfortunately, the MSA has insisted upon a maximum circuit length of 500 metres for Bambinos which very few venues are actually able to comply with. I understand from Malcolm Fell that Rowrah’s short circuit, measuring 600 metres, has recently received official approval, but it still leaves only two or three venues that are actually running MSA Bambino events.

One thing about vacuums is that they’re usually filled quite easily. The Racing for Buttons scheme run by Gary Walker and his team at PFI run Bambino sessions on Monday evenings and normally attract ten or more owner drivers. Six year old Jenson Parker was one of their first customers and Gary encouraged his dad, Scott, to compile a register of interested people. This register has formed the basis for what is now a thriving group organising Bambino events throughout the Midlands and North of England. Some of these take place on the Saturday preceding an MSA race meeting. Many more, though, are run on private rental circuits and, in one case, even a car park. “We try to put on an event of some description every weekend,” claims Scott, “and it’s very rare for the number of entries not to reach double figures. On some occasions we’ve had more than 30 drivers taking part, which shows that there is plenty of potential.”

Andy Unsworth and his six year old son Spencer are keen members of Scott’s group. Andy was employed by the Benetton (latterly Renault) Formula One team over a period of 16 years, working with such renowned stars as Schumacher, Button and Alonso. He recently returned from Oxfordshire back to Lytham.  Andy is himself a former karter, just like his dad Terry who had been involved in the Ribble Kart Club when it occupied Flookburgh more than 40 years ago. Apart from racing on his home circuit, Terry could be seen competing regularly at Rowrah, Burtonwood, Tern Hill and Morecambe.  Andy and Spencer recently took a look at what ACR  is offering under the Easykart formula. They clearly liked what they’d seen and promptly bought a complete outfit.

For those who are prepared to travel and like the idea of participating in a well organised series then Easykart seems like a good option. It’s also one of the cheapest currently available at just under £1169 (£999+VAT). There’s a slight snag insofar as the kart isn’t as yet registered with the MSA, but Andy Cox intends to apply for recognition in October. ““Delivery of the kart was very prompt and we’ve received a very friendly service so far” says Andy Unsworth “We certainly intend to participate in Easykart rounds next year. The exact format hasn’t been finalised as yet but it will follow MSA guidelines as a time trial event. It’s been suggested that participants will be allocated two hours practice on Saturday with Sunday’s time trials lasting a further hour. There’ll be awards for all participants with a special one allocated to driver of the day. One driver will be selected to attend the World Finals in Italy with kart and flight costs paid for. Also there’s a chance to win an Easykart Cadet outfit at the year end.”

Elsewhere, Bambino costs are generally considerably higher unfortunately. Many brand new outfits can set you back as much as £1700 so, by the time a helmet and racing suit has been included you’re talking about an outlay of £2,300 or more. For those who don’t want to pay quite so much, second hand machines are now becoming readily available at various prices. A four stroke option did exist at one time and this offered greater reliability for less expense. However, parents who went down this particular route soon began to complain that their kids weren’t competitive against other drivers using two stroke Comer powered karts. Some traders have deliberately shied away from supplying Bambino karts. “I can do without the hassle,” one of them explained to me. “You’ve got kids too young to write their own names with parents who are expecting them to become the next Michael Schumacher. When they discover other kids are going quicker, it’s  the equipment supplier who gets the blame.”

I do have some sympathy with this point of view. Children tend to be very competitive by nature and their parents are usually even more so. You’ll never eliminate this entirely but the present emphasis on time trials with gold, silver and bronze awards actively encourages it. There’s a valid argument for doing so, of course. If the Bambino class is intended as a training ground for cadet and older categories then, it’s argued, you may as well introduce participants to serious competition at the earliest possible age. This contention begs a rather obvious question. Why concentrate on lap times when you might as well go the whole hog and stage actual races? That way racing techniques could be properly honed at an early age. Teaching a driver of whatever age how to go fast is relatively easy. Learning to overtake cleanly and safely is rather more difficult.

Having said that, I’m not an advocate of formal races for Bambinos because, at such young ages the emphasis ought to be on having fun rather than indulging in serious competition. I’m influenced in this view by the teachings of New Zealander Arthur Lydiard, an athletics coach who could count Olympic champions Peter Snell, Murray Halberg, Barry Magee and Lasse Viren amongst his numerous successes. Lydiard always argued that young kids were capable of running long distances. The secret, he claimed, was to put away the stop-watch and let them run naturally without any stress. That way you produce potential champions rather than burned out competitors. I’d much prefer it if the Bambino class had been organised along similar lines with identical awards for everyone, presented in alphabetical order.

Alfanos and transponders should become non essential items, although I’m sure the vast majority of parents would want to time their own drivers, whether by stop-watch or other means. It’s also true that, however informal the sessions may be, kids will know precisely who is going quickest or slowest without it being rammed down their throats. Such a system wouldn’t prevent the overbearing father with loads of money from trying to buy a super quick motor, but it might help to place such individuals in a tiny minority. More importantly, young drivers might be allowed to develop at their own pace free from intervention by parents who believe they are raising a Schumacher, Hamilton and Button all rolled into one. It took many years, lots of world records and multiple gold medals before athletic bodies began to heed the views of Arthur Lydiard. I hope that the MSA won’t be quite so dilatory.