My fascinating journey on the road to racing karts reached a critical junction last month: the ARKS test. Without this I would not be allowed to race at club level, so it was imperative I secured this preliminary qualification. My nearest club is Forest Edge at Barton Stacey, near Winchester, where, in late summer last year, I got well and truly bitten by the karting bug. The camaraderie of the enthusiasts made this a sport perfect for beginners and – as you may recall from previous articles — I took the financial plunge with a complete karting package from scratch: kart, trailer, tools, trolley, suit and helmet. Now that I’d gone this far, it would be madness not to go the whole hog and get properly set up for racing.
I bought the MSA Karting pack available from the publishers of Karting Magazine and on one cold, but dry Saturday, found myself in an office at Forest Edge … feeling rather nervous. Two ARKS examiners were leading five recruits through a test comprising a written multiple choice section and a practical on track.
“Now I’m sure you’ve watched the DVD 20 times before coming here…” began one of the examiners in a serious tone, at which point very loud alarm bells banged around inside my head. I left it rather late to get the pack and my only chance to watch the DVD was at midnight — sandwiched between two 13-hour shifts. I felt I was looking at a potentially significant area of vulnerability. The DVD was to be played again ahead of the test and my brain tightly focused on the wealth of information, particularly the flags. I felt confident about the flags part but you can’t be too confident. Onto the test itself and – as expected – a section dedicated to a detailed understanding of the flag system, plus one related to general racing and karting know-how. Fifteen minutes later the test was complete, with 100% required for the flags section and 80% for the remainder to pass the theory. Fingers crossed.
From the office I headed over to what I’ve now dubbed The Wright Technology Centre, a fantastic set-up belonging to Colin Wright at the edge of the pit area. Colin and his 12-year-old son David, keen racers in the 177 and Mini Max classes, were helping the new kid on the block with set-up and advice. In fact David was assigned to be my Race Engineer. His understanding of the sport and the technicalities of the karts was excellent. His aim of a career in F1 will no doubt mean his name in 15 years will be as familiar as those of Rob Smedley and Andrew Shovlin today. With a fair amount of time to the 177 session, I popped into the office to see my examiner, Peter Bryceson. Some good news: I’d passed the theory.
After managing to miss the first 177 practice, I headed out to the second session of the day. Sitting on the standby grid, I pondered my strategy as clouds of 2-stroke filled the helmet. We slowly moved off, but I had barely left the grid area when just a dab of throttle almost sent me pirouetting into the mud right by the spectators stand. How bad would that have looked, especially as I was being watched by Peter. Clearly the tyres were as cold as ice and the track no better with air temperatures hovering around 3C. What was odd was that other drivers were managing to tear off into the distance…surely their tyres were cold too? At the first corner complex, a chicane, bucket loads of oversteer meant utmost caution was needed at least until the tyres were up to temperature.
I took it as easy as I could to stay on the track, but conscious of the need to get within 110% of an allocated time for racing to pass the practical. I’d never raced at Forest Edge before, or anywhere else for that matter, so this session was one of familiarisation. A couple of spins followed, then an off-track excursion into the muddy part of the circuit where I managed to beach myself. With mud spewing upwards from the wheels like a ridiculous fountain, I clawed my way out of this field-ploughing trial and got back onto tarmac. Traction sent me on my way but I could see the looming figure of Peter at the next corner and the thought of Fraser in Dad’s Army shouting “I’m Doomed!” sprang to mind. I avoided eye contact and concentrated on the next corner. Only two laps followed before the session came to an end and I pulled into the exit area.
“Yeah … I know that was utter rubbish,” was my immediate opening gambit before Peter calmly took me through the areas where I needed to improve. I was falling into the newbie’s’ trap of being too uptight inside the kart and constantly fighting it. I didn’t use the entire track either to help the kart flow from one corner to another. Above all, a lack of consistency was the problem. That was true, but at least I was consistently inconsistent, I thought to myself. A glance at the Mychron4 revealed a best lap time of 55”. Not good.
Back to the WTC, and a run-down with Colin and David on how I felt the kart was behaving. Too much oversteer, I complained, but too little in the tight chicane area at the top of the track. The former was worse than the latter. David moved the rear wheels in by 5mm each side, so that greater force was pushing down on the wheels to help negate the oversteer. Colin took the CRG Road Rebel out to find out what he thought of it in the next session. It was great to see the machine being properly put through its paces. His out lap was 48” and within a couple of laps went three and a half seconds quicker.
Seat-time was imperative, and the next session for me showed improvement in lap times. I did overcook it on one corner and spun around several times, only for another driver to hit my kart in the side. No serious damage done but unfortunately his session came to a premature end. Even though the lap times were falling and I had probably reached the 110%, that crucial racing ingredient, consistency, remained elusive. Getting to 110% pushed me to the ragged edge, it felt, from which it was all too easy to tip over the other side. I needed more seat-time and a greater demonstration of consistency to pass the practical. What was frustrating was that the advice I was being given wasn’t unknown to me … it all made perfect sense but bloody doing it was the problem.
I needed to nail it on the next session to pass and get my certificate. Five minutes before the start, drops of rain began to fall. A couple of miles away I could see it was bucketing down. Terrific. On the grid – as the smell of 2-stroke signalled another session – I thought about my plan as the Gods kept the rain away from the circuit. For two laps I kept it easy, then wound it up a bit for the third lap. One little off saw me rejoin as other racers found themselves in tangled situations. Had I done enough … I had no idea as I pulled in at session end. Peter said I could do with more consistency but I was much more comfortable with the kart and it had come together – and I had passed! Before my first race, I’ll be at practice as the layout is revised, but until then I can enjoy a great sense of personal achievement.
Now the real learning begins. But first, a few hours cleaning the tractor … sorry kart.
My thanks to Colin & David Wright, and the ARKS examiners, Peter Bryceson and Pete Thomas.
Next time in Karting Magazine: the first race…will I deliver?