Has our changed relationship with karting killed off the titans of the sport?
In September 1977 David Bowie released one of the most inspiring and romantic songs ever recorded, Heroes. Paradoxically, punk intellectuals The Stranglers had a hit with No More Heroes in the same month.
A year later, I was given my first copy of Karting magazine and from there on was hooked on what for me then, and largely still is, the most exciting thing ever. In the September 1978 issue, Terry Fullerton’s victory in the RAC British championships started what was to become my deep and abiding hero worship of the moustachioed genius.
Ayrton Senna da Silva’s exploits in the Le Mans World Championships added his name to a growing list of admired drivers; that also included Mickey Allen, Jackie Brown and Martin Smart. When he won the 135cc world title at Parma, Mike Wilson completed my personal ‘Holy Trinity’ that already featured Fullerton and Senna.
Oddly, I never saw any of them race. My fandom was wholly inspired by what I read in Karting and its rival, Kart & Superkart. Such were the reports that, in some ways, I didn’t need to because their exploits were so brilliantly captured by the writers of the time. Consequently, my first racing kart was a Zip/Dap – because that’s what Terry raced – before I bought a Wilson Premier, made by Mike’s legendary father Brian.
Hearing that his son was one of my biggest heroes, Brian once rather playfully told my dad that the Premier was based on Mike’s works Birel chassis. On rock hard Carlisle tyres it certainly didn’t handle like it but I didn’t care. If it was an English Birel, that was good enough for me. It even took me to the 1983 MBKC Junior Britain title.
During my youth I never met any of them, not Mike, Terry, Ayrton or even Mickey. However, I did finally meet six-time World Champion Wilson in 2006 and after introducing myself in a rather mumbley, awkward fashion, he invited me to join him for a pint. Those couple of hours, spent chatting over several beers were a delight and he revealed himself to be as brilliant in company as he was on the track.
With Senna no longer with us, that left Fullerton as my last hero to meet. I had heard that he is a notoriously spiky individual who does not suffer fools gladly. As a result, I had often seen Terry in the paddocks throughout Britain and Europe but never quite felt brave enough to do the shaky-hand thing.
At the Wackersdorf U18 World Championship opener, I spotted him on the dummy grid and decided to man up and press the flesh. I struck up a conversation and found an amiable, articulate and fascinating character. On the journey home I had the pleasure of spending a little more time with him and whilst I can see why he has a flinty reputation, nothing could dislodge the ‘hero’ tag I had applied over thirty years ago.
Like Stirling Moss had in F1, Fullerton invented the concept of being a professional kart racer and to this day, the leading factories employ supremely talented individuals to represent them at the highest level – but I wonder if they have anywhere near the status yesteryear’s heroes?
Perhaps not. Sadly there are far fewer manufacturers now and consequently there is a greatly reduced demand for professional drivers. Moreover, kids’ relationship with the sport has changed. In the Seventies and Eighties, karting was often rather sniffily referred to as the ‘poor man’s motorsport’ – and of course many young, talented drivers would, like Senna, graduate from karts to cars. For those who did, far more remained in karting for karting’s sake. If you look at some of the names in back issues of Karting, you’ll regularly see names cropping up across several years, if not decades. Nowadays, youngsters come into the sport because they see it as a means to an end. It is simply the first part of the journey on the way to F1 and as a result we are often privileged to see, but then deprived of some epic talents; Button, Davidson and Hamilton, to name but three.
What is it that propels them out of karting? During the summer I attended a round of the British Touring Car Championship and the Formula Renault races were tortuous. The drivers and their families were openly bored and several admitted that they missed karting. So why risk possible career failure and penury by leaving the sport that made you? Some drivers recognise this and stay. Ben Cooper is a recent graduate to the professional karting ranks and for me is emerging as a future hero. He’s quick, at Kosmic on merit and a terrific bloke to boot. Ben Hanley –ranked five years ago as the ‘World’s best karter’ – has had the balls to return to his roots with Maranello and with the likes of Convers, Ardigo, Thonon, Cesetti and my fellow columnist, Gary Catt, we are far from spoilt for choice – but I wonder if, compared to Fullerton, Wilson and Francois Goldstein they are equal in stature to the colossuses of yesteryear? With the increased media coverage, today’s professionals should be bigger stars than their predecessors and if not, why not?
Shortly before he died, Senna was asked who he thought was the best driver in the world. ‘Mike Wilson,’ he replied. The mystified Grand Prix reporter said ‘Who is Mike Wilson?’ ‘The best kart racer I ever saw’
Even F1 heroes had karting heroes. We all still should.