Let’s start at the very beginning (a very good place to start!!)

They say that if you can rustle up more than one motor vehicle in any one place – and, of course, at any one time – you’ve got all the raw material you need for a race.

Which is how it must have been for the man credited with designing and building the very first ‘Go Kart,’ Los Angeles hot rodder Art Ingels in 1956. By 1957 the first official ‘Go Kart’ race had indeed been held (in the parking lot of Pasadena’s Rosebowl Stadium) with the rest of the world following suit very soon afterwards.

Here, the first ‘Mini’ Kart Club was set up in Auckland in July 1959 and the first national body (and predecessor to KartSport New Zealand), the New Zealand Amateur Go Kart Association, was officially incorporated, on September 19 that same year.

The karts these early adaptors built (usually off plans originally published in US-based periodicals like Popular Mechanics) were certainly nothing special (think frames made out of water pipe, wheels and tyres ‘borrowed’ from domestic concrete mixers and old Villiers and BSA Bantam motorcycle engines).

And though it was not long before enterprising locals started producing frames and/or complete karts for sale, outside the main centres if you really wanted to ‘race’ a ‘Go Kart’ you either had to design and build – or at the very least – pull one together from a number of different sources, yourself.

In the 60 years since then ‘KartSport’ or ‘Karting’ (the ‘Go’ having been quietly dropped along the way) has evolved to the point where it is now considered both a legitimate (and arguably the most easily accessible and cost-effective) place to get your motorsport ‘fix,’ and absolutely essential first step on the motorsport ladder if you have ambitions of ‘making a career out of the sport.’

Though it took me until I was in my early 30s to buy my first kart and embark in a ‘better late than never’ start to actually competing rather than being a simple fan, I had been interested in getting into the sport since I was 10 or 11.

At that point though ‘things’ conspired against me. Despite pretty much single-handedly organising the building, set-up and running of what turned out to be a trolley which swept all before it in the Gore Festival Week Trolley Derby in 1972. Despite having saved the then princely sum of $500 to buy a second hand McCulloch chain saw-engined kart to run at Invercargill Kart Club club days once a month, my mother made  it very clear to me. That, (since my father’s sudden death from an aneurysm when I was eight) she had neither the time, nor inclination to buy a trailer and take me to and from Invercargill to satisfy my ‘need for speed.’

As it turned out, at the time an under 15-year-old would have been more a novelty than anything else because  unlike today where the sport is very much geared to 6 to 16-year-olds, then – like motocross at the time – it was very much still a ‘man’s sport.’

And one, as it turned out, I was happy to forget about when, one Saturday afternoon when I was 13, my good friend (and now, sadly, the late) Donald Johnston taught me how to ride his fat wheeled Suzuki RV125 farm bike.

That ride – plus a memorable trip with Donald and his Dad and Mum to Invercargill to see the seminal dirt bike boom movie ‘On Any Sunday’ – opened my eyes to all things two wheels and the $500 I had saved for my first ‘Go Kart’ was soon ‘invested’ in my first motorcycle, a brand-spanking new (orange tank, low exhaust) 1975 Honda XL175.

Owning a road-legal trail bike (very) effectively killed two birds with one stone, something at that point in my life anyway, a ‘single use recreational tool’ like a kart could not.

On the one hand it meant I no longer had to rely on my mother and the family car for transport. And on the other all I had to do was strip it of its indicators and swap out the head and tail lights and I could race it at club MX events (starting believe it or not, with the then popular ‘Spectators’ Races’ before moving up to the ‘Enduro’ class).

Team Endo alumni circa1977/78

Because there were so many places to ride off-road in Otago and Southland Donald and another bike-mad schoolmate of ours, Don Allen, got quite good, relatively quickly, too, so soon enough started competing in the then new branch of the sport, Enduros.

As you did back then, we also helped organise and run our own local events, as well as travelled far and wide to compete.

Because, by nature, (and I’m deadly serious here, I can’t help myself) I am a nosey bugger I maintained a general interest in other motorsports through the years I was involved in the local Enduro scene, and every so often tripped over some snippet about karts.

But that was it, really until 20 or so years (literally a lifetime for some people but I like to think that good things take time) later I joined a group of fellow Waitemata Motorcycle Club members for a night at the then new (this would have been the mid to late 1990s) group social activity of Indoor Karting at an old converted warehouse in Auckland’s Panmure.

By this stage I had – let’s see – given away dirt bikes and dirt riding for road bikes and road racing, pretty much given both disciplines away to focus (don’t laugh!) on Triathlons and Biathlons for three or four years and really only went along to the Indoor Karting night to make up the numbers…

Or at least I did until it was my turn and – after pulling my best Bell Star full-face motorcycle helmet on (so I didn’t have to wear one of those silly hairnets you do when you use one of the venue’s lids) and slipping down behind the steering wheel and into the low-slung, body-hugging seat – I had what I can only describe as an epiphany.

Defined as ‘a moment of sudden and great revelation or realization’ an epiphany is not the sort of thing you get every day and I’ve only had the odd one since.

But put it this way, we’re talking defining moments here.

No, I didn’t win the night – in fact I can’t remember much else about the night – bar the incredible, life-changing effect it had on me.

The Indianapolis 500 this definitely was not. But hey, we’re not all born with a supreme God (or the universe, you choose)-given talent like Scott Dixon.

It wasn’t as if it was anything special as a venue, or that the karts were anything great either. But (and if you don’t mind me using another biblical analogy) it was my ‘Road to Damascus’ moment, a tiny slice of time, which marked a sudden turning point in my life.

And believe it or not that slice of time is still resonating with me today.

Literally everything I know about driving at pace and racing to – hopefully – win, I learned behind the wheel of a kart. 

Karts and karting also taught me to win with humility and lose – hopefully – with dignity.

Karts and karting also provided me with an entrée into the otherwise tightly held and controlled world of motorsport media, not to mention provided me with a calling card which continues to resonate around the world.

“Oh, YOU’RE the Fast Company guy from Noo Zeeeeeland,” a voice on the end of the phone from a US website said to me last year. “We get all your stuff and put it up on our site straight away. What is it about you guys?

What indeed?

From the humblest of humble beginnings Karts and karting have helped everyone from average Joe’s like me have a bit of fun at a local track of a weekend here, to the likes of Scott Dixon, Brendon Hartley, Earl Bamber, Nick Cassidy, Mitch Evans and now Marcus Armstrong win some of the motorsport world’s biggest and most coveted prizes at storied circuits in Europe, the US and Japan.

This is really just the appetizer though. Next week I will take you through the main course (the state of the sport here and around the world today) and dessert (how you, and/or your kids can get involved.)

Ross MacKay

Ross MacKay is an award-winning journalist, author and publicist with first-hand experience of motorsport from a lifetime competing on two and four wheels. He currently combines a day job editing NZ4WD magazine with contract media work, weekend Mountain Bike missions and towing his 1989 Nissan Skyline drifter to grassroots meetings around the North Island.

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