KartSport…now a nursery school for more than just NZ’s best drivers

In last week’s column I wrote about my own – and very personal – karting epiphany……. though in re-reading that column before writing this one I realised that that was all I did.

What I didn’t do was explain either what the epiphany – again, defined as ‘a moment of sudden and great revelation or realization’ – actually was. Or, indeed, how it manifested itself.

So, before I start on this week’s column – in which I want to expand on the broader role the sport has today in providing very real vocational training way beyond that of just driving skills – I’d better go back and explain why a simple ‘night out at the indoor karts’ had such a huge impact on me.

Thinking back, the key ‘take’ from the night was this. The minute you slip down behind the steering wheel into the body hugging seat, wriggle around to get comfortable then look up to see what is in front of you, the ‘view’ through the ‘post box slot’ of a full face helmet is identical to the ‘driver’s eye view’ ones we have become used to from TV coverage of everything from the local Formula Ford champs, or TRS, to IndyCar races and Formula 1.

Before that night at Panmure I – like most people, I’d imagine who have never been directly exposed to it – thought of karts as toys and karting – therefore – as something fit only for kids. Not ‘proper’ motor racing in other words.

After it, it was literally like the (to use another Biblical analogy) the scales had suddenly fallen from my eyes…………defined by Google as; ‘realising the truth about something after a long period of not understanding it or of being deceived about it.’

And, and, and….my attitude was…’if that (night racing heavy, ponderous, old 4-stroke (stationary) engine indoor karts) was good then how much better must ‘proper’ karting, in a lightweight 2-stroke kart on a purpose-built outdoor circuit, be?

So Before I left the indoor karting place that night, I made sure I had a brochure promoting what – at the time – was Auckland’s only dedicated shop selling purpose-built 2-stroke-engined ‘outdoor’ karts, Roundabout Kart Shop, situated in a funny little shop on Oranga Avenue on the southern slopes of One Tree Hill.

The very next day, in fact, I made a special trip to the shop, only to find it closed; but the seed was sown. In the window was a second-hand Kiwi Kart EX, with a direct drive Yamaha KT100 engine, while inside was a line-up of three or four new and used other models.

Graeme Smyth – still applying kart set-up and driving skills he learned racing karts from the age of 8.

This – remember – was in the days before the internet changed the way most of us gain information….so to school myself up on karts and karting I did what everyone else in a similar position used to do at the time….turned up at club meetings at both the Auckland and Mt Wellington tracks and started talking to people.

“What’s the best Kart? What club should I join? Who’s the best engine tuner? What’s the best premix to use? What tyre pressures should I run? What’s this about having to run an X plate when I start out? Etc etc etc.
Seriously, there were just so many questions I needed answers to….

Fortunately the next time I turned up at Roundabout Kart Shop, the proprietor, Ian Verrall, remembered me from the time, a couple of years before, when I had done a story in the Auckland Sun newspaper on his son Dale, and in the space of an hour or so helped fill in the holes in my knowledge base.

The kart that had originally been ‘in the window’ when I first turned up had sold pretty much straight away but being a good ‘wheeler-dealer’ Ian ‘knew of another EX about to come on the market’ and when it arrived back at the shop in even better condition than the first one I somehow found the ‘couple of grand’ needed to own it…plus the garage/pit stand, couple of pottles of Castrol A747 2-stroke oil Ian recommended I run the engine on etc.

Because I was still very much into motorbikes at the time, I had a helmet to use. But I also needed a dedicated driving suit (made of abrasion resistant Cordura rather than the typical flame resistant Nomex on a similar looking car one), set of slimline driving boots, and (again, abrasion resistant) gloves.

All are two-a-penny these days but back then in the early 1990s you still had to ask around, which I did, ending up on Glenys Rowe’s doorstep.

The Rowe family – I would find out – was part of the fabric of Auckland’s karting scene and Glenys had started a kart apparel business from home to cater for people like me who wanted a more bespoke rather than off-the-rack sort of service.

So, there I was, I had my own dedicated racing machine, I belonged to a dedicated racing club (Mt Wellington) and I had all the apparel I needed to go racing.

What I had actually forgotten about (don’t laugh) was how I was going to cart the, er, kart to and from race meetings, because my only means of transport at the time (apart from the occasional motorcycle I was offered to test) was my ground-scraping Cal-Look VW Beetle.

At first, I hired Utes from my local Hire Pool, before eventually bowing to the inevitable, selling the Beetle and buying a Nissan van.

And no, in case of you are thinking that you’ve missed a paragraph about me doing my first race, you haven’t. Keen not to make an absolute ‘Richard’ of myself, I decided to ease my way into this new karting thing gently, taking advantage of ‘my’ club (Mt Wellington) running a test day on the Saturday before each monthly (Sunday) meeting, and the Auckland Club’s weekly test day each Wednesday afternoon.

Where today, most newbies starting out tend to be kids then the split was more like 50/50 kids/young adults. Sure, I was – I think 32 when I started but – bar not having some of the technical knowledge and savvy of some of the young tradies the sport attracted in droves back in the day – I did OK.

The more test days I did with more experienced drivers around me, the quicker and cannier I got, learning how, when and where to pass on the track, not to mention how to richen or lean off the notoriously fickle Yamaha KT100 engine’s standard carburettor on the go…and yes that meant eventually being able to feel for either the hi or the lo-speed adjustor without looking down.

I was able to learn this sort of minutiae because karting was then and remains so today – primarily a ‘people’ sport.

Sure, the level of tech is now moonbeams ahead of where it was in ‘my’ day, yet you can still rock up to a typical monthly race day at any one of the 18 club-owned tracks around New Zealand and be assured of a warm welcome.

Not to mention a considered opinion (for what it’s worth of course) from someone who either is, or considers himself to be, the local track/area expert. And when I say expert, I mean on everything from engine ‘stuff’ to chassis ‘science.’

This could mean which jets to use and what position the ‘needle’ should be set at in the carb on your, or your son or daughter’s Rotax engine. Or which of the three axles (soft, medium & hard) you have brought with you, you should bolt on first…..considering the time of year, temperature variation during the day) and the amount of grip the track inherently has.

You can also always find someone with an opinion on anything from the correct tyre pressures/front/rear track widths to run, to the name of ‘the next Scott Dixon.’

How much of any of this can help you ‘become a better driver’ is, of course, a bit of a moot point. If nothing else it gives you base level from which to start your own experimentation, and/or something to chuckle about on the long trip home of a Sunday night (and like many of you reading this I would imagine, I’ve done a few of those in my day!

Back to the subject at hand though.

For a so-called minority sport which – let’s face it – still struggles to gain traction with, let alone garner even the most basic grasp of, by the traditional stick ‘n ball-sport fixated ‘mass media’ KartSport here still casts an incredibly long shadow.

A young Brendon Hartley – 20015 TRS

I’ve probably bored most of you stupid by now with tall tales (but all true) of where Indy 500 winner Scott Dixon, Le Mans 24 Hour co-winners Brendon Hartley and Earl Bamber, and reigning Virgin Australia Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin got their start.

But what about all the other successful Kiwis – both in and outside the world of professional motorsport – our ‘funny little sport’ has helped nurture.

If, for instance, you are fortunate to be invited to drive day hosted by Auckland-based automotive event specialist Downforce Auto Events and Training, the coaching staff – handpicked for the day/event/vehicle by company boss, former karter and BatteryTown Porsche GT3 Cup racer Tim Martin – will include a number of current drivers who also got their start in karts.

Check out the pits at any Virgin Australia Supercars Championship or – this coming summer – the Castrol Toyota Racing Series and either beavering away under the bonnet or at a lap top will be at least two or three Kiwi race techs or race engineers who learned the basics of their ‘trade’ both behind the wheel, and behind the spanners, of a kart.

Scott McLaughlin tries a Superkart-SMGP Track Day 2018

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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