Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Historic Karting

In 1956, a chap called Art Engels created the first ever kart in the USA. By the early 1960s karting had found its way into the UK, and there were meetings all over the country involving up to two hundred karts and six thousand spectators. Today, karting is the way to get into the upper echelons of motorsport. Without the help of karting we may never have seen the likes of Senna, Mansell, Button or the Schumachers.

With such an important heritage, then, surely the karting world has a healthy and well-established historic scene? Unfortunately it doesn’t. Not yet at least.

Enter the rather splendidly titled Historic and Classic Kart Club for Great Britain. After a first tentative meeting in June 2000 at Shenington Kart Club, the club officially came into being in 2004. Since then, its members have become the avowed promoters and protectors of karting’s historic legacy. There’s even a season of full-blown historic racing planned for 2006.

The big question, of course, is why has it taken so long for the historic kart scene to take off? After all, historic motor racing for cars and bikes has been immensely popular for well over a decade. One of the biggest obstacles is actually getting hold of the karts themselves. Just as racing cars of the 50s, 60s and 70s were often scrapped, deemed worthless once they reached the end of their racing careers, so the same was true of karts. As Tony Wilkins, President of the Historic and Classic Kart Club puts it, “The main problem with older karts is that they were so easy to get rid of; you could take them to the tip, you could shove them in a skip, and they went.”

You would have thought that the sheer scarcity of these machines would mean they were extremely valuable: in the car world, the rarer pieces of historic machinery are worth literally hundreds of thousands of pounds. Fortunately for the enthusiast on a budget, this isn’t yet the case for karts. “Perhaps that’s why we’re desperately trying to buy them all as cheaply as we can now” quips Wilkins “because they may one day become of significant value.”

So, exactly how much would it cost to go racing in a historic kart? Not that much at all, according to Wilkins. “It would be nice to think that you joined the club, which is 20 quid a year, so that shows what low budgets we work on, and several of the karts we have were bought for £50-£100. Considering that 20 grand budgets are fairly commonplace for a season in the top-flight karting formulae, and that you wouldn’t get much change from four grand for a brand new chassis, that is incredibly good value.”

At the moment, the most valuable kart involved in the club scene is Chairman Wyatt Stanley’s 1960s 200cc Suzuki-engined Dale kart, bought from the Donington Museum’s collection for the grand sum of £500. This kart is also one of the most technically interesting pieces of machinery as its engine is situated in the front, actually between the driver’s legs!

It’s this quirkiness that lies at the core of historic karting’s appeal. Whilst contemporary karts must conform to strict formulae and tried and tested mechanical layouts, historic karts - particularly those from the earliest days of the sport - are much more varied in terms of their mechanical layouts. Often, these early karts were developed by enthusiastic amateurs. The Biagi 701 (so called because it took 701 hours to build)(need picture of this) developed in 1962 by Scottish engineer Paul Biagi is typical of these early pioneers of the sport. This amazingly sophisticated looking machine incorporated independent suspension at all four corners. These days, most kart racers must rely on the tyres and their own backsides for any sort of ride comfort!

Another part of the appeal of these historic karts is the possibility that they were driven by - or banged wheels with - the great and the good of motor racing. The problem is provenance. Of all the club’s members, there is only one whose kart has a definite history, and that’s because it belonged to his father. Even so, the very real possibility that Nigel Mansell David Coulthard or Eddie Irvine sat in your kart is an exciting prospect, even if it is impossible to prove.

The club is open to all karts manufactured before 1980, and is split into two categories: ‘Vintage’ karts for machines manufactured before 1960, and ‘Historic’ karts for those built between 1960 and 1979. Karts made after 1980 are accepted on their provenance, although water cooled and air cooled karts with modern engines are generally not accepted. However, Wilkins is keen to stress, “if and when these karts attract enthusiasts, we hope to help them form an affiliated club.”

The Historic and Classic Kart Club for Great Britain can be found online at:
groups.msn.com/historicclassickartclubforgreatbritain

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