The karting of ways

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It can be hard work having fun, as a group of historic kart enthusiasts have found

We’ve seen it before: you own a historic machine, you want to preserve but also race it, you can’t compete without modern safety features so you run your own races but some owners resort to inappropriate mods to win… No, not cars but karts. The Donington Historic Festival’s plans to run a historic kart demonstration put the subject in mind. Karts have a 50-year UK history so there are hundreds of old karts in existence – and naturally, plenty of owners who’d love to race.

I met some of those enthusiasts during Race Retro at Stoneleigh. Originally the British Historic Kart Club planned to run a race meeting at the Festival rather than a demo, but the MSA wants historic karts to carry the same safety equipment as modern machines – side protection, bodywork, etc – which is unacceptable to the owners. It’s led to an estrangement from the MSA and now to a separate racing organisation.

Peter Brinkworth, the club’s treasurer, made the point: “we formed this club to preserve these machines and show present-day karters that their sport has a history.” To that end the club ran a dozen demos last year. Racing wasn’t the initial aim, but with 320 members owning 1000 karts this group of a few enthusiasts soon found itself organising races.

Just as with the early days of old car racing the club had to formulate age groupings and decide which safety mods to allow. And just like cars, Britain has been a prime mover, with six races last year.

But after friction with the FIA-CIK, the sport’s sanctioning body which organises its own historic events, and with our own MSA, the club has left the MSA. “We can’t race within it and we can’t race outside it…” says Brinkworth. Now a separate group – Retro Racer – will run races, while the BHKC reverts to its original purpose, arranging demos at kart and car meets.

Of course, cars and karts don’t always mix happily: even though Graham Hill won the first UK kart race and it’s now the fast-track to F1, karting and cars have stayed resolutely divided – witness events at Shelsley Walsh in the 1970s, when Dud Moseley’s Motus kart went absurdly quickly up the hill and caused a lot of grumbling.

When it was pointed out that the rules required suspension, one karter inserted rubber washers in his kart’s kingpins. But once rumours leaked out of a suspension kart the regs were redrawn to exclude anything that looked like a kart. Today’s winged and bodied 250 superkart will match an F3 car round a circuit, but there’s no overlap between the two worlds. Somehow, beating a car with a kart seems like cheating.

Karts are far simpler to restore than cars, and with manufacturers now making parts for old chassis this branch of racing is expanding fast. But inevitably that will to win means non-period mods creeping in; last year the club had to ban sticky tyres and mandate control rubber. So the newish sport of historic karting is already growing up: politics, divisions and ‘unfair advantages’. It’s only meant to be fun…

Gordon Cruickshank