For those of you with no previous acquaintance with karting, it is the form of motor-racing which launches most Formula 1 stars like Lewis Hamilton, Max Verstappen and Ayrton Senna on their paths to glory. Until now, karts were and are powered by petrol engines, with the driver sitting a couple of inches off the ground as the machine makes its way round circuits at between 50-70mph top speed.
Many karters start very young, with Bambino classes for 6-8 year-olds, progressing on to cadet, junior and senior ranks. My childhood in Papua New Guinea precluded that, much to my lasting regret, but probably not to my parents' wallets! For those who take it seriously, karting can be an all-consuming passion, which requires deep pockets and focused commitment. There are essentially two types of karter. There are those, like me, who enjoy the sport through hire-karting; there are indoor and outdoor circuits throughout the UK which cater to the leisure market, and where you 'arrive and drive', without the responsibility of maintenance and upkeep. Owner-drivers have decided to take it much more seriously. Classically it has been a 'dads-and-lads' activity, but one of the great attractions is that it is a sport where boys and girls can compete on an equal footing; my own daughter now races a high-powered machine against other school pupils in the National Schools Karting Association (NatSKA) series. Owner-drivers also need a trailer, a large toolkit, and the stamina to travel long distances all over the country on weekends.
KHS is fortunate to have its own small fleet of low-powered Honda cadet karts, along with the van and trailer to transport them! It means that it is possible to offer pupils a route into motorsport that develops them naturally as drivers and mechanics. As an experience of hands-on engineering, it is hard to beat, and of course we are alive to the possibilities presented by local industry in 'Formula 1 Valley' and higher education. Oxford Brookes University is a national hub for motorsport engineering, and has recently announced that its own Formula Student team will go entirely electric this year. That shift will inevitably happen to karting as well, and there are exciting future study and career possibilities for our pupils in the automotive industry.
Nothing beats, however, the excitement of a race-day. My driving days are few and far between (now that my daughter thrashes me every time we're on the same track), but once you have the bug, even as raceday support, it's hard to kick. Most of the Kingham Hill Racing team compete in the twelve or so NatSKA events annually. We've raced at tracks as far afield as Larkhall in Scotland, to Rowrah in Cumbria, to Clay Pigeon in Dorset. A stringent scrutineering operation, alongside MSA health and safety measures, ensures everyone's wellbeing. Pupils take responsibility for making sure the right tyres for the conditions, at the right pressure, are on, alongside regular maintenance of their chains and safety equipment. Some use data management systems to analyse their lap performance, and where those vital extra tenths are to be gained on the circuit. Each different class will have three laps of practice, as well as four heats throughout the day, with the best three heats counting towards the result. Each NatSKA round counts towards an overall championship, which culminates in a three-day residential trip to the Nationals, at which Season and Sprint Championships are decided.
Pupils benefit enormously from the experience. They grow visibly in resilience, confidence, and teamwork; long journeys and long days make for a tight-knit and cohesive team! In an age when my fear is that boys and girls are a little over-coddled, and protected from risk, this is a controlled and exciting way to give them that opportunity.
And there are great success stories! We regularly bring back silverware from NatSKA meetings, and one or two have gone on to really great things. Our current top driver is a Junior ROK CHampion, and recently also won another national event. Here he is crossing the finish line at Rowrah doing just that.