“What? Three HOURS?” The rest of the minibus chuckles at my incredulity. I ponder out loud to no one in particular, “I thought it was like 30 minutes away…” One of the senior members in the front row leans his head slightly towards my general direction, “It’s in Sittingbourne, mate. You know where that is?” I raise my eyebrows slightly and shake my head. The chap to my left who looks to be about 15-years old says to me, “Don’t worry, it’s gonna be loads of fun.” Fumbling for my iPod, I push myself against the side window looking for a position with a minimum comfort level to allow sleep. As I stare out into a vast expanse of grey clouds, I sigh and close my eyes.
I’m jolted awake by the undulations of the minibus, which I reckon was not designed with comfort or ride quality as a top priority. As my eyes slowly pry themselves open, my arms still folded, I become keenly aware of how frigid it is inside the confines of our transportation. It’s the kind of cold that could only come from inside a damp, concrete warehouse or in this case, a hollowed-out van with no insulation. I prop myself up to see what lays ahead; it appears we’ve reached our destination. As the other members of the kart club arise from their comatose states, our driver Matt begins honking the horn wildly, swerving the van from side to side. “Coventry are here! Get out the fucking way, Coventry are here!” All burst out into laughter.
Stepping out the van, I am greeted by a sight that makes my heart sink. There are about 100 university students situated around spectating area, most of them looking like professional racing drivers. I see Arai helmets, Alpinestars karting suits, and enough logo patches to put a Cheshire-cat grin on an advertising executive. To add to the already intense atmosphere, the buzz of an army of 2-stroke karts completely drowns out all other noise. Welcome to test day number one of the British Universities Karting Championship at Bayford Meadows Circuit.
First order of business is to attend a mandatory drivers meeting. The small room struggles to fit the mass of drivers in attendance. I manage to snag a seat in the second row. A gruff but enthusiastic looking fellow in a BUKC gilet comes forward to address us. “Now how many of you have never driven a kart outdoors?” A few raise their hands. His voice is authoritative but yet at the same time reassuring. “Ok, so let me get this straight. You have never driven a kart outdoors before and you want to jump straight into the most competitive arrive-and-drive championship series in Britain?” The room fills with laughter and smiles, but inside I am filled with anxiety and doubt. I have karted outdoors on a few occasions but never at this level. At this point I begin to ask myself if it was a good idea to have come along at all.
The meeting is dismissed and its time to decide who will go out on track when. I stay quiet and so by default I am designated as the last to go out of the three-man team. Each driver will be allotted two 20-minute sessions each. Whereas it was relatively drive when we first arrived, a consistent drizzle has now made track conditions a little bit more tricky. Great, not only am I driving a powerful, sensitive 2-stroke kart, its raining to boot.
First to go out from team Coventry is Kosta. I know this individual is a real racer because the only thing I saw him consume during our rest stop was candy bars and Coke. Trying to get any information I can on driving line and track conditions, I watch him carefully. He appears to be passing most of the field quite easily. During corner exit and braking, he saws the wheel back-and-forth masterfully, as if the kart’s chassis were dancing beneath him. I reckon he must be pretty quick. A trip to the lap time monitor confirms my suspicions: he is 1st on the leader board. The conditions are steadily getting worse; more and more drivers are facing the wrong way ‘round on track. No time to fret, there’s only 20 more minutes until my first stint out.
After delaying as long as possible, I remove my raincoat and hand my umbrella to one of the other Coventry Uni drivers. I ask two of the team’s members to come to the pit area with me to help push start the direct-drive kart. The other teams are doing driver changes as well and I keep a lookout for our kart. By now my heart is racing with anticipation. After what seems like ages, the #7 kart appears. He jumps out quickly and I can see his suit is drenching wet. I hesitate slightly, looking down at the massive pool of water welcoming me at the bottom of the seat, but am quickly rushed into action when one of the push-starters looks at me and yells, “Come on, let’s go!” I hop in, remembering to lightly feather the throttle while the lads push the kart behind me in order to avoid flooding the engine with fuel. At what seems like the last meter before I merge with track traffic the engine buzzes to life.
Having no idea what kind of grip is available, I cautiously play with the right pedal. Eventually I’m convinced that wide-open-throttle is possible on the straights and I’m greeted with a burst of speed. This is no indoor 4-stroke kart. The vibration through the chassis makes me feel like I’m a human massage chair on the highest setting. I reach the first corner and jab on the brakes. Before I can react the kart has reached the inertial point of no return and I’m slightly off to the side of the track facing oncoming traffic. In an adrenaline-fueled frenzy, I get out of the kart and lift up the rear end to have it pointing the correct way to receive a push-start. It’s a lot heavier than it looks. Completely forgetting the BUKC marshals instructions not to drop the karts when holding them by the rear bumper, I dump the kart and get back in the safety of the chassis. Sheepishly, I raise my right hand signaling for a push.
After a friendly bump from the push-kart, I proceed to travel about 30 meters before spinning out again. Repeating the same process as before, I sneak a quick glance towards the spectator area to see if any of the team have noticed my amazing driving abilities. By now I’ve lost all sense of pride and am soaked down to my underwear; any sense of comfort or dignity are long gone. Having nothing to lose I nervously begin lapping the Bayford Meadows circuit, really concentrating on keeping the car sorted during braking. I complete a few laps without managing to lose it, and although most of the other karts are passing me easily, a sense of accomplishment bubbles within. Pushing a little harder now, instinctively I make small steering corrections during corner entry and exit. I look up at the clock and notice that I’ve overrun my stint by a few minutes. 20 minutes has passed in what seemed like only 5.
After bringing the kart into the pit lane, I barely have the mental wits to remove myself in a timely manner. No bother as the next driver basically grabs me and throws me out, while in one smooth motion tossing himself into the seat. Nothing is as important to a racing driver as seat time. Plodding along one foot at a time as to avoid the disgusting feeling of wet socks squishing against wet shoes, I make my way over to the timing board. My fastest lap was in the range of about 1:40. That puts me roughly 20 seconds behind the fastest lads. The sizeable gap does little to bother me as the only thing I can think about is changing into dry clothes and kicking up my feet up on a space heater.
I wrestle with the idea of canceling my second test stint. All I want to do is go home. I enviously eye the drivers who have wet-suits and waterproof booties for their shoes and make a note never to come to a kart track in Britain without them. After some internal deliberation, I commit to the last 20 minute session. I’ve already paid for it, travelled 3+ hours and can’t possibly feel any worse than I do so what the hell? I also know that with the knowledge gained from my first time out I will probably be able to shave a good few seconds of my best lap time, something that will motivate even the most tired, miserable wanna-be racing driver.
The track is wetter than previously with large pools of water forming in certain areas of the circuit. On my last lap, I hit a puddle on the back straight that is the size of a small lagoon and a geyser of water splays up around side of me. When the water clears, I see a marshal out on track waving everyone in. It’s obvious that the conditions have deteriorated far too much for any safe driving to occur. The second stint I managed about 15 minutes of actual track time but turned in a few good laps so I’m satisfied. Besides, the end of my sessions means its time to get in the minibus, change clothes and blast the heater.
As we leave the circuit I learn it is a Coventry Uni tradition to visit McDonalds after a good day of racing. It’s a well-known fact that the taste of the golden arches is directly proportional to your level of fatigue: this is going to be a good meal. Mountains of food are ordered and the team are in high spirits, excitedly chatting and cracking jokes about the days events. As the feast continues, a print out of lap times is passed around. I patiently wait my turn and at last the single-sided document that can verify all bragging rights arrives in my hands. Looking at the laps I covered, I managed a best of a 1:34, about 6 seconds faster than any lap in my first stint. The improvement leaves me wondering where I could be if given another 20 minutes on-track but I dig into some community french fries instead. As I shove a handful of trademarked taste into my mouth, I wonder how I could possibly shave 14 seconds off my lap-time to maintain pace with the fast members of the team.
During the long drive back to Coventry I realize that this day probably typifies most in the life of an amateur racing driver. A long way from the spotless trailers, catering coaches and private rooms of F1 drivers, this is what you must endure if you want to eventually make it to the top. I ask myself, even if I had the chance, could I really live like this for my entire youth just for a chance at a even a lower class of single-seater racing? To be honest I don’t think I could, but at least I have a new-found respect for those who have.
About the Author: Daniel Kim is a graduate of Coventry University’s Automotive Journalism Master’s program. He has worked at Ferrari North Europe, Evo magazine, Autocar and Formula Drift.