Burn rubber on me: At the go-kart track, nice young men become testosterone-crazed Damon Hill wannabes

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Indy Lifestyle Online
I'm flying down the back straight flat out at what feels like 90mph (it's closer to 35), wheel to wheel with an opponent. A sharp left-hander looms. Whose nerve will give first? He brakes early and goes for the inside lane. I hold on, swing wide, brake late and sail triumphantly past on the outside. If this was football I'd yell, 'Goooooaaaaallllll.'

OK, I'll admit it, one practice lap and I'm sold. Two hours earlier I had been the reluctant racer, the prospect of a hot summer's evening at an indoor go-karting track on Wood Lane, W12, seemed about as attractive as the inside of Stirling Moss's helmet after 60 laps of Silverstone.

Rob Graham, the race director, had worked hard to get me excited. Daytona Raceway was designed by Damon Hill, he said; 35,000 people come here a year, from corporate entertainers to highly skilled, race-hardened karters. Personalities change completely on the racetrack, he added. 'The mildest-mannered folk become the most demented racers with a completely distorted set of values, just for a plastic trophy. Oh dear, I was afraid of that.

Tonight's meeting would be an endurance race, organised for 40 men from Express Dairies in Ruislip. Eight teams of five would try to complete as many 400m laps as possible in two hours, the drivers changing every 10-15 minutes.

The air was thick with testosterone and the smell of hamburgers sizzling at the trackside 'diner as we 'suited up, karting-speak for putting on a set of red overalls with the words 'Daytona Raceway across the front. I looked like a Kwik-Fit fitter.

Nick Wright, who had arranged the evening, said he was a driver down and would I join his team. 'We're not taking it very seriously, he told me, sounding like those people who declare before exams: 'I haven't done any revision for this one.

I shook hands with Trevor, Brian and Steve, a mate of Nick's who works in cargo at Gatwick Airport and who is nicknamed 'Smelly. I was about to ask 'why Smelly? (as you would), when a couple of air-raid sirens blasted out over the PA. 'This is the air attack warning . . . ' boomed the 'man in the helicopter from the Barratt Homes commercial, and crash, we were into Frankie Goes to Hollywood's 'Two Tribes.

Trackside strobe lights flashed, while a septet of orange boiler-suited marshalls stood to attention, radio mikes strapped to their heads. My God, I thought, it's Blake's Seven] A racer pumped against the crash barrier as Holly Johnson screamed: 'When two tribes go to war'. I looked at Peter, the photographer, and winced.

As the music faded, Rob invited us on to the track for a safety briefing. 'Indoor karting at Daytona Racing is a non-contact sport,' he explained. Fat chance. If there's one sure way to get 40 men to contemplate doing serious damage to each other, then playing the musical equivalent of angel dust beforehand must surely be it.

Rob ran through the warnings that would be waved at us during the race - a 'no bumping sign if your sense of competition becomes over-developed; yellow flags (slow down, there's been a crash) and black ones (you've done something unspeakably reckless, get off the track now). Each signal had to be acknowledged with a hand gesture of no fewer than three fingers.

To be honest, I got a bit distracted somewhere in between 'this is a Honda GX 160 four-stroke engine capable of generating 5.5 horsepower and how to tie up your suit (as baffling as doing up an airline life-jacket). And it was while Rob was still sounding like a stewardess, that I heard: 'In the unlikely event of a fire . . . Fire? Nobody told me about that.

I had trudged back to the drivers' enclosure, his last words dissolving into the theme music for BBC's grand prix racing: 'You're not immortal, you're not invincible. Dead right, I was petrified.

So the practice lap seems a good idea. Handy, I think, for discovering just how easy it is to pile one of these things into the side (very, by the way). But by the second lap I've learnt about overtaking, a lesson crowned by that sensational manoeuvre at the end of the back straight.

A team huddle to agree racing order. Two and a half hours means three lots of 10 minutes each. Trevor is the most experienced, so he's first. I'm second, followed by Nick, Steve and then Brian (black-flagged last time for ramming an opponent). Any tactics? 'Beat the bastards, says Nick.

'Le Wood Lane 2 is off. Trevor's first 10 minutes seem to take an age. A steady run - no startling speed, but no crashes - leaves us comfortably placed fourth out of eight. I leap in the kart, wait for a gap in the racers and screech out of the pit lane.

Hit top speed (35-40mph) on the back straight, only to be greeted by a black flag. 'What the bloody hell was that for?' I yell at Rob, the caution of the safety briefing forgotten inside a lap. 'You exited the pits on a red light, he explains. 'What red light? 'Exactly. Receive a one-minute penalty, costing the team four laps.

Half-way round and another black flag. I'm furious. 'What's it for this time? (actually, I'm not sure I was that polite). Their mistake, apparently. Desperate to make up time, I err on the wrong side of caution and immediately crash at full tilt into a barrier. The kart's completely wedged into a bank of tyres, the protective rubber border has crashed down on top of me. Waste a further 20 seconds.

Press on more steadily, but can't understand why everyone keeps asking (in sign language) if I'm OK. I'm soaked in sweat, but feel a cool breeze on my right shoulder. Look over and see the source of everyone's concern - my suit and shirt are completely shredded. My effort has knocked the team into last place, which makes it about as successful as Nigel Mansell's return to Formula One.

Nick rides a blinder and pushes us back to fourth. 'Yeees,' he says as he pulls off his helmet. 'I had a few there.' We see from the trackside monitor (a computer transmits each completed lap to screens in the team enclosures) that Steve has taken us into third. Suddenly the dream is alive - we talk of a position, a medal, a season in Grand Prix with MacLaren before making that tricky transition to Indy car racing. But Steve has an argument with a barrier, and by the changeover we're back down to sixth.

Brian takes charge, quickly nudging into fifth and then fourth. But his desperation to pass Team Six pushes him way out on the hairpin and bang, he's jammed in the tyres. 'Madman, says Trevor. 'Knob, adds Nick. On lap 138, he repeats the manoeuvre. Suddenly I feel better about my ride.

We refuel early to beat the rush. I race out (oh, that red light) for a second turn in sixth. Take one opponent on the back straight, another on the bend and a third on the exit from the chicane. We're back into third. Nick holds our position and halves the gap behind second place to three laps. The race is now for second (first's already been secured by a serious team which never pretended to be otherwise).

Steve continues the charge and as we reach the last 20 minutes, we're one lap off second place. Another team huddle. Brian sacrifices his turn for Trevor to make the final push.

Trevor flies out and within three minutes has closed the gap to half a lap. We then tell the second-placed team that we will make a final driver swop with 10 minutes to go. They agree to do the same and call in their man. We leave clever Trevor out on the track to claim and hold on to second place by a lap. A bit underhand, we'll agree, but so what? History will record that it was us, 'Team Four, spraying champagne from the podium as runners up (we completed 393 laps to the winners' 407).

Nick grabs me as we leave. 'If you talk about Express Dairies, can you mention Tony Denton - he's my guvnor, transport manager for London. Consider it done, captain.

Daytona Raceway, 54 Wood Lane, London W12 74Q. Tel (081) 749 2277. Circuit open every day from 10am to 11pm.

Lads' London

Go Karting

Formula Fun 2606 Western Ave, W3 (081 752 0554)

Formula 1 191 Townmead Rd, SW6 (071 371 7333)

Playscape Pro Racing Triangle Pl, SW4 (071 498 0916)

Quasar

Zap each other with laser guns at these arcades. Cut-price 'Happy hours' at quieter times. Branches include:

Frobisher Rd, N8 (081 348 9798); 13 Coventry St, W1 (071 734 8151); 2 Hardwicks Way, SW18 (081 871 9817); 124 Ladbroke Grove, W10 (071 243 8088); Edgware Rd, NW2 (081 208 4141)

Paintball

War games for Oliver Stone wannabes:

Electrowerks Two 7 Torrens St, EC1 (071 837 6419) Mon-Fri after 6pm. Games cost pounds 14.50 per head (for three hours) and include two tubes of paint, and a splatmaster or pump action paint gun. Weekend days cost pounds 21.50 a head for a five-hour game.

The Dogs

Catford Stadium (081 690 2261); Walthamstow Stadium (081 531 4255); The London Embassy Stadium (081 946 5361); Wimbledon Stadium (081 531 4255)

(Photograph omitted)

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