As kids, some of you may have been lucky enough to own a prized go-kart. Usually fashioned by your dad out of scrap wood, old pram wheels, and anything else that came to hand, these afforded hours of daredevil pleasure racing around the streets.
The modern sport of karting is a world away from these much-loved, home-made affairs. It had inauspicious beginnings, being invented by British airmen who strapped lawnmower engines to traditional go-karts to race them in order to alleviate boredom between missions. It is now one of the fastest growing motor sports in the world, and with major races covered on television, karting offers all the thrills and spills of professional motor racing. Enjoyed by young and old alike, and women as well as men, karting is very often the first rung on the ladder to Formula One success. It was said to have been an obsession in the Schumacher household, and other past karting champions include Ayrton Senna, and Britain's very own Damon Hill, Jensen Button and David Coulthard. In fact, many of Formula One's current stars still use karts to perfect their driving skills and improve their reactions. However, many of you will be surprised to learn that a current British Champion in the sport is actually a local lad, Garth Dyer. Garth originally hails from Solihull, but has lived in Ridge Road, Kingswinford now for two decades.
Garth became attracted to the sport in his twenties. A friend owned a kart, and invited Garth to take it for a spin on the track at Birmingham Wheels. Garth had always loved any form of motor sport, and was immediately hooked. He eventually bought his own 100 cc kart, and his immediate flair and innate skill caught the attention of a local team who raced gearbox karts, which have four gears resembling a motorbike transmission. Not long afterwards, Garth heard that a gearbox 210 kart was up for sale, but it was no ordinary kart; this had put its owner among the top five karters of the country. Garth bought it, and within a short time he was breaking the course records set by the kart's previous owner!
Garth decided to compete in the 210 Challenge Short Circuit category, 210 being the cc of the engines in the karts, the biggest in their class. Many top-class racing drivers, including Nigel Mansell, came to Formula 1 via this class, and Garth is proud to say that on some of the many trophies he has won, Nigel's name is also inscribed as a past winner.
It was no mean feat to enter this competitive category. There were strict safety checks, including an Arks test, which all Formula 1 drivers also have to pass. Garth was monitored on several tracks and had to produce a reasonable lap time, before finally gaining the signatures of six stewards before he was granted his A Class racing licence.
Despite karting being the cheapest form of motor sport, it is still an expensive hobby. Top class karts cost in the region of two or three thousand pounds, and added to that are a myriad of travelling, accommodation, clothing, mechanical and equipment expenses. Of course, since the sport is run on a strictly amateur basis, there are no cash prizes, even for the championship title, which would offset these costs. Many karters are now turning to sponsorship to help them compete at the highest level, and while Garth is sponsored by his own business, the signage and screen printing company Allstick Signs and Print Ltd., like many others on the sport he would welcome further investment.
While safety checks are very stringent, karting can be highly dangerous; people have been seriously injured, and even killed. This comes as little surprise when you take into account that 210cc Villiers kart engines deliver some 40 bhp and reach speeds in excess of 85 or 90 miles per hour on short circuits, and 130 miles per hour or more on long circuits such as Brands Hatch or Donington. There is scant protection for the driver, and the karts have no suspension beyond the air in their slick tyres, meaning that the driver is only an inch or so from the track surface. Garth, however, admits that he has been lucky: "I've had a broken kart a few times, but never any broken bones!" In fact, Garth witnessed the worst accident he has ever seen last weekend, when a fellow competitor fell over a fence while running towards his kart and dislocated his shoulder!
However, with such breakneck speeds involved, karters leave nothing to chance. An iron determination and bags of skill are required, as even the best kart in the world alone will not win a race. Equipment, however, can make a difference, and karts will run differently from track to track. Garth keeps copious notes about each race for future reference, as even a difference in tyre pressure of 3 psi can make or break a performance.
Garth entered his first serious season in 2001/2002, and even he concedes that it was a very difficult year. There would be thirty karts on the starting grid, and as a novice, Garth had to start at the back. Astonishingly, Garth came fourth overall in this first season, the highest position ever achieved by a novice, and an achievement that led to him being dubbed the "Novice Rocket" in karting circles!
Garth topped this accomplishment last season, with a stunning performance in the breathless final race of the season at Shenington in the Cotswolds, taking second place and 313 points overall to clinch the title of 210 Challenge 2003 Short Circuit Champion. Within two short seasons, Garth had reached the very pinnacle of the sport, adding yet another handsome trophy to the glittering haul of silverware at his Kingswinford home.
Sadly, mechanical problems have dogged Garth during the first two meetings of this season, and he is toying with moving up a class to the 250 cc category. However, the 210 Challenge is renowned to be a friendly category, with real sportsmanship shown on the track and a genuine camaraderie off it, so Garth is still reluctant at the moment. He certainly has no plans to retire from competitive racing just yet. "It's a great thrill on a track," he explains. "The anticipation virtually knocks you out, and the buzz of winning is like passing your driving test every time. As soon as the butterflies in my stomach stop, then it will be time for me to give up."