A la Kart

Article excerpt

Byline: SIMON LEWIS

The fat class: that's where I fit in. No, it's not aTuesdaynightgym workoutwithRik Waller. It's the weight grade I'm supposed to be in at the kart track. Aguy informed me of this as I came into the pits after my first trip out in mynew toy. Most chefs would have taken offence and leapt over the barrier toplant one on him. The fact that I was crammed into the seat and needed a liftout was one reason why I didn't. The other was the vast number of skinny kidson the track.

These weren't the computer-game-obsessed chub-bers I'm used to bumping into atmy mates' houses. They were young Lewis Hamiltons. And I do mean young. Somewere clearly only days old - I'm sure their dads slapped helmets and raceoveralls on them before they fell off the table on to the delivery-room floor.And they were tiny, which makes all the difference. Well, that was my excusefor my 48-second lap time - these nippers could blast round in 43. That's whythey needed a 'fat class' (over 177lb driver weight) for lumps like me.

'For god's sake don't call it go-karting.' That was the first thing Tom themechanic corrected me on. 'These are karts, no prefix, full stop. Go-karts arewhat you driveonbeaches.'NotonanybeachesIknow,I thought. In fact, the last beach I remember was in Scarborough and the onlythings moving on that were rubbish in the wind and disgruntled donkeys at [pounds sterling]1 aride. We used to go there all the time in the summer holidays - me, my folksand my sister Charlotte, subsistingfordaysonnothingbutpinkcandyfloss, mussels with vinegar and rock in the shape of a fried breakfast.Food-wise it wasn't the best education but it was in Scarborough that my loveaffair with cars began.

It was 1985. We were walking down the beachfront, just passing the massiveHenry Marshall's amusement arcade, when I saw it: a brand-new Aston Martin V8Vantage, dark blue with a cream hood and chrome wheels so clean it must havebeen on the road only a few days. It was a Prince Of Wales Edition - some[pounds sterling]60,000 back then and worth four times as much now.

In awe, and with my 99 Flake dripping down my fingers, I tried to clamber upfor a peek inside. As my dad yanked me back to keep the vanilla off thepaintwork I was joined by a crowd of kids my age all doing the same thing:'Dad, dad, dad, have you seen this?' Then the owner's missus - twentysomethingwith never-ending legs in a miniskirt - climbed into the passenger seat andstrangely the dads were now elbowing their way to the front until the mumsdragged everyone away. The car blasted off down the road and I stood theredreaming that one day it would be mine, all mine.

Twenty years later, two days before my 34th birthday and with my garagessatisfyingly full, I sat wondering what to treat myself to. It wouldn't be aVantage - I'd learned in the meantime that V8 Astons spendmoretimeinthegaragethanontheroad, with parts and servicing costing lottery-stupid money. No, I wanted fast,uncomplicated fun. I bashed 'fast karts' into Google and started salivating.

Karts come in a bewildering choice of chassis and engine sizes to fit driversaged from eight to adult. At the outer limit are the '250 National' gearedmachines, with a 250cc motorbike engine strapped into a chassis lighter than myundies. They'll hit 140mph with the driver's backside three millimetres fromthe floor but can cost tens of thousands a year to buy and run. Costs are evenhigher for the smaller-capacity but highly tuned and very grippy-tyred 'FormulaA' karts that Lewis Hamilton used to race. Worth it for Lewis but a bit overthe top for my birthday treat.

I went for something in the Rotax Max class, a couple of levels down from Lewisand by far the most popular in the UK. It cost less than three grand fromFrench company Alpha, the current industry leader. And I got theimportertoinstallaspecialist-preparedengine - well, I wasn't going to settle for a normal one, was I? …