There are very few grandfathers racing karts today, and even fewer great grandfathers. I’m one of those few great grandfathers, but at the grizzly old age of 71, yesterday was my final hurrah.
I knew when I awoke yesterday morning that after 22 years of road racing with Southern California Karters, and 6 years of sprint kart racing with the Navarre Kart Club in Navarre Ohio in the early 60’s, it was finally time to wrap it all up.
Throughout the years, I have enjoyed working on karts and kart engines nearly as much as I have loved racing them. In the 1960s I worked on the West Bend 580s and 700s, the McCullochs and the Power Products engines that were sold by Sears. When I began road racing enduro karts in the 1980s, my first kart, a well-used 1970s vintage Banzai, came with a Yamaha on it, and I stayed with Yamaha engines the entire 22 years.
Although I really love kart racing, I was never really very good at it. The few club championships that I won over the years were won more by endurance than by skill. On those rare occasions when I would win a race, it was usually because the fast drivers had dropped out of the race due to mechanical problems, crashes, or off road excursions.
Sometimes the fast drivers didn’t attend every club event, and my accumulated third fourth and fifth place finishes amounted to more total club points by the end of the season, and I would win the class championship essentially because I attended every event.
I was an active board member with SCK for many years, but we were unable to help keep the organization afloat, and after more than a quarter century reigning as the king of enduro kart road racing in Southern California, the club has died a slow and agonizing death. The gradual evolution of enduro road racing karts into sit-up shifters effectively propelled enduro karts into a horrific death spiral, and the rapidly increasing costs of renting today’s top racing facilities such as California Speedway and Phoenix International permanently sealed kart road racing’s coffin in Southern California.
But I digress. I expected my last race yesterday to be rather uneventful, and assured my frustrated and overly concerned spouse of fifty-one years that my grand finale would probably end with a “whimper,” and certainly not with a “bang.”
With the demise of the once-proud Southern California Karters, some of the SCK road racing die-hards had joined the Northern California Karters organization. I too had been enticed into joining the organization when one of my SCK board member friends told me that NCK was offering a free race entry to the buddy of an existing member, as long as the buddy joins the club. I decided to join the club and accept the “free race” offer, but just for my grand finale.
I had signed up for two classes at the Buttonwillow Raceway Park in Buttonwillow, California. The first race of the day was Yamaha Heavy, but after only 3 or 4 laps, the drive belt decided it had enough, and we parted company.
After being towed back to the pits, my loving wife and chief kart starter Shirley informed me that it was time to load it up and head back home to the warmth and comfort of the old rocking chair. I argued that we had driven two and a half hours to get to Buttonwillow, and I didn’t feel that I had had enough track time to call the race my “grand finale.” Like the good person she is, she reluctantly agreed, and I began making preparations for my final kart race on planet earth. Any future races for me would be on that great kart race track in the sky.
My only goal yesterday was to just finish the race. In order to do that, I knew I had to take it easy, stay on the asphalt of the very unfamiliar track, and most of all, be certain that I didn’t take anyone else out of the race due to my inexperience on the NCK track.
Unfortunately, I got off to a very poor start, and my desire to “just finish the race” was quickly replaced by the old “killer” racing instinct, as I desperately tried to catch the fleeing karts that were now way out in front of me. I knew that I was driving over my head, but seemingly had no control over it. My first mistake was taking a wrong turn and blasting down through the hot pit lane like a crazed banshee. But in defense of my inexperience on the Buttonwillow track along with my apparent stupidity, there were no cones marking the entrance to the pits. You had to “know” that that particular turn went into the pits.
Now I was really behind, so I began driving a little deeper into the turns. Just when I thought I was beginning to get “the feel” of the track, I blew completely through a turn and left the track to plow through some of the finest soft sand in California’s central valley. My momentum, along with cleverly feathering the throttle to keep the wheels churning and the engine from dying, was enough to keep me propelling across 200 feet of the track’s expansive infield and make it back to solid asphalt. Unfortunately, the asphalt I had made it to was not part of the official race course, so I had to rev up the tired little Yamaha and tear up another 50 feet of the infield’s previously smooth valley sand to get back on course.
I made it to the track with the knowledge that I would soon receive the dreaded, but admittedly well-deserved, black flag. Apparently, the track officials either felt sorry for me, or were so surprised by my uncanny tour through the infield that they chose to allow me to continue, if I was able. I was fortunate that I didn’t receive the hideous “get off the track, dummy” flag that I should have been awarded, but my troubles were not over.
Due to my off-road excursion through the central valley, the engine was severely overheating, and worse, the throttle was stuck wide open. I could smell the smoke from my burning brakes as I fought to keep the ancient 1987 Motive Systems Enduro kart from taking off into the infield again at every turn. Furiously, I tried to move the pedal back and fourth with my foot, with no success, and I knew that I would have to kill the engine. This, of course, would put and end to my extreme desire to finish the final race of my beloved hobby.
Again, my luck changed for the better, and just as I was preparing to end my long, but relatively lackluster racing career, the throttle came to life, and I was again attacking the turns with gusto. I knew that I would never catch up with my class, but now I was concerned that they would soon lap me on the three mile road course, as if I hadn’t embarrassed myself enough already.
I had to keep from being lapped, so I pushed even harder, and, forgetting where I was on the track, blasted through the hot pits yet again. I could almost hear the flagman laughing hysterically at me. Now I’m further behind, and lapping was not only eminent, but as I discovered later, had already occurred while I was practicing my unplanned pit stop strategy.
But I was not through embarrassing myself in this, the last kart race of my life. On the very last turn of the very last lap of my very last race, I dove into the apex in a futile attempt to unlap myself from the second place driver, a good friend, fellow SCK board member, and IKF board member, Debbie Kuntze. We bumped, and out of the corner of my eye, I could see my friend ricochet towards the edge of the track. It was then that I knew for sure that my illustrious karting career had at last come to a grinding halt.
Fortunately, Debbie was able to continue on to her second place finish, and after apologizing profusely, I went to find my better, nay, “far superior” half to ask if I would be permitted to return to our once happy abode. She responded by screaming, “Just what the hell did you think you were you doing out there in the dirt?” There was no logical explanation then, there is none now, and there never will be one. Not even when I get to that great kart race track in the sky.