On our way to the track, my colleague Tom ‘TomTom’ Nicholson tried to gain the psychological advantage by outlining in painstaking detail his professional history in karts (namely, a few birthday parties as a child). My prior experience is 10 years no claims bonus and no points on my licence, which had me worried. Even though Tom hasn’t driven ever, really, since passing his test, he should still be the better karter.
Happily, he wasn’t. Suited up and in our karts, I managed to tear around the track a full second ahead of Tom (on average). There were nine of us on the two-tier track, just the right number of people for plenty of jostling and competitive racing (though it was at the upper end of crowded: if someone crashed out, causing the marshals to wave the yellow flag that prevents overtaking, the race did turn into a procession for a lap or two).
There was something invigorating about tearing around the track in a kart, and the speed they reached was faster than I’d expected. For careful drivers like me (that decade’s-worth of no claims is something I cherish), the chance to let loose and throw the karts into the corners and chicanes was a welcome change.
And even if you’re not the most competitive person, the challenge of beating your best time on track – and of staying ahead or overtaking your mates – gets you revving your engine, particularly after a brief break for rehydration at the on-site bar. Sensibly, they don’t serve you alcohol between sessions on the track.
Stepping out of the kart I felt a sense of pride that I’d managed to hold off Tom, despite his prior experience. When’s the next time on track?
Chris Stokel-Walker, Arts & Gardening Editor
This was the first time I’d driven since The Unpleasantness. Waiting in the bar beforehand, sipping at a Diet Pepsi, I tried to look at home in my padded race suit. It’s fine, I thought. I can beat this floppy-haired fop. He doesn’t even know how to bleed a radiator. How’s he going to handle the raw venom of a 20bhp kart? Chris Stokel-Walker, he calls himself. They should call him Chris Slowpoke-Walkingpace.
Before the first race, though, I started to feel a little queasy. I have good memories of karting as a boy, terrifying the youth of Warrington with my chicanery, but I’ve avoided driving actual cars since about a fortnight after I passed my test. Looking out at the track and the karts whizzing round, I tried to focus. I wasn’t just trying to outrun my colleague. I wanted to outrun my past.
Suddenly, the revving of the engines hit a crescendo. Then came the memories. The Unpleasantness. Hot, prickling shame started to crack and break across my forehead and the back of my neck.
I’m 18 again, gripping the wheel of my mum’s Volvo S40. It’s the end of a humid August day and the car is full of the smell of warm polyester and boiled raspberry travel sweets. The sweat from my palms slicks the wheel. My breath comes in short bursts through my nostrils. I’ve been trying and failing to get out of this petrol station forecourt for 25 minutes. Every time there’s a gap in the rush hour traffic, I go to dive in but I stall. Seventeen times. Maybe 18. A Renault Espace slows and waves me into the queue. Eyes widening, I jab uncertainly at the pedals. The Volvo jousts forward, spluttering indignantly. The Espace moves on. I can see the driver shaking her head. A doughy man wearing a polo shirt gets out of his Range Rover to scream at me. I turn to apologise. ‘I know,’ I want to say. ‘I know. It’s just a thing with the S40. If you’re turning up a slight incline, it has a propensity to stall. Combine that with a low bite point and a jumpy teen who passed his test a week ago, and you see how we have arrived at the fine mess in which we find ourselves.’ But the words won’t come. I gawp at the raging mass. Spittle flecks my window. The man gets back in his car. I stall again. And again. And again.
That was the last time I drove.
Suddenly it’s go time. I settle into the bucket seat and shift about uncertainly. Pedals. Yes, I remember pedals. I remember when pedals let me down. This is the end of the uneasy détente between pedals and I. I jab uncertainly at the them and shoot out onto the track. Another quick tap at the accelerator nearly launches me into a wall but I snatch the kart right then left, swinging around a hairpin and flooring it down a ramp and drifting sideways around a right-angled turn.
I am Hamilton. I am McRae. I am Mansell, Hill and Coulthard, but with a better collection of trainers than all three put together. YOUR ARSE IS MINE, SLOWPOKE-WALKINGPACE.
After the first race, the gap is an extremely narrow nine seconds. Knowing I needed to sharpen up or risk having to punch Chris in the face to preserve what’s left of my shattered pride, I chat to Matty Graham, a pro driver from Stamfordham. He advises using the two-tier circuit’s quirks to my advantage, trusting the kart to stick to the track on the upper level and playing it safe on the slicker, skiddier subterranean part of the track. I nod sagely and return to my kart.
Matty’s advice falls out of my head almost immediately, the padded race suit becoming a romper for this overgrown baby to throw himself around the track in unencumbered by fiddly concepts like ‘race tactics’ or ‘basic notions of decency’. Trapped behind a slowcoach who’s keeping me to 75 second-plus lap times, I start to get frustrated, nearly spinning out while attempting wild, swinging passes on the lower part of the track.
Finally, with one lap left, I spot my chance. I manage to get my nose on the inside line going round a hairpin with the other kart still half a length ahead of me, forcing him wide as we turn into another hairpin. I keep the line and he drops behind me as I hit the apex. I floor it and clock 70.623 seconds.
Chris – the smug, dandyish, soft-palmed, 10-years-no-claims bore – has pipped me by three tenths of a second. He’s shaken up though. His face is drawn, bloodless, shiny with cold sweat. He knows that if he’d not had one of his stooges blocking me for four laps, he’d have been in real trouble. I may not have won this time, but I have at least proven that you really can outrun your demons – as long as you’re quick enough.
Tom Nicholson, Food and Men’s Editor