First invented in the USA during the late fifties, karting is a relatively young form of motor sport. Nonetheless it has been part of the 500 Club’s Kirkistown agenda for over forty years, during which time the karts as well as the sport itself have changed radically.
In the early days karts were pretty basic devices, some with so-called 'industrial' engines but many powered by 197cc Villiers motors as found on many small British motor cycles of the day. Many of the chassis were distinctly home-built.
But over the years karts, like their larger four wheeled relatives, developed. Engines became more specialised, bodywork began to appear and an increasing number of categories and classes arrived to broaden the appeal.
Chassis became more sophisticated and today the kart industry is a massive global success story which has consigned the ‘backyard specials’ to the history books.
In the process, karting grew in two directions. At grass roots and Junior levels so-called 'non-gearbox' machines with smaller engines catered for younger drivers hoping to progress through the ranks and ultimately graduate to cars.
At the other end of the spectrum ‘Superkarts’ with 125cc and 250cc two stroke power soon proved to be faster than all but the fastest formula cars, reaching speeds of up to 160mph and lapping Kirkistown’s 1.5 mile full circuit in less than a minute.
Present-day Superkarts feature highly sophisticated bodywork and wings, and boast a power to weight ratio comparable to that of current Formula 1 cars!
They now run at car meetings where they share the bill with Formula Fords, Roadsports and all the regular car classes. On two occasions last year, the fastest laps at car meetings were recorded by Superkart drivers.
The smaller non-gearbox karts, on the other hand, race at dedicated kart meetings on Kirkistown’s shorter, twistier kart track which is better-suited to their performance parameters.
Photo by Ian Lynas shows Alan Witherow (27) leading Liam Fox (NI) through the Crosslé Chicane. Both are in 250cc machines.
Before the formation of the Kart Section of the 500 MRCI the County Down Kart Club promoted races at the circuit for gearbox karts only, as standalone meetings. This was in the middle 1970's. Also during that decade the extremely rapid motorcycle engine powered karts - not yet called Superkarts - were invited on occasions to participate at Kirkistown car meetings.
In the summer of 1981 the karting circuit suitable for non gearbox karts was constructed at the westerly end of the Kirkistown circuit and at that time the County Down Kart Club was amalgamated into the 500 Motor Racing Club of Ireland as its Karting Section.
Over a period of almost 40 years, lots of young kartists learnt their racing craft at Kirkistown, many going on to join the ranks of professional racing drivers.
Interestingly though, while Superkarters tended to stay with the category, most of the ‘graduates’ came from non-gearbox classes where the close-quarter wheel to wheel nature of the racing provided invaluable training for the cut and thrust of professional car racing later on.
Most, if not all, the current crop of Grand Prix drivers started their careers in Junior, non-gearbox, karting. It’s a route pioneered by the likes of Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher and a great many others, and our own home grown talent has blossomed in the professional ranks as well.
Jonny Kane (Strakka Racing in the World Endurance Championship), Stephen Kane (Bentley M-Sport GT team), Wayne Boyd (United Autosports team in European Le Mans Series), Chris Meeke (Citroen in World Rally Championship), Colin Turkington (Team BMR in BTCC), Adam Carroll (Panasonic Jaguar Racing in Formula E) and Richard Lyons (Audi Team Hitotsuyama in Super GT Japan) all cut their racing teeth on non-gearbox karts, as did current Porsche Carrera Cup front runner Charlie Eastwood.
There are others too... And there will be more in the future.