Friday, 30 September 2011

Daytona Milton Keynes, 23 September 2011


A moment frozen in time. Two metres wide of the kerb at turn 9, Daytona's fast left-hander - and under the helmet, sweat is suddenly cold on my forehead. The kart is near-sideways on the dusty, off-line tarmac, at the thick end of sixty miles an hour; I've got the steering wheel wrenched as far right as it will go, but the tyre walls loom.

Time speeds up; a squirt of throttle half-pushes the rear into line as the tyres kiss the grass - and the rear bumper thwacks the edge of the tyre wall, kicking the kart straight as we barrel past. I'm braking hard, trying not to lock up, trying to keep out of the catchment fences beyond the hairpin, twenty metres away.

Crisis averted. I negotiate the hairpin at a crawl, and breathe. Kart: undamaged. Body: undamaged. Underwear: mildly soiled, but serviceable. It's rare that I'm genuinely frightened in a kart, but that was, to quote Monty Halls, 'moderately close'.

After a dozen years and thousands of laps driving this circuit in 13 horsepower prokarts, I've moved up a gear. Daytona's 22 horsepower D-Max karts have been in situ for three years, and tonight is my long-overdue first taste of the two-stroke, high-revving machines. It's come not a moment too soon: in three weeks' time I will be racing a D-Max in the Daytona 24 Hours, as one-fifth of the Race Drivers Inc team. It's a dry, balmy Friday evening, and I have two hours of practice time. Early indications are that I'm going to need every second.

It might still have four wheels and a seat, but the D-Max is a completely different animal to the prokart. Virtually every detail is new to me: tyres, weight (20kg lighter according to the seat of my pants), wheelbase (several inches shorter according to my legs), and, of course, the power delivery. A prokart's power is delivered in a constant swell from idle to maximum; this two-stroke engine feels gutless at first press of the throttle pedal, but once the revs rise into the power band it's as if warp has engaged: the rear tyres will spin on a dry track, and the next corner is reeled towards you at breathtaking speed. It's very hard to be objective with one's backside this close to the Tarmac, but I'd guess that we're cresting the brow of the hill at around 70mph.

I spend five laps grinning stupidly and shouting "Wheee!" at every press of the right pedal, and then get down to the serious business of unlearning the circuit. My prokart-honed rhythm is all wrong; every corner arrives sooner and faster than I expect, and the circuit seems to have gained an extra two turns. Turn 1, so easily flat-out in a prokart that it serves only as a prelude to the fast chicane that follows, has morphed into a ragged-edge, wide-eyed thrill ride. Likewise the downhill kink before turn 9, which leads onto the back straight.

After fifteen laps, a lot of squealing rubber and the aforementioned brown trouser moment, I pit to have a look at the laptimes. I'm very slow - barely into the 1 minute 9 bracket. I've been faster around here in a prokart. It's disappointing, but the circuit is clearly having an off night: nobody's managed better than a mid 1.08. On a good day the karts are capable of 1.05s.

I'm joined tonight by Jack Stanley - former teammate and future Daytona 24 Hours captain. Jack has plenty of DMax experience and is full of useful tips. Our weights are virtually identical: karts and talent notwithstanding, I should be able to match him. After my first session, I'm 1.3 seconds slower. Not too bad, but there's work to be done.

Although the weather conditions are perfect, our on-track companions leave much to be desired. Over the next hour and a half, barely a minute passes without a hapless driver buried in the tyrewall; the attendant yellow warning flags mean I'm forced to abandon dozens of good laps. I know what you're thinking. Yes, racing drivers will always find something to moan about.

Still, in between the disruptions, I learn. I learn to be super-gentle on the brakes, to stop the rear wheels locking over the bumps into turns two and nine. Where a prokart is leaden-footed, the DMax is on tiptoes, quick to snap into oversteer; I learn to anticipate it, use its responsiveness. And I begin to learn to get back on the power before every apex, to stop the engine falling out of its narrow powerband.

After nearly seventy laps I set a best of 1.07.381. Jack has set the fastest time of the night, a 1.06.886. I'm less than half a second adrift, and still learning: I'm happy with that. After a lot of locked brakes and sweaty moments early on, I'm beginning to get comfortable and find the consistency I'll need.

Eleven days after a minor operation, I'm not at my physical best, but my body has stood up well. Better still, my hands are unblistered, courtesy of a new set of motocross-spec palm protectors. It's taken a significant mental effort to keep the DMax on track, though; more than ever, the Daytona 24 Hours is going to demand total focus.

With a little over two weeks to go, I can't wait - but there's the small matter of the BRKC O-plate to get through first. A one off, weight-equalised race on a new circuit against a mix of the usual BRKC suspects and a mighty quick group of locals.

Fun times. Watch this space...

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