Thursday, 16 May 2013

BRKC round 5. Raceland, Edinburgh, 11-12 May 2013 (part one)

(click here for part two)

"We can swap seats if you like...?"

I snap out of my reverie and drag my eyes away from the view. The white-haired lady sitting in the window seat is smiling indulgently at me. I remember that I'm not eleven any more, and that it might not be good form to stare out of the window past a complete stranger.

In my defence, it's a hell of a view. We're banking steeply, five hundred metres over the whitecaps in the Firth of Forth, and Edinburgh is laid out before us - a patchwork of green and stone in a thousand shades; the greystone castle dominating the streets from its rocky promontory. A mile inland, the mossy crags of Arthur's Seat loom through a cloudy, blustery May morning.

This is Britain's finest city in my opinion, and some of my happiest memories are rooted here. I know its museums and galleries, its eateries, its parks, tourist traps, nooks and crannies better than any other city in the world.

As we touch down I feel a thrill of excitement; a familiar tingle, but not the usual sense of homecoming I get when arriving here. This weekend is different, and then some. No candlelit dinners or arm-in-arm strolls, no cultural enrichment. Just a windswept kart circuit overlooking the North Sea and a pure, sustained rush of adrenalin.

After months of anticipation, the BRKC has come to Raceland.

Local racer Ryan Smith's parents Neil and Diane have very kindly offered to fetch, carry and house me this weekend. It takes away much of the stress and bother associated with a trip like this, and is much appreciated. They welcome me to their house in Dunbar, and we while away a pleasant couple of hours over tea and bacon rolls. Ryan is absent: recently employed at the circuit, he'll be marshalling our practice race later on. Maggie the cat looks me over and makes it clear that although I'm not Ryan, she will tolerate my presence for now.

3pm. As I sign on the dotted line in Raceland's cosy reception area, familiar faces are beginning to appear. Brad, Becca, Alex Vangeen, Michael Weddell, the usual crowd of devoted parents and precocious offspring: Purcocks, Hackett, Truman, Mays, Marsh... the lethargy of an early start begins to fall away.

Raceland's diner and reception area overlooks a cavernous indoor circuit, but it's the full-fat 930 metre outdoor circuit that we'll be competing on. For the weekend, the BRKC will base itself in the trackside paddock with its spectator area and clubhouse, with regular forays into the diner for refreshment. The facilities are very good, the food menu particularly impressive for a kart circuit.

But we haven't come all this way for the cuisine. As race director Graham Nairn welcomes us and the engines begin to clatter into life outside, it's time to focus inward. There are no championship points for today's race, but it serves as a crucial prelude to the main event. We'll have a practice session, three heats and a final - 45 laps or so - to find the sweet spot of this fast, challenging circuit and the fleet of single-engined Sodikarts.

Given that some of the competition have been racing here since they were in nappies, fighting near the front will be an even tougher ask than usual. But I'm trying not to confuse realism with pessimism; as Becca reminds me, anything can happen.

The ten-minute practice session is one of the most emphatic displays of raw talent that I've even seen in karting, the difference between the great and the merely very good clearly shown on the leaderboard. Local driver Michael Weddell is near the top, as you'd expect. But after just nine dry laps, both BRKC champion Lee Hackett and Bradley Philpot have gone faster, with most of the rest of us half a second or more off the pace. I'm a full second slower, struggling to keep the nose of the kart from washing wide in the fast corners.

With a maximum of 20 karts on track at once - more than we're used to - all of us will race in every heat today. As usual, the computer has allocated our starting positions in such a way that we all have the same opportunities (in theory) over the three heats. I've been allocated a third place start, one near the middle and one near the back.

There's almost no opportunity to feel what's underneath you before the race starts: we roll straight out of the pitlane onto the track. There are no lights, just a marshal wielding a Saltyre flag. A scene from Braveheart pops into my head and is swiftly banished.

I'm moving as it starts to drop; a good start, but I've nowhere to go. The 90 degree right hander at turn 1 is upon us; we muddle through, three abreast, and rocket downhill to the hairpin. Now, I know it's the very first race, most of us are new to the circuit, and the field is bigger than usual - but everyone seems to have forgotten what the left pedal is for. It all goes a bit Demolition Derby. I take to the outside to avoid the worst of the carnage, but am clattered hard onto the bricked runoff at the exit, and lose several places. Come on you lot, I think. We can do better than this.

And, over the following three races, we do. As the afternoon darkens, wind whipping the thickening clouds overhead, the frontrunning pace slows perceptibly as track conditions worsen. My laptimes hold steady, to the tenth of a second - indicating a net gain. On track, the carnage lessens. But there are some wild moments, including a sphincter-clenching moment for Alex and I: three abreast into the fast right-hander at the bottom of the hill, I'm baulked by the third driver, lift, and am tapped by Alex. Suddenly we're both out of control at fifty miles an hour with the tyre wall looming...

Somehow, we manage not to hit the barriers or each other. But I'm glad I bought a spare set of underwear.

You have to be very sure of yourself when passing here. I'm normally good in hairpins, but this one has me swearing. I'm either too slow or too sideways, and while it looks like the best opportunity to pass, it's far easier to find yourself barrelling into a narrowing gap. Half alongside Rhianna under braking, I lock up and clout her at the apex. I manage to give her the place back without losing another. Lesson learned. Impossible as it first seems, it's actually easier to pass in the faster corners.

There's a short break in between each heat, and the mood in the clubhouse is very positive. The circuit is receiving rave reviews: we're loving the white-knuckle ride at the bottom of the hill, the need to be inch-precise through the high-speed turns with their vicious saw-toothed kerbs. By and large, the karts are good, although the tyres are well past their best. These, we're promised, will be refreshed before the main event tomorrow.

I'm improving, though the results don't reflect it. My style doesn't suit this circuit/kart combination, and I'm having to improvise. Blessed with limited natural gift compared to a Hackett or Philpot, that's taking some time. I can already see that my biggest problem is a lack of raw aggression; I'm too tentative in wheel-to-wheel combat.

I finish 13th. The result counts for nothing, and I've taken on a wealth of vital information, but it's impossible not to be disappointed. I remind myself that I was dog-slow at Hereford in the Saturday race, and nabbed a B-final podium the following day. There'll be work to do in practice tomorrow before I'm fully confident, but I'll get there.

Ominously for the Scots, Brad and Lee have remained at the sharp end right to the flag. They won't have Brad to contend with tomorrow, but Lee is, as ever, a very real threat. There's honour at stake here: only a local winner will do.

Throughout the afternoon, Ryan has been stationed on the infield marshal's post, dressed in marshal's garb and wellies instead of his usual Power Ranger red overalls. With the race over, he has a few more chores to attend to. As the BRKC drivers pack up and disperse, Neil, Diane and I wait for him in the diner. I eavesdrop on the chatter, and am heartened to hear that the marshals are impressed with our pace. In the final, the entire 18 kart field was covered by less than 15 seconds.

One marshal remarks to Brad (insert Cod Scottish accent here):
"Some of your laddies are bloody quick..."

And I'm thinking, you ain't seen nothing yet.

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