Still Learning. Part 1: Matt Tries Kart Racing - Pedal Progression
 

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13 September 2022

Still Learning. Part 1: Matt Tries Kart Racing

As coaches, we have analytical minds and we love using them to learn new skills, on and off the bike. Ever since I was a boy, I was captivated by cars, motorsport and going fast, however racing cars is an expensive pastime and one that my family couldn’t afford. I found bikes instead but always held the ambition to race cars if ever circumstance would allow it…

The car obsession has continued, alongside riding bikes. A couple of times a year I’d find myself in a go kart and would usually fair quite well against whoever else was on track. I had more trophies accruing from casual karting trips than from racing bikes!

Last year I found out I’d been regularly playing football with a guy (for the last 5 years) who raced karts and by all accounts was pretty good! Lewis invited me to go with him to our local track… It was a schooling, however he seemed impressed with my lap times and encouraged me to join a championship, the Southern Rental Kart Championship (SRK). This I found, is the most affordable way to go racing, renting the karts for race day in an arrive and drive fashion. Turn up, race, go home! Perfect! I entered three races of the twelve in the full season; Round 1 Castle Combe, round 2 Raceworld and round 3 at Thruxton.

Going into this championship, I had no previous organised kart racing experience (just with mates), I’d never driven in the rain and I’d absolutely no idea just how seriously people would take things! I like to commit to things early to make sure I prepare and ultimately follow through, so after I’d signed up to the races I bought myself a race suit, helmet, gloves and boots. For me, the investment would make it harder to walk away if I found things difficult early on; a sign of intent and commitment. I decided I would make sure to go karting once a week and would try as many different tracks as possible to best prepare myself for the races I’d signed up for.

Round One – Castle Combe (Wiltshire)

Castle Combe quickly came around and in my not knowing of what to expect, I had made little to no preparation. I’d not even driven the track before! My wife and I parked up on race day and when we got our first view of the track, and the bustling 50+ drivers surrounding it, I realised I was in deep! There were race suits adorned with sponsors and drivers names woven in, custom painted helmets and one chap had ‘British Indoor Kart Champion’ stitched into the back of his suit. To try an settle the nerves that instantly plagued me, I began chatting to some of the other drivers… As you can expect, some were nicer than others and one guy told me that this year, the championship was packed full of ‘big names’. Various winners, champions and veterans of the sport… and then me! I felt very small.

“There are three things I know to be super important when learning anything new; A positive mindset, commitment to practice and a willingness to fail… This can be a vulnerable place to be!”

The SRK is a sprint race format. The means you get a few laps in practice, 3 short sprint races with random grid starts; one race near the front, one in the middle of the pack and one towards the back and then the finals, split by the standings after the sprint races. So the fastest drivers race in the A final, the next chunk makes up the B final and so on. If you win your final, you get promoted to race in the next tiers final.

Castle Combe is a small track with limited overtaking spots. One of Lewis bits of advise to me, was that no race was won on the first corner but that you can lose on the first corner… How frustrating then, to find myself pushed out wide in the first corner of the first heat, with the other karts behind streaming past.

With the back straight on a slight ascent, I began to wonder if my kart was underpowered as I watched those in front drive away and leave me for dust… This as when I realised the importance of driver weight. To compete you have to be a minimum weight of 80kg with all of your kit. If you’re under 80kg you can carry lead in your kart to ‘weigh up’. If you’re overweight, you pay the performance penalty that comes with that. I was 86kg in race kit! Never in my life had I been overweight for anything, so this was a shock, as was the difference 6kg made practically on the track!

I finished the day 50th out of 57th with mixed feelings but with some clear learnings and things to sort out before the next round:

  • Lose some weight (6kg ideally!!!)
  • Make sure to practice the tack before race day

Progress

In April, I went to a stag party in Wales. A check in with Google let me know that Glan Y Gors karting track was only a short drive away. This is an outdoor track that has European fame! I had to make the trip whilst up that way. On arrival I was told David Couthard (ex F1 driver and pundit) had just visited with his son the previous day. It was 9am and the track empty. I was booked onto the first 4 sessions of the day with 3 other people. It soon became obvious that I was significantly quicker (lapping at about 1 minute on the nose) than them and whilst having a fun time, I had no measure of how I was performing… That was until an older chap arrived, also wearing his own karting kit.

After my first session, he came over and introduced himself, saying he’d been watching me on track. He told me I was braking in one place I shouldn’t and not in another place that I should! This was a revelation to me and at first made little sense, but this track was his local so I took his advice. In my second session I tried what he said and dropped a second from my best lap time! He came out on track for my third session and followed behind me. Where I was slower, he’d nudge me to let me know I’d lost time in that spot (usually before a corner). Then he overtook me, which again showed where I was losing time. I changed my line and braking accordingly. For my fourth session, he told me to follow him and stay with him. My best time dropped to 57.991 and I found myself on his bumper consistently for my final 3 laps of the session! I felt much faster. It turned out he was sitting third in a Championship he was racing in, so I felt pretty satisfied that I’d been able to match him.

The advise (and essentially coaching) I’d received had been invaluable and the results were clear. Now I had to work out a way to transfer my learnings to different tracks.

Round Two And Three – Raceworld (Exeter)

Learning from Round One, I made a trip to the Exeter track a couple weeks in advance of the race to get some practice in. I went on a week day and was the only booking that afternoon, meaning I had the track to myself! Not only that, I was able to lean on the advise of the staff who were there with little to do. A couple of them even joined me on track to help me get the lines needed to be competitive. My preparation didn’t end there… I’d also managed to drop 3kg, meaning I was still ‘overweight’ but I’d halved the 6kg I extra I was carrying in Round One.

The karts were unique in style as was the track surface and it took some getting used to, so I was glad to have made a trip prior to race day. Exeter would make up two rounds; one running the circuit clockwise and one anticlockwise but all on the same day. After round one was over, I looked at the days standings and felt so dejected! For all the work I’d put in, I was nowhere! It meant going into Round Three (the afternoon session) my head was gone and I was believing for very little in terms of a result. Crucially this really effected my enjoyment towards the end of the day.

It was a long day of racing and once again I was well off the pace but still not right at the back, finishing 36th of 44. Still, I learned some things going into Round Four:

  • Lose more weight (3kg to go)
  • Practicing the track in advance calms the nerves and is massively useful
  • Try not to take the racing so seriously. Enjoy it!
  • I’m new here. There’s no pressure

Round Four – Thruxton (Andover)

Thruxton was the track I was most excited about! The kart track is sited next to the legendary racetrack that I’d visited so many times to watch motorsport over the years. Once again I’d tried to get some practice ahead of the day but it hadn’t worked out as I’d hoped, so I was going there blind! I’d managed to lose another kilo and I vowed to myself that I wouldn’t check the standings as the day went on, until racing was over. Instead I’d just enjoy the experience as it came.

I got into my kart for the practice session just as the heavens opened! Having never driven in wet conditions (and on slick tyres) I had no idea what to expect. I drove up the pit straight and turned in left to turn one. The kart went straight on putting me into the gravel! Everyone else seemed to get around the turn fine. Scratching my head I drove back onto the track and on the next corner, the same thing happened! The anxiety kicked in and left me thinking ‘I can’t do this’.┬áLuckily that was the only shower of the day and the track had dried out before my first heat.

My three heats were very enjoyable and for the most part I felt competitive in the middle of the pack, with a couple of silly mistakes costing me positions. I loved the track (which always helps) and keeping my distance from the leaderboard helped keep things fun. In fact, it was the most fun I’d had in a competitive kart race up to that point.

With the three heats up, I’d qualified for the C final. That meant I was in the top 75% of the field. Winning the C final would give me a chance of finishing in the top 50%. I quickly realised that whatever happened in the final, this would be my best finish of the season… The adrenaline was pumping as I sat waiting for the green light. I was mid grid and got a great start off the line as we headed towards the first left hander. I moved to the middle of the track to try and make a pass but the corner came too quickly and I became sandwiched between a kart on the inside and outside. I was pushed out of the turn and onto the grass on the outside. Just like that my final was over! I managed to rejoin but the 10 laps were more of a procession than a race. Still, I had a smile on my face as I considered what could have been. The moment and emotion had overtaken me!

Finishing 34th of 44 was still my best result!

Things to take away:

  • Having fun makes the body and mind more relaxed
  • I drive better with a smile on my face
  • I need to learn to drive in the wet
  • Don’t force things

British 24hr – Teeside

Earlier I mentioned my friend Lewis who got me into racing… One day when sharing our racing experiences, I mentioned I used to race 24hr mountain bike events. His face lit up “you’ve got to sign up for the Teeside 24” he said! The event he’s talking about is on the National calendar and one of only a handful of 24hr kart races in Europe. It’s also the biggest kart race in the UK with 96 karts lining up on the grid for 2022! I joined a team with Lewis and 4 other guys I’d get to know over a full days racing.

The event is held at Teeside Autodrome in Middlesborough and the set up is pretty awesome! The grid is split into multiple categories, with pro karts (like yellow #24 in the photo further below) racing on track with the rental karts that we were using. The rental karts max out at about 62mph whilst the pro karts are pushing 72mph so you’re constantly being overtaken as you try to overtake others in your class. It’s mental!

I’d signed up to race two 1.5 hour stints. Both would be on the Saturday and before midnight. On the Friday there was a chance to practice the track. I was given an hour to find my way around and get up to speed. One of the lads, Ryan, had brought an Alfano computer, which attaches to the steering wheel and gives you lap times and other interesting information. On the Friday night we went for dinner at our hotel where Ryan downloaded the Alfano data onto his phone and put his best laps with mine side by side.

He was able to talk me through where I was losing time and where I was quick. We discussed lines and techniques I might want to use in specific corners. I was lapping in the 1.25’s and to be competitive I needed consistent 1.24’s. I went to bed on the Friday night visualising the changes I needed to make on track and watching as many videos as I could that used on board cameras. I was excited and nervous all at the same time. I had much less experience than the rest of my team and didn’t want to let them down.

I had a few laps before qualifying on Saturday morning in which to try and implement some of the changes Ryan had suggested. I felt good and my lap times were coming down too.

The race was a tough one and was full of calamity and sadly an unreliable kart. However for my stints the kart behaved itself, giving me a great opportunity to push myself. It was a very wet weekend, giving me opportunity to learn some more lessons!

When a kart goes around a corner it leaves rubber on the track. This is usually on the racing line. In the dry, this is the most grippy line, but in the rain there is no grip here! You have to drive wide into the turn and then cut back in towards the apex. It rained in one of my stints and after spending large spells spinning, I managed to get the hang of driving with slicks in the rain, however not to the pace of many of the other drivers. I’m off the track in the photo above… I’m guessing it’d just started raining! Haha!

In the dry I was fairly consistent, lapping in the 1.24’s and 1.23’s and had some great tussles over my three hours of racing. It was an awesome experience on a brilliant track and I’ve been invited to go back next year with the same team. I’ll need to get some more experience in the rain between now and then!

The race ended up getting red flagged after 19 hours because the rain was so bad, causing the track to flood in places.!

Lessons learned:

  • I much prefer endurance racing to a sprint format
  • A can put in consistent lap times
  • Keep off the rubber in the wet!

So, how does this relate to mountain biking?

I found that when I started riding mountain bikes, my progression in skill was fairly quick. It didn’t take me long to become a confident rider, however, the gains that would later make me race competitive, came much slower. Gym work, a good diet, focused training on specific elements of my technique and mental resilience all needed attention. Above all else it was hours and hours of practicing the right things that would get the results I wanted. If there’s one thing we harp on about in coaching sessions, it’s purposeful practice! If you don’t know what you are doing, you’re at risk of practising the wrong thing and creating bad habits that will become hard to shift further down the line. Practise the right thing regularly to see the results you want.

For me, part of the excitement about getting into kart racing was going through this process of learning again, but with something completely new. Perhaps mountain biking is your ‘new’ thing. Or perhaps you’ve been at it ages and need help with some of the gains that will give your riding an edge or new lease of life.

There are three things I know to be super important when learning anything new; A positive mindset, commitment to practice and a willingness to fail. Notice that none of these are material but rather focus on the self. This can be a vulnerable place to be!

The interesting thing with racing rental go karts is that fundamentally the karts are the same. Sure, there could be slight nuances between each kart but likely nothing major. Therefore 95% is about the driver. Has the driver committed to being in the best possible shape (80kg or under remember)? How is their technique? Can they take risks at the right time and make them stick? I answer no to all of these questions but I’m committed to getting better before my next race. I’ll revise the tracks, watching POV Youtube videos and I’ll go to bed driving the track in my mind. I lost 4kg after realising what a disadvantage my weight was and going into next season, I’ll make sure I’m weighing in at 80kg with kit prior to the first race.

Mountain bikers are great at blaming tyres, suspension set up, pedals and whatever else suits at any given time. Unfortunately the best equipment doesn’t translate to the best rider or best riding experience. It is however easier as a human to throw money at a problem, rather than look to better ourselves and upskill.

Final thoughts

I got writing this blog to try and inspire. Try something new. It’s good for you and it should be fun too! There’s no pressure and you might just end up loving what you’re doing and making new friends whilst your at it!

If you ride your mountain bike every weekend but lack drive to progress, why not book an event for 2023? Having something challenging in the diary can be a real kick up the ass to train and progress skills. We’d love to join you in that journey too. Have a look at our coaching bundle options if you’d like to put a program together that will help you achieve your goal.

If you’ve never tried mountain biking, there’s no better time! Have a look at our Intro To Mountain Biking sessions for a laid back experience with one of our friendly coaches, or come and hire a bike.

You’ll never know unless you try ­čÖé

 

In Part 2, my karting mate Lewis tries mountain biking!

Matt

Written by:

Matt