NKC Round One!!!

This was a step into the unknown. We really should have been out for a 2018 shakedown weeks earlier. With this very much on my mind, I decided we’d get our running-in done on the Friday so that we could get a feel for the Mitas tyre during Saturday practice. It was nice to arrive to some pleasant weather; there is nothing worse than needing four blokes to hold the awning down whilst you scramble to hammer the pegs into the awning legs. The problems started when the newly rebuilt engine didn’t start. Another problem was that I was in between handheld starters! My trusty starter’s battery had gone beyond the point where it was capable of starting the engine and I was missing the connectors to pair my new, larger starter with my new, more powerful battery. What was left in the old battery was good enough to confirm that we had a spark but I was wary of losing any time with rain due to hit us later in the afternoon and so bolted on the race engine so that Junior could set about evaluating the tyre. We had a decent afternoon on a cold but dry track although we had to take off a few teeth to get the revs down a bit. A few of the NKC drivers turned up later in the afternoon and it was hard not to be struck by the presence of a rather nice motorhome with one of the new 2018 Birrel-Jade chassis stood outside the awning – I wasn’t expecting this at NKC!!!

We stayed at a Travelodge overnight, arousing little interest from the reception staff as we moved in along with clothes, engines, tools and anything else of value! I was able to get the new starter sorted in the evening so Saturday was all about running in the practice motor. It was largely uneventful save for our trailer leaking (again), the Alfano battery dying as we set out for the first session (and Junior having to gauge his revs by his track position relative to someone else who was also running-in) and also some notable pace from a number of our rivals. One of my concerns about joining NKC was how much competition we would face and I had been considering racing on the practice engine but it was clear that we wouldn’t be having this luxury: we’d be rocking the full race trim on the Sunday!

Sunday was a strange day. Timed qualifying saw us a whole second off the pace at one point, eventually finishing third and 0.5s adrift of the pole-sitter. Heat #1 was much more like it: we sat third for most of the race and took the lead in the final minute, finishing with a little in hand over the chasing group. There were five drivers who really stood out in terms of pace and it looked, as they approached the final two minutes, as if it might become a five-way battle for the win. It was a really good race to watch.

NKC 2018 is go!

Heat #2 (aka the pre-final) was the one where things seemed to become a little bit familiar; we had made a few changes to get on top of our high revs and apparent overheating in the tyre but from the start we looked off of the pace. Junior was struggling to hold onto second; he’d maintained position on the previous lap by holding it around the outside of Ashby but, when his rival made the same mood the next time around, he wasn’t quite so generous in his affording us of some space and Junior was shown onto the grass and into the biggest puddle on the circuit. Fortunately for Junior, the cameras only caught the end of it! It was one of those things really; when you try to maintain your position by going around the outside of the corner, you’re always going to need a compliant rival to leave you the space. Either that or you’re going to have to get your elbows out to ensure you’re given the room. Or you head off the track. Part of me was glad that Junior hadn’t turned it into a bashing match and he was unlucky to find himself in a bog that stopped him in his tracks. We weren’t going to complain – I think that we’d both have made the same move against a slower kart who was becoming problematic! Of course we wouldn’t want to be seen to be a soft touch so we’ll note it and move on😉 The marshals got Junior going again and he came home a distant 13th.

Having brought our gearing down through the day I was still baffled by our high revs; we’d been shedding teeth all over the place. It was only in conversation with a good buddy who was racing at Kimbolton that the penny dropped. In fact it dropped more like bomb: the race engine still had the 9-front sprocket on from Buckmore Park in December!!! I felt like an absolute pillock. Everyone makes the odd mistake, me perhaps more than most but this was a real clanger. In my defence, I’d left a note on the motor to warn me that the sprocket needed changing. I’d had the builder leave the sprocket off of the practice motor when it was rebuilt to ensure that it was replaced but, in my rush on Friday to switch the motors over and get Junior out on track for some testing, the note had either slipped off or maybe was back in the engine box at home. With so much other stuff on my mind, the moment was gone. It felt like I should have had plenty of time to change the front sprocket but, with the side pod off and the sprocket spanner in hand, we were called to the dummy grid for the final! I had to just put on the smallest rear sprocket that I had, which turned out to be a 72-tooth. We’d probably still be several teeth over what you might consider optimal but it would have to do…

The first lap of the final was depressingly familiar: As Junior headed into Ashby, the kart in front span of his own accord and rolled backwards down the slope, collecting Junior and pretty much stopping us in our tracks. It was only the huge punt we received from the kart behind us that gave us a glimmer of hope: Junior was able to pinch the fuel pipe to clear the engine and was able to continue although any hopes of catching the leaders had gone. To his credit, Junior drove like a man possessed but it was another of the recovery drives that I have come to admire him for. By the finish he had brought a 15s gap to the leader down to 9s, set the four fastest laps and the only lap of the weekend below 50s but still trailed in 9th. The only small consolation was that we were able to start packing up immediately in a bid to avoid the rain that was clearly on its way.

Getting your head down 🙂

The way things ended took the gloss off of what had otherwise been a really enjoyable weekend. There had been some great competition at the front and, if we can have five karts contesting the podium every round, it’s going to be a thrill to watch. Although I already knew a couple of the drivers, both Junior and I had made new friends with Junior getting on particularly well with a couple of the MSA drivers that we’d been battling over the course of the day. The day had had a very different, almost chilled feeling to what I had become used to on the MSA tour, it felt as if people were just there to enjoy themselves (even if there had been some hard racing at the front at times) and there had really only been minimal contact throughout the day. The tyre was nowhere near as bad as we (and many of the other MSA dads) had feared; it was a tyre that you could really attack on. The scrutineering was as thorough as anything I had encountered, including at the TKM Festival. The NKC organiser had performed an admirable job considering the stress of running a fledgling series whilst also trying to enjoy his own race weekend and I’d been really impressed with the BKC officials and their handling of us (as a new and very mixed ability grid).

Junior was a bit disappointed in the car on the way home. To him, we’d had issues and finished down the pack just like so many other times on our MSA travels. In some ways I shared those feelings. Our gearing issue was a bad mistake and it will be interesting to see how we fare at Hooton in a few weeks with what will hopefully be a more optimal setup. I still believe that the harder tyre is the way to go for the budget class and that this is right thing for us to be doing at this time. Feel free to join us 🙂

Onwards and upwards?

Farewell to JTKM

Saturday had all the hallmarks of a tough day: The 5am start was sub-optimal but learning a new and tricky track was always going to be the real challenge for Junior. This would be where his relative inexperience (both in terms of seat time and experience of different tracks) compared to a lot of his national rivals would potentially be exposed. His task wouldn’t really be helped by our need to use our newly Extreme’d practice engine since we wouldn’t truly know where we were pace-wise until we switched to our sole remaining junior engine and our race setup. We spent the first session running-in the engine which had already spent time on a dyno. Junior spent the second mostly drifting back through the pack and, at somewhere like Whilton Mill, this meant spending most of his time being forced off of the racing line as karts passed before he could get back onto the line. He was also having a confidence issue with Oblivion, an aptly named corner with a very welcoming tyre wall should you get it wrong, and it was only in the afternoon that he was confident enough (with some stern prodding from his mates!) to take it flat-out. Having a couple of sessions ended prematurely by being punted off didn’t really help and we were some way off throughout the day. We did bring the gap down to ~0.4s in the final session running our race trim, which was quite encouraging all things considering, but we were clearly going to be off of the pace on race day. To top it all off, I’d caught some October sun[burn]. Again…

This is *not* the right line to be on :/

This is *not* the right line to be on!

We had a rare hotel stay booked for Saturday night so we had plenty of time to prepare the kart after practice with the added bonus of no 50+ mile trip home and associated early Sunday morning start. We even had the comparative luxury of a Premier Inn 🙂 Best of all though was that eight dads/drivers were joining us for some cow at the Beefeater next door. It was a really enjoyable evening, as these things tend to be, even if it did double the cost of the stay. There was plenty of good TKM gossip to be had also 😉

Race day. It is said that what you get with one hand, they take with the other and that was certainly the case with our grid draw: The karting gods had given us a good starting positions, just not in the ideal order for a Whilton Mill virgin. Junior would start the first heat in P2. This would be his hardest race; His lines had been inconsistent on the Saturday and it would be a case of seeing how many places we would lose. It was hard to know what a good result would be and I really feared the ‘lost 15 places’ scenario, which would be a real blow to Junior’s confidence. As it turned out my fears were unfounded 😀 Junior got the perfect start (crossing the line 0.02s ahead of pole), held the outside line around the first part of Oblivion which gave him the inside run through Turn #2 and onto the run up the hill. Junior held a five or six-length lead entering Christmas Corner and, aided by most of the national racers having lower gird position starts, he was able to pull a lead which he maintained until the fifth lap when he was caught, forced wide and passed by two karts. He tussled for second at one point but his move didn’t work out and almost sucked him back into the chasing pack. He hung on though for a fantastic third placed finish. His pace was good too: He was only a couple of tenths off of most of his rivals so a great result and a real confidence-booster. It was funny how the brakes, that had only been so-so throughout practice, were now spot-on 😉

I had never seen a start quite like that of the second heat: There was so much weaving around as the pack entered Oblivion. Junior was in the thick of things and had made up seven places by the end of the first lap 🙂 He had climbed to P12 by the end of lap three but there his progress halted; He got into some tussles, lost his consistency when he had opportunities to break away and his P13 (11th after bumper penalties) finish was a little disappointing given that he had made so much early progress.

The third heat saw us start what was to be an unlucky 13th on the grid. Junior gained four places on the opening lap, consolidated over the following laps and was looking set for a solid top ten finish when he got Christmas Corner all wrong and whacked the kerb of the left-hand kink on the exit hard, knocking off chain. He had a little moment where he flapped about before the realisation of what had actually happened and why dawned upon him! Worse was to come: Back at the awning, I had checked the crank alignment and got everything ready for the final when I noticed that there was almost no compression in the engine. The rear axle was rotating almost freely. With 30 minutes to go before the final and our last race in JTKM, had we really damaged the engine? I removed the head: The piston had lost a ring of carbon around it’s outer edge. Not a good sign. Removing the barrel confirmed it: The ring was pinched tight. The piston had hit the head when the chain came off. And this was our only remaining JTKM engine 🙁

Don’t fret, readers! We had received a generous offer from one of the dads who had been at Clay with us a couple of weeks earlier. He had seen that we were all set to abort the race day after our practice motor had seized (and not wanting to push the race engine much beyond the ten hours it was approaching) and offered to bring an engine to Whilton just in case something disastrous befell us. We didn’t have much time to fetch and fit it before the final so Junior rushed off, cap in hand whilst I hastily removed the engine. Whilst I was fairly certain that mechanical failure had not been the cause of our engine damage, I couldn’t take any chances with somebody else’s engine: I bought a new chain, cleaned the carb, checked and double-checked the pop-off and triple-checked the settings to ensure we were rich enough! We were even in the assembly area with a few minutes to spare 🙂

Junior started 13th in the final and had yet another a great start, this had become something of a trait of his this year. Climbing to 8th after the first lap, Junior was running in sixth by lap #3 and things were going well. The lead pack had gotten away but Junior was at the head of the chasing pack until, with three laps remaining, he got forced wide in The Boot and lost *four* places!!! To his credit, Junior got his head down and the final laps saw some frantic tussling. Running in ninth as the he entered The Boot for the final time, Junior made a bold attempt to pass two karts around the outside of the left-hand entry to take the inside line for the right-hand run into the final corner. He managed it but ran in too hot to avoid conceding one of the places and he finished a very respectable eighth. It had been a really enjoyable race to watch although he got some criticism from one of his friends for turning across them as they looked to make passing moves on him. Whilst I had watched the race, I hadn’t really seen any problems. I think it stems from having come from a track where we been excluded on a couple of occasions for collisions where Junior had made a move up the inside but was found not to have been 90% alongside a rival when they turned into the corner and it was deemed that Junior should have backed out of the move. Junior’s driving has evolved accordingly; He’ll concede if a kart is alongside but a whiff of the nose up the inside isn’t going to make him jump out of the way. The other dad and I are very good friends and we chatted afterwards; He made the point that his rivals won’t back out so readily in Extreme and that Junior will find himself getting taken out a lot more often. I couldn’t say that we saw the race the same way but his racing in Extreme is a concern to me: Junior will need to evolve. He has to find a way to avoid scrapping, to get his head down and drive consistently without losing his composure when under pressure. For now though, we’d enjoy what was a good final race for us, with some good pace and some close racing whilst being thankful for the loan engine that ensured our JTKM career didn’t end with a DNS.