Belfast Telegraph

Karting: The track to success

By Steven Beacom

For most of us who have had a go at karting, it's a bit of fun with friends and a chance to pretend you are Jenson Button.

For some in Northern Ireland though, it is a serious business with teams and mechanics involved helping racers reach speeds of up to 90mph in competition.

And it can lead to the ultimate dream of a career in a glitzy, glamorous world.

Formula One legends Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher were kart drivers as youngsters. Current F1 World Champion Sebastian Vettel started his career the same way, while Lewis Hamiton was just six when he began whizzing around in his first kart.

The first experience of life in the fast lane for Belfast boy and late starter Jack McConnell came when he was 13.

Now 18, the Campbell College A-Level student is trying to make up for lost time on kart racing circuits, which he hopes will help him move on to greater things and even faster machines.

Level headed and polite, with a fierce determination burning inside him, Jack knows he is playing catch up with rivals who were in a kart before they learnt their five times tables, but having won races and impressing at junior level, he's now intent on shining in the senior ranks in Northern Ireland.

He has entered this year with increased confidence having been one of 25 drivers across the United Kingdom selected to take part in the prestigious Motor Sports Association (MSA) Academy programme. He was one of five shortlisted for their Young Driver of the Year award and can feel good about himself after coming a long way in a short period of time.

Jack's passion for karting began during a trip to the Eddie Irvine Sports Centre in Bangor.

"I was 13 and only went for fun and really enjoyed it," he recalls.

"The staff said to me about a karting school they had and I ended up going every weekend.

"They also ran a summer school where they taught us racing lines and how to drive properly. They had indoor championships at Eddie Irvine's complex and I competed in the junior championship at 14.

"It was called Eddie Irvine's summer karting championships and I finished second in my first ever competition. I decided to enter it again and won it the second time and Eddie presented me with my prize, which was great.

"That created an interest and my passion for racing. From there I heard about the Nutts Corner circuit and was introduced to a scheme called Let's Go Karting which allows young people interested in motorsport to have a test day on a full circuit.

"They also gave me information about how to get my race competition license for karting.

"After that I looked into getting my own kart to compete and everything happened very quickly. Up until I was 15 I was racing juniors and finished second in the Northern Ireland national championship.

"When I turned 16, I started in the seniors where the top speeds can reach 90mph, though over here with the tracks it's 80mph. It's seriously quick."

McConnell (pictured) is in the TRED-power team, which has two team owners and two mechanics in their ranks.

"Since I started out karting has completely changed for me. When I began racing at club level I was with my dad and we would take the kart out of the back of a jeep," he says.

"Now I'm racing at national level with a big team and we analyse all this data with the team in order to go quicker by a hundredth of a second. It's such a professional set-up."

In many ways it's like a mini Formula One. Isn't that where all young racers want to end up?

"F1 is the pinnacle of motorsport, but the fact that I started karting at the age of 13 and not aged six like others would suggest I'm behind the game," says Jack, with disarming honesty.

"I have to learn at twice the rate of knots as most people. If I ended up racing somewhere in UK at professional level, that would be brilliant.

"For this year my aim is to make the World Finals in karting and I'm looking to test Formula Ford cars this year as well.

"I sacrifice a lot to try and be a professional driver. You spend so much time training, practicing on simulators and on the track that you don't do as much socialising as others, but I just want to give it 100% and see where it takes me."

Money is as important as talent in the motorsport lifestyle

If you are to make the grade in motorsport, you just don't need talent behind a wheel – you need a few quid too.

Jack McConnell reveals that when he bought his first kart a few years back, it cost £1500 and that was a basic model!

He says: "The financial aspects of motorsport are massively important and make it very difficult. If you are starting out, you can buy your own kart very easily to have fun with and take it to the likes of Nutts Corner and do test days.

"I wanted to do competition and had to buy a kart which could compete. We bought one from the Nutts Corner Circuit and it was £1500. It was basic stuff but got me up and racing.

"When you get to a serious level the costs are far higher because you are buying one or two chassis a year at £3500.

"Having done well in Northern Ireland, I'm fortunate to have a deal where my kart is subsidised and I am part of a team called TRED-power.

"But I also need my mum (Sheila) and dad (Richard) who are fantastic. They fund me and my dad is there with me every weekend as a mechanic which is brilliant."

Jack has dreams of moving up the motorsport ladder, but says with every step it becomes even more expensive.

Only half joking, he says: "To get into Formula One essentially you have to be a multi-millionaire to begin with!"

The articulate teenager adds: "When you are moving through the ranks in motorsport you are paying for your drives and when you keep going up the ladder you are paying more and more.

"Say you are in Formula Three and you win a championship, that's when people will come to you and say I want to hire you and they start giving you money, but getting to that stage is tough because there is so much finance involved."

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