Kart Attack

On the Southern Hemisphere’s longest kart racing track, David Whitley realises he’s neither the skill nor the will to win 

It doesn’t take long for me to realise that I’m not Lewis Hamilton. Delighted with myself for the overtaking manoeuvre on the second corner, I enter the third at top speed, hit the brakes and promptly fly off into the grass

That’s enough of a scare for me. I’m not cut out for this racing lark. I shall pootle along at the back from now on, taking the corners slightly slower than is strictly necessary.

This somewhat defeats the point. The others flying around what is supposedly the longest karting track in the southern hemisphere are here for the race. Six Mexicans and two New Zealanders have got their competitive juices flowing, battling for the racing line and trying to eke the maximum out of the karts. These little beasties can go at 100km/h if properly pushed.

It’s a sad moment to realise that I’m not all that competitive behind the wheel. Having spent three weeks driving around New Zealand’s North Island, I thought I was. It’d be fair to say I’ve not always stuck rigidly to the speed limit, and I’ve regularly found myself taking on fairly narrow gaps in order to overtake slower vehicles.

But it turns out that it was never speed for speed’s sake. It was speed with the purpose of getting from A to B quicker. I’d no desire to race other cars – if they want to go faster than me, then I’ll happily pull over and let them overtake; I’ll stick to a speed that feels safe.

It takes a surprisingly large shift of mindset on a racetrack. It’s not a journey from A to B – there’s no benefit in getting there quicker. You’ve just got ten minutes to travel as far as you can, and record lap times that are hopefully faster than those of the other drivers.

Offroad NZ just outside Rotorua provides a seriously impressive circuit, though. It’s not just for tourists given balaclavas, helmets and jumpsuits for the day – serious professional kart races are held here too. There’s that perfect combination of straights and corners that allows for overtaking, but each corner has to be taken at a different speed.

After a couple of embarrassing spins on the first two laps, I find myself really getting into it. I’m still at the back of the pack, and I get lapped by the fastest two Mexicans, but I find myself wanting to push harder into the bends rather than wimp out. I start working out what I can get away with, and I start paying serious attention to the kart in front of me. Could I possibly get past? Can I make a race of this after all?

And then the chequered flag comes down. Just as I’m starting to find my inner Schumacher. We all pull into the pits, and go to check out our lap times. I’m eighth out of nine. I may have been behind the pack, but I managed to do one lap faster than one of the Mexican women. It’s a bit embarrassing.

So the excuses start. It didn’t help that I had to stop to have a loose strap removed. If I was closer to another driver, I’d have been able to race them and get faster speeds in their slipstream.

The Kiwi bloke joins in. You’ve got a massive advantage if you’re lighter – the girls taking the wrong racing line had more power simply because they didn’t weigh as much.

Everyone has their excuse. Except Alejandro, the winner. He just has the smug look of someone about to spray champagne all over the podium.

Disclosure: David was a guest of Offroad NZ


Photos courtesy of Offroad NZ.

by David Whitley


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David Whitley takes on The Luge and The Swoop with scarcely any concern for his own personal safety...

This is a recipe for disaster. Ten testosterone-pumped all in control of pseudo Go-karts that they have only just learned the basics of controlling, about to race each other on a steep downhill race track, complete with tricky corners and everything.  We are at Skyline Skyrides in Rotorua, which ostensibly is a cable car service to the top of a hill overlooking the city.

But as with most things Kiwi, they don’t do things that simply. Along with the cable car, gondola and restaurant, they have also built a ‘luge’ track. Why they’ve called it luge I don’t know – as far as I’m concerned, luging is that psychotic sport they show every four years at the Winter Olympics. This is basically downhill karting, and very good fun it is too.

There are three tracks to take on: The 2km scenic track (for the elderly, the boring and absolute jessies), the intermediate track (which you’re forced to go on first so you can learn how to steer properly) and the daddy – a 1km long advanced track.

This track has steep drops, tight corners, the works, and ten of us are about to bomb down it at once, which is probably against the rules, but like we care. I set off from fourth on the grid, eagerly pursuing the Danish bloke in front of me. He’s not getting away any further, but I’m not getting any closer, as we pelt down the track. But the guy behind me is getting cocky, and is beginning to close in. There’s no way he’s going to overtake me, though, bloody spoon-fed public schoolboy.

Unfortunately, we’re coming up to the tightest corner, which is followed by the steepest drop. I do the maths – if I slow down, he’s going to overtake. Therefore the brakes aren’t going on, I’m going to try and take the corner at full speed, and it looks like Posh Boy has the same idea. Bring it on…

A few seconds later, I am face down on the bank, absolutely covered in the dirt that I landed in. my competitor has also gone belly up, although he’s somehow managed to graze his knee, shin and elbow at the same time. Boys will be boys, and the rest of the procession fly by, having had the sense to lightly dab the breaks, laughing at the pitiful sight behind them.

Eventually we dust ourselves off, and trundle our way down the remainder of the track to the bottom, where we are greeted with jeers and howling laughter. The form of laughter induced at nearby is entirely different. I believe ‘nervous laughter’ is the phrase.

When I was a kid, I used to love playgrounds almost as much as heroin addicts do nowadays. Slides were cool, climbing frames rocked, and even those rubbishy balancing beams could pass the odd minute without seeming too dull. Best of all, though, were the swings. I loved swings more than I loved fishfingers - and for a period of three months that must have brought my mother much heartache, I refused to eat anything but fishfingers.

I used to like seeing exactly how high I could make the swing go, but in the back of my mind there was always that nagging fear that I was going to push it that little bit too far and fly over the top of the bar. But on the whole, that was the only scary thing about swings. Let's face it, they aren't the sort of things you cry yourself to sleep about at night, are they?

Well, as anyone who has been there will know, they do things a little differently in Rotorua, and their version of a swing is a little different to ours. It's called The Swoop and it's at a little pocket of insanity called the Agrodome, a few minutes out of town. The premise is simple: Whilst on the ground you are strapped precariously into a glorified sleeping bag. You are then winched 40ft into the air. Then you have to pull a ripcord, which sends you hurtling back towards the ground again, freefalling for a few seconds of sheer, petrifying horror.

Waiting at the top is awful - you’ve got this horrible feeling that you’re going to plummet to your death, but when that cord is pulled, the rush is incredible. We’re travelling at 130kmh, with a G-Force of 3, and plunging towards the ground. Just as I think we’re going to hit it, we swing back up again, and there’s another drop. After that though, it’s just the sheer glee of swinging back and forth until we’re caught by the brave bloke on the ground whose sole job it is to drag the swinging sleeping bag to a halt (oh, alright, he also makes sure we don’t die as well).

Suddenly that high swinging of my childhood seems pretty damned pathetic.