What can country do to take advantage of kart racing?

Sir Lewis Hamilton

Sir Lewis Hamilton

By Diane Phillips

FEW of us can name six senators serving now or remember who our Member of Parliament was ten years ago, but mention Lewis Hamilton and eyes light up. Recognition is instant. “The greatest race car driver of all time … A hero on the track and off …”

Winner of seven world championships, Sir Lewis Hamilton is the son of a Grenadian father and British mother, and while he is of mixed race, Hamilton is often referred to as the first black man to win Formula 1 though, in truth, the colour of his skin should be moot when you are talking about a man who performed for a decade at absolutely incomparable levels. His control of a machine on wheels capable of doing a death-defying, dizzying 200 miles an hour at Monaco or Las Vegas is what should be taking our breath away, but let’s face it, we’re happy in an odd sort of way that he is black, because for Bahamians, and others in the region, it makes us feel he is more one of us.

Why go on about Sir Lewis Hamilton? Partly because he is a hero we can all look up to, young or old, a kid who was bullied who grew up to be a man no one would dare demean.

Partly we are fascinated by Lewis Hamilton because he holds the record for the fastest man on wheels, the smartest, most skillful driver of a generation. We respect him as the gentleman who went from racetrack to knighthood and along the way remained so sensitive to human rights that he wore symbols of causes close to his heart on the helmets he changed regularly.

In The Bahamas, we have even more reason to pause. We know the seven-time world champion did not climb into an F1 McLaren or Mercedes and race furiously into the record books. Lewis Hamilton got his start in karting. And karting got its official start in The Bahamas. The first ever kart racing championship was held 65 years ago as part of Nassau Speed Weeks in 1959. More than half a century later, Sir Lewis signed a portrait auctioned off to raise funds for Bahamas Edukarting.

Today, a young and eager Bahamas team that came through that same Edukarting movement stands ready to compete in the equivalent of the karting Olympics in Valencia, Spain. Only a small budget from government to match those funds raised by the federation stands in the way as two windows of opportunity shrink – one to compete, the other to become the Esports capital of the Caribbean. Strange as its seems, the two are intricately connected and both lead to the phenomenal obsession with the sport we call F1.

Karting is to F1 what the Sunfish is to the America’s Cup, flag football is to Super Bowl or Little League is to the World Series.

If F1 racing is the most watched sport on TV and other devices, as many argue that it is with an estimated 87 million watching a race and 24 of those races in a season series leading up to the championship, the role of karting in the world of sports is possibly the most underrated stepping-stone in all of sports.

What led to this renewal of interest was a flyer that landed in my whatsapp chat this week. It was for a karting event at the Bahamas Motorsports Park on Saturday. It’s simulated racing running from 11am to 4pm and for a donation of $10 or more, you can climb into a kart and zoom at breakneck speeds along a course that takes you through Indianapolis or Daytona.

I did it once before and it was white-knuckle, exhilarating, exciting, scary and so intense I was shaking at the end, but wanted more. I went again, wanting to break my speed record. The image on the screen, the manipulating of the kart, the pent-up energy, and the desire to pull every ounce of speed while not hitting a rail as you do hairpin turns churned adrenaline into hyperdrive. It was excitement on steroids and it was all electronic, simply simulated speed and a demand to control a vehicle that could easily spin out of control, slam into a rail or wipe out.

It is little wonder that Esports is becoming the fastest growing part of the sports world. The Bahamas has a shrinking window of opportunity to become the esports capital of the Caribbean region before another country sees the potential economic impact and seizes it.

In cities in the US, the UK and all through the Far East, Esports are so popular that the demand for viewing and gaming is outpacing places to go to seek it. For simulation nothing is easier to emulate than karting while other Esports, including basketball and football, are drawing tens of thousands. Imagine if local residents or visitors had Esports facilities, especially on a rainy day, places where families can play together, couples, friends, a sport that requires little space and provides satisfaction, an alternative that delivers thrills with little outlay. Organizers say all they need to start is a single room at the stadium – seven brand new karts have been promised through private fund-raising.

It all started with karting, just like the Edukarting programme that has been running locally for years, thanks to volunteers like David McLaughlin, FIA Director of Youth Development for the Caribbean, who has personally funded trip after trip to The Bahamas, and local resident Susan Schauff who have gathered sponsors and reached into their own pockets to keep it alive. McLaughlin has seen karting transform at risk youth into successful college students.

Now tapped to be an Olympic sport in the 2028 Los Angeles Games, karting’s next global competition is the equivalent of the Olympics for motorsport in Spain later this year. If miracles happen and additional funding is found, the Bahamas team will be led by Ramando Hudson, the promising young athlete who led Team Bahamas in France in 2022. If the government does not match what was raised privately, it will be two more years before a team from The Bahamas will be able to show its talent to the world and win friends as it did with its unity with Ukraine two years ago.

Hamilton was not alone in learning the two D’s – driving and discipline – through karting. Nearly every winning F1 driver got their start in karts and today all the latest Formula 1 Grand Prix drivers both practice and race on Sims. Perhaps astonishingly, competitors on the track Max Verstappen and Lando Norris partner to race on the same team in Sims.

Hamilton, who was only eight years old when he first sat in the little box-like vehicle with a lawn mower engine, just happened to have the right stuff. Two years later, at age 10, he became the youngest driver to win the British Cadet Karting Championship. This year, at age 39, as he switches from his long-standing relationship with Mercedes to the team most associated with F1, Ferrari, Sir Lewis Hamilton is expected to sign a multi-year contract worth nearly half a billion dollars, more than triple the reported earnings of Miami Dolphin quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.

All Schauff and McLaughlin are asking is that government find $70,000 to match the funds the association raised to send Bahamian kids to Valencia, Spain this year to compete in the equivalent of the Olympics in junior motorsport. Who knows? There could be a new Lewis Hamilton among one of the dozen Bahamian youngsters who practice karting and compete on a makeshift strip on the Bahamas Motorsport track near the National Stadium. They will be there this Saturday, the 13th, racing in real life as I get to slide back into a simulator and pretend for a few special moments that I am driving F1 and all I have to do is keep my eyes on the road, my foot to the pedal and my focus on being the best I can be in a car I would never have any other opportunity to experience. But for those few moments, I am chasing the Lewis Hamilton dream.

Footnote: Sir Lewis’ mentor was the great Sir Stirling Moss who raced and won in the original Nassau Speed Weeks and loved this country so much he built a residence here. Sir Stirling graced the Speed Week Revivals in Nassau but sadly recently passed. In two weeks there will be a Memorial Service in London’s Westminster Abbey … a place reserved for Kings and Queens…


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