In America they’re called Soapbox Racers. They have organised leagues, TV rights and world famous professionals. In the real world, they’re called Go-Karts, and the only autographs you get are the ones on your plaster cast after you’ve broken both arms and legs.
A bloody lunatic
Our road was on a hill, and it being in an age where everybody didn’t have three cars on their drive, relatively quiet. John’s dead cool dad had been to America and had brought back the latest craze - skateboards, which we roared down the hill with our lives in our hands with not a hint of a helmet or kneepad to protect us. It was ace, but we wanted more.
“More” came in school assembly one morning. To celebrate the Queen’s silver jubilee, there would be a Go Kart Grand Prix. And an Easter Bonnet competition for the girls, I kid you not. Matt, John, Nige and I were up for that and set out building our karts for the big day. Hedging our bets we built two, and in a solemn ceremony, they were given names by Matt’s five-year-old sister.
The Bee Buggy Bum was nothing but the bottom half of an old 1930’s style pram with a plank of wood screwed on for a seat. The wheels were huge, and superbly put together with quality bearings that would run and run. There was a hefty hand-brake which could stop you on a sixpence, and we found that pulling on the front suspension rods it would warp the frame enough to turn you in with a decent turning circle. It didn’t need no fancy decorations, go faster stripes or anything. If you wanted a push, the rear suspension rods were great handles and you could get up to some quite terrifying speeds. It rocked.
The Bum Tiddly Um, on the other hand, was small, slow and made of some old wheels we found on a scrapheap. It sucked.
Our main rivals were to be “Tiger”, owned by Luke and Jonesy, two kids from the next street. It was a beautiful, beautiful cart, built in Luke’s garage by his way-too-enthusiastic and over-competitive dad. It had a proper steering wheel, a sleek, streamlined body with the wheels hidden underneath so it looked like it was flying along; and a magnificent tiger-skin paint job. It was the clear favourite to win by looks alone. The flash bastards were even seen practicing in matching overalls and racing helmets. We hated them.
The die was cast. It was us against them. David against Goliath. Good against Evil. Arsenal against Spurs.
The day before the big race, we went out for one final practice session. We pulled the carts to the top of the road and shoved off, gliding downhill, the Bee Buggy Bum leaving the Bum Tiddly Um in its wake. That was all fine and dandy on a nice, gentle slope, but we were pre-teen speed demons. We wanted more. Again.
This time, we found “more” at number thirty-two, the house opposite Matt’s. Number thirty-two had lain empty for over a year, and its unlocked garage acted as our unofficial gang headquarters for dirty deeds and general hiding from parents. It was also right on the steepest part of the hill and had a driveway that was like the north face of the Eiger.
This was it. The big test. If our carts were good enough for the Big Hill, they were good enough for anything. We set up. Nige on the Bum Tiddly Um with John pushing, Matty on Bee Buggy Bum with me ready to shove.
“Three! Two! One! Go!”
John and I gave a huge run-up and shoved the carts into the abyss. With a blood-curdling scream the lads disappeared over the edge and down the driveway, Bee Buggy Bum leading the way, closely followed by its sonic boom.
Down the drive they roared and out into the road, me and John bounding after them with giant steps to see the action. Nige hadn’t been able to turn the Bum Tiddly Um fast enough and had instead pulled on the brake (OK, he slammed both feet down on the road, burning through his best school shoes), while Matt was still hammering on down the road, picking up speed as he went.
Now here comes the tricky bit. After turning out of the driveway, he had to pull another turn to avoid running out of road and slamming straight into his house. Not particularly difficult in the Super Souped-up Bee Buggy Bum, but even to our untrained eyes, he was leaving it remarkably late...
The three of us watched in awe as Matt yanked on the brake handle. There was a cry of “Muuuum!” as it snapped off cartoon-style in his hand. The front wheels smacked against the kerb, showering broken spokes and pieces of wheel rim in all directions, and Matt and the Bee Buggy Bum literally took off.
It was a short flight. The width of the pavement plus about six inches, as Matt and the cart hit the fence about halfway up with a sickening, bone-crunching thud. The entire fence panel, a lovely piece of delicately woven lattice panelling that probably cost a bomb, shattered all over the place before finally collapsing in on itself; revealing a touching domestic scene of Matt’s mum and dad pulling weeds in the garden and his little sister playing dolly with a friend. All of them had “What the f...” looks on their faces. It was beautiful.
We fully expected Matt’s dad to go ballistic, but instead he was on his knees crying with laughter. Matt, like any other idiot in a brush with death, was completely unscathed, and staggered from the shattered wreck of the Bee Buggy Bum, still clutching the severed brake handle. It was completely mangled, and a complete non-starter for the big race. We were down to one cart. The rubbish one. We were doomed.
So we turned up the next day with the Bum Tiddly Um. It was awful. We had to sit through the unending hell of the Easter bonnet parade before we could even think about avoiding coming last. Everybody came to gloat at our pathetic little machine, especially Jonesy, Luke and Over-Competitive Dad. And our worst fears were confirmed in the Big Race. Everybody roared past us as we huffed and puffed to get even the slightest semblence of speed. Even the kid in the year below us who only had one foot was faster than us.
All except Tiger. They’d been found out, and found out big-time. It turned out that Over-Competitive Dad had sold out for glamourous good looks over speed and had based the thing on wheels smaller and rather less predictable than a supermarket trolley. No one had bothered to tell him that the race was over grass either, and he watched in horror from the sidelines as his pride and joy sunk in and stuck there like a dog turd to the bottom of your shoe.
So, who won? I had absolutely no idea then and still don’t know to this day. Luke and Jonesy didn’t show their faces round our street for weeks, and Tiger was never seen again. As far as I know, it sunk into the mire of the school field, and is still there twenty-five years later, an interesting divot on the outfield of the cricket pitch for future archaeologists to find. And I still remember that on that dark, dark day, at least three boys had Easter bonnets. For shame, for shame.