Phone call yields a Canadian Pro Series ride

I’d really enjoyed photographing and reporting on the 1978 Canadian Pro Series of karting, as well as being involved with the administration. It was exciting, fast, and in the last race it even drew future racing star Scott Goodyear as a competitor. For 1979, I wanted to compete myself but even just breaking into the series was not that easy to do.

1979 was a big year. 

  • Three Mile island brought us scarily close to a nuclear catastrophe.
  • Margaret Thatcher became the first female British prime minister.
  • The Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran and Tehran students imprisoned American hostages in the American Embassy. 
  • At the movies, we saw Being There, Mad Max, and Star Trek the motion picture. 
  • In music, Pink Floyd released “The Wall” and disco finally died a death at the infamous “Disco Demolition” night at Chicago’s Comiskey Park. 
  • Sony launched personal technology by releasing the Walkman.  
  • The two Steves were working in a garage on the first personal computer that would utimately change the world forever. 
  • Russia capped the year by invading Afghanistan.

It was also a tumultuous year personally: in March, I saw Gilles Villeneuve win the Long Beach Grand Prix. On the way home, I spoke to my grandfather in Scotland for the last time – he passed away suddenly three days later. I travelled to the funeral and while there my pet cat and childhood companion Skipper disappeared never to be seen again. 

Later that year, my father re-married and I became engaged. Niki and I said goodbye to our rental home (the one with a double garage that had finally got my karting equipment out of that earthen-floored lock-up garage) and were back in a garage-less apartment. Thankfully, my father offered his basement to keep my racing gear clean and dry (albeit 40 minutes drive away).

In Ottawa, there were random races at the Quyon track but there was still no local championship to contest after the 1977 breakup of the Ottawa-Hull Kart and Recreation Club. Many former Ottawa members and friends were still scattered far and wide seeking races in other venues. My main competitor, Jon Snadden, was moving away from racing altogether after a discouraging year in the 1978 Canadian Pro series. 

I’d hoped to compete in the Pro series myself and tried hard to get a sponsor. But although I got my proposal into the boardroom of a well-known Canadian bus company, I was unable to land the deal and my goal of racing in the Pro Series was a no-go.  My karting ‘career” felt like it was in limbo and my ten-year-old dream of racing as a vocation was drifting away.

I attended a couple of the early-season Pro races and they were fun to watch, but it was difficult just being a spectator when I really wanted to be part of it.

The phone call that changed my Canadian Pro Series hopes

I’m playing about on a guitar one sunny Saturday morning in July when I get a call from Roberto Dionisi, the Montreal-based Canadian DAP kart dealer.  It was his team that won the International Pro Series title in 1978 with Fabrizio Patuelli in the driver’s seat.  

Would I like to drive for them in the Pro Series, he asked?    I could scarcely believe my ears.  

After confirming the terms of the offer (because I had no cash to pay for the ride) and conferring with Niki, I said yes quickly — before they changed their minds.  It got me into the series I wanted without the need for a sponsor and without having to pay for my own equipment.  There weren’t a lot of other options available and this was a pretty good opportunity.

Why me?  I didn’t ask right away — I felt it was important to show my enthusiasm and not appear to question the offer.  But later they told me that it was because “I moved the steering wheel very little”.  I guess that was one way to try and identify a driver with a smooth style.

Their DAP kart was the same International class 100cc kart with which Fabrizio had won the title during the previous year.  And, as I understood later, it was also the same brand and class of kart that Ayrton Senna (da Silva) was driving in the world championships that year before moving on to Formula 1.  

It had about one horsepower for every 10 pounds of combined kart+Derek weight.  It was direct drive — no clutch. You started it by pushing it along the ground so that the rotation of the rear wheels would turn over the motor until it fired and started.  Some of the bigger boys could lift the rear off the ground and bump start it themselves if they stalled out on the track.  But I was just a skinny 135 pounds — I could barely lift the rear end off the ground…

The International-class engine had the same displacement as my club-class engine (100cc), but the similarity stopped there.  It had a rotary valve induction system as opposed to the club engine’s reed-valve induction, which introduced the gas-air mixture into the cylinder more efficiently.  Certainly these engines were more temperamental than our McCulloch motors and it took some knowledge and skill to make them last a race. 

The club karts I’d been driving topped out at about 85 mph (we had some police with a radar gun at the races one day). They told me that these international-class babies could go as fast as 120 mph.

My biggest downfall was that I had virtually no experience with these engines, and any help I could get in extracting the maximum from them was going to be invaluable.  But then there was that language issue…

The team and the family were all from Montreal’s Italian community and they mostly spoke Italian at the track and in the pits.  I couldn’t speak a word of it and it turned out to be a major issue in a sport where driver communication is a key for a successful partnership.

Roberto was a colourful and excitable Italian character and his wife Mdme Dionisi provided the calm and thoughtful side of the partnership.  The entire family was involved in their karting business and it was their life.  On one of my first trips to practice and test with them, we sat for lunch in their home and they treated me to an eight-course pasta-based meal. I could barely get through the first three courses and my reputation became “he eats like a bird”…  

Getting seat time difficult at a distance

In addition to the language barrier, the team and equipment were 2.5 hours drive away from my home in Ottawa. This limited my ability to get seat time in the kart and bond with the team and the equipment.

Undaunted, we scheduled the first test day at a track at Mt. Ste. Hilaire, just a short drive east of Montreal.  The Ottawa club had raced there in 1977 on the weekend I’d gone to St. Rosalie, so this was my first time running on this track.  I recall Jon Snadden telling me that the track was bumpy, but I wasn’t prepared for the bouncing around I got.

Perhaps it was just me, but trying to get into a groove on that track was almost impossible as the bumps rattled my brain and made vision a blurry mess. Normally at my own test sessions, I have someone taking lap times and as you make small changes you can see by the stopwatch if they’re beneficial or not.  The roller coaster ride I was having made it very difficult to put in consistent laps and it really turned out to just be a familiarization session as opposed to any kind of test.

(I think this experience gives me much sympathy for the current crop of F1 drivers trying to deal with the porpoising and bouncing of the new ground-effects cars and the effects on them physically as well as the difficulties it presents in putting together a good lap and a good race.)

Shortly after lunch my “familiarization” came to a screeching halt.  I was rounding a tight hairpin corner at speed and the outside back wheel fell off halfway round the corner! I felt the rear end of the kart suddenly swing out and, as the now-bare wheel-hub dug into the ashphalt, the kart turned over and landed on top of me.  

My emotional investment in the test came to a grinding halt and I wasn’t very happy with the preparation of the kart. I was just thankful that it happened in the slow hairpin instead of one of the faster corners.

First Pro race at Peterborough — not a great start

There wasn’t much time before my first event in Peterborough, Ontario, at a track owned by Paul Mason, a competitor in the ’78 series in Deavinson karts. 

Peterborough is about a three-hour drive from Ottawa (in the other direction) so we found a local hotel and stayed over the night before the race so that I’d get a good night’s sleep and arrive fresh and early for Sunday’s event.  But, excited about my first race and anxious to do well, I hardly slept at all.

In practice, my job was to run in the two engines, one after the other.  I remember puzzling over why they weren’t run in already as it seemed we were losing valuable practice and track familiarization time.  

Around and around I went very slowly, accellerating and coasting, accellerating and coasting — watching Roberto in the pits measuring the time till the engine was ready. As a result, I didn’t get any real practice at race speed with these unfamiliar International-class engines.

As it turned out, I didn’t even make the race — as soon as the engine was run in and Roberto signaled for me to speed up, the engine siezed and that was it for the day.  Roberto increased the ratio of oil in the gasoline for Fabrizio’s motor and that seemed to work better for him.

I’m sad to say that this was the only race my Dad had ever been to  — and it wasn’t a great performance for him to measure the rest of my racing by.  But, life-long photographer that he was, he did capture these great memories for us.

The day’s winner was Paul Embury, a pleasant chap that I’d got to know during the 1978 series.  I was glad he’d done well — he was the kind of driver that everyone was pleased to see do well.

At Cape Vessey, an engine rebuilt with a penknife!

We also tried a round of the Pro Series at Cape Vessey, a track near Belleville owned by Wrex Roth.

As in the Peterborough event, I had to run in the engines.  Roberto watched from the pits as I circulated slowly blipping the throttle.  At the proper time, he signaled me to increase to racing speed as the engine completed the run-in period.  One lap later as I came barrelling down the long front straight at full speed, the engine suddenly and without warning seized and locked up tight.

Now, remember: there is no clutch on this drivetrain — the engine’s crankshaft is connected directly to the rear axle and the tires.  So when the engine suddenly stopped, so did the wheels — with an immediate jarring effect on the kart (and the driver) right in front of the pits and all the other competitors!  

One other thing — even though the rear axle is inch-thick solid steel, the sudden stoppage of the engine at high speed must make one side of the axle (the engine side) stop a microsecond or two before the other side.  The result is that the kart goes into a slow lazy spin at high speed down the track.  It’s not a problem to get under control, it’s just jarring and embarrassing.

Roberto put more of our new sponsor’s oil in the gas mixture and sent me out again to run in the second engine. As far as I was concerned, we were again wasting a bunch of practice time and I was getting more annoyed. My faith was flagging that things would go according to plan. 

Once again I circulated slowly blipping the throttle for about half-an-hour until I saw the signal from Roberto to increase speed.  And once again, when flying down the start-finish straight the engine seized solid in front of the pits.  I was incensed.  

The only benefit of my temper and the high adrenalin that produced was that I was hyper-aware and reacted quickly enough to hold the kart in a perfectly straight line until it screeched to a halt — no long lazy spin this time. 

I felt like an idiot until John Long, the well-known and respected owner of the Picton track, came up to me and said that, in his long experience, he’d never seen someone hold a direct-drive kart in a straight line with a seized engine.  It was a thin compliment, but with our weekend going totally off the rails I grasped that straw thankfully. 

I stepped out of the kart convinced that my weekend was done. That was the last of the two engines, leaving none for me or Fabrizio. 

But as much as I had lost faith earlier, Roberto put on a technical performance that made me gasp.  He stripped both engines right there in the pits and used the remnants of each to build one good engine right on the spot.  He freed up the seized piston rings with A PENKNIFE of all things! Amazing stuff, but this newly built engine was for Fabrizio as last year’s champion, not for me. 

Roberto put even more oil in the gas mixture and Fabrizio was able to compete in the race and, as I recall, the engine got better and better with each passing lap and he finished quite well.

Flat out on an oval at 120 mph

Our next race was an three-hour endurance race on the St. Eustache oval (with a dog leg on the back stretch) just outside of Montreal. This made it a unique event for us in a couple of ways:

  • There were multiple drivers for each kart 
  • Since drivers were pushing the karts almost flat out the whole way around the oval and reliability was an important factor, Roberto had brought an almost stock engine with no or few modifications.

It was a fun, fast race.  The other driver took the first stint and started the race. At the first pit stop I took over and started to get the hang of oval racing.  

My first lesson was at my first pit stop: circulating almost flat out lap after lap tends to distort your perception of speed.  When I arrived in the pits for my first refueling stop, I thought I was going slower than I was and locked up the rear wheels trying to stop in my pit box.

I slid into the small pail of water that the team used to cool off the tires, knocking it over and spilling water all over the pit lane. Thereafter every kart that came into the pits was skidding into their pitbox thanks to all the Derek-supplied water… not a great way to make a first impression!

Back out for my second stint, I was religiously slapping my hand over the carb on the front straightaway to be sure to get oil into the engine.  I didn’t want any seizures here!  Everything seemed to be going well although I had no idea where I was in the race order.  But then, running down the main straight the engine just choked and stopped.  I cursed the continued bad luck with engines and coasted to a stop on the inside of turn one.

I looked over to the pits and no one was moving…  ?

I waved my arms at them and slowly they started to come over and help carry the kart back to the pits for diagnosis and repair.  It didn’t take long for Roberto to have the engine apart, exposing the piston, but proclaiming that he could find nothing wrong.  

Then, just as we were about to call it a day, Roberto’s young son pointed to the carburettor, asking what that plastic thing was hanging out of it! A plastic shopping bag had been sucked into the carb down the straightaway, starving the engine of air and stopping it cold!  

Roberto and the team cleared the garbage out of the carb, put the engine back together and got me back out on the track.

Predictably, we’d lost a lot of time in the pits and we’d forfeited any chance of placing in the race. But I picked up behind another competitor and we started circulating quite quickly. I found I could chase him down the start-finish straight and, with a high line through turn one, could pass him before the dogleg and lead him into turn three. Coming out of the dog leg I’d take the lower line and he took the high line and passed me for the lead for the start-finish straight. 

This continued lap after lap after lap until the end of the race. Inexplicably I never changed my turn-three line to the higher one and he continued to pass me in that corner right until the flag fell. After the race, I discovered that he was the winner — I’d been dicing with the leading kart for the balance of the race! It was all very good fun and very encouraging after Peterborough and Cape Vessey.

We sold the kart! What….??

There were two other events in 1979 and early 1980.

In the first event, we raced at Goodwood near Toronto.  Roberto had fitted a stock (not modified) engine in my kart and it ran the whole race with no issues — I finished sixth just behind Jason Holehouse and was thrilled to finally compete in and finish a Pro Series race.  As the championship winner in the prior year, Roberto wasn’t so thrilled with finishing so far down the order.  

The second event was a publicity race in a shopping centre parking lot in Montreal.  The track was laid out with cones and tires at the corners  —  these are often great vehicles for drawing new people into the sport.  

But when I arrived at the track, I was surprised to find that Roberto had actually sold the kart that I normally competed in and, instead, he had a unpainted kart that he had constructed himself.  

It looked good, but of course there is much more to a successful racing machine than looking good. 

When I first tried the new home-built kart during practice, I found that it had a tremendous amount of understeer. With understeer, the front tires slide instead of turning when you turn the steering wheel. So when I’d come up to a corner, I’d turn the wheel and the kart didn’t actually turn into the corner right away.

We tried to dial that out in practice, but at race time the understeer persisted. 

So I had to try and drive around the problem.

Instead of steering when I arrived at the corner, I had to anticipate how far in advance of the corner I needed to turn the wheel so that the kart would slide and then start its turn at the right time. It turned out that my anticipatory talents were not too bad — but I certainly wasn’t setting the race on fire.

It took a lot of concentration to get this right and I was lucky for a while. But finally that luck ran out:  I turned the wheel too soon on the left hand corner at the end of the straight and I walloped the left rear wheel on the tire marking the inside of the corner.  

Instant vibration…  the rear axle had actually bent slightly from the impact and there was no repairing that.  I pulled into the pits and they wanted to retire us from the race.  But I wanted to keep going and did so… the vibration mellowed out after a few laps, but I was never competitive for the rest of the race. I never saw the home-built chassis again… 

The Europeans are coming!

Early in 1980, I discovered that there was going to be an international karting event at the Goodwood circuit near Toronto.  Two European karting stars would be there including Terry Fullerton, who Ayrton Senna said was the driver he respected the most from his own karting days. 

Roberto said he’d have a proper chassis back for that race and I really wanted to be a part of it. The story of THAT event will be in our next post.

Coming soon: 1980 Race of Champions

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