WE SAT DOWN WITH OUR HEAD OF ENGINEERING, CHRIS PIKE, TO TALK ALL THINGS ENGINEERING
Chris’ career started back in 1991 when he had his first taste of go-karting at his local indoor circuit called Kart City nr West Norwood, London. Chris and a few of his mates enjoyed a spirited first racing experience with Chris flipping his kart over! It is this, Chris says, that gave him the bug for racing! After flipping the kart, he ran back to the pits, jumped in a fresh kart and never looked back.
Following this a young Chris became fascinated with karts wanting to know how they worked and plucking up the courage to ask a mechanic if he could come and learn from him. Hitting if off straight away the mechanic threw a ratchet spanner to Chris who started right in on the wheels before working his way up from there over the next year. Chris quickly grew close working relationships with marshals and race directors. Very soon his whole family had got involved with racing, enjoying after-work sessions at their beloved track.
A recession sadly saw the track close, but it didn’t stop there for Chris. With him and his father having caught the racing bug they entered in to a 24hr charity race at Polegate in Eastbourne. The following year Chris’ father bought him and his brother a pair of pro-karts and they took part in the Honda Pro-Kart Challenge in 1992 which ran at various outdoor circuits up and down the United Kingdom and even included a race in Ireland at Nutts Corner.
The series ran alongside the ABKC (Association of British Kart Clubs) National Gearbox Kart Championship. Chris fell in love with them and within a year made the switch to the shifter style karts much to his mother’s disapproval! He then took to racing gearbox karts at outdoor MSA circuits for many years. Racing on a budget meant that Chris had to do a lot of the work on the kart himself learning how to set up, tune and race 2-stroke karts over a 20-year career. Setting up a gearbox kart In Chris’ own words “was as close as you could get to an F1 car in terms of set-up!” During this time Chris won multiple club championships and was 2 x Southern Champion in different classes including 1998 125cc Gear Box Championship. In 2008 he won the same championship in a 250cc gearbox kart and went on to become the 2009 250cc British Champion. Again, this was all done on a budget meaning Chris honed and developed his kart tuning skills to an exceptional level.
During its heyday Chris remarks that, “whilst the kart’s engine was new the chassis itself was 10yrs old and so long as they’re set up properly, the geometry is right and comfortable, age doesn’t really come in to it. If you compare it with a senior Rotax kart or an X30 Kart they will do 3 races in a year and probably be knackered, it’s totally different”. He fondly added, “it was just an awesome kart!” Spending a year setting the chassis up and fine tuning it to his preferences including how he wanted it to feel on the brakes with both front and rear brakes to consider “everything just came together at the right time really. It makes you work; you don’t get a second to think to yourself everything happens really quick. I’ve taken it around Milton Keynes circuit a few times and I was topping out at about 83mph on the straight, but it can go probably 120mph. 0 to 60 if you get it right can normally take about 3.5 seconds.” Chris continues effusing “The brakes are probably even more impressive really. 4-wheel brakes when you’re putting just under 200kgs with kart and driver you can pretty much stop from 80mph to 0 in 4 seconds! Everything is just crazy, including a 6-gear box. You spend most of your lap with one hand on the steering wheel and the other hand is changing gears!”
Chris’ 250cc kart is a permanent fixture on the engineering shop floor at Daytona Milton Keynes. “It means a lot” Chris says, “Every time I see it, it just brings back the memories. I’ve got a garage at home full of trophies. They had to go in the garage because there were too many for the house!” Reflecting once again on his 250cc gearbox kart “Sometimes when I’m in a bad mood I just look at that and….yeah!”
We now fast forward to 2011 and Chris’ appointment at Daytona Motorsport with his working career previously spanning several different industries including horticultural engineering and the building trade. Becoming bored with the building trade and suffering physically with the demands of it, having sustained injuries from his racing career, Chris stumbled across Daytona Sandown Park on his way back from an interview at another kart track nr Heathrow.
“I just thought I’d call in and see what was going on there. At that point I didn’t realise that they had these DMAX 2-stroke rotax karts. That was new to me, a corporate venue offering 2-stroke race karts. I walked into the workshop and spoke to the head of engineering at the time which was Graham Snook. I asked if there were any vacancies and gave him my number expressing the fact that I had good 2-stroke knowledge. A couple of weeks later I received a phone call as a job opportunity had come up, a junior engineer had moved on. So, I just said yeah, I’ll take it! And that got me in the door if you like and I rediscovered my passion for karting really”
Within a year another opportunity presented itself when the then current senior DMAX engineer had to undergo an operation in the middle of an engine rebuild. Chris took up the reigns getting to work on the engine rebuild and more importantly ironing out all the little problems that he’d inherited with it. Shortly afterwards people had started to notice the difference. Through various changes in staff Chris was offered Assistant Head of Engineering at Daytona Sandown Park and he jumped at the chance. The following year Chris’ family expanded meaning they had to find a larger home leading to a move from Croydon to Northampton whilst he continued to commute to work in Esher.
A while later another opportunity opened at the flagship venue Daytona Milton Keynes, a much shorter commute from Northampton, although Chris was reluctant at first as he was really enjoying his role at Daytona Sandown Park. Starting as senior DMAX engineer at Milton Keynes in 2014, Chris was soon flat out in early 2015 building the latest fleet of DMAX karts which really “kicked off the 2015 DMAX Championship from that point on”. Chris attended all rounds of the Daytona DMAX Championship from that point on ensuring they were maintained to the highest standards. This also included maintaining the fleet during the gruelling Daytona 24hrs held annually at Milton Keynes.
In 2018 yet another opportunity presented itself with the role Head of Engineering becoming available and Chris once again seized the chance. “I put my name forward. I think my audition was the 2018 Daytona 24hr race which went very well, quite lively. The 24-hour race is a solid 2 weeks of preparation and then that final week is just all hands-on deck!” Shortly afterwards Chris was confirmed as Head of Engineering at Daytona Milton Keynes and the role brought with it the responsibility of managing not just the whole fleet of 96 karts, but a team of engineers which Chris admits was daunting at first. “It was pretty scary at first, the first 6 months yeah! It was a role I’d not performed before, so I had a lot of different aspects to learn; the running of the workshop, managing people and so on. It wasn’t necessarily a role I’d seen myself doing, but the opportunity was there. I wasn’t getting any younger and I wanted to see how I’d get on”
With Chris at the helm it heralded a new style of management in the engineering department. There was a calmness, a more business-like approach with the whole team diligently getting on with their work and the opportunity to learn from Chris’ vast experience of maintaining, tuning and developing Daytona’s race karts. Chris said “One area that required immediate attention was that the whole shop floor needed a proper sort out. There was a lot of old stuff being stored that was never going to get used and it was a case of getting rid of the clutter. I had a few visions of how we’d get more floor space. Every day we had to stack DMAX on their rear bumpers and all the fuel would have to be drained out, carburettors would all have to be flipped round and drained before they could be stacked up. Then imagine every morning you’ve got to get all that down, put the kart back round and fill them up with fuel. Just little things like that which could pose problems to the workshop and slow everything down. We utilised things like tyre racks and generally improved the access so ultimately we could see what we had, which certainly makes the stocktake much easier to do!”
2020 sees Chris take yet another career step, Group Head of Engineering. In this new role Chris takes responsibility and leadership for Daytona’s entire fleet with each venue’s engineering management reporting directly to him. The move enables him to bring parity of performance and process to all 300+ of Daytona’s karts, improving communication between departments, overall budget control and essentially ensuring that all 12 of Daytona engineering personal are trained to the same high standard.
Currently Chris and his team are finishing the build of the new DMAX fleet at Daytona Milton Keynes.
How do you feel you’ve dealt with the challenges?
“Very comfortably, slightly different format this time in that we had to find a different place to locate the radiator, the new seat set up has been a bit of a challenge. Also, the new type wiring loom can no longer go where the old loom used to go in the old DMAX. It’s taken a bit longer than we hoped for but we’re getting there.”
Yes, because it’s not just out of a box and it just goes together is it, why is that?
“The DMAX Kart is a bespoke kart to Daytona, it’s not just off the shelf. We get the chassis (birel) with all the running gear but then we have to modify where we put the ignition switch, where we put the battery tray. We fit our own weight posts so we can have much closer racing with weighted classes. Technically the rotax evo wiring looms go in one place, but we have to retro fit everything.
Why is that?
Simply because we don’t have the room, we have the weight posts to run the rotax ignition battery ecu starter solenoid. It’s all designed to go in one spot we have to retro fit to allow for our weight posts really. My life would be a lot easier if we didn’t have weight posts!
So when you order all the parts and they arrive, how does it feel, do you enjoy the challenge I guess because the clock is ticking?
“I hate it when the clock ticks, I wish the clock would stop! But no, I’ve always enjoyed the challenge, I don’t like being beaten by something. If I can get something out that customers like it’s good. I think the body kit looks a lot better, smarter and more up to date and robust.”
How long did the first one take to put together?
“A solid 2 days from start to finish, probably close to 30 working hours. When I took it out for the first time it felt lovely! It was quite rigid, quite a bit stronger, you know these things are built to last. Positive steering and it felt really direct. Coming back into the pits it was a relief knowing we’d got it right, but also knowing we had to build another 24!”
How would you sum up your career at Daytona so far?
“Enjoyable. It’s a high-pressure job. Coming from the outside you think you’re just turning up and going out in a go-kart. But when you’re on the inside it’s serious high-pressure, the volume of karts we’ve got here, they’re constantly out, constantly being used and therefore it’s a constant workload. And as I’ve said I don’t like things to go wrong so I guess I put a lot more stress on myself”
On the 14th of October Chris will have been with Daytona Motorsport for 9 years. We asked him if he’s still loving it to which he replied emphatically “Yeah!! Yes, still love it, I don’t think I would have taken the role if it was not still in the veins if you like?”
So still passionate then and how do you feel with the 24hrs coming up?
“Stressed, but then I’m a stress kind of person. If there’s one thing wrong, it’ll stress me out until it’s sorted. The last thing I want to do is let anyone down. Motorsport is motorsport, you can get everything right on the day and something might happen, you just can’t rule it out, it’s impossible.
Right now I’ve still got 3 DMAX karts to build up complete by the end of this weekend. There’s other stuff in the pipeline that people will find out about due course”