For many people, go-karting conjures up images of children and teens racing around in home-made, slow-moving vehicles. But the sport of go-karting is much more, and for 65-year-old Ralph Oakes, it’s addictive.
Though he caught the bug when he was a teenager, Ralph’s love for go-kart racing has endured his adult years and, even now, as he becomes a senior.
“It’s not like I’m trying to win a world championship,” he says. “It’s fun, and a very close knit community. Racing really keeps me young. The people who do this are amazing. When anyone needs something, they would just build it for you.”
Though he has been racing for the better part of 50 years, Ralph still experiences the thrill and excitement of getting behind the wheel and lining up for competition.
“When the green flag is counting down to the race start, I can feel the butterflies churning in my stomach,” says Ralph. “I want to get a good start…. I don’t want to stall or get tangled up with other vehicles and get in a pile up on the first lap.”
The type of go-kart Ralph prefers is the laydown version in which the racer lies on their back and peers over the dashboard as they drive. After years of racing in go-karts in which the driver sits up, Ralph tried the variety he now prefers in 1980 and he claims he’ll never go back.
“The thing that most impressed me about the laydown go-karts is the extra speed you can get out of your vehicle,” says Ralph. “In our class, we push about 210 kilometres per hour, at top speed, so we are really moving. Our races are all 45-minutes long, which means you really need to have a lot of stamina and endurance. Normally, you know where you are compared to the other drivers, and know how many people you are ahead of or need to pass. Whoever crosses the finish line first, after 45 minutes, gets the checkered flag.”
Though he competes against drivers much younger, Ralph does very well, winning many of his races and trophies for first place in his category in the 2010 Class Champion Portland Karting Association. Despite all his successes, however, the wins are not why he competes.
“Of course you want to win, you always want to win, but the main thing I enjoy about the sport is that we just get to compete and have fun. I always want to keep my kart in good shape, so it is ready to enter the next race. I really enjoy racing, and I am so thankful I can do it. There are a bunch of great people involved in the sport, and I am glad I can get together with them at competitions.”
Perhaps Ralph inherited his love for speed from his father, who was one of Canada’s earliest pilots. In fact, his father journeyed with Grant McConachie when he helped map the north in an aircraft. In World War II, he was with the Ferry Command flying B-52 bombers from Gander to the United Kingdom but, since he was not in the military, he was not allowed to fly with weapons.
Young Ralph often accompanied his father on commercial flights, later got his pilot’s license and likely would have made a career of flying, except his vision was not good enough without glasses to allow that to happen. So, Ralph turned to another form of flying, one that kept him closer to terra firma.
The first go-kart was invented in California in 1959, and Ralph received his first exposure to one in 1962, when he was 15. He and his father visited a fellow pilot friend, who happened to have a go-kart for Ralph to try out while the two men chatted.
“I was racing all around the yard on this thing until it was time to go,” Ralph recalls. “Then, to my surprise, they picked it up and stuffed it into the back of our station wagon. My dad told me it was for me, which made me extremely happy.”
Ralph and fellow racing enthusiasts cut their teeth on their new hobby on a small track in the bush near Fell Avenue in Burnaby and practiced there until the Westwood racing track opened a three-eighth of a mile go-kart track near their main track.
“We used to have maybe 10 to 15 races a year, plus time to practice. It was a great thing for us because so many of us young people wanted to drive and we could not afford cars. Riding on a track was fantastic and it felt really good. Every week, I would look forward to it. It gets in your blood.”
When he is not racing, Ralph continues to work in real estate as he has since 1975. In the early 1970s, with the downturn of the stock market, he was unsure about where his life was going when he met Annette, the woman he would eventually marry.
“When I met her, she was about to take a real estate course, but she gave up her spot for me,” says Ralph. “It was extremely nice of her, and I have never looked back.”
Regardless of the huge number of hours he has spent racing and practicing in his go-karts, Ralph has remained largely injury free. He did have one bad accident, however, in 1991, during the Grand Nationals in Portland, Oregon.
“There were five of us in the lead pack and I was running fifth right behind a friend of mine,” he says. “We were going into the last corner before the straightaway when his engine blew. He put his hand up to warn me, like you are supposed to do, but at that moment my brakes locked up. I was going about 120 kilometres an hour as I [hit] the wall. Instinctively, I put my foot out to stop myself and ripped all the tendons in my right ankle. They put me in an ambulance, and I spent five days in the hospital. From there, it was another six months learning to walk again.”
The only other injury he sustained was a cracked rib three years ago. This, despite the fact these fast-moving vehicles have no seat belts or roll bars, and the drivers are only protected by racing suits, gloves and Snell-approved helmets with full-face shields. And Ralph would not have it any other way.
“I just really like racing,” he says. “I am thankful that I can still do it; glad that I have my health. I always tell everyone I am 38, and I am never planning to retire.”