They’re among the fastest children in the country and all share the same dream — to one day make it to the fast lane of Formula One. Ellie O’Byrne meets the whizz kids and their parents and explores their love of karting and the need for speed
“Even when my mam was pregnant with me she was at the racetrack,” 12-year-old Alyx Coby says.
She started racing karts at eight. With dad Gary and uncle Aaron also racing, some of her earliest memories are of the sound of revving engines, so a place on the family race team, Coby Motorsport, was almost inevitable for the motor-obsessed youngster.
One of three children, Alyx lives in Newbridge and is in sixth class in Gaelscoil Chill Dara, where her high-octane hobby doesn’t cause a stir among her down-to-earth friends.
“To be honest they laugh,” she says. “They don’t really know how fast it is, or how serious.”
Things got even more serious for Alyx last year when she moved from Cadet class to the more powerful IAME X30 Junior class, where she was not only the youngest driver on the grid, but the first ever girl.
Alyx’s goal is to reach the very top of her sport.
“Moving up and driving as an adult is what I’d really love to do,” she says. “I’d love to make it to Formula 1.”
She says her favourite driver of all time is Ayrton Senna, but she’s got a hero at home too: “My dad is my second role model. I get to spend loads of time with him going to races.”
Alyx was the first girl to win a Motorsport Championship final at Cadet level in Ireland and she has continuing apace, placed 15th last year and 6th this year, and with six wins to her name.
She’s competitive, but she’s also philosophical about her losses.
“You win or you learn,” she says. “When you come in from a bad race you just have to think about what you did and how to improve.”
With weekly trips to Athboy or Whiteriver Park karting tracks, as well as four training sessions a week for her second love, karate, it’s mum Frankie who provides the taxi service for Alyx’s action-packed life. Watching Alyx race against boys as old as 16, in a kart with a top speed of around 100kph, can be “nerve-racking”, says Frankie.
There have been crashes: “Thankfully I didn’t see the first,” she says, “because she went 15ft in the air.
“Another time she came off the same track and she was in a neck brace and we were in hospital for hours waiting to find out if she had a spinal injury.”
Both accidents occurred at Watergrasshill in Cork, the track that fearless Alyx still rates as her favourite.
Alex has been racing karts since the tender age of five. He has just graduated to the Senior Cadet class following his win this year at the Leinster Karting Championship in the Novice Cadet class.
Dad Colm O’Grady, a Coastguard helicopter pilot with the Shannon-based Search and Rescue team, says the key to helping Alex with the challenges he faces next season is to take things easy.
“You don’t want to push him too far too fast,” says Colm. “He’ll be doing a full Cadet season with Motorsport Ireland next year, starting in March. It’ll be a steep learning curve, but we’ll take it nice and slow.”
Colm, from Loughrea, Co Galway, says a gentle approach is also important for safety, and that allowing children to progress at their natural pace and build up experience over time safeguards against accidents on the race-track.
“Alex had good confidence before he even got to racing,” he says. “I’d have bigger fears for kids who start later, where their reaction times and ability doesn’t match their kart class because they haven’t had that slow progression. They’re kind of thrown in the deep end, with karts that are a little bit too quick for their abilities. That would be more of a concern for me.”
Alex has been obsessed with cars from a very young age.
“He’s a bit of a petrolhead, for want of a better word. We picked it as a hobby for him because of his own interest in it.”
A student in second class in Carrabane NS, he says he’d like to be like The Stig from Top Gear when he grows up, but also likes playing soccer.
Like all the kids on the karting circuit, Alex travels the length and breadth of the country to compete.
“The biggest advantage of karting is his interaction with all the kids from other areas of the country,” says Colm.
“He’s made great friends with kids from Northern Ireland; we’ve been racing to Nutt’s Corner in Belfast and we have friends who come down from Derry and Fermanagh. He can walk onto any course now and make friends pretty much straight away.”
At club level, the atmosphere is inclusive more than competitive, and a big emphasis is placed on the social aspect of the sport.
“There’s a policy of keeping it fun and low cost,” says Colm. “Anyone who wanted to get ultra-competitive or aggressive wouldn’t be tolerated, basically.”
For Jack Burrows, a switch from two wheels to four at the tender age of five led him to karting.
Wanting to follow in the footsteps of his dad, former motorcycle racer John Burrows, who now runs the Cookstown BE team, Jack had been driving motorbikes when the family decided that karting was safer.
From Dungannon, Co Tyrone, where he attends Donaghey primary school, Jack has only been racing karts since July, but came second in round two of the Ulster championship in October.
“I’m quite excited to see his potential, and his competitive spirit,” says Jack’s mum, Rachel.
Jack drives a Bambino Class kart, which has a two-stroke engine and drives at speeds suitable to the novice age group of 3-8.
It was the tragic death in May of 20-year-old motorcycle road racer Malachi Mitchell-Thomas during his debut race at North West 200 for John’s team that led to the Burrows’ decision to steer their own son towards a different sport.
“We were all very close to Malachi and he stayed at our house during racing season,” says Rachel. “It was devastating.”
Dad John himself decided to retire from road racing following the death of his close friend, fellow Tyrone motorcyclist Trevor Ferguson, in 2012. The second tragedy of Malachi’s death underlined for the couple that they didn’t want their son following in dad’s footsteps. “We just sat down and said, ‘we’re not pushing Jack in this direction’,” recalls Rachel.
“But Jack has a need for speed, and he found that with the karting.
“He just really enjoys it. I couldn’t honestly say that he wants to be the next Lewis Hamilton when he grows up... but then again, he’s only six.”
Jack likes to go to nearby Moneymore karting track several times a week when possible, which Rachel says is a substantial time commitment, but the perks for the whole family are the friendships that build up with other families trackside.
“The socialising is fantastic,” she says.
“We’ll be spending New Year’s Eve with two of the families we’ve met through karting.
“It’s nowhere near as competitive as some seem to think; the kids are on the track racing each other one minute and are happily playing away together the next.
“You want your child to do well, but it’s not the end of the world if they don’t win and they need to know that too.”
Letisha flipped her kart in her very first race at the age of eight and ended up in a neck brace. Undaunted, the 11-year-old persuaded her parents to let her have another go and now, three years later, she’s just picked up her first win in the eighth round of the Tullyallen Karting Championships in Watergrasshill, Co Cork.
“It was my first time on that track so I was really happy with that,” says Letisha. “I won both heats and the final.”
Letisha, who also owns a pony and competes in show-jumping competitions, loves racing and says her favourite thing about karting is “driving fast around corners”, although she’s not sure what she’d like to be when she grows up. “Maybe I’ll race motorbikes.”
From Markethill, Co Armagh, where she’s in her first year in Markethill High School, Letisha, like so many of Ireland’s karting kids, has family connections to the world of motorsports; dad Stephen Conn has raced motorcycles and rally cars, and now marshals for Letisha’s club, Tullyallen Karting Club.
Stephen says Letisha’s crash in that first race gave the Conns some reservations about her choice of sport, but she was keen to give it another go.
“We took her out on a test day to the same track where she crashed. After three laps, she was quicker than she’d ever been before she crashed,” he says.
He’s proud of his plucky daughter: “Letisha is the rain-master; she’s an absolute demon on a wet track.”
Channel 4’s Britain’s Fastest Kids documentary, which aired in November, had Stephen and other parents on the Irish racing scene fuming for its depiction of karting as a highly pressured and elitist sport, with over-competitive dads pumping up to £100,000 per racing season into their kids’ careers and putting the youngsters under enormous emotional pressure to succeed.
“Letisha’s kart was £1,000,” Stephen says. “A set of tyres is £100 and that will do us all year; it doesn’t have to be expensive.”
On top of the misinterpretation of costs, Stephen says his experience at Tullyallen Karting Club is miles away from the high-pressured scenes depicted in the UK documentary.
“It’s all about family,” he says. “People will fix the karts of other kids that their own kids are racing against; half the time, if I’m marshalling, it’ll be another dad helping Letisha during the race. Everyone’s there to help each other.”
Wins and losses aren’t felt as keenly by kids if parents give them a balanced perspective and a sense of enjoyment at the track, he says.
“Everybody knows Letisha. She’s a bouncy, happy wee girl and everyone in the paddock knows her; she’s walking around smiling, it doesn’t matter if she’s first or last.”
Luke was just six years old when he won the Bambino class Championship in 2016, a year after his dad, 125cc kart racer Gary Agnew, decided to buy him his first kart. Luke, now seven and a student at Kilbride Primary School in Ballyclare, clearly inherited his dad’s need for speed.
Local motorcycle racing legend Jonathan Rea, the World Superbike Champion, is also a hero of Luke’s.
“We live in the same village that Jonathan grew up in, and Luke always talks about being world champion,” says Gary.
After 20 years in karting himself, Gary has scaled back his competing in recent years, even as Luke’s enthusiasm for the sport grows and grows.
“He always wants to do it; you never have to get him out of bed for it,” says Gary.
Having competed himself, Gary takes a balanced view of the safety aspects of karting.
“Of course you have concerns, but there’s worries in everyday life too. It’s a big, bad world and there’s worries in every area for your children. And at least when it comes to driving a car, which I know is a long way off, he’ll know the implications of speed from being on the track.”
Luke’s competitive drive is clear in the difference in him when he’s driving in races compared to just practising, says Gary, but as with so many other parents of karting kids, he’s keen to stress the importance of the sport in personal development rather than just as a trophy-gathering exercise.
“He’s gotten very involved, made new friends and it’s definitely made him more confident too,” says his dad.
“It’s also made him a bit more streetwise. He’s competitive, but he’s not a bad loser either and he understands that you can’t always win.”
Luke will increase the speed, and the Agnews their commitment in terms of time and money, when he moves up to Cadet class next year.
“With Bambino karts, you can have them racing for €950 and the budget to compete for this year would have been just over €1,200 for the complete season,” says Gary. “It gets a bit more expensive again when they move up to Cadet class, but it’s still comparable to a lot of other kids sports really.”
Meath racing sisters Laura and Eimear Carey are driven to succeed, but dad Noel Carey says keeping a balance in their lives and interests is also important.
“It’s very time-consuming and they love it, but we don’t let it take over. They play football and Eimear does Irish dancing and stage school.”
Noel, a former kart racer himself who now runs the family race team, says his girls are absolutely hooked on the thrill of racing.
“It’s a challenging sport, especially for the girls, because the boys don’t like to be beaten by the girls,” he says.
“They had a great year this year; Eimear finished third in the novice class out of about 20, which was a great achievement, and Laura finished seventh in the senior Irish Championship class.”
Eimear had a particularly dramatic win at Leinster Karting Club Championships in October, where she beat fellow Novice Cadet Alex O’Grady to first place in a tight race that saw the pair trading the lead no less than six times in 10 laps.
Laura, 13, will move up a class to MiniX30 for the next season, which will mean the sisters are no longer competing against each other.
Both girls want to take the sport as far as they can, and during racing season it’s an enormous time commitment for the family, says Noel.
“They practise every second week, and then when the season is on there are five championship races from March to September and they do club races in between. They have ambitions to go further, but it takes a lot of money higher up in the sport.
“Sponsoring a kid to get to Formula 1 is very expensive. There are 22 places on the F1 grid every year, and thousands of kids who want a place, so it’s a tough sport that way. You’d want to be very lucky to make it the whole way.”
But no matter what the outcomes for the girls as they progress in their sport, Noel says the advantages of their past-time will last a lifetime, both in terms of their confidence and development, and also the skills they are picking up.
“They learn to drive, in the first place. Come 17, when they’re driving on the road, they’ll already know how to control the car.”
Seán won the Motorsport Ireland Cadet Championship 2016 and has also won the Irish Karting Club C Plate three years in succession from 2014 to 2016.
The eldest of five siblings, the sky’s the limit for Seán when he’s plotting his future in the world of motorsports.
“I want to get to Formula One and win the World Championships,” he says.
Seán developed an interest in karting at the age of seven and started competing when he was nine.
“I like to go training about every second week for karting, to Whiteriver Park in Louth,” he says.
He loves the sense of speed he gets from racing and has had a good track record when it comes to accidents.
“The karts I race at the moment can go up to 110kph, so I guess I’ve been lucky.”
Seán will move up to X30 class next season, but as well as karting, the first-year student in St Gerard’s in Bray, Co Wicklow, has a keen interest in rugby and trains with his team five times per week. Does his busy lifestyle interfere with his social life?
“Well, I’ve made a lot of friends in karting,” he says, “and there’s school. But it’s hard to talk about karting in school because no one really knows what it is, so they don’t understand.”
Dad Conor McCormack used to race but is happy to take the back-seat and play the part of mechanic for Seán and his younger brother Jake, 11, who also competes.
“We’re together at all the races,” says Conor. “On race weekends, myself and the two boys usually head away on the Friday and come home on the Sunday. It’s great to be able to spend this much time with them.”
With Seán exhibiting such a keen competitive edge so young, how well does he deal with his losses? “If he’s lost, there’s not much chat going home in the car, we’ll put it that way,” says Conor.
“He kind of does get upset if it doesn’t go his way, but then it’s good for him to learn that you can’t win all the time. There are good days and bad days. It’s not always easy; you work hard to win, but it doesn’t always work out that way.”
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