Tom Robertson meets the couple set to compete against each other in the hunt for karting glory
On February 14th, Hank Grossnicklaus and his wife, Laila al Sinani, will put their feelings for each other aside and instead, be locked in battle. They’ll be going head-to-head on the Oman Automobile Association’s karting track in a 24 hour endurance race.
It’s an event that will see the teams, each consisting of up to ten drivers, vying to take first place by completing the most number of laps of the circuit.
Representing rival teams, Hank will be driving for our own Y Magazine team, while Laila will form an integral part of Merge 104.8’s attempt to gain the top honours in this year’s event.
But when you look at their varying go-karting backgrounds, there’s no mistaking which of them is odds-on favourite to help steer their team to success.
At the age of nine, Laila saw her first go-kart in a children’s story book and just a few years later started her karting career. Now 15 years on and she’s still tearing round the asphalt.
She has a headstart of over fourteen years on her husband, a relative newcomer to the sport, having started just eight months ago. For Hank, this will also be the first event of this kind that he’s competed in, in stark contrast to Laila, who has seven 24 hour endurance events already under her belt.
“I’ll just have to hope their kart breaks down,” Hank chuckles while reflecting on the odds facing him and his team and accepting that when it comes to this marital battle, he’s definitely the underdog.
“But in reality”, he adds, “We’ll have to see because on the day there are so many more factors at play. It’s not just a question of me versus my wife, there are lots of other talented drivers involved, tactics, and a host of other things that can influence the race.”
It will be quite a change for Hank. Normally he’s dutifully supporting his wife in her karting aspirations, either practicing with her on the track, or helping to fix the kart when it’s in the pit lane.
Even though Hank is now ready to switch from cheering on his wife to directly challenging her, Laila seems unflustered by the prospect and exudes the confidence of a teacher still ready to dish out a lesson on the track.
“We’ve got some great drivers, we’re a full force ready to destroy the opposition”, she laughs, the over-the-top mock bravado almost laid on playfully to taunt her husband sitting opposite.
“But that’s just all talk, the truth is that this is a 24 hour endurance race. Even if you had the best drivers in the world, there are so many unforeseen things that can go wrong on the day. You could invoke penalties for breaking rules, or things could go wrong with the kart, such as the brakes not working properly or problems with the tyres.
“It’s not like in shorter one-hour races. This is a long race and if your kart is in the pits for any length of time, you can soon find that the other teams are carving out a massive lead over you. And potentially one that’s only going to get bigger.”
The elephant in the room is, of course, the fact that this is a seriously demanding event, requiring mental concentration and physical fitness. A non-stop endurance event such as this can sometimes threaten to deprive contestants of sleep, as they hop in and out of the kart to take turns driving.
“Make no mistake”, warns Laila who became a mum to baby Dean just last year, “It is exhausting in every way, physically and emotionally. When you get out of that kart at the end, I swear you could cry. In fact, I’ve seen grown men cry. When the race is over, they’re so exhausted they have to be pulled out. You need about a week to recover afterwards, depending on how much of the 24 hours you’ve driven. ”
It’s for that reason that while Hank and Laila will be competing against each other, they also acknowledge that in reality they’ll be be supporting each other. Hank will also be taking on the role of team manager to help manage his wife’s team, while their pit boss catches up on some much needed sleep.
“It’s simply not feasible for one team manager to run an entire race for the full 24 hour period”, says Hank.
It’s apparent that while they may be on different teams, they’re still on the same team at the end of the day.
Despite the plethora of unknowns that exist in such a race and the apparent physical and mental demands, the enthusiasm with which Laila speaks about the forthcoming race is infectious.
“It’s seriously intense, but it’s so much fun. I’ve done seven and I’m willing to do another twenty more, so you can imagine how much fun it is”.