WHEN she was growing up in Strathfieldsaye, Emma Dorring- ton was a tomboy who had one of the most impressive Matchbox car collections in her suburb.
But it was the revving of the real engine from the set of wheels in her garage that made her the envy of many boys in the neighbourhood.
Since the age of seven, Emma has been regularly travelling around Victoria racing go-karts.
And we’re not talking about the “toy” kart variety found at privately run entertainment venues – Emma’s latest machine tops speeds of 130kmh as she flies down the straight.
The 23-year-old admits it’s probably the last thing people expect when they meet her because, despite her “revhead” tendencies, she still enjoys getting in touch with her feminine side.
“I am a bit of a girly girl,” she says. “I like to go shopping and I like shoes and getting my hair done, so when I turn around and tell people I race karts, they can be taken aback.”
Emma cut her teeth on the side of a motorcycle track watching her father, Bruce, race bikes.
When he switched to the “less dangerous” sport of go-karting after a few too many broken bones, it was only natural that his little sidekick would follow in his footsteps.
As soon as she was old enough to start competing, she joined him at the Bendigo Go Kart Club and Team Dorrington was formed.
“Even mum raced for a year,” says Emma, whose dad gave up driving 12 months later to concentrate on his daughter’s endeavours.
“Dad is chief mechanic and financer of everything... he’s the boss. He does most of the work on the kart, having come from a mechanical background, so I’m lucky to have him. He’s reluctant to let me touch it sometimes, so I only do the basic stuff.
“That can work in my favour though, because when things don’t go so well mechanically I can always blame him!”
Emma drives in the lightweight touch-and-go class in a Melbourne-built Arrow kart with a 125cc restricted engine and non-standard steering wheel boasting an in-built computer that monitors her race progress.
As with the five smaller and less powerful karts she outgrew over the years, this slick machine also features a modified seat to suit Emma’s female form.
“Because it is a stock standard seat that is really designed for males, dad had to heat up the side of it and make some curves for the hips,” she laughs.
Go kart racing involves much more than just jumping in and driving flat-out around a circuit.
Emma and her kart must weigh in at a minimum of 160kg after each race or face disqualification, so a lot of tactical work is done even before she hits the bitumen.
“I am actually too light and I have to put weight onto the kart, so I’ve got lead blocks bolted to the side of my seat,” she says, explaining how she steps onto the scales before an event and her dad then decides which blocks and how much fuel to use.
“You want to be as light as possible because the lighter you are, the faster you go. Ideally, you want to be 160.5kg or 161kg when you come in. You have to think, even if you have a bottle of water to drink before you go out, that’s a little bit of extra weight.”
Bruce says it’s a fine line to tread, as the amount of fuel required varies from race to race.
“And if she comes in afterwards and she’s 2kg overweight, she goes crook at me!”
The highlight of Emma’s career to date was claiming fifth place in her category at the state championships towards the end of 2012. She was one of two females in a field of 24 drivers.
“It was the first state titles I had competed in,” she says of the Bendigo meet. “I’d never bothered to enter before, but it was at my home track and I thought, why not? To end up fifth, I was pretty happy.”
The event was held over three days, with practice sessions on the Friday and two four-lap time trials on the Saturday that determine the starting positions for the top 25 on the final day.
Two heats on the Sunday qualify drivers for their grid position in a pre-final, which determines the starting spots for the ultimate race.
“If you make a mistake in that pre-final and spin out, you end up starting from the back position in the final,” says Emma. “And only the final counts. It’s one race at the end of the day, so if you have mechanical problems in that last race, it’s the whole weekend over!”
Early last year at a big open meet in Bendigo, she had performed extremely well and started the final fourth on the grid, but was frustratingly taken out first corner of the first lap.
As her dad puts it: “There’s an element of luck combined with the skill and experience.”
Go karting is probably the most affordable form of motorsport to be involved in, but it’s not cheap.
Emma’s kart is worth close to $4000, the engine cost $3000, hi-tech steering wheel another $1000 and tyres $250 a set – with both dry weather slicks and wet weather treads needed.
The Dorringtons operate on a low budget compared to some, but always try and put the best vehicle possible out on the track. When they travel to meets, Emma beds down in the family van and Bruce sleeps in the trailer or outside on the ground to save accommodation costs.
“I would love to race at a higher category one day or even go into some sort of car racing, but I’m very much limited by time and money,” she says.
“It is an expensive sport and there’s such a huge leap to go from racing go-karts to Formula Ford or Formula V. Some people go into production cars, which would be great, but I don’t know if I will ever have the spare time or the spare money, so we will just see how we go.”
Emma’s lack of time stems from the fact she is in her final year of dentistry at La Trobe University, spending this year and last on full-time work placement in areas such as Melton, Mildura and Wodonga, as well as Bendigo.
She has heavy study commit- ments, and has had to cut back on her racing and be more selective about what events she races at.
A similar situation led to a break from karts during VCE and the start of her uni studies, but she returned about three years ago and loves being back behind the wheel.
She is presently the only female racer at the Bendigo club and says she has no qualms about being heavily outnumbered in the male-dominated sport.
Still, she sometimes feels she has to prove herself more as a driver because of her gender.
“Some of the guys I race against are taken aback,” she says of her rivals. “A lot don’t know what to expect from female drivers. There’s always stereotypes that women can’t drive and they think I won’t be competitive or won’t be prepared to push the guys around.
“So I think they are surprised when I’m out on the track and I am competitive.... some don’t know quite how to take it.
“The hardest time was when I went up into seniors and I was only 17. A teenage girl beating middle-age men, especially when some of them had their mates around watching them, can be a huge deflation. But a lot of blokes don’t realise I have been doing it since I was seven years old so I have a lot of experience.”
Emma is a fan of Formula One racing and enjoys watching home-grown drivers Mark Webber and Daniel Ricciardo pit their skills against the world’s best.
She has also been following the fortunes of Wedderburn’s Brendan Reeves, a rising star of the World Rally Championship Academy, whom she raced against as a junior.
Away from motorsport, the former St Francis of the Field and Girton Grammar student has dabbled in dancing, swum competitively for Eaglehawk, and played water polo.
“A lot of ex-swimmers were playing water polo and I thought that could be a fun thing to do and a good way to end my swimming career,” she says.
“I thought it would be a bit easier than swimming competitively but I was surprised to find it was completely the opposite. Water polo is one of the most physical things I have ever done.”
These days, Emma still swims but only to help maintain her fitness. Good strength, endurance and mental alertness are vital qualities for kart drivers, who can otherwise start to feel the strain towards the end of a race.
Jostling for position early on or a lack of concentration in the latter stages can prove disastrous.
And while Emma has had her fair share of crashes and scrapes and seen some nasty accidents, she has emerged largely unscathed.
“I have been really lucky. When I was 11 or 12, I was T-boned in a race and his kart flipped upside down onto me and the engine kept running.
“The wheels kept turning and the disc brake was right next to my shoulder spinning quickly and I was trying to push him off, but he was too heavy.
“Dad was doing the flags on that corner and he ran over and tried to grab the spark plug out, but the boy must have realised what was happening and put his foot on the brake and they were able to get the kart off. That was a bit scary.”
“Another time I came up the end of the straight at Puckapunyal doing about 100kmh and I was hit from behind and pushed into the sand trap and the kart went up into the air and hit the tyre wall and my head hit the tyre wall at the same time.
“I was a little bit concussed after that, but there’s been no broken bones or serious injuries.”
The Bendigo club has just begun the 2013 go-kart season, with meets on the last Sunday of each month.
Time permitting, Emma will be at the track as often as she can - helmet and racing suit on; dad by her side for mechanical/tactical advice; Team Dorrington ready and raring to go.