Ayrton Senna. Tony Stewart. Lewis Hamilton. Darrell Waltrip. Jeff Gordon. Kimi Räikkönen. Sebastian Vettel. Mario. What do all these legends of racing have in common? What do they have in common with hundreds of other racing champions from the last several decades? They all started small. Very small.
Karting is known internationally as the place to begin when you’re very young if you ever have any hopes of becoming a professional racing driver. Take a small, low-powered, usually single-speed go cart, replace the “c” with a “k,” race it around a small track at blistering speeds of about 50 mph (tops), and you can learn every basic skill you need to become a Formula One champion.
That wasn’t really my intention when I got the idea to inject my best friend’s bachelor party with some karting action. I just wanted to have some fun, and I knew Troy, the groom-to-be, was an even bigger racing fan than me and would love it.
The Outfit: A quick shout into the Google void put me in touch with Jet Karting at Michiana Raceway Park in the hilariously-christened Crumstown, Indiana. This wasn’t the first time I’d been karting, but the other two tracks had been indoor. This was not. MRP was a fairly huge track for karts, with dozens of possible configurations, a couple of tight chicanes, several switchback corners whose apexes eluded me like tax breaks, and a massive elevation change.
Jet suited us up with racing jackets, gloves, neck braces, helmets, and even a pair of jeans in the case of the guy wearing shorts. (We didn’t ask for details on their origin, but they were carpenters, so it was safe to say they hadn’t been worn regularly in some time.) The staff were friendly and laid back, happy to joke around with us and let us take out time in finding the right gear.
We would get 15 minutes for $25 each. That sounds like quite the heap for tossing a few toys around a toy track for a quarter of an hour, but it’s actually the best value I’ve seen for a single session. A package deal would have cost us $95 each for about an hour and a half of racing, but that was a little salty for our young budgets.
The Beasts: Our karts were spec, each limited to 48 mph and stabling 8 snorting horses. I asked for the most powerful, as I had about 100 lbs on each of my 4 competitors, but the lanky young track marshal told me that they use this same group of karts for league racing, so they all had to be identical. I was only joking. Sortof.
Disc brakes came standard, one per kart on the rear axle. Speaking of brakes, karts at this level are generally equipped with a fuel interrupter valve so you can’t brake and accelerate at the same time. It probably saves them a fortune on pads, but can be tricky to master. After our race, the owner told us that a pro will put his foot under the brake pedal to make sure the valve is disengaged.
I was surprised to see a complete lack of safety harness. Gravity and friction (and in my portly case, probably a good deal of negative pressure) alone held us in our karts. It was 1953. But there were no roll bars, either, so perhaps in this one case, it was better to be thrown. Thankfully, we didn’t find out.
The Field: Five of us raced – Troy the Betrothed, Jon the Cooper-Owner, Kevin the Former Youth Pastor, Greg the Clever, and me, Andy the Heavy. A 6th, Nathan the Recently Healed, opted to photograph the historic event and save his cast-sore arm.
As mentioned, I had several stone on all of these guys, but I came to find out that it might have been a boon, the weight keeping me planted around the corners. And for some silly reason I chose the kart 4th from pole, which stalled immediately. Onward.
The War: I caught up to the others during the safety lap, trying desperately to remember everything I’d read online about how to drive fast. The course looked good, with overhangs and rumble strips in all the right places, though it was bring-your-own-apex, as they weren’t marked.
The safety car (an ATV) rolled off the course while I was halfway down the main straight. That means WOT and I slammed the metal bar home, burbling up to a solid speed and gaining first on turn one. I didn’t want to look back – there was no time. The chicanes came up and I bounced over the rumble strips, just like the pros.
I sat contentedly in first for a few laps. Then I thought, “It sure would be nice if I could lap some of these fellows,” so I took a corner too fast and spun out, racking the kart on the edge of an overhang. …Okay fine, so it was a complete accident. To make matters worse, I sat there stunned for several seconds while the others approached. I tried the throttle and it worked, but the rear wheels were in the air, so no dice. Were the officials supposed to come rock me back onto the course? The other four rolled past.
Then I almost smacked my helmet. I didn’t have time for this idiocy. I was losing time. Nor was I even strapped into the car. I got out, shoved it back onto the course, and launched. It took me several laps, but I worked my way back up to second, braking late and lengthening the straits whenever I could. I took Kevin on the inside through the chicane. I sailed past Troy as he spun out.
But I couldn’t catch Jon. Try as I might I couldn’t stem the tide of his lead. Every new lap put him a little further ahead of me, and one particularly troublesome corner set me back. So I held second to the very end, which is likely where I would have ended up even if I hadn’t spun out.
In his epic restoration/rally/relationship-with-a-car documentary Love the Beast, actor Eric Bana talks about the strange opposing thrills of catching an opponent, overtaking him and leaving him behind; and sailing away out front, your only opponent yourself and the horizon. I’m glad I got to experience both.
The Wound: This was a week ago yesterday, and I’ve been searching my options for a local kart league here in Kansas City ever since. It’s not just a great way to kill an afternoon or a (relatively) cheap way to learn the basics of car control, braking, and track strategy, it’s also a total blast.
F1 champion Ayrton Senna once said that his favorite opponent was Terry Fullerton, a British driver who only raced karts. He said his karting years were pure. Now I understand.