- Oct 23, 2009
Introduction to Karting - Part 4
If you have the money, there's nothing like a sweet, freshly painted beauty that's been buffed, shined, and carefully assembled by the skilled hands at your local kart shop. It only came out of its box thanks to a check you signed, the first time it hits the track will be with your rump in the seat, and the first time it gets spun into the kitty litter it'll be due to your lack of grip/road/talent. Unfortunately, not everybody has the bank account for that, having to do a little extra work themselves to get onto the track. That's us.
If you've been following along in our An Introduction to Karting series then you learned a bit about the sport, came along with us to driving school, and most recently got a strong a dose of budgetary reality. Now it's time to find a kart. Read on to find out where to look, what to look for, and how to get it ready to race.
New vs. Broken In
The quickest way to get rolling is, of course, to buy a new kart and a new engine to go with it. Your local shop might need a few days to get it all put together, but you can save hours of searching classifieds and all the other frustrating tasks that come along with buying something in a direct sale. A new kart is not cheap, however, and if you think depreciation on a car is steep, wait until you see how much value your shiny new racing vehicle loses the first time it crosses a timing beam. But, if you want to get the absolute best support from your local shop, this is the way to go.
A close second in terms of ease, quickness and support is to buy a used chassis and motor combination from your local shop at a price significantly cheaper than buying new. You'll be getting a package that someone at the shop will have at least given a cursory once-over, and that someone should be there to help you should you have any immediate problems. Buy something privately and if your motor grenades after three minutes, you're on your own.
Despite that, buying a used kart through a private transaction still has plenty of benefits. Cost is of course the primary one, but even more important is the spares package that comes with most used karts. Buy new and you'll get the kart, engine and a library of manuals. Buy it used from a shop and you might get a spare set of wheels thrown in. Buy it used directly from its (soon to be) former owner and you're likely to get dozens of wheels and tires, a collection of sprockets for various gearing options, telemetry bags of spare bits and bobs, and maybe even a stand. Find yourself a disenchanted racer who's completely getting out of the sport and you might get a trailer to haul the thing plus a full set of safety gear (though we would never recommend using a used helmet).
Which is the right way to go? If you love bargain hunting then start trawling online ads, paying particular attention to the "Classifieds" forum at eKartingNews and other specialty sites like KartFinder.com. If you have somewhat fewer limits on your budget and would rather pull your teeth out than deal with flaky sellers, call your local shop and see what lightly used models they have on offer. And, of course, if you have more cash than time for comparo-shopping, go new. Our economy will thank you.
Inspecting your Kart
If you are buying used, check the chassis. There will surely be some light scrapes here and there, but excessive rust is a bad sign; walk away if the frame is dented, crumpled or warped. Check that the hardware is in good shape and that the fasteners don't look like a schmorgasboard of random nuts and bolts of all different types and sizes; that could mean things haven't been put together or maintained correctly. That said, don't be put-off by loose fasteners: racers will often leave things like the rear bumper attachment or the bolts holding the floorpan half-tightened to encourage chassis flex.
When it comes to the engine you'll want to see the logbook, especially for a series like Rotax where a properly maintained and certified lump is a requirement for entry. You'll want to know how many hours it has seen overall and how many hours since the last rebuild. Ask what components are new and what are old, and for the old ones how old are they – clutches and the like don't last forever and can be expensive to replace. If the engine is nearly due for a rebuild (about 50 hours for a Rotax, many others are comparable, some much lower) call a shop, get a rebuild quote, and make sure that's factored into the deal. Buying a motor that's ready for a rebuild is not a bad idea at all so long as you aren't paying the same a fresh one. If the engine was recently rebuilt ask how it was broken in.
Ideally you'll find a package with a chassis that has a solid engine already installed; that makes the shopping process much easier, saves you from having to deal with two sellers and will mean not having to get the thing installed yourself. You might even be able to show up at a track for a test drive!
Finding Your Kart
The next question is, of course, what kind to buy. In the last installment we decided to go for the Rotax Max Challenge series, which made the engine choice easy but left the door open for a number of chassis options. Whether going new or used you'll want to find out what's supported locally. "When in Rome, run what the Romans run" is the word from Tim Hannen, owner of Oakland Valley Race Park – and that's not just because most of these chassis are made in Italy.
At some point you're going to break something. Whether it's just an air intake that falls off and gets run over or a hub that shatters after seeing the wrong end of a rumble-strip, you don't want a potentially easy repair to end your weekend. Sure, anything can be found on the internet, but your local shop is there to keep you racing so make sure they stock parts that will work on your kart.
Also, if you want to be quick you're going to need setup help. If there are a few other people running what you're running, surely one of them will give you a few pointers – until you start beating them, anyway.
What We Got
Sadly we lacked the financial leeway to go with a new kart and motor package, and while the barely-used packages at the shop looked tempting (freshly shipped back from Italy where they were used in the Rotax World Finals) they too were somewhat out of our budget. So, we hit the classifieds and came up... mostly empty. While there were plenty of good deals to be had, few were local, and though we found sellers willing to ship engine or chassis or both we weren't too keen on buying sight-unseen.
However, we ultimately convinced a friend and kart racer, Paul Norman (the guy who got us seriously thinking about the sport in the first place), to part with his former chassis, a six- or seven-year-old Fullerton model that most recently saw action with a Rotax lump. That engine is now seeing out the end of its days as Paul's spare, but the chassis came complete with two sets of wheels, plenty of tires in various states of grip, a stand, two (nearly complete) sets of bodywork, an Alfano Pro telemetry system, and enough bits, bolts and spares to fill a half-dozen Ziploc freezer bags.
The Fullerton brand actually went out of business a number of years ago, which made us a bit leery, but they were made by Top Kart, a more widely known Italian manufacturer whose parts by and large will fit on the Fullerton. Also, our local track was once Fullerton's American distributor and still has a number of parts for them in stock, not to mention plenty of tuning knowledge. Finally, the price was right.
That still left us without a motor, though, and try as we might we couldn't find a Rotax local. The ones we located were multiple hundreds of miles (or more) away and generally priced in the $2,500+ range. When we got a quote of a new Rotax package at the shop for $3,300 we took a deep breath and pulled the trigger, knowing that we were paying a good bit more than budgeted, but also feeling good knowing that the engine would be installed by trained hands (i.e. not our own), and that we'd have the support of the shop in getting things up and running. We would need it.
Our kart, despite being used, came without a seat. Most karts will have one but rarely will it be the right size for you. A properly fitting seat is absolutely vital both when it comes to achieving optimum kart handling and ensuring your comfort. Too small and you simply won't fit; too large and you'll be flopping around too much to focus on important things like not crashing. Finding that perfect size is difficult, so sit in as many as you can before buying. Ordering a seat blind is a risky proposition.
Even if you're sure it'll fit, don't go for a big-bucks throne for your first time out. That's only half the battle – getting it installed properly can be quite a challenge. You're unlikely to get it right in your first shot and moving it entails drilling a new set of mounting holes, which is painful enough on a cheap seat. Do this too often and you'll weaken the structure of your seat. If it fails you could wind up with a seat strut sticking uncomfortably into your side. (Another good reason to wear a rib protector.)
The install process isn't too terribly difficult, but we were glad to have previous owner Paul's experience when getting it in there. You'll start by placing the frame on some boards to represent the point at which you'll start dragging your bottom around the course. You can go lower, but as a newbie there's no point risking any road rash in sensitive places. From here it's a matter of compromise between reaching too far for the wheel and having knees bunched up behind it. We used Paul's fancy new kart (a CRG) as a model and placed our seat based on measurements from it, finding a position that was comfortable if not necessarily optimal for handling.
Optimal positioning depends on the kart, race conditions and driver habits, but in general a seat should be set fairly far back and with some recline. This makes you into more of a spoiler than a wall while also getting more of your weight to the back, providing more grip on the rear tires. Despite that we opted for a somewhat upright position to start, providing a more comfortable reach and also giving our untrained neck muscles a bit of a break.
Once we had the position right we marked the mounting points, drilled them out (wear a mask, fiberglass dust is no fun), then used a seat mounting kit consisting of nuts, bolts and a series of washers to provide a flush installation. A rubber spacer was needed on one side as the strut didn't quite fit, though a little encouragement with a sledge could have made things right. Additional seat struts are also commonly installed, which run from the top of the seat to the axle, but we opted to omit those until we had a chance to try things out on the track.
A couple of reasonably competent rookies can install a seat without much trouble. Installing an unassembled engine is another matter entirely, so we left it to Tim Hannen and his staff. When we saw the array of components spread out across the workshop table we were glad we did, especially after learning that it had already taken a good bit of work to get it that far along. The radiator and exhaust were the two largest components left to be mounted, as well as the various wiring required for the starter button and kill switch plus the fuel lines and, most importantly, the throttle cable.
It still took about five hours to get the thing mounted to the kart, with a significant delay caused by motor mounts that wouldn't fit properly. Ultimately a serviceable one was found that wasn't quite a perfect fit (a slot needed to be cut out of the side pod to make room for the radiator), but it would do. Wiring completed, exhaust mounted, motor fueled, we hit the starter and... a sputter. The brand new Rotax battery wouldn't hold a charge. Tim grabbed one of his spare batteries, threw it in, and in a cloud of smoke it roared to life. Okay, two-strokes don't really roar. It was more of a raspy rattle. A buzz? Regardless it was running, and it was time to break it in on the track.
Do you even have to ask? Next installment we finally hit the track in our very own kart! It's been a long, tiring road to get to this point, but we're nearly done with our journey to the track and nearly ready to start the never-ending quest for quicker lap times. Naturally we're eager to see what it can do, and we're guessing you are too. A big thanks to Paul Norman for the assistance in getting our seat installed, plus his countless bits of advice along the way.
Tim Stevens writes for Autoblog sister site Engadget.com where, among other things, he covers all things tech-related in the automotive world. He recently took up the hobby of karting and will help you do the same through this series, An Introduction to Karting.