Welcome to the second installment of our Introduction to Karting series. Hopefully the first piece piqued your interest with tales of tiny machines pulling 3 g in the corners then hitting 60 in under three seconds on their way up to over 140 MPH. (Well over, as it turns out; one commenter indicated he hit an indicated 156 this season.) That kind of performance is unequaled outside of top-level formula motorsport, yet is available to anyone with some disposable income and a passion for going quick.
However, karting isn't for everyone so suitably endowed. The physical demands placed on a kart racer are hard to comprehend until you're in a fast turn, holding your breath because you can't inhale, feeling like your head is going to fly off and land somewhere in the pits. Chances are it won't, but whether or not you can withstand that while maintaining a good racing line and keeping an eye on a swarm of opponents is an important thing to find out before breaking out the charge card. The best way is, of course, to try it, and given the big up-front cost to buy a kart, a rental is the way to go.
To get our first real experience we signed up for an afternoon's racing school. We walked the track, worked with multiple instructors, got a lot of advice, had an impromptu race, and stuck it out for way more seat time than was probably advisable for a newbie. How'd we do? Read on to find out, and see some videos of our on (and, occasionally, off) track antics.
Not every place has a local karting sprint track, and of those not every track has staff who can handle instructor duties. Oakland Valley Race Park in Cuddebackville, NY happens to not only be reasonably close to us, but also has a pro there. As a matter of fact he owns the place. Tim Hannen is a racer who not only knows his way around a kart but can also be found in a Grand-Am Rolex Series Porsche and various other autos with and without fenders – the kind of multi-tasking we can most certainly get behind.
We signed up for a class and, wouldn't you know it, as we got closer to the date the weather forecast got worse and worse. So it was with trepidation that we threw our rain suit in the car and made the drive down. Thankfully, we wouldn't need it.
What you need (and need to know)
We didn't need to bring much of anything, really. For a relatively small premium we got access to the track's fleet of rental karts; four-stroke motors making around 8-10 hp and mounted on stout chassis with plenty of bodywork. As you can see from the pictures they weren't exactly in the best of shape, but if you had to put up with the kind of abuse that these things see week in and week out you wouldn't be either.
The track provided racing jackets, gloves, foam neck braces, and, most importantly, helmets. We opted to use our own gloves and lid, and after a day of sweating in both we were glad we did. The weather turned out to be perfect, if anything too hot with the sun breaking through as Tim walked us around the tight, twisty, half-mile sprint course comprised of some well-used (and frequently bumpy) asphalt with concrete patches defining many of the corner apexes. Tim explained the importance of carrying speed through the short chicane that runs up the hill (turns 5, 6, and 7) and of getting out of turn 10 onto the straight quickly.
He also explained the concept of weight jacking, that is the flex in a kart that allows the inside-rear wheel to be physically lifted off the track; the sort of thing you might see a VW GTI do at an autocross. Without this the kart wouldn't be able to turn, as both driving wheels are attached to a solid axle. It's an odd concept that we'll cover in more detail in later installments, but to make it happen the front wheels use a combination of caster, camber, and something called Ackerman – varying the speed at which the two wheels turn in relation to each other – resulting in the inside front tire getting slightly lower and turning more sharply than the outside wheel, creating a lot of drag whenever the steering wheel is turned even a small amount. The lesson: smooth lines and no unnecessary movement on the straights.
With those nuggets of information quickly tucked away we threw on our gear, hit the track, and promptly forgot everything he'd told us. In the grand scheme of things these karts are slow, their drumming four-stroke motors providing more of a gentle urgency than the thrilling rush you'll get out of a high-strung two-stroke. But, the grip was phenomenal, as these karts were running the same sort of race tires that those more serious karts run. Granted, many of those tires had lost their wear markers somewhere around turn three years ago, but they all still stuck well enough.
When seats attack
The first 20-minute session was a blast. We jumped out, downed a bottle of water, and jumped in a different kart to try again. 15-minutes later we realized we were sucking some serious wind when cruising down the straight so we pulled in, stumbled out of the seat, grabbed more water, then found some shade. As the bugs swarmed our heart rate reluctantly dropped and we began to notice the pain in our sides.
Kart seats are rarely padded and feature metal struts running from the axle upward to their sides, enabling quick transfer of the heaviest weight in the kart: the fleshy nut behind the steering wheel. These help the weight jacking but terminate right against your sides, transferring any bumps right into your ribs, which can be left bruised or even broken after some serious kerb-hopping. We'd been slamming them pretty hard to keep the course as straight as possible, making up for the lack of power, but were now paying the price.
A quick trip to the kart shop and $125 later we had some protection: an Armadillo Rib Vest from Team Valhalla Racing. Rib protectors are not mandatory in all forms of kart racing, but if you're in anything other than a perfectly form-fitting seat you're going to want one – and even when you are they're a good idea. This model also has an integrated chest protector, required for younger drivers but something that we wanted given where the steering wheel would wind up should we run head-long into anything. Donning the thing is a chore; like an armadillo it's composed of a number of loosely connected plates, and getting them all situated takes some time, but the difference in comfort was immediately noticeable, giving us more brain cycles to focus on the drive.
Throughout the rest of the afternoon Tim and his assistant (and track record holder) Andrew Sherry went out on track, alternating between shadowing us and watching from the sidelines. Our lines were good, apparently, but we were running too wide coming out of turn 10, using all the rumble strips and then some in an attempt to carry speed onto the straight. There is a big dip in the track immediately after the kerbing and Tim advised that striking it shocks the motor, which is then prevented from spinning up freely, possibly costing a few-hundred RPM before braking into turn 1. We had bigger problems to worry about than that, but we complied just the same.
The day was incident-free except for one moment when one of the other attendees of the class gave us the point-by coming out of turn 1. We waved thanks and took our line into turn 2. Meanwhile he apparently had second-thoughts and came inside anyway, leading us to head for the grass in avoidance. No harm done to the kart and only a slightly bruised posterior on us. We passed him and made it stick the next lap.
Through the day we started noticing differences between the karts. Some running fresh, sticky rubber; others on bald tires. Some with strong, spunky motors; others more tired. By the end of the day everybody had identified the hotter (or warmer, at least) karts, and many refused to give them up. With those occupied we got stuck in a decidedly wheezier option for the short race that ended the class, and while we held onto first for a few laps, ultimately two people in faster karts roared by on the straight. One would ultimately loop it in the hairpin and so we came home second. Not exactly a world-class performance, but at least we've proven we have what it takes to be a professional racer when it comes to making up excuses.
That would not be the end of our day, though. Tim was kind enough to let us take out one of the shop's Maranello chassis with a Rotax 125 MAX engine in it, a 125cc two-stroke putting out 28.5 horsepower. It's the spec motor for the adult Rotax classes. "Drive it like a 500 horsepower race car," was Tim's only advice. The used kart and engine package was worth around $8,000 and, as we hadn't brought any bags of cash along with us, we took it easy through the turns. But, once the motor warmed up we let it run all the way down the straight, getting a firm kick in the pants when the engine's power valve kicked in to give a strong boost in power at around 7,500 rpm. It was at this point your scribe started laughing uncontrollably.
We ran it up to about 11,000 rpm before the straight ran out. (The Rotax will rev to 14,200.) We were also out of braking room and remembered too late that, despite the markedly greater speed we were carrying toward the corner, we didn't have much extra in the way of braking force. That made for an interesting moment as we locked up the rear (braking) wheels and skidded sideways into and through the turn. We made it through cleanly – big, dumb big smile intact.
After hours of seat time it only took about five laps in the Rotax to completely run out of steam, so we pulled it in and parked in the pits. Day done we packed up and headed home, head throbbing from dehydration despite drinking six bottles of fluids, muscles sore, palms blistered, with bruises on ribs, elbows and some rather less mentionable places. Despite that we were completely hooked. The rental karts were fun, but the Rotax model blew us away, lapping something like five seconds faster over just that half-mile of pavement.
So, it's time to start shopping. In the next installment we'll cover that process, telling you what you'll need to protect yourself, what you need to get on the track, and, most importantly, how much it's all going to cost you. If you're looking to follow suit you may want to start looking into local rental programs and, if you think you're serious, secure some instruction while you're at it. The driving dynamics of a lower-power rental kart are the same as a high-powered ones, and you'll learn the basics far more quickly when you're feeling in control instead of hanging on for dear life and giggling like a schoolgirl. There will be plenty of time for that later.
We'll be back with the next installment in another week, but if you'd like to learn more before then head on over to the forums at eKartingNews.com. It's about the largest collection of North American karters on the web, and an endless source of information – and some occasional misinformation. Racers will be racers...
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.