HAVE YOU GOT WHAT IT TAKES?
After getting a taste for real karting at the school we attended in Part 2, and after our bruises had faded, we knew we needed more. What we didn't know was whether we could afford it. So we set out creating a budget, then went about buying what we'd need and along the way made a number of... revisions. We're more or less done shopping at this point, meaning you get the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, but of course our priorities may not jive with yours so don't come yelling at us if your numbers come up differently.
First, though, you need to decide what kind of racing we're going to do.
Touch and Go
The one thing we knew was that we wanted to get into some form of sprint karting. Nothing against roundy-round folks, but we grew up on a strong dose of CART and Formula One and that's what we wanted to emulate. We thought once making that decision we'd have an easy time of selecting where to go next. Not so much. Having seen a number of thrilling shifter videos online our attention was immediately drawn there, but every single person we spoke to said that was a bad idea. A shifter is not significantly more expensive to buy than other sprint karts, but trying to learn how to be quick while also managing a very short sequential gearbox is not necessarily a good idea.
Even after eliminating shifters there's still a number of choices to be made: lower-power four-stroke or higher-strung two-stroke; something with a clutch and a starter or something with direct drive (where the engine's driveshaft and the axle are directly linked); motor rebuilds after every race or every season. Gradually we gravitated toward the Touch and Go class, or TaG as it's commonly known. This is a single-speed class of kart, so no shifting, and uses a centrifugal clutch engaging as the motor spins up, enabling it to idle merrily along while the kart sits there and also enabling the use of a starter motor. The TaG class was more or less created with newbie sprint karters in mind, and it seemed like a shame to not take it up on its offer.
Even narrowing things down that far left us with plenty of chassis and engine combinations. In our area we found that two motors are most common: the IAME Parilla Leopard and the BRP Rotax FR125. Both are water-cooled 125cc two-stroke motors putting out comparable power and costing a comparable amount, with the Leopard going for about $3,000 and the Rotax about $3,300. Parts and accessories for the Leopard tend to be a good bit cheaper than comparable Rotax bits, but that's because running a Rotax gives eligibility for the (generally) tightly-controlled Rotax Max Challenge, an international championship of similarly-prepped karts running spec tires and spec motors. That piqued our interest.
Taking it to the Max
The more we read about the Rotax Max series the more we liked it. Tales of constantly buying new hardware in search of the "hot" setup, frequent engine rebuilds, and... flexible sets of rules were something of a turnoff for the TaG class as a whole. While the Rotax series isn't completely free of rule changes and there is certainly plenty of room to buy your way to lower lap times (chassis and brake systems are largely unregulated), it is the most widely supported race karting series that we could find.
But, don't take our word for it. We spoke with Marshall Martin, National Race Director for the US Rotax Max Challenge, who is complementary to the TaG concept but naturally believes Rotax is the way to go:
Rotax is the only organization that is coast to coast with one set of rules and a Grand Nationals once a year that brings racers for all of its local and regional series to compete for spots at a world championship.
He was also confident that someone on a (relatively) limited budget could be competitive.
Winners of the Junior and Mini Max classes at this year Rotax Grand Nationals were drivers who came out of nowhere to win the National Title in their classes... Each defeated a large number of National Level drivers in their class, it can still be done. Also the winner of the Senior Max class, runs a limited national schedule and won with a motor that had not been taken apart from the time it was brand new. Out of the box and wins the biggest race of the year against 43 other competitors.
That alludes to one of the biggest selling points for the Rotax series: reliability of the motor. It's rated for 50 hours of running time between rebuilds, and while that may not sound like much, it's a virtual marathon man compared to some of the screaming 100cc engines out there that need rebuilds every weekend. However, you are prevented from working on the motor yourself. It can only be opened by a certified staff member and must be sealed again by them, and you're looking at $1,000 - $1,500 per rebuild. This also means that engine components must be standardized and approved by BRP, leaving everything from batteries to clutches with a hefty premium applied. But, factor in the extended maintenance cycle, and things tend to work out about the same.
We also spoke to Gregory Liefooghe (pictured above), Leading Edge/Intrepid team driver. Greg started karting just four years ago and said "[Rotax] felt like the perfect place to start when you don't know anything about karting, because the rules are simple and the motors are more or less equal." Perfect.
No budget is infallible and surely this one won't be either, but it will give you an idea of how much we've spent to get going, and how much we anticipate spending going forward. Additionally we've included a range of prices because there are a variety of places where you can go cheap or go big. We'll start with the one place where nobody should cut corners.
There are plenty of adages out there regarding how much to spend on safety equipment, the 'ol "If you have a $100 head buy a $100 helmet" line being perhaps the most popular. This is one place where we did not cut corners and would advise you doing the same. However, we were lucky in that we already had some of this stuff.
Helmet - There's some debate about whether more expensive helmets are safer, but in general we've found the pricier ones to be more comfortable, have better features, and have better service (like a free test when we dropped our Shoei on the pavement – it came back clear). At a minimum you want a helmet that's rated Snell 2005, preferably one that's rated for motorcycles (M) rather than automobiles (A) as your typical karting crash is more like a bike crash. But, either will do.
Neck brace - At a minimum, a foam neck brace is required for nearly all forms of American karting, but most agree they'll only keep you from breaking a collar bone should you receive a major blow on the noggin. We like our spine, too, and so got one of the growing number of rigid neck braces. Sadly they're considerably more expensive than a $15 foam donut, but it's worth it. We opted for the $400 Leatt Kart model, but Valhalla Racing Gear has a similar product that's about half the price.
Rib/Chest protector - You can get a simple set of plastic plates on bracers for $25 that will help to alleviate some pain, but we chose something with chest protection – and a bit more padding. It's worth noting that many kid classes require chest protectors.
Suit - Another item with a huge price range, ranging from very thin over-alls to suits that would look straight out of Formula One. Primary function here is abrasion resistance, to prevent you getting road rash should you get sent skidding down the back straight at 70 mph – sans kart – so you'll want thick, quality fabric. We opted for the Alpinestars K-MX3 suit, the only one we could find with CE certified armor in the knees and elbows, something we wouldn't go without on a motorcycle and sure as heck wanted here. The suit has to be comfortable, so try to find a suit at your local shop that you can try on. If not, make sure you order a little large. Things tend to feel a little... smaller when you're stuffed into a kart seat. Plus, who doesn't want to look like Jacques Villeneuve when walking around the pits?
Gloves - Again, abrasion resistance is important here, but a glove's primary function is to protect you from the steering wheel and to ensure that you can maintain a firm grip even when your mitts get sweaty. Gloves are something you should absolutely avoid buying without having the opportunity to try them on first. We have a set of Alpinestars Tech 1 ZX gloves for road racing that will get double-duty here.
Shoes - Finally a place where you can go cheap without feeling too guilty. There is certainly no shortage of pricey racing shoes out there, but most of them are designed for cramped formula cockpits or touring cars with lots of pedals. Here you only have two and no heel-toe trickery is required, so something somewhat bulky is okay. You'll want a high-top to give some ankle protection and, if possible, something with no laces or with laces that are protected. We have an old set of Nike Racing shoes that fit the bill.
Spares and Consumables
|2-Stroke Oil - Motul Grand Prix||$20||$20||$26|
|Spare nuts & bolts||$0||$40||$40|
Ask a dozen karters what spares they take with them and you'll get at least 24 different answers if you ask them both at the beginning and end of the day. Consider this the absolute bare minimum, plus there are some things you're going to need to keep on buying...
Oil - A two-stroke requires oil mixed in with the fuel; not a good place to go cheap. If you're running Rotax, Motul Grand Prix 2T is the spec oil. At small-scale events using something else is unlikely to get you kicked out – at higher levels you won't be so lucky.
Fuel - Some tracks have policies that you must use the race fuel they provide, and usually when such policies are in place there's a high cost – upwards of $20/gallon. However, many will run just fine on pump gas, so go for that for practice days or if you're not worried about passing tech.
Spare nuts & bolts - As nuts and bolts wear they should be replaced, lest they fall off and end your race/life early. Various companies sell kits of common hardware for karts.
Battery - The spec Rotax battery is notoriously fickle – any glitch in there and your motor could run poorly or not run at all. And, since the engine does not charge the battery, a long day can easily see it run dry. You'll want a spare, either the Yuasa version available for about $80, or the honest-to-gosh Rotax-branded version (of the exact same battery) that will probably cost you around $120. Both will behave the same way; only one is guaranteed to pass a technical inspection. We haven't bought a spare yet, but will soon.
Tires - Here you can spend all you want to. If you're lucky (like us) your kart will come with a number of sets that you can use to learn on. When the time comes, you're looking at around $200 per set plus mounting. Rotax uses the Mojo D2 spec tire, well respected for good grip and, most important for newbies, a long lifespan. Top runners will have one or two sets of tires per race weekend. A newbie might get by with one or two sets per year. Make friends with one of those top runners and you might be able to get their used tires cheap.
Chains - You'll need one chain to go racing, but you'll want at least one spare as well. The Rotax uses a #219 sized chain, which to anyone who rides a motorcycle looks like a piece of jewelery. It is slightly more durable than a tennis bracelet, but as it ages it will start becoming more of a power drain and wearing the sprockets on which it turns. Plus, they've been known to randomly break from time to time. We carry one spare mid-range chain.
|Jets & jet case||$0||$100||$70|
|Portable air tank||$0||$50||$0|
Like many shadetree mechanics, we have a reasonably stout selection of ratchets, wrenches and whatnot. A good selection of hex keys is mandatory, preferably with a handle or socketed to attach to a ratchet. We won't go through all of the things in our toolbox, but here are some highlights.
Toolbox - Already have a toolbox? Go get another. You'll need something to carry all your karting-specific stuff. You can spend as much as you want here, but this $20 rolling model from Stanley works great.
Gloves - A separate set of mechanics gloves to keep your hands clean between sessions.
Jets - We'll cover the details later, but you'll need to swap out carburetor jets depending on weather conditions to ensure your motor is running its best. Jets come in a range of sizes and are so tiny you'll want a case for them. We asked locals what range they run and bought a selection to cover us based on local conditions. We then picked up a trick ProSpeed jet storage device, which doubles as a wrench for opening the bottom of the carb. A little tape on the side makes it easier to read which jet is which.
Sprockets - TaG karts are very sensitive to gearing since they only have one speed, and that speed is changed with front and rear sprockets. Eventually you'll wind up with a range of them, but ask your local track to see what's needed and buy that combination. You'll have plenty of time to collect more later.
Trailer - Ideally you have a big truck and can throw the kart and all your tools in the back, or an unlimited budget and can pay for a gigantic fully enclosed model with heat and a kitchen sink. We have neither, so went for a Harbor Freight 4' x 8' folding model. It was cheap but killed a full day to get it assembled and registered.
Tire gauge - Another place you can spend a ton. You'll want something that's more sensitive than your average car model, probably with a low maximum pressure. We got an affordable Longacre model that maxes out at 15psi.
Tire pyrometer - For checking tire temps. For beginners the important thing isn't so much absolute temperature as it is the range of temps across the face of the tire. Your hand can tell that in a pinch.
Stand - Working on a kart is no fun when it's on the ground, and you'll need a stand to get it to and from the pits. Another place you can spend as little or as much as you want... or do what we did and find a kart that came with one.
Battery charger - This is a must-have, especially for Rotax racers. As mentioned above the kart doesn't re-charge the battery, so you'll need this between sessions. There's an official Rotax charger, but the Yuasa one is well-regarded. Make sure you get one that automatically switches from charge to float, keeping your batteries topped-off.
Weather station - This will tell you what you need to know to pick the right jet. You'll need temperature, humidity and atmospheric pressure. Or, you could just ask the guy in the next grid spot what jet he's using. (He'll probably lie, though.)
Chain breaker - This is a tool required to take chains apart and put them together again. You only don't need one if you don't plan on braking any chains or plan on paying the kart shop to put a new one on if you do.
Fuel bottle - You'll need something to store your gas. Anything will do, but you need precise measurement for mixing fuel and oil. Using a measured container for the oil works, but we found a used bottle that measures then mixes with a quick slosh.
Brake bleeder - This is a specialty tool required for some types of karts' master cylinder. Some karts need them, some don't. Ours did – and it came with one.
Miscellaneous - As you can see we have no shortage of cleaners and other goodies. You'll want a light degreaser (Simple Green works great), carb cleaner and WD-40 or the like to keep corrosion at bay.
Here's what you're going to look to pay per-season. This one is somewhat harder to estimate...
Racing school - If you're serious, or plan to ever get serious, you need driving instruction at the beginning. Gregory Liefooghe says: "Don't try to figure it out by yourself or you will have to relearn everything as soon as you have the desire to be competitive." We took that to heart and started with a class, but aren't done getting instruction yet.
Practice and race fees - These vary widely from place to place. Local, casual tracks can get you in and out for very low cost, while the premier tracks can easily cost $400 for a weekend of racing. Check with your track and find out, and make sure you add up all the fees, including entry, pit access, fuel, etc.
Engine rebuilds - Rotax is rated for 50 hours, but many say it'll do 80 if it's not abused. Comparable motors offer similar or slightly shorter service intervals. An "average" rebuild is probably going to cost you $1,000 - $1,200 if someone else does it for you, but if you push it too long and your piston tries to run for the hills you'll be looking at a new motor.
The kart of course is the big-ticket item, and the sky is the limit here. Some pro racers will run a new kart chassis every weekend and have two or three motors to select from depending on weather conditions. Yes, really. You? You can probably get by with just one kart and engine. We know we certainly plan to. As to how much we spent, well, it came out to about $4,500 total on a used chassis with a new engine, but you could easily spend twice that on a used machine. We'll get into the details of kart shopping next time, so try to hold onto your checkbooks for another week if you could.
Adding it all up
So, if you happen to find a dirt cheap kart with a good motor and a ton of spares, and if you have all the tools you need, a truck to haul your goods and all the safety equipment you need, you might be able to get on the track for under $1,500. That, sadly, is an awful lot of ifs. A safer number to start with would be about $8,000, giving you enough to buy a decent used kart with an engine, a spares package that will keep you running during the weekend, and everything you need to get it to and from the track.
Us? Well, including our kart we've spent about $6,500, but that's with no recurring costs just yet beyond our first bottle of oil. If at any time a wheel fails or a clutch breaks or a sprocket explodes that will need to be replaced, it won't necessarily be cheap. So, pad your budget often and pad it well. If you're tight on funds in a shiny new kart you'll be having less fun than the guy whose chassis is scratched up but who can afford to replace any component on it at a moment's notice.
If you don't think karting is so inexpensive anymore, you're not alone. A lot of people look at the price of a used kart and dive in without looking at the big picture. That's what we're trying to drive home today. But, of course, shopping for a kart is the most important bit – and the most fun. So we'll focus on that next time, walking you through where you should look and what you should look for. We'll also get back to our story, telling you what it took to get our ride ready for the track. Finally, we'll cover some simple care and feeding tips, because after you drop that much dough on a kart you're going to want to take awfully good care of it.
Update: This article originally and incorrectly indicated that Gregory Liefooghe was 2008 Rotax Sr. Champion. The 2008 Champion of that class is Arie Ouimet, whereas Gregory was the leader in the 2008 US Rotax National Points Standings. Our apologies for the confusion.
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.