It's taken a long time to get here, many months accelerated through the magic of the internet, but now it's finally time to hit the track in anger, to fight for position, to make some daring passes – or at least to try and avoid getting lapped more than once. Learning all about karting was interesting, shopping was a chore, hitting the track to practice was a blast, but it was all about wheel-to-wheel competition. In this installment of the series we'll take you through our first race day and our first time turning a wheel on fresh rubber, an experience we shall not soon forget. Oh, and we've given our kart a bit of a make-over too. Click on through to see how it looks, and how we managed under our first green flag.
New colors and numbers
Our kart came with a red set of bodywork mounted, complete with some yellow and green decals that frankly didn't do anything for us. Also included was a set of blue sidepods and a front fairing – rather more to our liking, but sadly missing the nose. After a bit (okay, a lot) of looking we finally uncovered a silver nose, a color combo that matches our jazzy blue and silver suit. Swapping sidepods just requires the loosing of a few bolts, but the nose cone just pops right off with a few clamps – obviously designed for easy replacement after race-day antics.
Next up we needed some new numbers. 64 is what the author liked to run, so that's what was ordered. Before ordering numbers check with your local club to ensure that they don't need to be assigned and also to ensure that some sort of class designator isn't required. Also, be sure to shop around. You can order simple white number plates and individual numbers for a few bucks online, or decal packages that cover your entire kart for multiple hundreds. We went somewhere in-between, getting custom number plates with our number on there along with a few Autoblog decals in there to make things look extra professional.
At this point we had three sets of wheels for the kart (the two it came with and a set of rain wheels), plus tons of tires. Having them rolling around in the trunk was not good for them and rather inconvenient for us, and while there are a number of bags and carrying cases available, with a little ingenuity and a few bucks worth of hardware we made our own from a six-foot threaded rod, some washers, wing nuts, and some foam padding. We measured the distance between the inside and outside of the hubs on four stacked wheels, cut the rod into segments, then wound some duct tape around it to prevent the threads from damaging the wheel bearings.
Wingnuts and washers on both ends keep things in place, while the foam also protects the bearings and wheels from damage. Stack the wheels up, run the rod through, then tighten down the wing nut and you've got a stack of wheels that isn't going anywhere. Don't tighten things too much, though – the washers help to distribute the load across the bearing, but no need to push things too far. It's a little ghetto, but for about $7 in parts it works well.
We were up early and on the road before sunrise to get to our local karting grounds, Oakland Valley Race Park, for a Sunday club race. Festivities were scheduled to start at 10:00 and we had plenty to do before then. Checking in we were assigned an AMB transponder to monitor our times through practice, qualifying and race sessions. That keeps things nice and official but must be mounted on the kart, something we hadn't prepared for. There are inexpensive clips that can be attached to the chassis and the transponder will slip right in. Lacking one of those we drilled a hole in the back of our seat and ran a bolt through. Yet another reason to always have spare hardware available.
While we were fiddling with that we had the staff at the track mount a set of MOJO D2 tires onto our rims. As we found during our practice session, the tires our kart came with didn't have much left in the way of grip. They were all multiple years old and, to make matters worse, they were the older spec MOJO D1 tires. Those were the spec tire for the Rotax series until 2008, when the D2 came along. The D2 is generally considered to be a far superior tire in terms of ultimate grip, consistency and longevity.
Mind you, a brand new set of tires is not necessarily a good idea for a newbie. High grip makes it harder to feel what the kart is doing and, as we'd find, it's considerably more exhausting. If possible, ask around the pits about buying a set of used but not quite dead tires. You'll save money and won't be wasting rubber you don't have the skills to match yet. What's our excuse? Well, we didn't see anyone looking to pass off their tires, and we wanted to experience fresh rubber. Nobody said we always have to follow our own advice, right?
Getting ready and practicing
While our tires were being mounted we went about getting the kart ready to race, moving down to one of the enclosed pit areas at the track with power and air. Getting the battery mounted is the first chore. The internals of the thing aren't particularly fond of getting bounced around on a trailer, and at $90+ a pop it's worth a little extra care. So, we always remove it at the end of the day, charge it on the bench at home, then throw it back in again on the track. After that we checked for loose bolts, adjusted the brake and gas pedals back to give a little more room, mounted up our freshly shod wheels, then hit the track for the practice sessions.
There were a number of classes running on the day, and for practice the Sr. and Jr. Rotax classes were merged in with the TAG runners thanks to their generally comparable lap times. For the day there were about six Jr. runners, three TAG runners, and just one Sr. runner: #64. Attendance on this day was hampered somewhat by a competing event a few hours away, but tracks across the country have noted reduced turnout this year. The economy hurts here, too.
Immediately after hitting the track we noticed our magnetic timing system was on the fritz. It was triggering every few seconds and spitting up random lap times. We later tried moving it and re-connecting it but sadly never got it working, one theory being that it was perhaps being compromised by the track's transponder system, which hadn't been activated on our earlier practice days. Nevertheless we were able to get times from the track, and in the first session we ran a :37.2, about a second faster than last time. We'd like to claim it was increased skill and focus since our last practice session, but obviously the tires were to blame for our new speed.
After the last practice session we were weighed in for the first time. If you remember from the first article the Rotax classes are divided by age and by weight, and to this point we had no idea where we fell. As it turns out, with no added ballast, we weighed in at 369 lbs. combined with the kart, just four pounds over minimum weight. Perfect.
Fresh rubber and qualifying
The first turn in practice on the new rubber was a little horrifying. Cold kart tires offer such poor grip that you'll often see racers on their out-lap doing their best Takumi Fujiwara impressions, tail sliding way out in every turn whether they mean to or not. New tires, though, offer virtually zero grip. We very nearly exited the pit lane only to slide off the track on the other side, but managed to keep it on the black stuff and, within a lap, the mold release compound was gone, the tires were warm, and our world was rocked.
Whereas before we could detect some handling issues in the chassis – primarily an oversteer coming out of the turns when gently applying the power – with the new rubber the only problem was the driver. We simply couldn't predictably get the kart to lose traction except when viciously applying the throttle at the apex in turns. Even then it would only step out a bit. The rest of the time the kart just went the direction we pointed and we got yanked along with it, head and helmet coming along a few seconds later.
With the old tires the cornering process was like this:
- Modulate brakes to decelerate without spinning
- Turn in
- Throttle on
- Catch the slide
- Drift out of the turn while grinning like an idiot
On new tires it became this:
- Brake hard, trying not to fall on the steering wheel
- Hold breath
- Turn in
- Throttle on
- Unwind the wheel while swearing at self for not getting on the throttle earlier
- Suck wind down the straight
It was quite an adjustment, one that we began to get to grips with after our third session and in time for the five-minute qualifying session. We ran a :36.8, another half-second faster. Most of this was due to tires, but we felt like we were starting to get the hang of things a bit.
The day consisted of three practice sessions, one qualifying session, then two heat races: one 15 laps, the second 20. For the races they moved the Rotax Jr. drivers into their own heat, leaving the Rotax Sr. and TAG classes to run together. That meant just four karts total and, with all three of the other drivers having considerably more experience, we were predictably at the back.
We took our place on the formation lap and, when the flag dropped, watched the other three drive away. We'd hoped there'd be at least one other novice there, as against a field of experienced racers we didn't have a chance. We very nearly finished without going a lap down, but were shown the dreaded blue flag on the last lap, dutifully lifted on the straight, and gave the leader a point-by. We crossed the finish line not far behind her.
Yes, her. We got lapped by a girl, and we're not ashamed of that. The winner of both Rotax Jr. races was also of the fairer sex, so any female readers who've been thinking about joining in the fun can rest assured it's not entirely a boy's club.
Race done, we wheeled the kart back to our pit, started re-charging the battery, and checked tire pressures. Much to our surprise the front-left tire was completely flat, thankfully held from rolling off the rim by bead locks. We took it back to the shop where, after checking the seals around those locks and various other things, the tire was determined to either have been defective or damaged during mounting. With a replacement mounted we got ready for race two.
After sucking down a lot of fluids, of course.
Unfortunately one of the TAG runners suffered mechanical problems at the end of the first race, so we were down to three. We moved up a grid spot and this time got a much better start when the flag dropped, so good we had a thought that we might be able to swoop inside one of the competitors and possibly dice for position. Those thoughts were quickly quashed when we got a little too happy with the left pedal on cold tires, looping the kart at the end of the straight and backing it onto the grass. We quickly got going again but it was a lonely race after that.
After the first race we were tired, but felt okay. This one we were obviously running low on energy to start and the additional five laps at the end made it particularly tough. Toward the end of the race we felt that we had to go slower around some turns because our arms and hands were getting weak. The kart, tires and brakes held up fine; we were well and truly spent when the checkered flag flew.
At the weigh-in station we realized it wasn't just strength that we were losing. We came in three pounds lighter than after the first race despite having more fuel left in the tank. It was a cool day but we were drenched with sweat and, frankly, exhausted. We packed up and headed home.
As you may have guessed we're in the northeast, and while that means plenty of fun things to do in the winter time, karting sadly isn't one of them. So, in the next series we'll put a wrap on things and tell those of you who are similarly living in increasingly frigid climes how to get that kart safely winterized.
But, before we wrap this series up for good we're hoping you'll tell us what else you'd like to know that we missed. We tried to be as thorough as possible but, frankly, there's an awful lot to cover. What things are still confusing? What haven't we covered thus-far? If you have questions drop them in in comments below and we'll answer as many as possible in the next article. Until then, happy racing.