So I spend my life playing with fast cars, and the first time I'm on a track with my 23-year-old daughter–the backpacker with the Ivy League sociology degree–she blows me into the bulrushes. Almost literally: The downhill chicane leading onto the main straight at Oakland Valley threatens to launch you right over the rumble strip into a cattail-bordered pond if you don't get the kart rotated and the power down early.
That's right, go-karts.
Those things that Americans think of as Cushman-engine amusement-park rides, but that Europeans and South Americans employ to turn teenagers into the world's finest open-wheel racecar drivers. (Virtually every Formula 1 driver of any consequence has been a national or international kart champion.) Brook and I had entered a 4-hour kart endurance race at Oakland Valley Race Park, near Port Jervis, New York, in that bosky corner of the state where Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York meet. I came home wishing I'd discovered karts decades ago. Never have I learned as much about car control in as short a time.
Karts look absurd, with their wheelbarrow tires, primitive frames, lawnmower engines, and sitting-in-a-hole seating position, but don't be fooled. The tires are miniature but real racing slicks, the frames work just fine, and in the faster classes the engines accept the same degree of supertuning that a motorcycle does. (OK, the seating position does look ridiculous.) The combination replicates all of the dynamics of a true midengine racecar except the sheer acceleration and speed, though the fastest laydown shifters can do 140.
You're going to laugh, but the racecar that I'm rhapsodizing about was powered by a 9-horsepower, four-stroke, box-stock Honda industrial engine, had a single hydraulic disc brake on the rear axle, and topped out at all of 40 mph. But it's like going 60 in a small speedboat. Unless you've been there, you can't understand how different the sensation of speed is when your buns are 2 inches off the asphalt and the track is tight enough that only near the end of the main straight does the kart top out. Karts respond almost exactly as a pure racecar does to threshold and trail braking, to clumsy steering inputs and asking the tires to do too much, to left-foot braking, and to throttle steer. One of the things they'll teach most effectively is that a vehicle that is balanced, pointed, and under firm power at high speed is an awful lot more controllable and predictable than is one that's being driven cautiously, tentatively, and fearfully. And it's a hell of a lot faster.
Fortunately, my daughter and I were teamed together on the same kart, along with a third driver from our local Porsche Club chapter, or I'd have been really embarrassed to attempt to match her times. But we did drive "against" each other in separate karts during a morning-long training session run by Jay de Marcken, who travels all over the United States running races with a fleet of spec-built karts and giving introduction-to-karting classes. De Marcken lectured from a rusty mountain bike, and we walked the half-mile track while he pedaled from turn-in to apex to track-out trying to keep the attention of yet another bunch of karting novices, some of whom listened while others gossiped and cracked wise. How hard can this be? they thought. Little did they know.