Ken Frankel is a mechanical engineer whose company machines implausibly complex aerospace components to improbably precise tolerances. So it’s surprising to find him in the paddock of Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca wrenching on an earthbound vehicle whose puny wheels wouldn’t look out of place on a clown car and whose engine is no bigger than the ones powering garden mowers. He carefully maneuvers the vehicle onto a set of scales—one for each low-profile tire—that have been leveled with a laser to within 30 thousandths of an inch. Accuracy is critical; the chassis responds to differences in corner weights of as little as 2 pounds. The ride height, meanwhile, is adjusted in increments of 1/16 of an inch.
"You’re looking at the convergence of the highest imaginable performance in the smallest possible package," Frankel says. "This is not a go-kart."
Actually, it’s a superkart, and it’s not to be confused with the putt-putt-mobile your father slapped together out of leftover steel tubing and a misfiring chainsaw motor. Powered by a race-proven 250cc motorcycle engine with a sequential-shifting six-speed gearbox, a superkart has as much in common with an amusement park ride as an F-22 has with the Wright Flyer. Carbon-fiber bodywork is commonplace. So are aluminum components, titanium fasteners, disc brakes, electronic engine management and onboard data-logging computers. What we’re talking about is the most bang for the buck in the motorsports universe—racetrack performance that costs less than a minivan but makes a Lamborghini look lumbering.
"It’s such a rush to drive. In fast corners, you feel like your head is going to be ripped off," says Eddie Lawson, who races the superkart Frankel is preparing. "If I could afford it, I’d have my own Indy car to play with. But that would cost a couple of million dollars, and I’d need a whole team of guys to work on the car. With the superkart, I can head out to the track
by myself, and it stops, goes, turns in, and corners just like a proper open-wheel racecar. In some respects, it’s even more fun than an Indy car because you can really toss it around without losing control, and a good driver can make up for a bad ride. It’s a real kick in the butt to drive."
This isn’t some Mario Andretti wannabe blowing smoke. Lawson, 45, is a four-time 500cc motorcycle World Champion who raced Indy cars for a season before retiring from professional motorsports. He now scratches his racing itch by trouncing the competition at selected amateur events in his state-of-the-art superkart. He’s here at Laguna Seca, in Monterey, California, in early September to compete in the most prestigious international event on the superkart calendar. This race—which is interspersed with more traditional automobile race events over a three-day weekend—is the crown jewel of the five-part World SuperKart Series, which southern California kart builder J.R. Clasen founded in 2001 to raise the sport’s lower-than-low profile in the United States.
Despite a top speed of nearly 150 mph, superkarts don’t get much respect. "Considering how much fun they are, they aren’t as popular as they ought to be," Lawson says. "For the big-time sports car guys, a superkart is less than their tire budget for the year. But when they fly into town in their private jet with their girlfriends, they don’t think the superkarts look as cool as their Ferraris."
Although the race this weekend is officially known as the World SuperKart Challenge, it could be billed more properly as the Beat Eddie Lawson Invitational. More than 50 drivers from England, France, Australia, Canada and all over the United States are here to see how they measure up against the sport’s living legend. Most of them are well-heeled middle-aged thrill-seekers out for a good time. "This is like having sex all week long," jokes Bill Busacca, a dentist who drives for Old Farts Racing. (Team slogan: "The older we get, the faster we used to be.") Only a handful of drivers have a legitimate shot at defeating Lawson. Even reigning European champ Damien Payart has his doubts. "He is very fast," the sad-eyed Frenchman says ruefully.
Lawson’s most formidable opponent appears to be Mark Owens, a Brit who, at 29, is already a hard-bitten veteran of the kart wars. His crew chief (and father) Paul Owens worked for decades designing open-wheel racecars, and helped develop the first carbon-fiber chassis to be used in anything other than Formula 1. "I’m here to knock (Lawson) off his pedestal," the younger Owens says.
Laguna Seca begins Friday with a qualifying session. Today, Saturday, there’s a preliminary race whose results will determine the starting grid for Sunday’s 30-minute main event. Lawson and Owens start 1-2 and run that way until Owens falls back with a gearbox problem. Lawson wins, averaging 97.89 mph around the 11-turn, 2.38-mile road course; Payart is second, Owens third. Twenty-three-year-old American tyro Ron White is a fighting fourth; his kart, made for him by Los Angeles dentist-cum-racer Pat Yoshikane, invokes envy from rivals ("many of the parts are magnifique," says Payart). Fifth goes to Lawson’s close bud and teammate Wayne Rainey, 42, a three-time 500cc motorcycle World Champion who races a superkart with hand controls developed after he was paralyzed from the chest down in a 1993 bike crash.
The results aren’t unexpected. But the speeds are mind-boggling. Jaw-dropping. Awe-inspiring. Although the superkarts max out at about 130 mph on the relatively short uphill front straight, they carry an insane amount of momentum through the sweeping turns, generating lateral cornering loads of 2 Gs. (That’s half the G-load of a Champ car but twice that of most sports cars.) The chassis are so light and nimble that drivers dart around like badly spooked squirrels on a caffeine high. "The first (practice) session on Thursday was really frightening," says 24-year-old Kyle Martin, a perennial champion in smaller 125cc shifter karts who’s getting his baptism of fire in a superkart.
The headline attraction this weekend is the American Le Mans Series, which features sports cars racing on the same track as the superkarts (though at different times). The stars of this series are multimillion-dollar thoroughbreds known as Le Mans Prototypes, or LMPs. But the Audi R8, winner of three consecutive 24 Hours of Le Mans, is only 7.6 seconds, or 10 percent, quicker than Lawson’s superkart over a 76-second lap. And Lawson is just as fast as the ex-F1 studs driving Ferrari 550 Maranello racecars—machines that go for $1 million a pop—in the GTS class behind the Audis. As for the less exotic Ferrari 360 Modenas and Porsche 911 GT3s, they seem to wallow around the track like pregnant cows.
The crowd can’t believe what it’s seeing. Neither can the sports car drivers. After a session in his comparatively monstrous BMW M3, Boris Said comes over to gawk at Lawson’s kart. Said, the reigning Trans-Am champion, is accustomed to honking 650-horsepower pony cars massive enough to reduce a superkart to roadkill. "Awesome!" he says, shaking his head. "Yep, one of these days, I’m going to get one of these things for myself."
The commonly accepted creation myth of the go-kart is set in Glendale, California, a suburb of Los Angeles, in 1956. Here, in the shop of the mighty Kurtis-Kraft company, birthplace of the roadsters that dominated the Indianapolis 500 during the 1950s, a fabricator by the name of Art Ingels spotted a surplus lawnmower engine in one corner and steel tubing in another. He put the two together and fashioned the world’s most inexpensive high-performance wheeled vehicle.
Go-karts developed along much the same lines as racecars. The need for speed spawned more complex technology, which cost more money, which funded better gizmos, which generated higher speeds, which is how we got from Ingels’ crude contraption to Lawson’s high-tech rocket ship in less than 50 years. "In terms of training, I could jump directly from a superkart to an LMP car," says 24-year-old Alan Rudolph, who’s competing at Laguna Seca in both a superkart and an open-wheel racecar called a Star Mazda. "But in the eyes of car sponsors, a superkart is just a go-kart, so I have to drive the Mazda to be taken seriously."