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.
When we ran the actual race, Brook did the crowded start, drove the lion’s share of stints-there were 11 mandatory driver changes and two refuelings-and took the checker. She notched our team’s fastest laps by far, while Porsche Club member Patrick and I skittered and spun. She kept faithfully unlapping us, retrieving the places that we guys lost every time we planted our middle-age asses in the kart’s stiff, unforgiving seat.
It gripes me when jock-sniffing big-city sportswriters announce that racecar drivers “aren’t athletes.” Strap on a kart for just an hour or so and you’ll get a hint of what the stresses must be like in a real racecar. After 4 hours we were stiff, bruised, cramped, and brain-dead. Indeed, Pat wilted after the third hour, and my daughter took up the slack. “Oh, this isn’t really an endurance race,” de Marcken’s assistant later said. “Most of our long races are 8, 12, or even 24 hours. We did a 24-hour down in Florida a while ago, and a 10-year-old and his brother (Le Mans driver Wayne Taylor’s kids) won it.” There’s still something to be said for a high power-to-weight ratio.
One nice thing about karts is that they have no rearview mirrors, so I was spared the intimidation I normally feel when I see a car close behind me on a racetrack. The faster kart drivers-and there were many-did announce their desire to pass by belting my rear bumper hard enough to make me see stars and curse, but unless you glimpse a front wheel in your peripheral vision, you just work on your line, braking, and power, which is as it should be. At least that’s what I thought until some bozo straight-lined a chicane and in a split second launched himself over my front end and out into the dimly floodlit off-track darkness as the final half-hour of the race unwound.
I was a bit embarrassed to see Brook’s “team fastest lap” notation every time I checked the big video monitor that tracked the race positions in the Oakland Park clubhouse, yet I couldn’t have been more proud as I watched her wail past in her tiny racecar lap after lap. “You should have seen the look on her face when the guy chasing her at the end of the race came by our pit and told her she was fast,” Patrick later said.
In a country where size matters, low-horsepower karts have never gotten the respect they deserve as competition machinery. This is the cheapest, simplest, safest, and most effective way on the planet to experience the thrill of real racing.
When stationary, Wilkinson receives mail at firstname.lastname@example.org