Thursday, June 7, 2012

Thinking about Karting and my short career as a winning driver.

What's with all my automotive posts anyway? I love cars, I was raised in a car dealership and I now own a driving school, plus given the choice I'd drive to Boston from LA rather than fly.

I follow Formula 1, Indycar, DTM and NASCAR racing. I'll get up at 4 o'clock in the morning to watch a Formula 1 race live on Speed. (I don't follow the races around the country and if I had a motorhome I wouldn't drive to Talledega for a race and get caught on YouTube pissing off the roof or anything like that. I did suggest, to my wife that if she wanted to go to England, it would be nice if we scheduled the trip around the Goodwood Festival of  Speed.) 

There is one thing that all successful modern drivers have in common, from Jimmy Johnson to Lewis Hamilton, no matter what they are racing now they started in karts.

This is the very first Go Kart, built in 1956, powered by a small West Bend 2 stroke engine. Note the hand brake.

This is what the early Kart races looked like:

I remember these races well because I raced in them, the engine in my first Kart had 21/2 horsepower and I thought it was a rocket ship. The first summer I raced against adults and a few other kids, I was 11 years old. I won more than I lost. Over the winter my Dad and I built a new Fox with a 9 hp West Bend 2 stroke. We tested it in March and yes it was much faster. Because at 12 I weighed half as much as the adults I raced against, they'd yell at me all the time, then as it is today, light is faster! The new Fox was fast, but I wanted  a faster cart. I sold the 3 month old Fox and built (I was now a much better kart mechanic than the old man) another new Fox with a live rear axle and twin West Bends. I bought 2 new 9hp engines, had a machine shop port and relieve them, added tuned exhaust and highly modified diaphragm carburetors. According to the manuals and tuning magazines I read and re-read the little engines were now putting out about 11hp each. The Kart was a monster and I won a lot of races on a regional level in the Midwest. I figured in a few years I'd be racing at Indy or joining Dan Gurney at All American Racers. A kid can dream, right?

Off the track, I drag raced a 409 Chevy Super Sport from a rolling start and murdered him. One night at midnight, a couple of friends of mine and I loaded the kart into my Mom's station wagon (no driver's licenses yet) drove it out to 32nd Ave South and Belmont Rd. I fired it up and drove it back down Belmont to our house at 816 and straight into the garage. Imagine a quiet summer night and you hear two screaming chainsaws flying by your house at 80mph. Cops were everywhere searching, my friends and I were sitting on the front porch watching them and laughing. Never got caught.

I built a "chain gang" by adding a third engine to my kart, when you could get the engines in synch it was unreal. I remember practicing and trying to adjust the carbs while negotiating the track, too much trouble to try to keep it running. I raced it at Brainerd Speedway, won the pole and couldn't finish the race. In frustration I had pitted and took the chain off the middle engine, then pushed the kart so hard the right hand engine blew a rod. I still have the dent in my right elbow where a chunk of aluminum from the engine tore through my jacket.

My karting career ended with my Dad's first heart attack, he was on his back for a long time and there was no money for racing or much of anything for awhile. I learned a lot while karting, I got handy with tools, got a good grasp of how things work and best of all it made me a much better, safer and defensive driver.

Here is what a modern racing Kart looks like, the 2012 Lotus powered by a Rotax snow machine engine.
Carbon fiber, adjustable suspension, disc brakes and with certain engine and transmission combinations speeds to over 150mph. Damn I'd love to drive one!

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