When my buddy Dave proposed that I join him and a couple other friends in an enduro kart race, I was ambivalent. Karting seems goofy. We’re talking about grown adults donning race suits and helmets and squeezing themselves into a plastic seat attached to a lawn-mower engine and four tires that look like Stuart Little’s space-saver spare. Karting shouldn’t require a helmet; it should require a fez. Karts are to cars what ukuleles are to guitars. Also, I resent any sport that mandates spelling as if the dictionary were edited by Kool & the Gang.
OK, I’m done. People will tell you that karts are a great way to learn car control, since they distill the essence of driving to its purest form. It’s just you and the machine, unfiltered. You know how else you can really learn car control? Buy a Lotus Exige and book a private airstrip. So let’s be honest about why karts are popular: they’re cheap. And when Dave told me that I’d get about half an hour of track time, kart included, for 100 bucks, I decided that the time had come to visit the kart kult.
Our team of four met at a local indoor facility where the karts hit top speeds of about 45 mph. If that doesn’t sound fast, find a roller coaster that goes 45 mph. Then jump out of it. Because that’s what it will feel like if you mess up while going 45 mph in a kart.
Fortunately, our team was a rational group of guys. We weren’t trying to win a trophy. We wouldn’t need to drive like maniacs and risk maiming ourselves over an after-work go-cart race (yeah, I said it: go-cart). We’re not crazy meatheads who’d total our kart in the first half of the first practice lap. As it turns out, we were almost all the way to the second lap when we totaled it.
Our first driver, Dan, spun and got T-boned at top speed. Our mangled kart was wheeled back to the pits with a new feature that it didn’t have when we started-a tilt steering column. The whole column was jammed up at a crazy angle, a result of the impact with Dan’s upper body. Did I mention that karts don’t have seatbelts?
When my turn came, I resolved to ramp up slowly and learn the track. Of course, I was about three laps in when I tried to pass a straggler at the end of the front straight. Unfortunately, the passee decided to suddenly swerve toward the outside wall just as I was about to blow by him, effectively hip-checking me into the wall at top speed. The only reason I didn’t fly out of my seat is because some part of my body hit some part of the kart in just about every way possible-my knee hit the steering column, my ribs hit the side of the seat, even my feet hit the top of the pedal boxes. The next day, I was so covered in purple bruises that I looked like the love child of Violet Beauregarde and Papa Smurf.
It turns out that there’s a correlation between speed and predictability. You know the fast guys will be on the racing line, but the slow guys are a riddle. They might take the racing line, they might hug the inside wall, they might stop at Dunkin’ Donuts. You don’t know until you try to pass them and end up with a crushed rib cage and a concussion.
Of course, the fast guys are obnoxious in their own way. I was behind one guy who was part of Team Taking It Way Too Seriously, and on every lap, he’d click the side of his kart against the wall at the apex of a certain corner. Meanwhile, I’d have to lift to avoid hitting his back bumper. Hey, Dan Gurney: I can see that you know where the apex of the corner is, but “hitting the apex” isn’t something you’re supposed to take literally. In fact, hitting anything at all will slow you down and make the custom graphics on your helmet look that much more ridiculous. Trust me-I’m right behind you.
Our team didn’t make the podium, because, unlike the hard-core guys, we made extra driver changes so everyone got equal time. But we did have fun-more fun than I expected-and it was definitely one of the best adrenaline rushes you can get for $100. But I still don’t buy the idea that karting teaches you how to drive-karting teaches you how to kart, which is to say you learn how to maximize momentum in a vehicle that has no power to spare. By all means, go go-karting and have fun with it, but if you ever reach the point where you consider getting custom graphics on your kart helmet, hang up your driving shoes and take some ukulele lessons. You’ll look just as cool, and you won’t get so many bruises.