Forty-seven months ago I put my son in a kart for the first time. He had a good season in the 50cc “kid kart” then a horrifying half year where I tried to make an old 80cc “junior sportsman” Birel work using a bicycle mechanic’s set of skills. By then he’d expressed a desire to race bikes anyway so we went on two wheels and with the occasional indoor-rental exception we didn’t look back.
Having made plans to race a kart myself a few times this year, I figured I would give John another chance, this time in the Margay Ignite K2 spec series. We did a short test in Florida this winter that went very well but didn’t give us a chance to see how he would do in an actual race. The next step was a race in May but that was canceled. Or, I should say, it was moved to this past weekend. So we packed up and headed to St. Louis for the second time in three weeks. After watching a few videos, John was less than sanguine about his chances. “I’d like to not finish last,” he said, “but I probably will.”
The idea was to have a family race weekend of sorts. I’d race Ignite Masters, for drivers over 35, because I’m 35. And I’d race Ignite Heavy, which is for fat people, because I’m a fat person. My wife would run Masters, having recently entered middle age to her immense chagrin. John would race Ignite Rookie, for 9-12-year-olds.
In the end, Mrs. B was the winner in our family group. She qualified 17th of 26, and I qualified 21st. At the start I worked her and a bunch of other people to get to 10th place. Ten laps into the 15-lap race she finally caught me on the back straight, dropping me to 11th. I spun on a curb almost immediately afterwards and dropped down to Not Quite Last; she continued on to finish top half. This was much commented-upon, because she was
a) an absolute novice in real karts;
b) the only girl over the age of 15 on the entry lists.
Getting back into my kart for the fat-guy event, I worked a couple people on the start but spun in pretty much the same place with two laps to go, finishing Not Quite Last. Interestingly, the pace in Ignite Heavy was, on the average, faster than the pace in Ignite Masters. I guess the moral of the story here is that there is no such thing as a 200-pound kart racer who isn’t dead serious about his hobby. Truthfully, every one of the hundred or so competitors at the event was dead serious. You never saw someone dramatically adrift of the pace or utterly hopeless at driving the way you often do in club racing. The lap times were usually within 2 seconds from front to back, not the eight, ten, or fifteen seconds observed at, say, a NASA Spec Miata race.
To John’s immense surprise, he managed to run within about a second and a half of the best drivers in his class, practicing and qualifying 11th or 12th out of 15 kids. Naturally, he immediately moved his personal goalposts: “My driving is trash.”
“I thought you’d said you’d be really happy if you weren’t last, and you’re not even close to last, surrounded by experienced racers in their own karts.”
“So what?” When it was time for his feature race, the officials repeatedly stopped the kids during the pace lap and re-gridded them due to various mistakes or malfeasance. This happened again and again over the course of four complete pace laps until the fellow running the thing lost his temper, had them all stop, and then physically moved them around and into position for a short run for the front straight before a green flag. Somehow John got put all the way in back during this process — most likely because he didn’t feel confident raising his voice to the officials — but at the start he moved up to maybe 8th place and held it with no trouble until he got punted into the barriers about halfway through the race. He lost a full lap and although he passed a few drivers afterwards, he wasn’t able to unlap himself against the leaders. He, like his dad, finished Not Quite Last.
He wasn’t happy afterwards but he also wasn’t furious, so I took that as a good sign. Asked to rate 4-cycle spec karting as an activity, he said it was better than indoor BMX racing but worse than downhill mountain biking or riding at skateparks. My wife, on the other hand, was absolutely enthralled by the whole thing. I predict there is plenty of karting in her future. As for your humble author, I am looking forward to getting behind the wheel of an actual race car next week. The eight-hundred-pound-per-inch springs and non-power-assisted steering of my old Neon will feel like a TempurPedic mattress after an hour running a kart at 50mph through bumpy turns. Is karting purer, more honest, than sports-car racing? Some people say yes, and some say no — and I’m not qualified to say, myself.