True story: When I was not quite a teenager, I set the track record for RoadRunner karts at the Columbus, Ohio location of Malibu Grand Prix. When I crossed the line, I looked for my father in the stands so I could share my excitement with him. Turns out that he was in the parking lot, using the car phone in his Lincoln to chat up a stewardess or something. I opened the door and piled into the Town Car’s front seat,
“DAD,” I yelled, ignoring his frantic shushing motions, “I GOT THE RECORD!” He made an excuse to the chirping voice on the phone, put his hand over the receiver, and snapped at me,
“What’s that going to get you?” Well, father, the joke’s on you because I’m writing for this very fine magazine and website and driving things like the 2019 Corvette ZR1 around racetracks at an age when all you’d done was made yourself wealthy and ensured that you would retire in comfort and dignity. Who’s the idiot now, huh?
To my immense sorrow, Malibu Grand Prix didn’t survive the collapse of the video-arcade market in the Nineties. Which is a shame, because I’d like to see if my nine-year-old son could beat my Roadrunner time. It’s entirely possible, because in just a few trips to our local indoor kart places he has proven able to humiliate even the most motoring-focused of teenagers in both propane-powered and electric Sodikarts. He’s been in the top five of sub-16-year-olds for the week every time he’s driven. Sometimes he’s the fastest of all.
When I asked him for some secrets, he just told me, “When I’m driving, I think about what Mr. Ross told me.” That’s Mr. Ross as in Mr. Ross Bentley, who spent some time coaching him at Circleville Raceway Park last year. The indoor karts are pretty weak sauce compared to my son’s 80cc two-stoke cadet-spec Birel. On the other hand, I’m not in any way involved with their preparation and maintenance, which significantly decreases the chances that John will have to stand around in his hot, stuffy race suit and watch me try to thread the cord back into a recoil starter.
After trying the karts a few times myself, I’ve come up with some ideas to help you do better in your next trip to an indoor rental place. They are all over the country, and they’re particularly thick on the ground in places like Las Vegas. They’re not cheap–unless you compare them to the cost of operating your own car or kart on a racetrack. There’s your justification, and heeeeeere are your tips!
Electric and propane karts require different strategies. The best electric karts have electronically limited top speeds and fairly high-torque engines. The combustion karts, which are usually but not always propane-powered, are governed via the crude but effective method of intake restrictors. Why does this matter? It’s simple. The electric karts accelerate quicker and reach their top speed faster, while the propane karts have to rev up the same way a conventional car does. As a result, they have different lines around a track.
With an electric kart, you’ll want to drive a “minimum distance” line most of the time, staying as close to the inside of the corner as your tire traction will permit. Propane karts need more of a conventional racing line to maximize the amount of time they spend going straight. If you’re having trouble making time at an electric kart place, try sticking to the inside of hairpins. If you’re frustrated at a propane facility, use a wider line with less braking. You might be slower through the corner, but you’ll have less trouble getting up to speed in the following straight.
You can’t use the steering wheel very much, particularly on corner exit. As Mister Ross would say, the driver who turns the wheel less usually wins the race. This is doubly true for indoor karts, which have the power-to-weight ratio of a Model T. When in doubt, unwind the wheel early when leaving the corner, even if it means you brush the outside wall a little bit.
If you can get away with using throttle and brake at the same time on propane karts, do it. Modern automobiles often punish simultaneous left-foot brake and right-foot throttle use with a sharp computer-controlled ignition cutout–you can thank 60 Minutes for that. Propane karts don’t work that way. Most of them, in my experience, HATE having the throttle closed for any reason and they will punish you for a couple of seconds after you do it. So just brush the brake with your left foot while holding the throttle open. It will slow the rear axle but it won’t cause a power-robbing pulse in the intake path. Electric karts don’t benefit from this nearly as much, if at all.
Sliding costs time, with a few exceptions. It’s great fun to slide your kart all over the polished concrete of an indoor kart track. It’s also really slow. One exception to this is when there is a sharp left-and-right transition, which pretty much every track has. Flick the kart to one side using the steering wheel and no brake, then let it “catch” and snap back the other way. Autocrossers do this as well, and for the same reason; it lets you give up a little momentum in the first turn for a little extra momentum in the second turn, which is more important because it leads to a straight instead of a turn. You can also try a slide in hairpins to preserve momentum. That’s more important with propane karts, for the reasons stated above.
Cut weight if you can. It’s rare for me to make the top ten at my local kart tracks. Part of this is skill and technique but another part is the fact that I’m giving up 100 pounds to the fittest young drivers. If 100 pounds matters in NASCAR–and it does–believe me that it makes a difference with a 400-pound kart. So shed weight anywhere you can. If you’re too lazy to start running marathons, at least leave your jacket and any heavy clothing behind.
Can’t make a pass? Change your line for future speed. It’s very common to get stuck behind someone who is maybe one second a lap slower than you. That’s enough difference to let you drive up to them, but not enough to let you easily pass. So what do you do? The losing technique is to try, and fail, at five or six passes in a row. The patient strategy is to drop back and set your fastest time. If you want to get around the slug in front of you, however, this: As you come up to the driver, pick the corner where you’d like to overtake. Then late-apex that turn to increase your straightaway speed. That will let you get the nose of your kart to their seat. If they don’t turn in, you’ll be good to go. If they do, chances are they will spin. You can also do this in a real spec-car race where the cars are evenly matched power-wise, but the penalties can be expensive. Don’t ask me how I know. Because if you ask me, I’m going to tell you a very long story about the 2007 NASA National Championships.
Sometimes you will get a bad kart. Spend that time working on your steering. Much has been written about how to spot–and grab–the best kart at an indoor place. Nowadays, most tracks assign kart numbers in a computer before they let the drivers walk out to pit lane. You might get a bad one. If that happens, work on being absolutely perfect at the end of your corner exits. It will pay off when you’re back behind the wheel of good equipment.
Bring your own helmet. Yes, it makes you look like an idiot, and if you fail to win the thing there will be somebody commenting very loudly on the disconnect between your appearance and your performance. But here’s the thing: Those rental helmets get DROPPED. Over and over again. Sometimes several times a day. If something happens and you get plowed into a wall, wouldn’t you rather be in your own helmet that fits correctly and is in perfect shape? Sure you would. This point was brought home to me in spectacular fashion a few years ago, when my son got punted into a wall and his ill-fitting rental helmet CAME OFF. Now we bring our own equipment.
Most importantly, have fun, no matter what! Just kidding about that. How could it be fun if you don’t win? This isn’t badminton.
If you can do all of the above, you might not be the fastest indoor kart driver in history. I’m certainly not. But it will spare you the indignity of having your best time beaten by a nine-year-old in a speed-limited youth kart, which happened to approximately two dozen young men at our local track last week. They weren’t thrilled about that, and they were even less thrilled when the nine-year-old in question pointed it out. Thankfully their initial reaction, which was to beat up the kid’s dad, was tempered somewhat when I offered to give someone the remaining half of my salted pretzel from the concession stand. So make a choice. Do you want half of a pretzel, or do you want to be a winner at something that is only marginally more impressive than racing the RoadRunners at Malibu Grand Prix?