Finding a route into the motorsports world is always a challenge. Unless Daddy Warbucks is willing to write the checks, even the entry level categories can be prohibitively expensive, and even then, they’re a bit obscure. Teenagers with aspirations to become a hot shoe scour the internet for arcane information to help find the right kind of car and the right kind of category but often miss one of the best-proven platforms. In kart racing, one learns car control, racing strategy, develops their physical fitness, and sharpens their reactions for relatively little money.
The simplicity of the format, the immediacy of the vehicle’s responses, the close competition, and the stunning, immersive performance stand out among other entry-level categories. The palpable awe a first-timer feels after first driving a proper racing kart will cause them to burst into song, laughter, or profanity. It is for these reasons that a number of professional racers cite their time in karts as the halcyon years of their racing careers.
Though many in the States see karting as a mere pastime, probably due to their diminutive size, it’s an intense, nerve-wracking and serious endeavor to race a kart alongside a competitor. Without mirrors, one develops a sixth sense that allows drivers to determine where a competitor is without looking. A buzzing motor, a howling tire, or a bumper in the peripheral vision, lap after lap, will teach a driver when to give way, when to stage an overtaking, and when to wait patiently for the right moment. In fact, drivers who get an early start in karting seem to develop an ability to manage themselves in traffic without drama or incident as often as the late-bloomers.
Those who bypass the karting stage tend to be less decisive passers later in their careers, whereas born-and-bred kart racers have a little more gusto when it comes to overtaking. Many outsiders assume this is just arrogance or a sense of immortality, but in reality, it’s fairly measured — they just process the odds more quickly, and possibly, they develop a heightened sense for vehicle placement.
Now, many might argue that the fundamental skills of racing can be learned in other entry-level categories of motorsport, and with certain skills, they would be right, but what the kart can exclusively offer is the incredibly, near-telepathic response and transparency. Again, the simplicity of the kart is one of the most endearing traits. There’s so little required to get a kart to turn, it teaches a driver how to measure their inputs by the centimeter.
The slightest overcorrection will have the kart steering the wrong direction, and therefore, it’s crucial to refine all of one’s inputs like a surgeon working a scalpel: precision is paramount, and the same degree can’t be experienced in almost anything with fenders — certainly not at this price point. There is a multitude of different styles of karts one can begin with, but for the utmost in simplicity, the single-speed kart, often referred to as a “TaG,” helps establish the fundamentals without overcomplicating the experience.
The defining characteristic of a single-speed is its perceived lag, or narrow powerband. Though powerful once it’s “on the pipe,” or in the meat of the powerband, a single-speed kart will be very sluggish at lower revs. This is a blessing in disguise, however, because the lack of low-end torque forces the driver to consider their approach so as to keep the engine at peak revs as often as possible. To do this, the driver must abstain from big slides and learn to adjust the kart’s attitude to bring in the throttle as early as possible.
These requirements force a driver to be exceptionally smooth in their inputs. Not only must the driver be gentle with the line they carve, but their right foot needs to depress the pedal as progressively as possible. This is because the carburetor will easily flood if the throttle is merely mashed. Many people think motor racing is just a matter of flooring the gas and going, but it requires a deft, masterful touch. This sensitive relationship between driver and machine will force the astute driver to observe their technique and try to refine it at time goes on.
Power Application and Sideways Antics
Because of the narrow powerband and the discipline needed to keep the engine howling within those ~3,000, juicy revs, the sooner one can get on the throttle, the better. So, in faster corners, flicking the kart in sideways allows the kart to be pointed in the right direction for exiting early on. Even though the kart is sliding at the apex, the driver can get on the throttle a half-second earlier, because the additional speed tends to equate with higher revs, and the powerband is more easily accessed.
That flick comes down to the synchronization of two inputs. The driver needs to add a bit of extra steering input at the turn-in point, and that flick can sometimes be executed a little later than normal, since the kart is “wrapping” itself around the apex, and in effect, taking a slightly tighter line. However, this steering input needs to correspond with a quick, progressive release of the brake pedal. Often, it helps to keep a tiny amount of braking pressure on as the steering input is executed, but the amount necessary differs widely depending on the setup.
One thing karting very clearly demonstrates is the value not only of braking hard and late but the release of the brakes. Being the king of the late brakers can set you apart from the rest, but it’s more consistent to use an accurate, smooth release of the brakes. If done correctly with the right steering input, a four-wheel-drift will occur, oversteering the kart into the corner without losing any momentum.
This four wheel-drift is due to the fact that single-speed karts tend to have only rear brakes. The lack of braking power encourages the driver not to wait until the last possible second to grab the anchors, but rather, determining the earliest possible moment to release the brakes and do so in a way that will have the kart rotated at the right angle into the corner.
Single-speed karting rigorously instills the fundamentals, refines the driver’s inputs, and because of the fickle nature of these machines, makes it fairly obvious when one has mastered the corner. In short, the immediacy of inputs and the narrow window of performance fine-tune a driver’s sense for finding momentum in the corner. This skill carries over into any form of motorsport, but if one wants to add more speed and a few other variables into the go-karting mix, the next logical move is stepping into a shifter kart. Modern shifter karts are outrageously quick, and in terms of acceleration and cornering grip, they can wipe the floor with plenty of respectable sports cars.
Shifter Karts: Gears and Grunt
The shifter kart enjoys the agility of a single-speed but does away with the troublesome lag and minimal braking power. It’s a busy driving experience, which is why single-speeds are good for focusing on cornering speeds, but shifter karts teach the essentials of late-braking and engine management. Most engines fitted with a gearbox are very powerful, making as much as fifty horsepower in some instances, and that peaky powerplant is harnessed with a set of closely-stacked gears. To cope with the added accelerative force, shifter karts are fitted with brakes at both the front and rear axles, which, when combined with a set of sticky tires, can stop the kart in remarkably short distances. This changes the name of the game significantly.
While the straightline speed of a powerful single-speed is entertaining, a shifter kart barreling down a straightaway is frightening. The acceleration of a shifter kart, thanks to its weight and gearing, is on par with supercars that hit sixty mph in around three seconds. Shifter karts are generally limited to around 110 mph, but they get there quickly.
Because the powerband is so narrow, the gears have to be stacked very close together to exploit that power, which translates into a shift every other second. What this rapid-fire gear grabbing teaches is the ability to keep an engine in its rev range all the time through a combination of feel and observation. It eventually becomes second nature, and subconsciously one determines when it’s best to short-shift, or stretch a gear a little longer, because the lack of low-end torque makes any poor choice of gear obvious.
Happy, Busy Feet
Most shifter karts require a driver to lift off the throttle when shifting. Additionally, the driver has to manage wheelspin, something that’s less of an issue in single speed karts. Big power arriving in a snappy fashion means those rear tires are easily spun, so as a result, the line changes. Jared Thompson, an instructor at Pikes Peak International Raceway, notes “shifter karts need a straighter exit off of tighter corners, so you can’t drive as much of an arc on corner exit as you could in a single-speed. You have to be able to lay the power down and have the rears grip.”
Similarly, the left foot has to adapt to the added braking power. Braking power can’t be underestimated with a shifter kart because the added speed can be exploited so much more now, and it becomes advantageous to leave the braking as late as possible. The technique changes correspondingly, as Scott Meadow, former Stars of Karting factory driver, notes, “in a shifter, ideally, you do all braking in a straight line.” This is largely because the front brakes hinder trail braking and make it useful to try and bleed off the majority of the speed before turning in. Additionally, with the amount of braking force these are capable of, having the kart as straight as possible while decelerating ensures the most stability. Transitioning from a single-speed to a shifter not only steps up the level of performance significantly, but it illustrates how an astute driver will have to make considerable changes between machinery that, on the outside, appears quite similar.
Of course, variables like tire compounds, tire wear, track conditions, setup changes, driver weight, and driving technique can change all of these observations, but generally speaking, they hold true. What can be considered totally objective are the demands a kart places on the driver, both physically and mentally. The tires, brakes, and engine all create a heat sink around the driver, and the suit only raises the temperature in the mobile sauna. Consider that a modern kart can corner at 3 gs of force, lacks power steering, and transmits harsh vibrations and deflections to the driver, and it’s obviously a tiring experience.
Running wheel-to-wheel, catching slides, and anticipating your opponent’s next move are draining as well. There’s plenty to think about behind the wheel of a go-kart, including how quickly one can get tires up to temperature and how late one can brake, before concerning the opposition comes into play. Even though speeds are generally below 100 mph, the minuscule margins in performance between competitors, the fast entry speeds, and short braking distances can make for a nerve-wracking dice. Furthermore, touching wheels in a fenderless kart means one party usually gets thrown in the air. The amount of information a driver has to deal with is draining, but the intensity of it all builds an incredible foundation for moving forward in a motorsports career.
Karting blends all the reasonably-priced thrills of autocross and track days with a quick-shifting, physically-demanding, high-grip intensity that’s hard to experience elsewhere, even in Spec Miatas. As Dario Franchitti proclaims, “the performance level of a kart is something you don’t get into again until you get into Indycar or Formula One. Essentially, you’re almost taking a step back when you move into a Formula Renault or Formula Ford.”
As far as reactions and urgency, there aren’t many machines that match a quick kart. They also illustrate the values of different lines, mandate smooth inputs, and provide a feeling for lost momentum. The “feeling” that drivers so often talk about needing to reach the limit aren’t usually well-described, but in karting, they become apparent.
Some of these skills can be learned in entry-level racing categories like Spec Miata or Spec E30, but karts will always endure, not only because of their proven ability to tutor future stars, but because of the ease of access, relatively low cost and incredible amounts of performance. They may look dinky, but ask anyone who has any racing experience, and they’ll note the demanding, challenging, and exhilarating experience one can only have with a kart.