View Full Version : Interesting article on karting

08-16-05, 01:28 PM
From today's Wall Street Journal. Here's the link, (http://online.wsj.com/article/0,,SB112414341573213736,00.html?mod=todays_us_pers onal_journal) but it's only available to subscribers.

On a Track Where Pedal Meets Mettle

August 16, 2005; Page D8

East Bridgewater, Mass.

Richard J. Valentine is pointing a gloved finger at me. "I told you to put your right foot all the way down on the accelerator and keep it there," he tells me in no uncertain terms.

Mr. Valentine owns F1 Boston, an indoor, two-track kart-racing complex up in Braintree, Mass. We are at his 1.3-mile outdoor circuit here in East Bridgewater, the two of us stopped in separate karts on the far turn of the inner loop.

"You can do this," he yells at me through his flame-colored helmet. His voice is totally reassuring, yet utterly uncompromising. "This kart can do this." He is screaming at me over the throb of the nine-horsepower Honda engines, which can push my stock European-made Rimo to about 60 miles an hour.

"You are going to go down that straight and around that corner flat out. Flat out! And you are going to stick like paint. Now let's go!" He slaps down his visor and takes off.

I turn onto the third-of-a-mile straight. At the far end laughs the corner, a sweeping left a quarter mile long. There was a reason I wanted to try this. Sure wish I could remember what it was.

"There's no better way to learn the dynamics of how to drive than in a kart," says Buddy Rice, the 2004 Indianapolis 500 winner who still likes to kart. "Is the car pushing? Is it loose? How does it feel going over bumps? I learned all that because I ran so much in karts."

F1 Boston Indoors, built for about $10 million, according to Director of Marketing Glen Ransden, is 106,000 square feet of guy heaven -- finish-line decor, restaurant-bar, televisions, convention space, billiards room. Car-race art checkers the walls. Parked in the lobby is the aquamarine Porsche GT3 that won its class at the 24 Hours at Daytona in 2003, with Mr. Valentine a member of the team.

F1 sponsors junior race leagues for kids. Adults can "Arrive and Drive" -- $25 for 15 laps. There are grownup leagues and group outings, comedy nights, battles of the bands, fight nights, bachelor parties. The place has even hosted a wedding reception. And the company's Web site, www.f1boston.com, is as slick as a racing tire.

What really cranks the F1 engine, however -- and sets F1 apart from its European counterparts, where karting is a bigger deal -- is the corporate outing. Put this in your suggestion box: Teams of four change tires and fuel that Porsche in a real-time pit-crew exercise, then suit up for a 90-minute team endurance kart race. Just you and your boss into that final straight. Last year F1 hosted about 1,200 such leadership seminars and client parties for companies of all sizes, Mr. Ransden says.

"We take people completely out of their comfort zone," says General Manager Karen Quast of F1's corporate philosophy. "We get them down at track level, get them into their racing suit, put the neck brace on, the helmet, and then they're sitting in their kart looking up at the red light waiting for green, their heart's going to get going."

I'm here today at the $4 million outdoor track for a "lead-follow": Mr. Valentine -- energetic 61-year-old chief executive of the diversified conglomerate MBA Group and professional sports-car racer of nearly three decades -- is to lead, while I -- callow 52-year-old keyboard tapper and speed-limit-obeying amateur -- am to follow.

My day begins with the contortion of my 6-foot-8-inch frame into a 6-foot-2-inch red F1 racing suit. Still, when finally garbed, I am Steve McQueen in "Le Mans" -- cool, detached, alienated -- until I take a step and am reminded uncomfortably of ninth-grade gym class.

Mr. Valentine -- R.J. -- talks me into a kart, which is probably not as long as I am tall. I fold myself in, praying-mantis-like, and grab the wheel. It is surprisingly small, a nine-inch pie plate. I will spend the next few moments of my suddenly exciting life twisting it so tightly that tomorrow holding a toothbrush will be painful.

Randy Kugler, president of the World Karting Association, one of the sport's sanctioning bodies, says the first "go-kart" buzzed a parking lot in Azusa, Calif., in 1950. The WKA started in 1956 and today has about 10,000 members. He reckons there are 500 to 600 kart tracks in the U.S. -- from the mom-and-pops through the few complexes like F1 Boston -- with two or three tracks coming on line each year. The WKA sanctions about 120, about half of which run on dirt. The association sponsors two- and four-stroke engine divisions, age-group competitions, the Briggs & Stratton National Dirt Series and the Snap-On Stars of Karting presented by the Indy Racing League circuit -- where speeds hit 90-plus miles per hour. You can get going for under $5,000, Mr. Kugler says. From there it's the size of your interest, commitment and wallet.

My first few laps are hell on wheels. I am not speaking metaphorically. The physicality is stunning. A smooth-looking track is a picket fence of speed bumps, a cacophony of clattering cobblestone when your coccyx is careening across it just a couple of inches above the concrete.

When I squeezed in I thought the molded plastic seat afforded no extra room. Now here I am being thrown around like a loose bolt in a washing machine as I wrestle the wheel, needing all 80 inches and 225 pounds of my grunting, groaning, teeth-grinding self to steer this *@#$&% thing.

"You're going to be sweating when you're done," Tony Stewart had warned me. Anything else to expect? I asked of this summer's hottest Nascar driver and a multiple national kart champion in the 1980s. Yeah, he said with a sarcasm that, on further review, was clearly deserved, "there's a possibility you're going to be fatigued."

Race-car drivers aren't athletes? Tell it to somebody else.

The S-turns at the far end chew me up all day. Everything happens too quickly. The idea is to find the "line," to peer seamlessly past the current moment and into the next. But I can never keep up, never turn my head fast enough, never see beyond exactly where I am, which is a constant lurching forward into the space in front of my feet. At some point something pops in my back; I will have difficulty standing up straight for two weeks. From afar the S-turns are a lasso caught in elegant mid snap. At kart level they are individual lashes -- and they whip me thoroughly.

But not before I roar down that front straight behind Mr. Valentine at 227.673 miles an hour to qualify on the pole for the Indy 500. Well, no. But that's karting: It makes you think you're the real deal. Though I imagine genuine drivers don't scream "STICK LIKE PAINT! STICK LIKE PAINT!" into their helmets like I am doing as Mr. Valentine waves me on to overtake him into the turn.

But first, about this straight slab of blacktop: It is the only stretch on this inner-loop that affords a moment to think about what is happening -- and to consider what is coming.

Mr. Valentine has told me how a kart is designed with a low center of gravity and wide stance, is balanced front to rear, side to side, corner to corner. How the course is bordered by wide grassy run-off areas to scuff off speed and with plastic barriers to wrap around any errant kart that doesn't first spin out.

That's the stuff I know. But like Mr. Valentine said: "In racing, it's the fear of the unknown."

Foot nailed to the accelerator, I bolt past him and aim left. I am aware of everything: The exhilarating centrifugal swoop as I get welded to the machine, the squishy-squirmy squeal of the Continental tires. But I am aware, too, of nothing: It is all one overwhelming, overriding, overjoying sensation.

I pop out the other side. Mr. Valentine gives me a drive-by thumbs-up. Surely he isn't the type to dispense praise easily.

I wrench the kart around the track, through those awful S-turns and back onto the straight. Again, the left turn looms, but now it appears faintly, barely, maybe just a tiny bit familiar. I race down the blacktop into the corner, pedal-to-metal, and stick it with another coat of Sherwin-Williams.

Mr. McKee is a copy editor for the Journal. :thumbup: