Rental kart blanche

October 18, 2017

At first, there was man. Man walked upright, using his legs as locomotion. Then, man was chased by deadly beasts, and man ran. Having survived, man looked at fellow man and said, “I bet I can run faster than you.” And thus, racing was born. 


Some time and a bit later, man invented the wheel. Man then took two wheels, a horse or several, and made a chariot. “I bet I can ride faster than you,” man said. And thus, wheel to wheel racing was born. 


Having grown bored with chariots, man invented the car, with twice a chariot's wheels and the power of many horses in its engine. Man drove the car around and around, reveling in his newfound mobility. Then, a very short time later, man did a very important thing. Man drove a car fast. 


Man knew that this thing, this fast driving, was the elixir of life. Filled with a sense of destiny, man proclaimed, “I bet I can drive faster than you.” And thus, angels did rejoice, for motor racing was born. 


Targa Florio,1922: Antonio Moriondo looks up the road while his co-driver glances back, presumably wondering into what the hell he'd got himself.


As man partook in more motor racing, so too was more money spent. Racing cars became expensive, and then they became more expensive. Soon, only the rich or supremely talented or supremely dedicated could contest motor racing’s upper levels. Bored with racing their fellow elite, the elite said to each other, “I bet my kid can drive faster than your kid.” And thus, angels did rejoice, for karting was born.


Many children did partake in the racing of karts that go. Some children were fast (or rich), and rose into larger, faster vehicles. Some were slow (or poor), and did not advance beyond their karts that went. But one fateful day, a man crammed himself into his child's kart and drove it with wild abandon. "This is great fun!" he whooped excitedly. He promptly found the finest blacksmith in all the land, and the blacksmith built him a man-sized kart. Proudly seated millimeters off the earth, the man boasted, "I bet I can drive my kart faster than you." And thus, angels did retreat, for adult karting was born. 


 The madness that is top-tier kart racing, from which motorsports' mystical talents emerge.


Such accounts of karting history have yet to be deemed accurate (they are not). Nowadays, karting tracks are practically ubiquitous, almost like racing's own fast-food franchise — it's not quite the real thing, but it's cheap and crudely satisfying. Such tracks fall into two basic categories: mini-golf tracks (don't bother) and focused karting establishments. For the average person, either type of track will provide cheap thrills. For those who, like me, take racing far too gravely, only the latter will suffice. 


It seems that "serious" rental karting has blossomed over the last several years. Houston has at least 3 tracks that facilitate organized karting leagues, and a fourth opened this month. You could show up and putz around on any of these tracks, but league racing has its own format. Most leagues feature a practice session, qualifying, and gridded races, mimicking professional racing's typical structure. It's "serious" racing for "serious" racers, or more accurately, wheel banging for buzzkills. 


The silliness that is rental karting, to which the general public's mediocrity flocks.


Let us first address the one major downfall of league karting: kart disparity. My first league foray took place at MSR Houston's outdoor track. In their relatively rapid gas karts (they claim 40 MPH down the back straight), quick drivers turn laps around the 1:08 mark. Now, I am by no means a quick driver (yet!), but neither am I a consummate backmarker. As I watched driver after driver cruise past on the straights, I surmised I'd been saddled with a gutless kart. The time sheets told the tale: my fastest lap in practice was a molasses-quick 1:30. I might as well have been driving a boat anchor.


Mercifully, that kart's dismal speed was anomalous. My pace during qualifying and the race picked up to about 1:12 per lap, thanks to a different kart assignment. While my fortunes had turned, so too had others', but in the opposite direction. Some karts have strong engines and no grip; others, no power and copious grip; some are bereft of of either attribute. Rental karts are a mixed bag—each one is a little different—and you've simply got to drive around your steed's deficiencies. Be sure that your prayers to the racing gods are offered before the stewards assign karts.


An aside: there is absolutely no correlation between what someone looks like and how fast they are. Fashion sense, gender, and general demeanor are lost upon the timing clocks. You might destroy someone who brought their own helmet only to be destroyed by an awkward guy in cargo pants. You might see a cute girl and think, "Wow, she's out here running with the boys, I hope she doesn't fare too poorly," and then she smokes you. That might have happened to me. It could happen to you. Egos beware.  

League racers getting their elbows out at MSR Houston. I'm not in the photo; even if I were, I'd be playing caboose.


There's much more to karting than outright pace— you've got to pick good passing spots, defend when under attack, turn consistent laps, and most importantly, drive cleanly. Any shunt or spin will usually usher you towards ignominious defeat. By and large, rental karts are evenly matched, and you can't drive like a total asshat and expect to get away with it. Speed does come in very handy; however, given kart tracks' tight confines, faster drivers behind slow ones will still have to scrap for clean passes.


Another aside: the stewards and your fellow racers will probably give you an earful if you do drive like an asshat. Punt another kart off the track, and you could wind up with a middle-aged, steroidal gorilla in your face. It might have happened to me. It could happen to you. Don't drive like an asshat. 


Indoor electric karting is markedly different than its gas-drinking relative. Laps average about 45 seconds at SpeedSportz and 1:12 at MSR, Houston's outdoor tracks. In contrast, an indoor lap at K1 Speed is liable to take less than 25 seconds. Indoor circuits are narrow and twisty, with tiny straights and numerous slow speed turns. Though they can't provide the same speeds achieved outdoors, the racing remains engaging, with the track's cramped design keeping drivers bunched together and battling for position. Indoor karting will do in a pinch; given the option, always go outdoors. You'll go faster, the tracks are more realistic, you'll go faster, you'll have more room to wage war, and you'll go faster. 


 Left: SpeedSportz' outdoor rental track. Right: K1 Speed Houston's indoor circuit. SpeedSportz is sprawling by comparison, with lap times easily twice as long as K1's momentary jaunts. 


In my clumsy hands, gas karts and electric karts are similar driving devices. Both types have distinct power bands—lose too much momentum in a turn, and you'll be easy prey for your opponents. Sound driving is rewarded with smile-inducing grip and mildly amusing acceleration. It's a kick to keep your foot flat on the accelerator through sweeping turns, dancing on the limit of adhesion and feeling the G-force build up. Sure, you're only going, like, 25 miles an hour in a glorified children's toy, but it's damn good fun, I tell ya. 


However, electric karts pose two major distractions. Firstly, if you mistakenly press the throttle and brake simultaneously, the kart will momentarily shut down. This is frustrating in the extreme and ruins your lap, especially on such short laps. Secondly, the karts are activated via a steward's remote — they can slow down the field in case of a shunt. The trouble is, when being brought back to full power, I've had karts that were noticeably and maddeningly slower than before. It's a surefire way to scupper your experience. 


F1 ace Daniel Ricciardo demonstrates his mastery of a karting technique practiced by raging rental racers everywhere.


Interestingly, the truly fast drivers — the ones who run up front without fail — rarely have kart problems. Their skill is enough to overcome any minor differences between the good karts on the grid. That's the beauty of rental karting — everyone races on a mostly equal playing field, and true speed will usually find its way to the podium. That, really, is the essence of racing. 


For me — motorsport devotee and open-wheel wannabe — rental karting is an affordable, effective, and entertaining training ground. For anyone else — casual passerby, macho men-children, raving loonies, and the public at large — it's the best way to have a go on four wheels. Your ego might not leave intact, but your wallet won't be harmed. 


Unfortunately, I have also purchased my own kart. RIP wallet. 



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