Winding Road Racing: Getting Started In Karts

Features I By Tom Martin I February 06, 2012

We’ve been spending more and more time thinking and writing about novice racing and skill development, both here and on our Winding Road Racing Facebook channel. In doing so we’ve gotten a fair number of questions about karting, which we’ve always held as a great entry-level approach to racing. So, we thought we’d summarize some of our recent posts on the topic. As with any complex subject, a short piece just scratches the surface, but we hope you find it useful. Look for more of this type of racing content, both here and on Facebook.

There Is A Reason Most F1 Drivers Started in Karts

Karts are confusing, because the concession karts most of us know are fairly slow. (By “concession karts” we mean the “go-karts” that you drive with your kids for five bucks a pop, most likely at the local putt-putt place.) These karts are associated with kids and look like toys. To reset your assumptions, you only need to look at the F1 of karting: Superkarts. Superkarts can run big tracks like Road America and set competitive times (1:24 at Laguna Seca for a Superkart versus 1:36 for a Ferrari 458) and speeds (e.g. 150 miles per hour on Road America’s main straight). With 90 horsepower pushing 275 pounds you start to see what is going on—power to weight ratios are about half of F1.

Enduro Karts

Another type of kart that runs on long road courses (i.e. tracks that are 2-4 miles long as opposed to under 1 miles for most sprint kart tracks) is called an Enduro kart (sometimes called a “lay-down kart” for reasons we hope are obvious when you look at the image above). Again, this is not the starting point in karting for most people, but it illustrates the variety and seriousness of the endeavor. Enduro karts are capable of 100 mph-plus. They generally use a 125cc engine (which is a quite common displacement in top-level karting).
Sprint Karts
Interestingly, the fact that Superkarts and Enduro karts run on big tracks doesn’t actually get to the heart of why karting is such a thrill. Trust us, even 28 horsepower TAG karts or 40 horsepower shifter karts are stunningly quick, and in some ways more challenging.
Here is a shot of one of our editors when he was running Rotax-Max, a TAG classification system for kart racing. Compared to the Superkarts and Enduro karts we discussed above, you can see this is the more common "sprint" kart style. TAG means "Touch And Go," and refers to these machines having a centrifugal clutch, with no shifting needed. Rotax classes are by age and weight, with the oldest class being for 32 years and up with combined (kart and driver) weights of 390 pounds. The confusingly named “Seniors” group is for drivers 15-31 year olds, while dads may want to know that the youngest Micro-Max classification is for 7-10 year olds.
Rotax karts as shown have a 28.5 horsepower, two-stroke, single-cylinder engine made, unsurprisingly, by Rotax. These engines rev to 14,000 rpm or higher. The engines are sealed to ensure equality (i.e. the tech inspectors can see if you’ve opened the engine to modify it). Chassis come from a variety of companies (Tony Kart, Birel, Margay, etc). Other specs like tires are controlled as well. The idea, as with Spec Miata [LINK] and other spec series, is to reduce the incentive to spend money to win and to focus on driver development.
Rotax-Max is not the only sprint karting system, by a long shot. There are many others, with other rules. But the idea of like ages, weights, engines, and modification levels competing in a class is a common denominator, not unlike SCCA or NASA racing for formula and production racecars. We think Rotax-Max or something comparable is about the most aggressive entry-level challenge most people would want. There are many options below this, both cost and speed-wise. The chart below shows one example listing of classes that run at a particular track. Be sure to check into the classes that use Briggs and Stratton 4 stroke engines, which often run around 12 horsepower and are extremely fun for novices.
Tracks And Clubs
Outdoor sprint races are usually run on tracks under one mile, with 0.5 to 0.7 miles being common. Indoor courses are usually shorter. If you look at Rotax-Max, the power-to-weight ratio you’ll see is similar to that of a sport sedan (e.g. BMW 335i). But that doesn’t explain the thrill of TAG or other mid-level sprint karts for two reasons. First, these karts can pull some serious g forces that a BMW street car can only dream of (there are lateral acceleration tests showing a kart equaling a mid-1980s Williams F1 car). Second, the short track format means that turns come up in rapid succession on a lap. For example, we’ve run on a .73 mile course with lap times under 1 minute. This kart track had 11 turns, the same as Laguna Seca. But with laps taking about half as long, turns come up twice as frequently. To be sure, karting will test your reflexes (and your arm stamina).
To get into karting, we recommend that you first find the track/club or tracks/clubs near you. This helps you determine how your local track/club operates. For example, does it have a rental system (often the case with indoor tracks and some outdoor)? If it does, you can start by renting a kart and practicing.
Leagues are usually a next step. Tracks with rentals also usually have leagues, which you can easily join. These race regularly, which is a key to learning. Another advantage is that you don’t need to own a kart. Also at tracks with rentals you will often find that there is racing of karts a level above the rental machines, so you can graduate to that.
If your local track/club is outdoors, you may need to own a kart, at least above a certain level. As a result, it is important to know what kart classification applies there, and how competitive each class is. Used karts are not prohibitively expensive (at least compared with other forms of racing). Talk to the track staff and racers about what class is appropriate for your experience, interests and budget. Every track we’ve visited had lots of people who remember when they started and are only too happy to provide advice.
Shifter Karts
While Superkarts are technically the fastest karts, the top echelon for drivers is probably what are known as shifter karts. This is the karting level that many pro drivers graduated from (Vettel, Schumacher, Senna, Prost, Alonso, Button, Hamilton, Montoya, Stewart, Gordon, Rudd), and that many still run for fun. These karts have six-speed sequential gearboxes and roughly 40 horsepower in a chassis similar to Rotax-Max or other TAG systems. Adding 50 percent more power and optimizing gearing makes shifters appreciably faster than TAGs. We wouldn’t suggest this as a starting point (and many tracks won’t allow that anyway), but it is nice to know that some of your hardware could be re-used if you love karting and want to progress.
Schools And Associations
Besides the grass roots approach, or as a complement to it, there are national karting schools. Bondurant, Jim Hall and many others offer formal programs not unlike the ones they offer for high-performance driving or road racing.
The sanctioning bodies in the US are the World Karting Association and the International Kart Federation. These organizations have plenty of information to go along with what your local club or track can provide. International races are sanctioned by the CIK-FIA.

The Guide to Road Racing: Winding Road Magazine's ultimate guide to getting your start in racing.

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