April 30 (Bloomberg) — Driving half blind, my helmet visor coated with greasy black water, I floor it to beat the racer inches to my right as we scream into a tight, narrow turn. One of us is going to eat it.
Unfortunately, it’s me. Tires kiss as we kamikaze into the bend — crack! My car thuds into the wall and then spins like a top on the wet track. Two other cars barrel around the corner just as I roll to a stop. I brace for the impact.
While head-on collisions are best avoided, the outcome is less than deadly. We’re on an indoor track, piloting 6.5- horsepower go-karts with a top speed of 40 miles per hour. The racing is real enough, the carnage is minimal. [To read on Bloomberg News, click here]
Karts are single-person, open-wheel vehicles with small gasoline or electric engines. Raced on indoor or outdoor tracks, they’re perfectly suited to amateurs, though some professional karts are capable of speeds of more than 150 mph.
For novices the beauty of karting is twofold: It’s dirt cheap and makes an ideal introduction to competitive racing.
The site of my spinning antics is Grand Prix New York in Mount Kisco. The $10 million, 120,000-square-foot complex opened last year and is a 50-minute drive from Manhattan. It has two quarter-mile tracks, each with elevation changes, decreasing- radius turns and fast straightaways — basically a mini road course.
You can find similar operations around the country and most offer an “arrive and drive” option. GPNY charges $25 for a 10- minute race against other drivers. This isn’t kiddy entertainment, it’s competitive and fast.
Karting allows drivers to practice car control and understand the racing line — the fastest and most efficient way around a track. It’s also the safest way to learn the art of outwitting and out-gutting competitors. Formula 1’s Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton raced karts in Europe and IndyCar’s Danica Patrick first competed in the U.S.-based World Karting Association series.
“Because it is so cheap, karting gives new drivers a chance to quickly expand their skills,” said Erica Kron, spokeswoman for the Concorde, North Carolina-based association, which has about 10,000 members. “Drivers range from 5-year-olds to those in their 70s. It’s where a lot of pros first get their feet wet.”
Outdoor racing, available at tracks such as New Jersey Motorsports Park in Millville, is faster and more challenging, but indoor racing is open year-round and is a good way to see if racing appeals. Also, crashes are generally minor, though drivers must wear fire-retardant suits and full face helmets.
Even with more than a dozen days of genuine track time last year, my first taste of indoor karting was a humbling one. Members of Manhattan’s Classic Car Club participate in a monthly endurance race at Grand Prix New York, and in December I joined in. (An individual track can be rented at $1,100 per half hour.)
The Club’s races are 90 minutes long, with about a dozen teams, each with two drivers who must switch over at least twice during the race. The winner is the pair that records the most laps. (Rankings and lap times and are recorded electronically and posted on a board in real time.)
The club members knew the track well and several GPNY workers also drove. Competition was fierce — a bump-from- behind, take-no-prisoners race. My novice teammate and I got smoked, coming in last.
I nurse revenge in my heart and return months later with a new teammate. This time there’s an additional challenge: Workers wet down the track with buckets of water, making it extremely slippery.
The Sodi RX7 karts, only inches off the ground, are extremely maneuverable. Drivers straddle a center divider while braking with a left peddle and accelerating with the right. (There is no clutch.)
Go-kart dynamics are pure: Even a light pump of the brake pedal causes an instant transfer of weight. Steering is extremely sharp, and erratic actions usually induce a skid.
You can use skids to your advantage by sliding around corners, but it’s easy to lose control and find yourself spinning. Patience is therefore rewarded, but adrenaline tends to rule.
Which explains why I’m spun out, facing the wrong way with a visor full of spattered grease. As my fellow drivers’ concentration begins to flag, it gets worse. Cars are spinning out everywhere.
I manage to get pointed in the right direction again and zip between two slow-moving karts, power slide through a tight corner and sling the kart inches from the outside wall, gathering speed for the next straightaway. All of the lessons I’ve learned on full-size tracks like Laguna Seca and Lime Rock Park are just as relevant here.
This time around, I have a better feel for the dynamics of the kart. We’re creeping up the rankings, and as the 90th minute ticks away, we’re in the middle of the pack. I have the fifth- fastest lap of the day.
Redemption? Not quite. But at these prices, I can afford to practice.
Information: Grand Prix New York, 33 North Bedford Rd., Mount Kisco, New York; +1-914-241-3131; http://gpny.com.
(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer of this column: Jason H. Harper at Jason@JasonHharper.com.