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Use karting to fill that track day itch between events and to hone your driving skills....

How To Use Karting to Improve Your Track Day Driving and Fill in the Gaps

By Michael Allen with Blitz

 

Let’s face it.  There is a long stretch between track day events for most of us.  Back in 2005 while I was jonesing for some track time, I looked into karting.  I wanted to fill those 2 month gaps between events with some kind of driving.  Also, I thought that karting would improve my driving skill at track days.  After signing up for a kart school with Endurance Karting based out of Connecticut, I was hooked.  They had an excellent 2 day school at what was then called Moroso Motorsports Park and is now known as Palm Beach International Raceway.  Endurance Karting travels all over the country running schools and endurance races.  You can join an impromptu team and participate in an endurance race for a reasonable amount.  After that I rented a concession kart a couple of times at the Moroso 1 mile kart track.  Concession karts have six horsepower motors and so are fairly tame.  You can drive flat out most of the way around the track. 

There was a used race kart chassis for sale on display in the karting reception area.  I ended up buying that and then had the on-site kart mechanical shop at Moroso install a new Rotax engine.  I bought the chassis for $1500 and the new motor was $2500 installed.  For $4,000 I had something to get started with.  The Rotax was 28.5 horsepower and was considerably faster than the concession karts.  It could do up to 85 MPH by the end of the straight and that speed feels crazy when you are two inches off the ground.  It is said that karts are the closest thing to driving a Formula 1 car in terms of power to weight ratio and handling and I can attest to what a blast they are to drive  The kart weighs about 200 pounds.  You do the math.  The Moroso kart facility had a deal where you could store your kart at the track.  For $125 a month you could call them on the way there and they would have your kart gassed up and ready to go when you arrived.  The $125 storage fee also included mechanical maintenance.  A set of slick tires cost $200. The fee for a day at the track was $55.  The track was available for open lapping all day every Saturday and Sunday and on Tuesday and Thursday nights from 5 to 10 PM. It was a very reasonable and convenient way to go performance driving and there was plenty of track time at good prices compared to running a car in HPDE. 

I practiced often and met some nice people.  You tend to see the same people at the track and finding someone to dice with is readily available.  Eventually the track was sponsoring a race and I signed up.  I had no idea of where to go or what to do, but I asked questions and people were very helpful.  The Moroso shop provided free track support for the race as part of the monthly fee for storage.  We ran qualifying and then a first and a final heat.  I started out in a pack of four karts at the front and we ran nose to tail for five laps.  The shop had under-filled my tires and so heat was slow to build up.  By the time I had maximum grip, my competitors’ tires were going off.  I started picking them off one-by-one and I placed P1 after the first heat.  I finished the day first in class in the Rotax Masters and second overall.  I would go on to race often.  It was inexpensive and plenty of fun.  There was a night racing series at Moroso sponsored by John Smith Subs and I won the overall track championship.  The karting experience was completely satisfying, relatively inexpensive and ultra-convenient.  It fulfilled the need for speed between track day events and gave me added confidence. 

I will say that a kart feels completely different than a car.  It is light and easy to correct over steer.  A car has so much more weight and is so much more insulated from the feel of the track surface compared to a kart.  Once the momentum gets going in a car it just seems to go.  In a kart you feel over steer immediately and can correct it comparatively easily.  I have been searching for a car that feels like a kart.  They say the Lotus Elise is the closest thing to a kart in handling.  I hope to try one someday.  Our current car, the Lancer Evolution X MR does feel much more nimble than my 2 previous cars, a Nissan 350Z and a Porsche 911.  The feel of cars at an HPDE is completely different than the feel of a kart, but the experience is helpful in a general way and you do get more confidence with threshold braking.  I do think that karting can help track car driving and it is a relatively inexpensive way to get on the track while waiting for that next event. 

I found the following post on one of the Evolution forums and thought that it captures the ins and outs of karting nicely.  I approached the poster, Blitz, and he graciously gave us permission to reprint it here.  You can see his original post on the EvolutionM forum at the following address:

http://forums.evolutionm.net/motor-sports/638792-anyone-else-race-karts-beginners-story.html

Here is Blitz’ write-up on karting entitled:  Anyone else race Karts?: A Beginner’s Story

I got into karting this year and figured I would share my experience for anyone who might be interested. I'm still very new to it but have been out enough times to get my feet wet and learn a few things. So here goes. I apologize in advance for the length but I know I would have appreciated reading something like this before I got into the sport.

A little background on my racing experience (or lack thereof).   Evo is currently sitting at around 425 whp with a BBK Full, stock block, pretty much stock suspension and everything else.  I've done a few autocrosses and been to the drag strip but that's about it.  I Will definitely attend some track days in the future. From reading this forum, though, it seems like a lot of guys who road race their Evos often wish they had just gotten a Spec Miata or something else that was ready to race to begin with.  I've taken such posts into consideration when deciding how to get into racing.

When I ordered by BBK Full I spoke with Chad at CBRD on the phone about his racing career. For those who don't know, he used to race LMP1 cars in ALMS. No big deal right?  Anyway he said one year he took his shifter kart to Sebring before an ALMS event. Did some laps. Then when he got into his big, monster Panoz LMP-1 Roadster-S racecar the next day, he said it felt rather unexciting and sterile compared to the kart. That conversation really piqued my interest.

First taste of karting was at a typical indoor place with friends. Loved it. I remember getting into the Evo after and thinking how dead the steering felt. And we all know how much praise the CT9A steering receives. In early 2012 I did an arrive-and-drive race at an outdoor track near South Bend, Indiana called Michiana Raceway Park (MRP).

These karts have 4-stroke motors with maybe 6-8 horsepower. Not much faster than the indoor karts in a straight line but the surface, actual asphalt, is way grippier than the sealed concrete at most indoor places. Makes them much more consistent in corners. Being out on track alone is fun but moving through a field of people this big got me hooked. A lot of people doing the rentals take it very slow so it was a blast trying to pass as quickly as possible, having to change lines and plan ahead to get by them. I'm wearing the white helmet in the 4th kart here.

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At MRP I also had a chance to see Rotax Max karts racing. The Rotax Max is a 125cc Austrian 2-stroke motor that makes around 28.5 horsepower. Revs to 14,000 rpm or so. Combined kart/driver weight is 365 pounds minimum. Depending on gearing these karts can hit up to 100 mph with enough room. At MRP, which has a relatively short straight, they hit around 65-70 mph. Doesn't sound like much but let me tell you, it feels plenty fast when your butt is 2 inches off the ground.

By an amazing coincidence I met someone there who lives practically on the same block as me.  Next time I went to MRP it was to try his Rotax for a few laps.  The first time out, all I could think was "holy **** this is fast!"  I Wasn't worried about proper line or my lap times at all.  The acceleration is just so violent, the tires so grippy compared to the rental kart's, the bumps and curbs so much more pronounced at double the speed (there is no suspension).  I stupidly didn't wear a rib protector the first time out (the seat has no padding) and felt it for the next few days.  I decided then to get my own Rotax kart and start racing.

Here is how it arrived at my door all the way from Florida:  2011 Birel RY30-S3 with Rotax Max Senior motor.  I Got it from a shop that sells lots of karts on eBay.  They Said it had all of 3-4 hours of driving time on it.  I Paid $5,000 shipped for kart + motor + Mychron digital tach/lap time display.  Combined value new would be something like $9,000 or more.  No complaints there.  Even better deals can be had if you look around on craigslist and eBay.  Gotta love what the seller wrote on the plastic wrap.

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And here it is at MRP, on the scales and ready to go. If you can't tell from the livery,  Birel is an Italian make.  Way back in the day their test driver was none other than Robert Kubica, who is Polish but lived in Italy from a young age.

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Then I needed a trailer.  Got this 6x12 beauty for $900 on craigslist.  My dad helped put in a skylight, solar panel, big marine battery and some hooks in the ground for tie-downs.  Other than some faulty wiring it has served me like a champ since I got it.

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And here it is at the track with my kart and friend's and all gear.  In a pinch it could transport the two karts if they were secured properly.

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MRP lets you leave a trailer there all year for $150 or so.  Beats paying $100 a month for a garage space, that's for sure.  Since I only have the Evo to drive there regularly, that was the plan.  Due to unforeseen needs for the trailer back home I ended up hauling it back and forth a few times with my mom's Kia. 2.4 liter NA 4 cylinder with ~180 horsepower but it had no trouble pulling the trailer up to 80 mph and averaging 15 mpg doing it.  I was impressed.  I figure combined weight of trailer/kart/gear isn't much more than 1500 pounds.  Here is a shot of the tow rig with your author.

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And here is the Evo playing support car in the pits.  See all the coolers?  We went out once during the summer drought when it was 102 degrees.  All day in that weather.  When you're in the kart you have undershirt, rib protector, suit over that, gloves, headsock, helmet.  Needless to say the coolers were all empty when we went back home.

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You also need a kart stand so you can work on the kart between runs.  Most guys use a standard stand that requires 2 people to lift the kart onto it.  The problem with this is that sometimes you want to go to the track alone and have to ask a stranger to help.  The other problem is that driving these karts is exhausting and having to lift/lower the kart can result in lower back pain pretty quick.  I weigh 155 pounds so my kart with fuel/ballast weighs at least 210.  So I invested in this.  Winchlift by Kartlift.  $500 with battery is the best money I have spent on this hobby.  Manufactured by a guy in Wisconsin whose son races karts.  Can't recommend it highly enough

You need safety gear, obviously. If you already have a helmet, like I did, you'll need a suit, gloves, rib protector, and neck protector of some sort.  The suit doesn't need to be fireproof since you can bail out pretty quickly in the event of a fire.  That or the kart does the work and ejects you itself since there are no seatbelts .  Suit was $280, gloves $70, rib protector $200 (carbon fiber plates FTW), and most expensive was the Leatt neck protector at $400 (also carbon fiber in places).  For shoes I wear my everyday Pilotis.  You can get baller Alpinestars karting shoes if you are so inclined.

A lot of guys run much cheaper foam neck protectors that do nothing but protect your collarbone from your helmet.  The Leatt actually prevents your neck from bending beyond a certain point in any direction.  The only thing about racing a kart that scares me is the chance of flipping over and landing directly on my neck so it's a small price to pay for piece of mind.  A lot of money and research went into the Leatt.  And it looks the business.  Here I am in all of my gear.  See, don't I look like a professional?  Green duct tape will do that.

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So what is racing one of these like?  Fun. Very fun.  Like I said before the sensation of speed is so much greater than in any road car.  Once driving back from MRP I ran the Evo up through 4th on an empty road surrounded by farmland.  Honestly 425 whp felt very meh after being in the kart all day.  The learning curve is steep and just trying to run consistent, if not very fast, times is a good challenge.  In a kart you learn quickly that smooth is fast.  [Rotax engines are low on torque at the low end of the RPM band, so momentum coming out of turns is everything] And even if you're not overtaking anyone in the beginning, being overtaken by someone who knows what they're doing and trying to keep up is also a blast.  So lest the following paragraphs scare anyone off, let me just reiterate that it is very very fun and I can't wait to go back out next spring.  Only got to go out a handful of times this year for work reasons.

This is what the field looks like at the start of a race.  We do rolling starts after a warm-up lap or two.  See me in the back there? That's because qualifying is like 3 laps long and I didn't even have a chance to get my kart out before it was over.  Too slow working on it after final practice.  No worries though, I'm sure I would have qualified last anyway.  After that I raced my own race and tried not to get in anyone's way when being overlapped.  C'est la Vie.

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Now more about that learning curve.  What quickly became apparent is that you have to invest a lot of time learning about these if you want to have any chance at success.  In the beginning it almost seems like all work, no play.  That or have very deep pockets and pay someone to set up the kart/fix it for you, which I don't.  Thankfully the Rotax Max is relatively worry-free as far as kart motors with this much power go.  You only need to rebuild it every 40 hours or so, which should be a full season in anger (full rebuild is around $1,000) and between rebuilds it's supposed to be pretty much bulletproof.  But it has a carb with jets that need to be switched out based on temperature/barometric pressure.  Go too rich and you lose power.  Go too lean and you risk blowing the motor.  And even with the right jet there is a lot of fine tuning of the needle if you want to maximimize your powerband.

Then there is the exhaust valve.  The Rotax Max is like VTEC on steroids.  See the graph below.   The exhaust valve opens at around 7000 rpm and power doubles by 12000 before falling off sharply again by 14000.  So obviously the goal is to be between 7000 and 12000 rpm as much as possible, only revving higher on the main straight.  You can tune when the valve opens by turning a simple dial on the exhaust, but it's hard to tell when it opens from the driver's seat when you're just starting off.  Things happen very fast in the kart.  If you don't carry enough speed into a corner and let the revs fall, there is noticeable hesitation when you get back on the power.  You can't just floor it with this motor.  You have to be milking the throttle throughout the corner or the guys with better pedal control will leave you in the dust when you're powering out.

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Perhaps even more daunting is the chassis learning curve.  Because it has a live axle, a kart needs to lift the inside rear wheel to corner properly.  If all 4 wheels stay on the ground, it will push and not rotate properly.  So the goal is to have it stiff enough to tripod but not too stiff that it will be twitchy and bind (still not really sure what that means).  The kart has no suspension but all of the usual alignment tuning suspects play a part here.  Caster, camber, toe in/out, front width, rear width.  And then there's stiffness of the axle itself, chassis bracing, weight distribution, etc.  If anyone is curious about the details, this is the best source I've come across so far on chassis tuning:

http://www.crg-america.com/kart-service-karting-technical-tips.asp

Until the last time I went out this year I figured I just sucked at driving the kart.  My times were always a few seconds off my friend's, who has raced for 4 years now and regularly wins.  Then on the last outing of the year we switched karts.  He led in my kart and I followed in his.  He couldn't shake me.  Not saying I could have successfully beaten him in a race but the difference was night and day.  I felt so much more confident after a few laps in his than I ever felt in mine.  So I'm motivated now to tune my chassis and start racing properly.

The problem with my chassis is oversteer in the middle of the corner.  Entry seems fine. P ower oversteer I can predict as I'm controlling it.  It just seems to break away at the limit of adhesion in the rear.  Makes for a lot of fun but slow times and a few scary moments. Case in point.

 

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The last downer, as in all forms of motorsport, is how expensive it is to be competitive.  I tried to paint a good picture of the costs involved in karting so far but those were all things I expected.  What I didn't expect is that the tires, Mojo D2s that cost around $250 a set, have the most grip on around lap 2 or 3 of their lifetimes and go downhill from there.  They are still perfectly usable after that.  In fact, I only used the tires that came with my kart in 4 or 5 solid days of running this year.  But if you're fast enough and your chassis is tuned well enough to run near the front, you will need new tires every weekend or you will lose.  Top guys get a new set for every qualifying session.  10 events a year.  You do the math.  I've heard that one of the teams that runs at MRP has a budget of $100k a year to run 2 karts with factory support.  I wouldn't spend that much to race a kart but hey, to each his own.  [You can have a lot of fun in a kart without new tires all the time and have a professional set up your chassis]

So that's about it.  I'll finish with some helmet cam videos from a few of my outings.  If anyone else races karts, I would love to hear any pointers.  Otherwise I'm happy to answer questions if anyone is curious about getting into it.

Here I get passed during a race and try to keep up.  This was one of my last outings this year.  If you look carefully at the display on steering wheel the 3 laps are 43.33, 43.10, and 43.02.  I still suck, but at least I suck consistently.

Here I actually pass someone.  This video really shows me struggling with the snap over steer.  It looks fun and it is, but it's slow.

And here I go off track trying to pass someone slow in a rental Rotax kart.  Lucky I didn't run right into him.

Another thing I forgot to mention was cost of actually running on the track.  A practice day at MRP is something like $35.  Raceday around $50.  You also need a transponder to relay your laptimes to the tower. I think it's $200 outright to buy or $25 to rent per day.  Trackdays are more expensive by quite a bit right?  [I had my own beacon and transponder, but you do have to rent one for a race]

2013 update

Been too long since I updated this.

2013 was largely more of the same as 2012.  Still expensive, random stuff still breaks, still lots to learn and do and not enough time to do it if you're racing and wrenching and paying for it all yourself!

The major change is that I was able to rent a garage space with my friend.  $800 a piece for the whole year and more than enough room for all of our stuff.  So much easier not having to haul the trailer around every time.  I have a mini fridge, air compressor with super accurate digital gauge, some plastic bins for spare parts and tools and whatnot.  Makes life a lot easier.

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My goal at this point is to get as much seat time as possible and try not to sweat the small stuff.  I'm still around two seconds off the fastest guys in the class when qualifying so having a perfect setup wouldn't be enough anyway.  My garage neighbor's mechanic told me a perfect setup would be worth maybe half a second for me.  The rest is time I need to find.

The first thing I did was put on a brand new set of tires.  Huge difference right off the bat.  The oversteer I mentioned before was still there, and continued to be for the rest of the season, but it was a big improvement.  So for the first half of the season I raced as many times as I could and had fun.  Didn't get new tires as often as some of the other guys and I suffered for it, but I want to be consistent before I go throwing that kind of money around.

Reliability was pretty good during the first half of the season.  During one of the first race weekends, my chain kept popping off and leaving me stranded on track.  I thought the motor was secured properly but it turned out the holes on the bottom of the motor were stripped.  The bolts securing the motor to the base (the base then secures the motor to the kart frame) kept working their way out and letting the motor move around. The shop at MRP helicoiled the holes and I was back in business the following weekend.

The second half of the season was rough.  One weekend when I fired my kart up, smoke bellowed out of the exhaust like crazy and wouldn't stop. T here's always a bit of smoke at startup but this was different.  One of the track workers told me the seal between the compartment housing the balance shaft gears and the combustion chamber had popped out.  Okay, engine off, take off side cover, fit seal back in, engine back on.  With help that took an hour or two. N ot too bad, good learning experience.  Fire kart up.  Just as much smoke.  Guy tells me the seal is probably shot.  Didn't swap it to begin with because they didn't have one onsite and it was an hour drive to Three Oaks, Michigan to get one.  Since it was Saturday and I there was a race the next day, I had no option but to go get it and do the whole process all over again.  Did no running at all that day.  On the bright side, I got to see the moving Vietnam Memorial in Three Oaks.

Next the kart performed flawlessly but my body didn't .  Turn 1 at MRP is a 90-degree left hander at the end of the main straight.  Most guys just barely lift before throwing the kart into it at 65 mph.  Very hard on the right side of the body. After one race weekend I had a very intense ache in the right side of my chest/abdomen.  Right at the bottom of the rib cage.  I couldn't sleep on that side for a few weeks but figured it would go away on its own.  A few weeks later I felt good and went back out.  Two laps in the kart and I was done.  Went straight home.  Just unbearable pain.  Rib pain (even broken ribs) are pretty common in karting.  I spoke with some people at the track and they had me sit in my kart while they checked how I fit in the seat.  I always thought the seat fit fine.  I guess not.  Just an inch or two of movement in each direction was too much.  In turn 1 I was supporting my entire upper body by tensing that part of my chest against the (unpadded) top of the seat.  I immediately ordered a $300 Ribtect carbon fiber seat that I was told would fit me like a glove.  Not only is it slightly smaller than the seat that came with my kart, it goes higher up the chest and wraps around the ribs.  The only way to sit in it is to slide in sideways.  Can't just sit back.

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After getting some X-Rays (all good) and sitting out another month, I went back.  The difference with the seat was night and day. No more pain!  If anyone is reading this and considering getting a kart, make sure you have the right size seat.  Highly recommend the Ribtect seat.  [and a rib protector.  I broke a rib karting]

The last race of the season, my kart wouldn't fire up at all.  I tried all the usual things and nothing helped.  Bought a new fuel filter and replaced it.  Someone suggested my carb was probably clogged up and needed a thorough cleaning.  I tried someone else's carb and that did the trick.  The weird thing is, when I took the carb completely apart after to clean it, I couldn't find any obvious clogs.  Everything looked clean.  But if I didn't have a friend's spare carb to try, my day would have been shot. T hat's what I mean about these motors being delicate.  Reliability-wise they're great.  I still haven't rebuilt it since I got it.  But little things like a dirty carb or shot seal can ruin your day in a hurry.

It's hard not to be a little bitter when you drive a hundred miles just to find that your kart won't start for one reason or another.  But at the end of the day, when I'm in the kart, it is still a total blast. It still makes the Evo feel slow. T his year I mounted my GoPro on top of the radiator instead of on my helmet and you get a much better sensation of the speed and how quickly everything happens.  That is until the radiator melted the glue and my GoPro took a tumble .  I don't know how much racing my budget will allow for this year but I definitely want to keep doing it.

This is my favorite video so far.  It starts on the straight and the first turn is Turn 1.  You can see really see the speed.  You can also see the oversteer I've been describing.  Big big slide in Turn 1.  Feels cool, looks even cooler, but it's slow.  The guy I catch at the 1 minute mark and spend the next 2 minutes chasing is in the Rotax Junior Max class.  They have slightly less power than we do but weigh less.  Times are pretty similar.

 

 

And here is one of the final races of the year.  You can see the rolling start and how tight it is at the beginning.  I like to think I didn't do too bad at first but everyone is losing time fighting each other.  They slowly pull away then.  f you skip to the very end you can see the GoPro moving around right before it falls off.

 

 

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Thanks again to Blitz for letting us reprint his karting write-up here.  Great job capturing the nitty gritty details of karting.  I hope this gives you an idea of the possibilities for augmenting your track day participation with some karting on the side.  Just don’t abandon your car.

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