Behind the wheel… in a very uncomfortable, rigid go-kart

Up until I landed in the RSA, I had borne some prejudices about go-karts.

They are mostly driven by nine-year-olds, rarely crack 60 km/h, have no gears, and lack power assistance: no power steering, no brake boosters, no power windows (in fact, no windows at all), they use tiny tracks for their races, and their closest motoring equivalents are cane tractors, or Formula One cars.

Only crazy people would ever bother to race in them. That was until I found myself in one.

Inside

There is no distinct interior.

Outside

There is no distinct exterior either.

So now what?

You slide into position on top of the metallic skeleton of something that looks like a tea tray.

Your left foot is on the brake, which may or may not work (left-foot braking is hard to master, take it from me), and your right is on the throttle, which may or may not work.

The seat is metal, a mere three inches off the ground. You have a tiny, noisy single-cylinder “powerplant” underneath your right armpit (mid-engined layout. There is a rear-engined option where the mill is behind the seat), and this whole setup is suspended on slicks, which may sound fancy but they are ridiculously small.

It is a little difficult reviewing a racing machine, so instead what I am going to do is narrate how the whole go-kart experience went down.

During one warm autumn Monday afternoon two weeks ago, we took a break from driving Jaguar XJs in the Cape and switched to go-karts for a bit of good-natured fun and racing.

There were five of us journalists and two of our hosts, alongside three or four test drivers from Jaguar-Land Rover.

We were split into three groups of four drivers each, seeing that there were only four go-karts available, one of which was the track-mistress’ “Ferrari”, her pet machine, simply because it had a plastic bumper while the rest did not.

Each group had a turn at the track, members battling against each other for asphalt supremacy. After a brief orientation (during which time I discovered that I was the only one in that whole clique who had never driven a go-kart), our group was selected to go first. I was up against a fellow Kenyan and two South Africans.

The rules were simple: Do not operate both throttle and brakes simultaneously. Go hard, but have fun and enjoy yourself.

Respect the flags: a blue flag meant move over, you are being overtaken, a black-and-white striped flag was a warning, a black flag meant disqualification (also equal to two black-and-whites), the red flag meant the race had been stopped and of course the black-and-white chequered flag meant the race was over.

I was planning on forcing the blue flag on everybody else that day. Whether or not that happened you will discover in a moment.

The first lap was the warm-up lap, to warm the engine, tyres, and give drivers a feel of the machines. It was low-speed and non-competitive, followed by 10 screaming laps of hammer-and-tongs jousting and then one slow, non-competitive cool-down lap after the final flag.

Shower caps (I swear that is what they were) were distributed, over which helmets were donned. My helmet squeezed my face into a nasty scowl, giving me that mean and uncompromising race-driver look.

All the more perfect for the championship that I thought was headed my way. So, there we sat, helmets stewing our brains in that autumn afternoon sun, four abreast, as the track mistress walked from one kart to the next cranking the engines.

Sitting on the extreme right of the field meant that I was last out of the pits, my engine being started last. I took the opportunity to gripe a little about the floppy throttle pedal and the floppy brake pedal.

All I got was a curt “I know” from the track mistress before she flagged me off. Here goes. Now, you do not drive a go-kart, the go-kart drives you.

Sounds corny, yes, but that warm-up lap was a real revelation as I discovered that, unlike other machines which react to driver input, in go-karts the driver reacts to the input of a wilfully wayward, unpredictable, noisy, uncomfortable contraption that does its best to embarrass you in front of your peers.

Left foot braking is also extremely difficult, made more so by the unusual driving position. It feels like sitting in stirrups, ready for childbirth, with the knees splayed apart to make way for the saucer-size steering wheel and each foot on either side of the steering column.

Bathroom break

The warm up lap ended with me trailing the second-last driver (fellow Kenyan) by a clean 20 seconds.

On a track that size, there could only be one of two explanations: either I took a bathroom break halfway through the lap (unlikely) or my ineptitude behind the wheel of a racing machine is a lot worse than I initially thought (more likely).

The runoff area was good foresight on the designer’s part because it gave overambitious, understeering incompetents an extra half a second to mull over their mistake before smashing into the tyre wall.

This sharp bend led into the “main straight”, about 30 or 40 metres long (compare to the Nurburgring’s main straight, which is almost three kilometres in length), followed by a 90-degree left and then a series of hairpins and finally a sweeper back to the starting line.

The first three laps of the actual race saw me fall behind at an alarming rate, right up to the point where getting lapped by the leader (a hard-charging Jaguar test driver) was becoming less a possibility and more a probability.

I was not going to go down without a fight, so I opened the taps, put my foot down, and let it rip. It turns out that in karting the brakes are purely for stopping, not slowing down.

I found out that you are meant to drive a go-kart flat out, no partial throttle openings, and I also found out that the racing slicks offer insane levels of cornering grip, meaning you can turn at almost any speed.

This would all be fine had the steering not been set in concrete: turning the wheel requires full-arm movements, all the way from the shoulder, not the swift wrist-flicks that are seen in Formula One race footage. Racing karts is hard on the body.

My new driving tactics saw me close the gap within the next three laps, until I was tailgating my compatriot menacingly on the seventh lap.

That was when it happened: the blue flag went up. Move over Kenyan, for your fellow Kenyan wants to pass you.

Rules are rules, and exiting the first corner on the eighth lap, my colleague drove into the runoff area to let me by and I swept past my countryman to slide into third position. Hah!

The first overtake of the day, and it was done by me. Sadly, that was it; the rest of the field were driving like maniacs and come the tenth lap, I was still third. Not bad for a start.

The next set of races came up. This time round I was in the final heat, so I watched the first two incident-packed races with a sense of trepidation as people unleashed the latent Michael Schumachers in them.

Overtaking became more ambitious, tailgating more intense, drafting closer, powerslides more spectacular and there was one retirement: a Zimbabwean journalist understeered into the wall at turn three, sending tyres flying several feet into the air in a classic display of incompetence that drew raucous laughter from the rest of us once we established that the only injury he suffered was a bruised ego.

That was the only red flag of the day, as the race had to be restarted. Restarting a race means you start in formation, so there was a bit of drama as the second-placed driver tried to creep past the leader at the starting line before the flag went up.

Legs amputated

What made the accident all the more special was the fact that the Zimbabwean was driving the track mistress’ “Ferrari”.

We surmised that the plastic bumper probably saved him from having his legs amputated. He chose not to continue racing.

The last race of the day, and I was facing some veritable competition in the form of experienced kart drivers.

This time I was up first, and a hard truth made itself felt during the warm-up lap. While my original kart had floppy foot controls, the pedals on this other machine had no give whatsoever, and the result was I did the warm-up lap brakelessly and cruising on the puny torque available at tick-over (idle). I decided to carp again.

“The throttle and brake pedals are too stiff, ma’am, they are not moving at all”

“Push harder!” Then the flag went up. By the end of the first lap, the scope of my difficulties was obvious to everyone present.

The whole field was bunched up behind me (a dangerous thing in racing), and the other cars were weaving left and right looking for the smallest space to push past the time-wasting Sunday driver up front (me) and get on with real racing.

I got my first blue flag, so I drove into the run-off area to let them by and they all swept past. All three cars.

In less than two seconds I had lost pole position and was now dead last. Abashment does not come any worse than that.

It got progressively worse as the rest disappeared into the second bend, and by the time I got to it, I could not see anybody.

If this went on, I calculated, I would be lapped at the end of lap three, meaning by the time the race ended I would be three and one third laps down. This could not be happening.

Something had to be done, and that something was to floor the unyielding throttle pedal. This involved bracing my back against the seat while stretching my right foot to the maximum.

This caused my right butt-cheek to lift off the seat, meaning I did the rest of the race practically standing up, not sitting. On a bloody go-kart. But at least I got results.

The unusual driving position I adopted and my overzealous cornering speeds saw me reel in number three within the next two laps, and the blue flag went up again.

Move over. I was now up into third position. My lower back was numb, I had lost all feeling in my right thigh, my right foot was aching, my forearms felt like they were covered in angry wasps, the heat in my jacket was oppressive, as it was in my helmet, and the mandatory shower cap underneath it was sticking to my forehead while sweat dripped into my eyes.

I pushed on stoically. Long story short, I finished third. The leader was too good, even for my kamikaze antics, while the second placed driver I managed to catch up with, but as I prepared a spectacularly wrathful overtake the chequered flag went up.

Race over. Damn. One more lap, just one more, and I’d have had him.

Anatomy of a go-kart

Go-karts have got to be the most physically intense, pain-inducing pieces of automotive hardware that I have tried so far.

Their speed is low, but this is lost on the driver from the mechanical violence dispensed by the engine, which you have to share cabin space with.

The sense of speed is also warped by the cornering speeds: racing slicks mean plenty of grip so you can do an entire race without touching the brakes even once.

Be careful about exploring the outer reaches of the performance envelope, though: push it hard enough and the tyres will let go, and they don’t slide progressively like in road cars, they simple snap; one minute you are going through a corner like Alonso, and the next you are pirouetting in a bizarre ballerina-dance wondering what the hell went wrong. Catching a tail-slide in a go-kart requires real presence of mind.

Try not to eat too heavily before racing in a kart. The sideways grip generates some g’s that really make you ill at ease.

I had stuffed myself full of half-cooked fish and half a gallon of fruit juice (unknowingly) before racing, and having that mix sloshing around in your stomach as you try your best not to get overtaken is an experience that you do not want to go through.

The whole affair was horrible. I felt battered, abused, violated, and humiliated in the last race when everybody overtook me. Karts are horrid, hateful things.

I hated them so much that I am going to race them again, over and over, on a regular basis. Try kart racing before you die. It is fun.

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