Go-kart, or kart, as it's shortened today-the name probably brings back memories of your youth. It was most likely a crude, homemade yard vehicle that you and your siblings had a ball racing in the backyard. That was then; this is now.

You may have never had thoughts of racing this rude vehicle in a controlled environment, but today, it's an entirely different situation. The sport has matured into a professionally run, worldwide deal that serves as an initial learning ground for many past, present, and future professional race car drivers.

The sport is run on both dirt and pavement, with a variety of track configurations. And it's not just for boys anymore, as up to 10 percent of the drivers are now girls.

But as kart racing official Tony Barton explains, "Many that race the karts are out here for one big reason-to have fun and experience the thrill of competition. And they can do it for a long time as there is no age limit. The youngest drivers allowed have to be five years old, and we have one driver who is 75 years old!"

But if professional competition is your bag, you have to be impressed with the prestigious kart alumni list of drivers whose racing skills were honed by karting when they were young. Included are the likes of most Formula 1 drivers, along with NASCAR drivers Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Jeff and Ward Burton, Jamie McMurray, John Wood, and Brian Vickers, among others. In the IRL, there are both Sam Hornish Jr. and Sarah Fisher.

One of the huge advantages of Kart racing in the 2000s is its great versatility. Cars from a number of different classes run on both dirt and pavement, on several different sizes of ovals, along with the road courses at tracks like Daytona, Mid-Ohio, and other national tracks.

This is exciting racing at the top levels, with the drivers residing in the cars in a lying-down position, just like an Indy Car. The speeds are in the 100-plus-mph category. Imagine the thrill of moving at that speed with your body about an inch off the ground.

Don't get the idea that you can jump immediately into such a kart. You start at the beginning and move up through the ranks as your skills improve.

There are two major karting organizations, and they don't normally compete against each other. The World Karting Association (WKA) basically controls racing in the eastern United States, while the International Karting Federation (IKF) oversees Kart racing in the western part of this country.

A majority of the time, the groups, which are comprised mostly of volunteers, don't run big races against each other. There are an estimated 75,000 Karters in the United States alone. The rules of the WKA and IKF are similar, allowing drivers to compete with both groups. The groups sponsor both state, regional, and national competitions. But there is also a large amount of unsanctioned competition at hundreds of kart tracks in both the United States and Canada. Karting is an international motorsport, with heavy activity in Australia and Europe. To find your nearest kart track, just type your state along with "Kart Tracks" on your computer browser.

The teams that race karts come in all sizes and shapes, but for the most part, there is one similarity between them. This is a family sport of the first order. It's not surprising to see two or three generations involved in a team, including mom, dad, brothers and sisters, and even grandma and grandpa rolling into the race site. No paid crewmembers here-dad is usually the crewchief, and everybody helps out.

It's amazing how much responsibility child drivers can learn from the sport. For example, many are involved in setup of the kart. And, since mom and dad usually foot the bills, they often require their children to maintain a high level of performance in the classroom in order to continue competing. That certainly gets these young drivers' attention.

The mode of transportation for the teams is also varied, from the back of a pickup truck to a NASCAR-type hauler.