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.

Kart Governing

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 Family Racing Team

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.

The Kart Classes

The type of karts run by both IKF and WKA are similar and have a number of different classes. No matter what the class, there are two basic types of race karts in the beginning Junior classes.

First, there are the Sprint and Champ Karts, which run mostly on small dirt ovals. The driver sits in the upright position in both styles. The lower-slung Sprint Karts have the driver sitting low in the cars with the engine sitting immediately on their left side. The fiberglass body is clean and quick.

The Champ Karts, a more recent addition, are the only karts that look like a real full-sized racer and are often confused with Quarter Midgets. In this case, the Champ Kart body carries the downsized look of a nonwinged Sprint car or Midget.

The Sprint Kart also appears in the advanced classes on road courses, along with the super-quick, low-slung Enduro Karts. The Sprint Karts are similar in appearance to the short-track versions, but the Enduro Karts are a different beast. Aerodynamically clean, the driver drives from a lying-backward position with his head just barely visible, in the style of Indy and Formula 1 race cars.

Needless to say, it takes a while to get to the speedy Enduros, which are capable of over 100 mph on the superspeedways. It's thrilling, but it's also dangerous racing.

Imagine running at those speeds with your body about an inch off the track with a cat-quick machine at your command. Those road races usually last an hour as opposed to running a particular distance.

Modern Parts and Pieces

The Karts of the 2000s are precise racing machines far removed from the days when many were homemade. The frames are built of chrome-moly steel, and the body of the car is made of fiberglass. The high-tech braking system uses a set of rear disc brakes, and there's a super-quick, straight-steering system.

With the Sprint Karts, the bodywork is low to the ground with the driver's upper torso in the breeze. The engine sits directly to the driver's right side with the driver on the left side of the car. The Champ Karts look entirely different. As noted before, these are full-body machines with the look of modern Sprint cars. But unlike the Sprint Kart, the Champ Kart has a complete rollcage.

There is also a major difference between these cars and the same-size Quarter Midgets we discussed last month in "Get on Track!" Karts surprisingly have no suspension--no springs, no shocks, nothing. Barton explains that this chassis arrangement is a great learning tool for a driver. "It requires him to adjust the car by tire stagger, rear axle, and spindle adjustment, moving weight around, and wheel caster and camber," he notes.

The rules have weight limits for the karts, which include the driver. For the beginner classes, the weights range from 250 to 435 pounds, with horsepower varying from 10-18. For the advanced road race machines, which sometimes carry two engines, the weight limit increases appropriately.

Safety is not neglected in this form of racing. Gloves, approved helmets, and jackets are required, although many drivers wear complete racing uniforms. In addition, with the caged Champ Karts, approved seatbelts are required, along with arm restraints.

Karting has progressed from crude homemade contraptions to modern specialized racing machinery. It is an excellent racing vehicle for the beginner because it teaches car control and develops driver "feel." Plus it's a pure sensory blast to zip along a track with your body almost on the tarmac.

World Karting Association (WKA)
6051 Victory Lane
NC  28027
International Kart Federation (IKF)
1609 S. Grove Ave.
CA  91761
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