Karting is probably the world's most popular form of motor sport. It is practiced around the world by hundreds of thousands of enthusiasts at widely differing levels of competition.
For many, it is simply a wonderful way of enjoying competitive racing on a small and manageable budget, meeting friends at the track on the weekend and just having a lot of fun. For others, it is a serious stepping stone into a career of racing, maybe leading all the way up to Formula 1. Karting is definitely recognized as the first and most important step in order to become a professional race car driver. Even though a kart differs from a car, all the racing techniques, the awareness of the way the vehicle handles, the discipline, and instincts needed to become a professional racer are developed with karting. It is therefore no surprise that most of today's top Formula 1 or CART racers have started their racing careers with karting.
To make racing a profession, you probably want to start with karting as a young teenager and stay with it for several years, having success in national and international competition, before moving on to car racing. This would be a wise choice, since for the same budget, you will be able to experience much more competition and seat time in karting than anywhere else. For most of us, however, karting is simply the best way to spend an afternoon, be competitive, have fun and a great thrill, all at the same time.
1.2. Uh… so, what is the difference between a go-kart and a kart?
Same difference. In fact, most people will consider both to mean the same. Others make a distinction that a 'kart' is the serious racing vehicle, while a 'go-kart' is a fun-machine, a toy of sorts. It can be argued either way, but most commonly, the serious racer will refer to his or her vehicle only as 'kart'.
1.3. Where can I learn about karting before I get into it?
This site, Ekartingnews.com, is a great place to start. Not only does it have a New to Karting section, it also boast several forums, on which enthusiastic karters are discussing their hobby, sport, and passion. They are always more than happy to accommodate beginners and whatever questions they may have.
Another great source of information are karting shops in your area.
It is probably best to visit several kart tracks and races before you invest any money into any equipment. Watch the races, check out the many classes of karting, chat to the people at the track. If you want to actually drive a kart and learn the basics of racing, a karting school might be a great choice. There are quite a few, and the kart-shops should be able to tell you where to find them, or you may just look for them on the Internet.
1.4. If I really want to work on my racing career, why not just start with car-racing?
Well, as we said: You can start learning almost all you need to know about racing through karting. Michael Schumacher once said that all he ever learned about racing, he learned while driving a kart! Ayrton Senna said that karting is the purest form of motor racing. We can assume that these two probably knew what they were talking about.
The beauty of karting is the simplicity of the vehicle. You don't need a big pit crew, in fact, you can go karting all by yourself. You don't need an expensive transporter, since a kart can fit in the back of a van or a pickup-truck. Some people even just tie it on the roof of their sedans, or cram it into a hatch-back. You don't need a whole lot of tools either, and if you are skilled enough, almost all of the maintenance can be done by yourself. Only the most complex maintenance item, engine rebuilding, is usually done by specialized engine builders.
If you compare the costs of the season in karting with the cost of going racing in an open-wheel car, for example Formula Ford, or one of the school series races, you will find that often the cost of a single car race weekend would pay for an entire season in karting! Now consider that you can just take your kart to the track whenever you feel like it, and you will see that there is no other form of motor racing which will give you as much seat time for the same, low amount of money.
1.5. Which kind of kart should I get as a beginner?
We have an article here which explains the different types of karts and classes. It should give you a good idea on what's out there and how you might choose the right one for yourself.
Kart races are typically organized by kart clubs, which either have access to race tracks, or actually operate their own track. The racing itself is regulated by rules and specifications laid out by governing or sanctioning bodies.
Depends. For most club racing, no special license is required. But for most international events, and even club racing in some countries, a license is indeed necessary. Ask the race organizers of the clubs or events you intend to race at.
1.8. Do I need a health certification to be allowed to go racing?
Usually not, at least for most club racing, but again, it does not hurt to ask the race organizers. In order to get a license, if needed, you may have to show a health attestation.
1.9. How old do I have to be for karting?
Many karting organizations or clubs offer special junior or kid classes, which may allow you to race at even a very young age. Supposedly there once was a three year old boy somewhere in Brazil who raced karts competitively, but that certainly is a very extreme case. It is more common to find young teenagers or even some kids younger than ten racing karts. Usually, all the 'adult' classes are open for everyone 16 or older.
1.10. I'm somewhat heavy set. Will I have a disadvantage compared to a light driver?
Weight does have a great impact on the speed of acceleration on a kart. However, to level the playing field, a minimum weight (combined driver and kart) is set for each class. Therefore, a light driver has to attach weights to the kart, usually lead weight, in order to bring the combined weight up to the limit. Also, there are often different weight classes offered. For example so called 'heavy' classes, which allow you to race against others in the same weight bracket.
2.1. Is karting not very dangerous?
Karting is actually a very safe form of motor racing. The vehicles are relatively light, and proper safety equipment usually prevents any serious injuries, which accordingly are very rare. Of course there is always a risk, as with everything you do. Considering how many people practice karting, however, the number of significant injuries is very low. It is also a family sport, with even kids participating safely. You are more likely to hurt yourself in the pits while working with a screwdriver than while racing the kart.
Nevertheless, most clubs will have either an actual ambulance on stand-by during a race, or at least have medically trained personnel present.
2.2. But I have seen that they don't even have seat belts! Isn't that very unsafe?
Actually, no! The safety principle of a kart is really more similar to that of a motorcycle than that of a car. Just like a motorcycle, karts usually don't have any roll-cages or seat-belts. In case of an accident, the driver is meant to be flung from the kart! That sounds horrible, but is actually much less dramatic than it sounds. The suit, helmet and other safety equipment that the driver wears is intended to be abrasion resistant, and thus is intended to prevent injuries in case the driver slides over the ground, which is also similar to a motorcycle racer. A car racer, which is strapped into the car, requires fire retardant clothing, since in case of an accident he or she might be engulfed in flames, which certainly sounds much more scary!
2.3. So, what kind of safety equipment is needed?
The most necessary piece of safety equipment is a good helmet. It is very important to find a good fitting helmet. It would be best to go to a store that specializes in helmets, and where the sales person actually knows how to test for good fit. A motorcycle helmet usually will do fine, since just as with motorcycles, no fire resistant materials are needed. Make sure that the helmet adheres to the latest Snell certifications, or any other standards that are mandated by the racing organizers. Ask! Good ventilation is also essential. A helmet is the last piece of equipment you would want to safe any money on. Get the best you can afford! Get a $100 helmet only if you think your head is not worth more than that! Reasonable helmets probably start in the $300 range, with the price range being entirely open ended, depending on weight (lighter is better, since it causes less fatigue), special ventilation features, anti-buffeting design and so on.
An abrasion resistant karting suit is needed. An overall is preferred, rather than separate pants and jacket, since the jacket can 'roll up' and expose some skin in case one slides over the asphalt at full speed. Sliding over the ground with exposed skin can lead to nasty cases of so called 'road rash'. A good suit can be had for some $200 to $500, or so. Prices are certainly open ended again.
Next, you will need gloves and shoes. You can get specialized karting gloves and boots, which also provide for a certain amount of abrasion resistance. However, since hands and feet most likely will not have heavy and prolonged contact to the road-surface in case of an accident, abrasion resistance is somewhat less important here. So, some people simply wear sneakers. However, sneakers tend to have relatively thick soles, which does not really give you enough feel. If you don't want to pay for purpose made karting shoes, give wrestling shoes a try! They look almost exactly as racing shoes, and will provide a good feel. The gloves should be made from thin leather or some other sturdy material. Some people simply wear their Mechanix gloves in a race. Shoes and gloves made for general purpose auto racing look pretty much exactly as those made for karting, but include fire-resistance features, usually in the form of Nomex material. Again, fire-resistance is not necessary for karting, so it is not required to spend the extra money that this may cost you.
Some karting organizations require you to wear a neck brace or neck support. This is a stiff foam ring, which you put around your neck and on top of which the bottom of the helmet loosely rests. If you should get flung out of the kart and land upside-down on the ground, it is intended to prevent the neck from twisting in unhealthy ways. It is an extremely (!) good idea to wear such a neck support, even if the race organizer should not mandate it.
Also usually not mandated, but very highly recommended, is a rib protector. These are stiff vests, often with special plastic plates or ribs worked into the material, which are worn under the karting suit. As the name implies, they are intended to prevent injuries to your ribs. Since you won't wear a seat-belt in the kart, your body can press against the side edges of the seat in every curve. Hitting a curb or being involved in a collision can cause a strong and sudden jolt, which can easily injure or even break a rib. Some karts can even generate such a high cornering force that just driving through a curve can generate enough force to break a rib, if you should rest against a relatively small point on the seat edge. For all these reasons, a good rib protector really is a must.
Depends on the kind of kart and the kind of track and the kind of gear ratio used. On short tracks with short straights, speeds of maybe 80 km/h (50 mp/h) can be reached even by restricted classes. On long, full-sized race tracks, more than twice that speed is possible. There are karting classes that are slower, and others that are significantly faster, such as Superkarts, which can have two engines. These are some very rough numbers indeed, and actual top-speed will depend on many, many factors, not the least of which being the driver.
3.2. How does a kart differ from a car?
The main differences are that a kart does not have a suspension and has a stiff rear axle. The stiff rear axle causes inside and outside rear wheels to always turn at the same speed. In curves, however, the inside wheel has to travel less distance and thus should rotate slower. In a rear-driven car, this is made possible via the differential. In a kart, however, the same rotational speed would result in the tires scrubbing, thereby slowing down the kart and also causing bad handling.
For that reason, a kart is designed to actually lift the inside rear tire off the ground in a curve, effectively making it a three-wheeled vehicle when cornering! This solves the scrubbing and handling problem one would otherwise experience.
The lifting of the inside rear is accomplished through chassis twist and a specially designed front-end geometry. In a car, the chassis is designed to be as stiff as possible, allowing the suspension to handle all weight transfer issues and keeping all wheels in contact with the ground. In a kart, the chassis is intended to flex, allowing the inside wheel to be lifted off the ground in a corner.
The flexing of the chassis is accomplished via utilization of the 'centrifugal force' which applies to the relatively high center of gravity of the kart, in effect 'tipping' it to the outside of the curve.
The front-end geometry of a kart is designed so that during a curve it tends to lower the inside front-wheel and raise the outside front-wheel. This contributes to the tipping motion of the kart chassis during a curve and thus is the second major contributor to the lifting of the inside rear-wheel.
4.1. Is there a different driving style for a kart than for a car?
Slightly. No matter if you drive a car or kart, smoothness is usually key to a fast drive. However, the turn-in into corners is typically taken more abruptly in a kart than in a car. The reason is that one wants to lift the inside rear in one swoop, and does not want it to drag, lift and drag some more while slowly turning in. This would reduce speed and upset the handling. Therefore, the turn-in should be swift, but smooth without jerking on the steering wheel.
Also, many karts only have a break on the rear axis. Thus, the braking can usually not be as heavy as in a car, which also has front-brakes.
4.2. I just got my first kart, so can I immediately start competing in racing?
Most clubs will not require you to show any experience, and thus would allow you to participate in a race, but...
It would be a good idea to practice first! In fact, a good advise is this: Find out what the usual pole-setting, fastest qualifying times are for your class at your track. Then practice, practice, practice until your lap times are consistently at least within one second of those fastest times. Only show up for a race when you have reached this speed. You will have more fun racing, you will be competitive and you will be less of a risk to other drivers.
4.3. Well then, how do I get faster?
Good question! If there would be one fool-proof recipe to become faster, everyone would be a world champion, right? Well, no, probably not... But seriously, mostly your speed will depend on your driving skills, and nothing trains these skills more than seat time. So go to the track and practice as much as you can. Make sure you understand the basics of racing (there are some good books available). Make sure you understand the track: Walk the track, watch others drive on the track. Practice consistency: Without focusing on kart setup and tuning (as a beginner you probably won't know what to change anyway), concentrate on driving the same lap-times consistently, while driving as fast as you can. Only then will you be able to see if a tuning change or a modified cornering technique made any difference! See if you can get some help from the kart shop or the previous owner of your kart in getting you on the right track with the chassis setup. Ask questions at the track. Ask questions in the Ekartingnews.com forums.