“Drives like a go-kart”. Is there a more time-worn, hackneyed cliche in automotive journalism? Although this phrase is meant to heap praise on a lightweight, nimble vehicle that offers superlative handling, I can’t think of a more damning insult to saddle a modern road car with than to liken it to a proper kart.
See, road cars have a few things that karts don’t. Suspensions, for one. Brilliantly engineered dampers and springs and control arms and bumpstops, all designed to help isolate you from frost heaves and speed bumps, while also helping the car corner in a specific manner. Karts have suspensions, but they happen to use things like your tail bone. Ever hit a bump at 40 mph and have the impact travel from your butt to your spine? Any curiosity I had about Max Mosley’s peccadilloes in a Knightsbridge basement were put to rest at that moment. The only 50 Shades of Grey I’m interested in now are the sweaters in my dresser drawer.
I’d have never even gotten the opportunity to experience a bit of four-wheeled S&M if it weren’t for Mosport International Karting‘s arrive-and-drive series. This time last year, I decided to enroll on the advice of a friend who used it to help keep his skills sharp during his absence from racing real cars. It was cheap, a good way to enhance my skills behind the wheel and helped take my mind off a broken heart without resorting to drugs or alcohol. My area is home to a number of these series, but I chose Mosport because its proximity, and the historic nature of the track. All in, a season of arrive and drive karting costs around $1500 for the entry fees and equipment (helmet, suit, shoes, gloves). The fuel, tires and maintenance of the karts are all taken care of. To go any faster, one would have to spend thousands more on a chassis and Rotax engine, plus the cost of consumables and an engine rebuild or two.
To be clear, we don’t actually race on “the big track” or the Driver Development Track”. Mosport has its own karting circuit, with multiple configurations, long straightaways, big elevation changes and banked turns that are apparently too severe to allow for the track to be FIA certified. Mosport is now owned by a syndicate that renamed the place “Canadian Tire Motorsports Park”, but the karting series, run by a Mom-and-Pop outfit (they are a husband and wife team) still feels decidedly old school. In a world of overly permissive parents (many of whom bring their kids karting) and fuzzy rules for social conduct, discipline is the defining theme here. Everyone, from the 6 year old rookie to the 25 year karting veteran, is given the chance to go fast, so long as the safety of other participants is respected.
Of course, fast is a relative term. The 125cc four-stroke karts are nowhere near as fast as, say, a 2-stroke shifter kart that real badass racers get to pilot around, but they also make the quickest indoor karts feel like a Geo Metro with a missing spark plug. Top speed is rumored to be around 55 mph – in a “go-kart” like Mini Cooper, for instance, this would be considered a dreadful speed to wheeze along at on the freeway, as one is passed by irate drivers of big-boy-size autos.
In a kart, 55 mph is a transcendent experience, life-altering experience, like the first hit of a psychedelic drug. The 125cc Honda motor takes its time to spool up (of course, it could be my 180 lb lard-ass as well) but once you’re going, you have no choice but to look up – way up, as any track day instructor has told you countless times – and try and cope with the scenery that seems to be constantly flying at your face. Did I mention that the bumpers, restraints, padded seats and steering wheels are all absent? Amusement parks karts they ain’t.
Economy of motion is the name of the game here; only the finest hand motions are required to change direction, and overzealous braking is rewarded by a phenomenon you won’t find in any road car; brakes that actively try and kill you. If you’re too abrupt with the binders, the back end locks up and sends you in a lurid spin, like something out of Mario Kart. There’s no better lesson about squeezing on and off the brake than getting pitched into the grass after an enthusiastic application of the single, axle-mounted stopper and watching whatever ground you built up evaporate in mere seconds.
The kart comes alive in the most challenging sections of Mosport; flat through the rolling hill and then into the banked “bowl”, feeling the it stick to the turn like a rodent in a glue trap. Going two-wide into a 180 degree left-hander, looking for the crack in the pavement that denotes your brake point, and being just a bit sloppy with it, making the back end come around more than necessary. Nailing the last tire, using the leftover rubber on the inside to get that perfect exit and then being blown away on the straight by someone weighing 50 lbs less. Even in defeat, it is a joyful experience.