TTAC Goes Karting, And So Should You!
One of the great secrets of TTAC is how little we, the writers, know each other.
I have met our fearless leader, Mark Stevenson, exactly once. I have met Sajeev exactly once — and he was wearing a judge’s robe and a headdress. I have met Murilee exactly once, and he was berating me for driving over the blend line at Carolina Motorsports Park. I’ve met Steve Lang once, and I was mostly drunk. I’ve never met Cameron, or Aaron, or Ronnie, or Tim, or several of the other contributors.
So when the opportunity arose to go karting with noted wheelman and TTAC author W. Christian “Mental” Ward this week in Atlanta, I eagerly accepted.
Mental and I are scheduled to drive together at Gingerman Raceway in the American Endurance Racing series later this month, so I was interested to check out his mad racing skills. Also along for the evening was TTAC contributor and noted Porsche Club of America member, J. David Walton.
We met at my home-away-from-home, Le Meridien, for a drink (or two, or perhaps three) before heading over to Andretti Karting in Alpharetta. When we arrived, we were told that we would have to wait a little over an hour to drive, at which point I pulled the “DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM? I’M BARK M., DAMNIT!” card. Surprisingly, it worked — we were inserted into the very next race.
I won’t go into too much detail about the three races in which we participated, other than to say I dominated all.
Karting can be an awesome way to have some competitive, adrenaline-packed fun with friends on a Tuesday night, for sure. It can also teach you a little bit about your own racecraft in a real car. Let’s take a moment to talk about what a night at the local rent-a-cart facility can teach you about real-life track driving, and what it can’t.
You can learn how to drive “the line.” Most karting tracks have a track map posted on the wall with an ideal racing line drawn on them. Some will even have braking and passing zones identified. This is not unlike most actual racetracks, which have course maps with lines as well. Following the line will likely result in a safe, fast(-ish) lap — it may not be the best line, but it’s a good one. However…
Karts don’t turn like racecars. You can dive into turns much harder with your average kart than you can with the average Lemons/Chump race car. If you turn too hard with a kart, the worst thing that will happen is that you’ll tap a wall; I probably rubbed the inside wheel of my kart on nearly every wall in every turn. Most of the time I made up on my competitors was by taking turns extra tight and shortening my distance in each corner. Do that in a car, you might put two wheels off and hit a real wall.
You can learn how to induce and control oversteer. One of the most entertaining moments of any karting session is feeling the back of the kart come around on you as you enter a corner. This normally happens when you’ve entered a corner too hot and applied too much braking while turning. Guess what? That happens in a real car, too! Most people freak out when they encounter oversteer, and they make one of two mistakes: they either dial in more steering or they brake harder. Doing either or both of those things will cause your kart to spin in the middle of the turn, and you’ll have to sit there and wait for an eighteen-year-old to get off of Snapchat and come help you. Think of how many times during the average eight-minute karting session that you’ll see a kart facing the wrong way on track. Oversteer is almost always the cause. Making small, precise movements with your hands and using smooth application of the throttle will keep you going straight. However…
Real cars are more likely to understeer. You’ll almost never see somebody straight-line a kart into a wall. Meanwhile, with the notable exception of the AP1 Honda S2000, the vast majority of mass production cars are geometrically designed to understeer. Think about it: If you are sitting in a courtroom as a juror, and the plaintiff says, “The car spun out of control,” who are you more likely to blame? The OEM or the driver? The OEM loses that argument every time. So, by the time you’ve induced oversteer in your average production car, you’re already traveling at a pretty high rate of speed. Your brain is going to go into fight-or-flight mode, and you’ll want to make big, fast movements, which is exactly the opposite of what you’ll need to do to save yourself from a big body shop bill, whether that be the body of the car or your own. Practicing this at slower speeds with less potential damage in a kart will definitely help, but there ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby.
Passing, Passing, Passing. Passing people on the kart track is one of the most enjoyable things you can do for $25. Tracking down the kart ahead of you for two or three laps, setting them up, and then making your move in the turn — it’s a blast. Also, unless you’re karting with a group of people who really know what they’re doing, you’ll have to deal with off-pace traffic which drives completely unpredictable lines — not unlike driving in Lemons or Chump. Unfortunately…
You can’t bump and spin real cars like that. Many of my karting passes the other night occurred because I got so frustrated with the kart in front of me that I used the PIT maneuver on them in turns. Again, your typical eighteen-year-old karting track employee won’t really mind that so much. Race officials? They aren’t fans of it. Prepare to be black flagged. If you want to pass in real racing, you’ll need to learn to go offline and pass them.
So, while not everything may translate from the kart to the cage, you’ll still have a blast learning the things that do. And if any of you have a great karting track close by, hit me at @barkm302 on Twitter and let me know and we’ll go karting next time I’m in town.
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