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You think of go karts as something you did once the arcade quarters ran out. But there has been a whole professional racing side that operates like a mini-NASCAR for Dale Earnhart Jr. juniors. So while it’s fine to meander around the track, spin out, hitting a few rubber tires, and call it a day, wouldn’t you rather race? It’s how Juan Pablo Montoya, a veteran of the IndyCar, Formula One, and NASCAR circuits, started out in Colombia. Now, he’s passing the torch by coaching his son in competitive go-kart racing. Montoya says that whether you’re on a pro track or at the “family fun center”, your kid can still learn the basics of how to grab the checkered flag. (Because you’re the weirdo that brought their own checkered flag.)
As far as Montoya is concerned, safety is a virtual non-issue. Sure, that’s coming from a guy who spends his weekends cruising inches from a concrete wall at 130 MPH without an airbag, but he’s correct. Karts are low-slung, and their perimeters are essentially steel cages; with a helmet and secure harness there is little that can hurt a driver. And because the vehicles are built with low centers of gravity, rolling is almost impossible. “I think all the go-karts are about the same, they’re all pretty safe, to be honest,” says Montoya. “They have accidents and things, but 99.9 percent of the time the kids just walk away. That’s just part of karting.”
Choose The Right Car
You can turn around and go home if you think that the go-kart place maintains their vehicles and tracks like a truck stop in Kabul. But if you’re at a reputable place (K1 Racing and Pole Position tracks from coast to coast), the odds of winning are all about choosing the right car. “It’s easy,” says Montoya. “if you want the best, go and see who’s winning [previous races].” Make a mental note of that mean machine and send your kid on a bee-line to that kart when the previous race ends.
“I’ll try to screw him over; 100 times over. Push him off the racetrack, run him wide, block him – do everything to beat him so he starts figuring out how not to get beat.”
Rubbing Is Racing
Montoya says not only do kids have to put miles on the kart, but they should do it with you riding by their side. Or, more appropriately, running them off the road. “[My son and I] go and run together, and I’ll try to screw him over; 100 times over. Push him off the racetrack, run him wide, block him – do everything to beat him so he starts figuring out how not to get beat. So when it comes down to it he’ll know how to react. He’ll know how to protect, and he’ll know how to make the move that is going to get him there,” says Montoya. Of course, being that aggressive may get you a caution flag (mostly from your wife), but you can find the less aggressive version that won’t get you thrown out of the building.
Some Rules Of The Road
Like all good race car drivers, there’s a checklist of things your kid should do before they hit the track:
- Study the Course: They shouldn’t just jump in the kart and go. Take a minute to watch a race. If it is not a flat oval, study the various turns to find the racing line. See where the track rises and falls and note where racers are spinning out or overtaking each other. Even if it is a flat oval, watch for signs of slickness or debris that are causing other drivers trouble.
- Proper Seating: Once in the kart, have them sit up straight and hold the steering wheel with arms slightly bent. That way they can apply pressure evenly on the steering wheel.
- How to Turn: The simple idea is: Brake in, gas out. Start turns on the inside of the track, and take your foot off the gas going into the turn. Coming out of the turn, accelerate and let the momentum take you back outside.
- Maintain Momentum: In the movies a driver who falls behind can just drive faster to catch up. Montoya says that is BS. (Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, Tom Cruise.) It may seem counterintuitive, but the best way to go fast is actually not to smash the pedal to the floor for the entire race. You’ll likely you’ll spin out, and nothing kills momentum more than spinning out. Instead, work the throttle, even if you feel like you’re not going as fast as possible.
The Proper Way To Pass On The Inside
The best place to pass is in a turn. Have your kid stay right behind you on a turn. When they see daylight at the bottom of the turn, have them head to the inside. When you take that turn too wide (aw, shucks), they can sneak right under. It’s also key they brake as little as possible and accelerate quickly coming out of the turn.
How to Pass (And Probably Get Kicked Out)
This will likely get you ejected from the premises —but hey, it’s also what the pros do. Pass by bumping the car in front on the left rear fender as you move inside on a turn. When done properly that will send them out of the turn and likely into the wall. Karting is pretty safe, so there’s very little risk anyone gets hurt here. Although the guy you spun out may key your car in the parking lot later. Just quote Montoya to them, who says “If they’re not spinning they’re not trying.”