Karts Get Some Respect

Stephan Wilkinson ’58, automotive editor at Popular Science, is said to be a longtime expert on the way men entertain themselves when no one is telling them what to do. In Man and Machine (Lyons Press, $16.95, paper) he goes on entertainingly and informatively about such matters as restored B-17s, Formula 1 cars, mega-yachts, ambulances customized by the Amish, and go-karts.

So I spend my life playing with fast cars, and the first time I’m on a track with my 23-year-old daughter [Brook ’01]—the blonde backpacker with the Ivy League sociology degree—she blows me into the bulrushes. Almost literally: The downhill chicane [a series of tight turns] leading onto the main straight at Oakland Valley threatens to launch you right over the rumble strip into a cattail-bordered pond if you don’t get the kart rotated and the power down early.

That’s right, go-karts. Those things that Americans think of as Cushman-engine amusement-park rides, but that Europeans and South Americans employ to turn teenagers into the world’s finest open-wheel racecar drivers. (Every Formula 1 driver of any consequence has been a national or international kart champion.) Brook and I had entered a four-hour kart endurance race at Oakland Valley Race Park, near Port Jervis, New York, in that bosky corner of the state where Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York meet. I came home wishing I’d discovered karts 50 years ago. Never have I learned as much about car control in as short a time.

Wilkinson with a modified 1983 Porsche 911SC, the big racecar that he and his daughter, Brook, share
Photograph courtesy of Stephan Wilkinson

Karts look ridiculous, with their wheelbarrow tires, primitive frames, lawnmower engines, and sitting-in-a-hole seating position, but don’t be fooled. &The combination somehow replicates all of the dynamics of a true mid-engine racecar except the sheer acceleration and speed, though the fastest laydown shifter karts can do 140.

You’re going to laugh, but the racecar that I’m rhapsodizing about was powered by a nine-horsepower, four-stroke, box-stock Honda industrial engine, had a single hydraulic disc brake on the rear axle, and topped out at all of 40 mph. But it’s like going 80 in a small speedboat. Unless you’ve been there, you can’t understand how different the sensation of speed is when your buns are two inches off the asphalt and the track is tight enough that only near the end of the main straight does the kart top out.

Karts respond almost exactly as a pure racecar does to threshold and trail braking, to clumsy steering inputs, and asking the tires to do too much, to left-foot braking, to throttle steer, and maintaining the car’s balance. One of the things they’ll teach most effectively is that a vehicle balanced, pointed, and under firm power is a lot more controllable and predictable than is one being driven cautiously, tentatively, and fearfully. And it’s a hell of a lot faster.…

I was embarrassed to see Brook’s “team fastest lap” notation every time I checked the big video monitor that tracked the race positions in the Oakland Valley Race Park clubhouse—and it kept decreasing by hundredths and tenths—yet at the same time I couldn’t have been more proud as I watched her wail past in her tiny racecar, lap after lap.…

In a country where size matters, low-horsepower karts have never gotten the respect they deserve as competition machinery. Which is a shame, since it’s the cheapest, simplest, safest, and most effective way on the planet to go racing.

You might also like

John Manning Appointed Interim Provost

Harvard Law School dean moves to central administration

Facebook’s Failures

Author and tech journalist Jeff Horwitz speaks at Harvard.

Kevin Young Named 2024 Harvard Arts Medalist

Museum director and poet to be honored April 24

Most popular

An Orphaned Sewing Machine

The multifaceted global and interdisciplinary impact of a useful object

Harvard Discloses Top Earners

The annual report details administrators’ and endowment investment managers’ compensation.

Photograph of Humsa Venkatesh in her lab

The Brain-Cancer Link

Growth-stimulating crosstalk between the brain and cancer tumors presents a new target for therapy.

More to explore

Michael Hill in a Marlins quarter zip

Leading with Care

Michael Hill strikes the right balance.

illustration of robotic hands manipulating a wooden maze to guide a worm in the maze to a target

Computational Control of a Living Brain?

How an AI agent learned to guide an animal to food—and what it might mean for Parkinson’s patients.

Naomi Bashkansky sits on a table with a chess board behind her.

Strategic Planning

A chess player’s moves on AI safety