Where to get started? Simply put: Karting. It checks all the boxes and lays the foundation that world-class drivers use every time they step in a racing car while surrounded by cameras. Plus, it’s good, clean fun.
Karting’s first major appeal is that it’s relatively affordable, and that karts are designed for kids. The youngest, freshest tykes can get their bum in a seat for a few bucks. Drivers who get their start early in karting seem to have an edge over their competitors in the racecraft department, since it’s cheaper to have an accident, and since children absorb information like sponges, they seem to have a sixth sense for positioning their kart a few inches away from a rival’s.
The ideas of conserving momentum, taking the right racing lines, braking at the limit and studying your opponent’s lap to find weaknesses all are taught in the School of Karting. All the basic techniques cross over into the world of full-sized cars, though there are a few subtle variations since a kart is exceptionally light, lacks suspension and is on three wheels most of the time.
Karts weigh a couple hundred pounds and offer immediate, unparalleled response and good power. In fact, their response is almost too much at times; the kart can be so sensitive to inputs that it’s very easy to slide. With some of the less powerful engines, a big cross-up means lost momentum that is very difficult to regain, so keeping the inputs economical, precise and measured is a must. It’s from this that many top drivers develop their butter-smooth style and sensitivity to their vehicles’ behavior.
However, that response comes at a price. Because karts have no suspension, they take virtually no time to transfer load, which transfers through your body. Aside from that being quite hard on your ribs, which are usually beaten by the form-sitting fiberglass seats, it is somewhat different from driving a full-sized car. Even a lightweight car has some suspension movement and more weight, and therefore it takes more time to transfer load.
Also, because karts don’t have a differential at the rear, they use a lot of caster and Ackerman angle to help the kart tripod into the corner. This helps it turn in, but means the handling behavior is a little different than that of a car. Therefore it takes some time to learn the nuances of a heavier car and change technique to suit it.
As a result of all this, the driver who makes a shift into full-sized cars needs to learn to react to the suspension compressing, the tire’s contact patch increase, and the weight of the car moving underneath them to get the most out of a car. It simply won’t react as quickly as a kart. This is why some young guns tend to overdrive the car or be very timid at their first; they aren’t communicating with the entirety of the car.
Karting is the only way to make a career in road racing these days. It’s not like some people like to believe, either. Unless you’re looking to go to the World Finals, it doesn’t take a rich benefactor or a huge corporate endowment to go anywhere on a used, four-stroke kart that will hit 70 mph. For the familiarity with the limit of grip, the comfort with another driver inches away from you, the timing of a pass and the unparalleled sense of fun, there’s nothing comparable.
On a parting note: Parents, while it’s great to get your kids into karts early, don’t push them too hard. The proverbial Little League Father is everywhere in karting, and it’s possible to burn your kid out before they’ve entered high school. Make sure they have fun, and then they’ll have the incentive to push forward with an incredible foundation.