A Dad’s Guide to Karting
My first taste of racing came when my Dad took me to a Can-Am race in about 1969 to Edmonton International Raceway. This was during the period when McLaren was dominating this iconic series. I remember that Denny Hulme won with Bruce McLaren finishing right behind him in second, with Jackie Ickx a distant third.
From that day forward, I knew that I was going to be a racing driver.
Move forward 7 years (1976) and I was back at EIR competing in my first go-kart event. My Dad and I bought an Emmick Lightning chassis with a McCullough motor. It was a sprint kart. However, the race that we entered was a one-hour enduro running in the old lay down enduro karts.
My First Race
Two things stand out in my mind in my first race. First of all, I was nervous, really nervous. A week earlier my pre race testing amounted to about 10 minutes of driving on an airport runway, just toodling around, to feel what driving a kart is like (I had never driven anything before) so this was kind of a big step, running my first race on the same track that my heroes from Can-Am raced on a few years earlier. The fellow helping us out that day commented to my Dad that I must have gone to pee about 5 times before the race.
The second thing I remember was at the post race scaling. My kart was underweight so I was going to be disqualified. Someone suggested that we weigh the kart standing it up on one end (they were using one of those scales like what you find in a doctor’s office – just a little larger). When we did this the person operating the scale could not see behind the kart and apparently someone’s foot appeared behind me and added the additional ballast that we needed to make minimum weight.
25 years on (2001) and I was starting my last race. It was with my own team running in the Pan-American Indy Lights series. We used the old Indy Lights chassis that was phased out of use a few years earlier in the US, and refitted with Chevy 350 V8’s. The power to weight ratio was similar to the Can-Am cars that I was watching as a boy in Edmonton and the performance was mind-blowing. The drivers and team championship was on the line for me. Before the race started I recall going to pee about 5 times… In the end, we won the race, and along with it both the team and drivers championship. I announced my retirement on the podium.
Father and Son Racing Moments
Now, 2015 and I was on the other side of the pit-wall. My nine-year-old son was starting his first race in Junior 4 stroke. At this point, I must point out that he too had always wanted to be a racing driver, much to his mother and my consternation. My wife Erika never did like racing — she thinks that it is pointless that all we did was drive in circles, and wanted Alexander to do anything but driving. Also, she had known me long enough to be aware of the struggles that a racing driver goes through — the tumultuous nature or a racing driver’s career. Of course the danger element is a factor for her as well. Anyway, we had done some testing beforehand and I was feeling that he was going to be competent enough to go wheel-to-wheel in a racing situation. Well, things did not go quite as planned and he spun in the first turn on the start and got hammered by another kart. Erika was in the grandstands. Tears and hysteria followed as you might expect. We got the kart repaired and he made it out just in time for the final heat of the day and he brought it home. My heart was jack hammering in my chest the whole time, not really concerned about my son’s welfare (does that make me a bad father?), but more so worrying that the kart was going to break. My son’s mechanic (me) does not have the best technical credentials…
Last year we also experienced our first ‘Hockey Dad’ moment. After one of the races the father of another boy admonished my son (in my absence) over what he considered to be dangerous driving. I now know the feeling of explosive anger and emotion that can easily take hold of someone who has a child in sports. When I found out about it, I did manage to control my emotions and reported this incident to the clerk of the course. The issue was settled amicably after the event.
ABJR won his first race about 3/4 of the way through the season. It was a rain race and he comfortably won with about 12 second advantage over the rest of the pack. For me, it may as well have been the Monaco GP, I was so proud.
Racing with My Son
Racing with my son has brought back all of the great memories and emotions I had as a boy racing with my father. The arguments, the victories, trips to the hospital. The adventure. It has also regenerated a lot of the motivation that I lost when I retired from driving. I used to go to sleep running laps in my mind. Now I am back at it again, thinking about setups and driving lines, different ways to get my son to go faster.
With my background in the racing business, one would think that Alexander has an advantage over others. Maybe he does, however, there is only so much information that a 9-year-old can process, even if his dad teaches race driving for a living.
Local Racing Club
The atmosphere at our local racing club (Calgary Kart Racing Club) is great. The track is brand new, the club executive vastly experienced in karting and the race director has years of experience. The events are very well organized. The other Dad’s all seem to me so relaxed all the time, speaking of how the most important thing is that everyone is safe and has a great time. I play it cool as well. However, I often wonder if I am I the only father there that wants my son to win. Am I the only person at the track that may actually require the paramedics to revive me each time that he is on the track?
This winter Alexander and I stripped down the kart completely and are finishing the rebuild process. I have made sure that he is there every step of the way, doing most of the work himself under my supervision. That way he will have a much better understanding of the workings of his kart, and he can be proud that he has done much of the work himself as he becomes more successful.
Enough of the Philosophical Stuff, the Takeaway from All of This Is the Following:
1. I think that there are so many parallels that can be drawn between racing and life – preparation, self discipline, sportsmanship, respect, focus, healthy lifestyle, gratitude, intelligence, teamwork, integrity – all strong qualities that are learned in racing. I find myself using the examples of this with my son all of the time.
2. Driver fitment is crucial. I’ve seen a lot of kids driving being too far away from the pedals. Many times I have seen young drivers with small feet having their heel come off the floor when they push the throttle or brake. This completely removes the sense of reference that they have in order to have good control over their pedal modulation. I have also seen drivers where their legs are completely extended when at full throttle. There need to be a bend in the knees. I am a firm believer in a raised heel rest and pedal extensions.
Speaking of which, I always wondered why karts do not come with proper pedals, like a racecar. The feel of the vehicle comes though the wheel, seat and pedals, minimizing the contact with pedals by way of the thin tubing in a typical kart throttle and brake pedal system does not make sense. We use pedal extension that has allowed more contact between my son’s foot and the pedal. If I ever went karting again I would try to use this pedal set up for myself. (If you ever met me you would know that I would need pedal extensions anyway!)
Make sure that your driver also is close enough to the wheel as well. I advocate a loose grip and pushing on the wheel – keeps the driver planted in the seat with the shoulders level and reduces head lean. I am firmly against a lot of head lean as it has the tendency of allowing the drivers vision to drop. More on vision in my next point whenever I drive the kart I find myself squeezing the tank with my knees which gives me another point of contact with the kart. One thing that I noticed whenever I was driving during one of our karting schools, is that whenever I was driving over a curb to straighten out a corner, I would unconsciously lift my but slightly out of the seat using my heels and shoulders. I think this reduces the un-sprung weight of the kart and reduces the amount of time where the wheels may not have contact with the pavement. I have found that this also allows the kart to settle back down faster. Also easier on the butt and back!
3. Try to get your driver to look down the track and through the corners this is a bad habit that I have found that some kart racers develop and carry over into racecars – being able to see right in front of the kart combined with short radius corners propagates this.
I personally feel that not enough emphasis is made on vision placement. In my view one of the deciding factors between a good driver and a great driver is use of his eyes. The best drivers have the ability to take in a greater amount of information through their eyes than others. (Next time you take one of our programs, ask me about my encounter with Ayrton Senna that altered my perception on the importance of vision).
By Looking Further Ahead or Through a Turn You Will Automatically Improve Your Performance and Chances of Success by Way Of:
- Greater anticipation of situations that could arise in front of you
- Automatically helps you achieve the correct driving line
- Driving a racecar on the limit is about feeling the balance of the car, looking ahead gives you more sensitivity to the racecars state of balance
- Greater sensitivity to changes in driving line or yaw in the racecar. The best drivers are constantly correcting, making little adjustments to the steering and pedals throughout the turn. The best drivers make it look easy, with virtually imperceptible changes, they appear to be driving on rails, yet they are working the controls.
- Your racecar will go where you are looking – so make sure you are looking at the right places! Never look where you do not want to go
4. Make sure you are completely clear of the technical and sporting regulations. There will inevitably come the time when your son is called up in front of the stewards, or you feel that you have been hard done by in some manner. Having a clear understanding of the regulations will help you when you are in one of these situations. Keep a printed copy of this at hand in your track binder.
5. Try to think ahead of the game, prepare for the event and try to plan for all eventualities. As the saying goes races are won and lost in the shop. The more prepared you are for race day the more relaxed you and your driver will be. Try to have as much preparation completed before the event. It will give you more time in case of any last minute problems / challenges that come up from time to time.
6. Post a copy of the race schedule somewhere in your pit area so that you can plan ahead and are not rushing to take the grid.
7. Take times and notes the old-fashioned way, with a clip board and stopwatch. Write down what ever setting information that you can so that you can refer back to it this includes lap times (other drivers’ times as well if you can manage to operate 2 stopwatches at once – harder than you might think! – at least for me…), min, max revs, gearing, fuel levels, track conditions, tire pressures, etc. Plus any changes that you make to the kart. Keep it organized in a binder. You will certainly find this to be useful as your driver improves and you start to tweak the setup on the kart.
8. Make your child responsible for his driving equipment. Just like keeping his room clean. I’ve actually known some older drivers that still need some guidance in both of these points…
9. Make sure that you and your child have enough time to keep nourished and hydrated. Time can easily slip away and (at least in Alexander’s case) your driver can run out of energy for the last heat of the day.
10. When you are talking to your driver at the track and his eyes glaze over, give the coaching a break. It is amazing what they can figure out on their own. If they are making a mistake but the info is not getting though, and even if it is obvious to you where he can find half a second, if he does not want to hear the information don’t push it. It is after all about having fun. Try to keep your guidance and coaching simple, working on
11. Even though I am a racer through and through and I wanted desperately to win every race that I ever entered. I think that demonstrating respect and sportsmanship at all levels is one of the most important elements in all sports. Everyone wants to win, yet there is only one winner in a race. I always make sure that my son congratulates the winner after every race.
12. If you or your driver ever has an issue with another competitor – take it to the Race Director.
13. One of my pet peeves at the club karting level is when I see a driver going to the podium without his race suit. I think that it looks far more presentable for drivers to take their trophies dressed as drivers. When your driver gets to this stage try to give them a little push to thank the ones that helped him get there.
14. Remember it is about having fun. My son will wander off to play with his friends, leaving me to look at the fine details of the kart maintenance. I try to keep him involved with the kart prep but sometimes I have to let him go out and blow off some steam. If the day comes that your driver is not having fun is the day that you should stop.
Make Racing a Family Event
I’ve been very lucky to have been able to create a career in motorsports. Someone once calculated that a Canadian is 7 times more likely to become Prime Minister of Canada than to race in Formula One. The vast majority of drivers never progress out of local club racing. Keep this in mind. When you go racing, try to make it a family event whenever you can.
For most race driving only amount to a short period in your life. Enjoy it while you can and understand that being the driver is the best gig that there is. Now that I am older I recall my best times in racing were when I was with my Dad. I wish I had more photos. Make sure that you take as many as you can!