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For my 10th birthday my parents took me and a bunch of friends to a big, indoor go-karting facility. Powered by noisy gasoline engines, we put on helmets and raced around a track mostly made up of old tires. Afterwards we had cake and burgers (although not in that order) and I got a “best racer” trophy, even though I’m pretty sure I was far from coming in first. The whole day was so thrilling that nearly a decade and a half later the memory of being strapped in to that small, powerful kart and speeding out of those sharp turns is still fresh in my mind.
What I didn’t know then and only recently discovered is that over the past 50 years go-kart racing has grown into a serious sport. In Europe it’s become a common stepping stone to the professional Formula 1 league, with all but one current driver having grown up in the sport; and in the United States famous racing professionals like Jeff Gordon and Michael Schumacher will still occasionally trade in their big wheels for something a little smaller.
From the US to Europe these professional competitions are generally conducted in three formats: Endurance, Speedway, and Sprint. Endurance is most like a NASCAR event, with drivers competing on an oval track for long periods of time and no pit stops. In contrast, taking place on tracks with lots of short twists and sharp turns, Speedway racing generally requires drivers to exhibit faster reflexes and maneuverability. Like the Endurance format, Speedway racetracks also usually only require drivers to make left turns. Finally the Sprint format (as you may have guessed by its name) is the shortest format of kart racing. It takes place on a track more like a typical Formula 1 race, with left and right turns and three short laps.
In the US, the largest and oldest Go-Kart league is the World Karting Association (WKA) which was founded in 1971. The WKA has 3 formal competitive classes grouped by age with the junior class being 8-10 year olds, which make up roughly 45% of competitive entrants. However, while Karting may be seen as a children’s activity, it’s being enjoyed more and more by adults. From corporate team building exercises to a fun weekend with friends, Karting is quickly moving away from the kid’s table. After Formula 1 driver Felipe Massa suffered serious injuries on the track, part of his rehabilitation and eventual return to the track involved turning in his signature Ferrari and training with a Kart.
The WKA currently has over six different events running year round with over 100,000 Americans competing. While the American go-kart scene isn’t quite as popular as Europe’s yet (with league events recently encompassing a number of Asian countries), it’s hardly a hobby activity anymore, with the WKA sporting major sponsors such as American car manufacturer Mazda and gasoline giant Sunoco. With steady growth in the East and the West, the future of karting shows no signs of slowing down any time soon.