May 15, 2008
Kart racing: Have a blast driving fast!
By: Diana Morse | Special to the Morning Call
As racing champion Mario Andretti says: “If everything seems under control, you’re just not going fast enough.”
Andretti learned that lesson on the NASCAR and Formula One speedways of the world. But the principle holds true on more modest racing tracks, even the new Lehigh Valley Grand Prix in Allentown, the area’s only indoor motor sport facility.
The 48,000-square-foot facility, housed inside a former Mack Trucks warehouse at the Bridgeworks Enterprise Center, is the brainchild of recent Lehigh University grads Mike McCreary and Chris Cooper. It boasts 30 gas-powered Grand Prix-styled GT3 Proline Sodi racing karts sporting 6.5 HP Honda engines that can top out at 45 mph over a quarter-mile course.
With up to 10 karts on the track at any one time, an eight-minute heat can, depending on the driver, seem to take seconds or hours.
To test-drive the track for fun and fear factors, eight drivers ages 14 to 44 recently gave indoor kart racing a whirl.
Following a five-minute safety briefing, drivers were fitted with snug helmets and neck guard. Adrenaline started pumping as drivers, heat ticket in hand, were assigned cars, engines already humming.
The spirit of competition was as much in the air as the pungent aroma of rubber tires and hum of hot engines. Even co-owners McCreary and Cooper themselves had become embroiled in a battle to see which partner is top dog at the track.
Earlier that day, McCreary had arrived to find a racing timesheet left by Cooper the night before, with the scrawled warning, “I’m coming for you …” next to Cooper’s improved “best time” score.
The adults in the group took to the track first — Jeri Cohen Forestieri of New Tripoli, who, after feeling somewhat overwhelmed by the safety briefing, nearly backed out; Kevin Sprague, a board member of the Da Vinci Science Center, Child Advocacy Center of Lehigh County and the Fund to Benefit Children and Youth, and myself, a very conservative driver.
At the flag, Sprague took off with little hesitation, speeding up as he rounded the first of several hairpin turns.
According to our post-racing computer stat sheets, he clocked the fastest first lap, in just over 54 seconds. Forestieri came in second at 67-plus seconds, and yours truly came in third at a tortoise-like 74 seconds.
When the checkered flag came down eight minutes later, “Wildman” Sprague was the winner with an average lap time of 48.5 seconds. However, his time was only a hair quicker than Forestieri at 48.9. Although my average time was 52.9, in a moment of derring-do, I managed the single fastest lap at 42.5.
Forestieri later admitted Sprague’s unruffled confidence was contagious, and after her tentative first lap, she had begun trying to figure out the best way to pass.
“There’s nothing like having your adrenaline kick in,” she smiled, removing the sleek, silver and black helmet.
For Sprague, the race was an almost out-of-body experience. “I was one with the machine,” he said of the zen-like sensation of focusing on nothing but the next sharp turn.
“This is nothing like the seedy Boardwalk go-cart tracks of my youth — the rickety car frames, frayed seatbelts, bald tires and lawnmower engines,” he added.
The adults raced separately from the younger drivers to avoid feeling badly about beating them. But we needn’t have worried. The younger drivers took to racing like it was second nature.
The group included Gary Martin of Allentown, at 21 the oldest of the brat pack; Martin’s cousin, Rochelle Videl, and her friend, Malachi Berkeley, both visiting from England; Georgia Staurinos, a junior at Emmaus High School, and Tess Forestieri (Jeri Cohen Forestieri’s daughter), a freshman at Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Performing Arts.
Martin, leader of the pack among the young racers, won easily, maneuvering corners and straight-aways like a pro from the minute he left the starting line. His average speed was 41 seconds a lap.
He may have had an edge because, as he later admitted, he had raced karts at Six Flags in New Jersey. The experienced driver especially liked Lehigh Valley Grand Prix’s indoor track. “You don’t have to worry about the weather here,” he said.
Berkeley, less timid than Videl, was quick to catch on, placing second. Both said they’d race again in a heartbeat.
Competition between the younger drivers reached a flash point when Forestieri was passed by a freewheeling Martin.
“Did you just see that look in her eye?” Forestieri’s mother asked as the karts buzzed past white-knuckled adults in the observation area. “I’ve never seen that! She didn’t want to be passed, and she’s going after him!”
It was decided kart racing can be a good confidence builder for girls.
For drivers at all levels, even those a bit overconfident, the track was designed with safety in mind.
Though rife with hairpin turns, the track is buttressed with hundreds of used tires to cushion the impact of wayward karts. Flaggers constantly monitor course conditions, and younger drivers are assigned less powerful 5.5 hp Sodi Kid Karts with a maximum speed of 35 mph.
“I can’t believe that was eight minutes. It felt like eight seconds,” Martin enthused, as his competition nodded in agreement.
“You get into the “zone,”‘ McCreary says of the racers’ sensation of lost time. “Each turn has a different feel, depending how you go into it — the speed, how far you are out into the curve. It takes a lot of focus.”
In Andretti’s word, “control.”
Back in the lobby, newly confident Jeri Cohen Forestieri studied her stat sheet, trying to figure out how to slice seconds off her next race time. She announced she had a message for “Scoop,” the track’s current record holder with a 32.757 second lap.
“I’m coming after you,” she warned.
Diana Morse is a freelance writer.
Source: Morning Call