Shifter Karts are the top of the food chain when it comes to the world of karting. It is essentially a kart that has been fine-tuned and given a gearbox. These karts are challenging to drive though, and it can be daunting as a first timer.
The 10 basics of driving a shifter kart are:
- Chat To Other Drivers
- They’re Fast!
- Prepare For Insane Braking
- Get Used To Shifting Gears
- Shifter Karts Are More Sensitive
- Fitness Is Key
- Setups Are Complex
- Practice Your Starts
- Prepare Your Budget
- Get A Coach
Some drivers often neglect shifter karting as they see it as an impure form of karting. However, in terms of preparing for a career as a race car driver, this is as close as you can get to a fully-fledged race car.
What Is A Shifter Kart?
Shifter karts use 125 shifter engines as opposed to direct drive. This means that the engine has 6 gears rather than just the one that standard karts have. Many karting enthusiasts do not like this concept as they believe that the only pure form of karting is direct drive.
These karts are a bit more of a challenge to drive, as it takes some time to get used to changing gears and pushing the kart in order to start it. It also requires the driver to adjust their driving style a bit more to accommodate the differences in the two types of karts.
There are a lot of shifter kart championships available around the world. Shifter kart competitions are called the KZ category, and you will find these in various countries such as the US, UK, Europe, and even in the Karting World Championships.
The shifter competitions are also divided into KZ1 and KZ2, which is for more junior and amateur drivers. So, if you are new to shifter karts you don’t necessarily have to go up against the world champion.
Karting drivers who are aiming for a career in motorsport often try to avoid the KZ category and aim for cars instead. The KZ categories are in fact a great learning experience for drivers before they head into cars, and so a driver should consider spending at least one season in KZ.
When Should You Try A Shifter Kart?
As A Hobby
Shifter karts are great because they are still cheaper and less complicated than cars. So, if you are looking at getting into shifter karts as a hobby, it’s never too late to start. It may be a bit time-consuming, but it’s still easy enough to get the hang of it and learn how they work.
As A Profession
If you are a young, aspiring racing driver, it is recommended to progress through the junior and senior classes before trying KZ. The speeds are significantly faster in KZ, and it is best to gradually increase the speed of your kart rather than jumping straight in at the deep end.
Either way, getting into shifter karts is a great idea. They are incredibly fast and a lot of fun to drive. It is highly recommended to only start the KZ category when you have the budget required for it though. The finances required for shifter karts are a bit of a step up compared to direct drive karts.
It’s a good idea to find some drivers with shifter karts at your local circuit and see if you can test drive one of their karts first. If they know you well enough it won’t be a problem, and they would be happy to help you get started in the KZ category.
When Is The Right Time To Start Racing A Shifter Kart?
Getting into competitive KZ competitions is a whole different story. This category is where the best drivers normally end up. The competition can be tough, and you need to be sure that you’re ready for it.
If you want to start racing in KZ competitions (as opposed to driving around a circuit for fun), you are going to really need to focus on being at your best. This means that you need to be extremely comfortable in a shifter kart and you need to have some setups ready as well.
Experience Is Key
If you want to be competitive, make sure that you have at least one or two seasons of direct drive karting under your belt. Of course, this is not essential, but it will mean that you are prepared for what karting races are like, and you will know what to expect.
Before your first season in KZ starts, get in as many testing miles as you can. This will help you to get used to the new kart and you won’t be caught out when the season starts. The last thing you want is to be uncomfortable in the kart when the first race comes around.
The 10 Basics Of Driving A Shifter Kart
1. Chat To Other Drivers
The best first step you can take when starting out in any form of motorsport is having a chat with other drivers. Get down to your local karting circuit, and even if you’re a newcomer you’ll still be welcomed with open arms.
Your best bet is to go for a testing day. Most drivers are busy on a race day and prefer to stay focused on the job at hand. Once at the track, keep an eye on a few of the drivers while they’re out on track.
Pick out one or two drivers and head down to the pit lane to have a chat with them. Most drivers will be more than happy to help others, especially if it’s a new driver looking to join the sport. This is the best first step to take as you will be able to ask any questions you may have about karting in your local area.
You might even find a driver who is looking to sell their kart, which means you might be able to get the kart itself, and perhaps some extra tools for a much more affordable price than buying everything brand new.
2. They’re Fast!
Shifter karts are fast. They’re a lot faster than the direct drive karts. As such, it means that you may need to adjust your driving style slightly if you have been driving standard karts in the past. It’s a big step up in terms of pace.
You may find in the KZ category that you can power slide the kart (which does not tend to happen with direct drive). If you are a little bit impatient or have a twitchy right foot the tail will kick out and you will need to correct it.
This jump in speed can take some getting used to, especially if you have not driven any karts before. It’s important to start slow and only pick up your pace as you become more comfortable with the kart.
Comfort comes from spending time in the kart and being comfortable in the kart builds up your confidence and trust in the kart. If you have a spin or a crash, you lose that confidence and trust. So, it’s crucial to take your time and focus.
3. Prepare For Insane Braking
A huge difference between shifter karts and direct drive karts is that they are faster. But with an increase in speed there needs to be an increase in stopping powertoo. The KZ karts are equipped with three brake pads as opposed to the one found on a direct drive kart.
KZ shifter karts have one brake on the rear axle, and two at the front of the kart, one for each wheel. This means that this kart has much more powerful and thus much sharper brakes, which does take some getting used to.
It not only allows for later braking, but it also means a much higher g-force load is put on the driver. It also brings in a whole new driving style and set up element in terms of brake bias. Drivers will need to get used to this concept as it used widely used as a setup tool in the world of motorsport.
Brake bias is the percentage at which the brakes are used from front to back. For example, a brake bias may be set at 60:40, which means 60% of the braking force will come from the front wheels and 40% will come from the back wheels. You can read more about brake bias in this article here.
There are various reasons for using different brake biases, but in the dry it is mostly about driver preference. Drivers will usually have their brake balance set more towards the front of the kart as it will aid with grip at the front tires. Having a more rear biased brake setup can make the kart more stable (useful in the rain).
4. Get Used To Shifting Gears
Changing gears can be a challenge for younger drivers who love their direct drive karts. It’s important to get this down before the season starts. You first need to practice how to change gears.
Another important thing you need to do is learn how to count your gears. Unlike in a car, there is no gear counter on the dashboard, and so it’s completely up to the driver to know what gear they’re in. You don’t want to be exiting a hairpin corner in neutral!
Practice, Practice, Practice
You need to do as much testing as you can in order to get this right. All the other drivers that you are competing against will be perfect in their gear changes, or you should at least assume that they will be. The key here is to try not to get frustrated when practicing gear changes.
There will be times when you’ll feel like it’s impossible to get it right. At times like these, it’s best to get off the track, take a 15-minute break to clear your mind, watch some tutorial videos and get back on track and keep practicing, not until you get it right, but until you never get it wrong.
Not Like Cars
Even if you’re used to driving stick shift in a car, KZ karts will throw you off when it comes to gear changes. The clutch is only ever used to pull away from a stationary position (never to change gears).
Changing up requires the driver to slightly lift off the throttle while pulling back on the shift lever, and changing down requires the driver to blip the throttle while pushing forward on the gear lever.
5. Shifter Karts Are More Sensitive
If you have driven direct drive karts in the past you will know that they are pretty sensitive machines. The slightest change in the ambient temperature means a change of jets and a quick adjustment of the tire pressures.
Well, the bad news is that shifter karts are even more sensitive to changes in weather conditions. This is especially true on the engine side of things. The carburetor in a shifter kart uses a float bowl, which is much more difficult to work with than that of a direct drive kart.
The kart needs to be switched off entirely, and the carburetor needs to be disassembledbefore the settings can be adjusted. This is not as easy as with a direct drive kart, and it is highly recommended that you learn how to do it before you try it yourself.
The tires also take more of a burden on shifter karts. Of course, with the higher speeds there are higher loads on the tires, but the karts are also powerful enough to spin the rear wheels. This means you can easily overheat and wear out your rear tires. Make sure you account for the faster speeds by adjusting your tire pressures accordingly.
6. Fitness Is Key
With the increase in speeds there is also a higher demand for driver fitness. The kart will be cornering faster, but the factor that will catch you out the most is the braking. G-forces play a huge role here.
Firstly, in braking and cornering, the g-forces are much higher than with direct drive karts. This makes the kart much more demanding to drive, especially for longer sessions.
The next factor to consider is that the driver will require more strength to drive the kart. With the higher speeds and the extra g-forces acting on the kart, the driver will need to put a lot more force on the steering wheel (which doesn’t have power steering) and with their left foot on the brakes (with no ABS).
Make sure that you prepare for the season ahead by spending time in the gym and doing some cardio. It might not feel like the most useful preparation, but it is just as important as spending time out on the track.
7. Setups Are Complex
When it comes to shifter karts, the setups become a bit more complex. As mentioned earlier, the KZ karts are more sensitive to changes in weather conditions. They are also much more complicated to set up, especially in terms of the engine’s carburation.
But it doesn’t end there. KZ karts require a different driving style and a different operating setup to direct drive karts. This means that even if you have found the perfect set up for your direct drive kart, it will almost always need some tweaking when it comes to the shifter kart.
KZ karts are not only faster than direct drive karts, but they also handle differently. There are new set up elements to consider now such as gearing (for six gears as opposed to just one), and brake bias. This might not seem like a lot, but when you try and balance them with other set up elements it can become complex.
It might feel like you need to make small brake balance adjustments, however that small adjustment could throw off the entire set up and leave the car unbalanced and even undrivable. Then it’s back to square one. This happens more often than you think. So you need to spend some time tweaking your setup in advance.
8. Practice Your Starts
A huge difference between KZ karts and direct drive karts is that shifter karts do a standing start as opposed to the usual rolling start. This can be a huge challenge as drivers also need clutch control here. The clutch is only used when moving from a stationary position.
Standing starts can be really tough as it puts a lot of pressure on the driver to get their clutch control right. You also need to time your start perfectly so as to not jump the start and get a time penalty. This can be tricky, so it’s crucial that you practice this.
It doesn’t stop there though. If you stop in your grid slot, put your kart into first and rev the engine it will overheat quickly. After the formation lap, stop in your grid slot and keep the kart in neutral. The five red lights will go on one by one.
As soon as the final light goes on, switch your kart into first and then start to rev the engine up. Release the clutch as soon as the lights go out for a launch that propels you from 0-60 MPH in just 3 seconds.
9. Prepare Your Budget
KZ karts are much more expensive than direct drive karts. They don’t just cost more, but they are much more expensive to maintain as well. The complicated braking systems, the gearbox and the intricate engine all make for one expensive machine.
If you’re looking at a top end competitive KZ kart you’d be looking at spending around $13,000. In comparison, a top end Senior Rotax Max machine will cost you around $8,000. This initial cost is a lot more, but even the maintenance becomes very pricey too.
For example, the gearbox needs to be serviced by someone who really knows what they’re doing. The gearbox is an extremely sensitive and complicated piece of kit on a KZ kart, and if it breaks it’s another couple thousand dollars to replace.
Make sure you have the budget to be competitive and don’t get caught out. Buy second-hand where you can, but make sure you get a second opinion that you can trust. If you get ripped off, you might end up paying more for your second-hand kart than you would have done for a brand new one.
10. Get A Coach
Getting a driving coach for karting is possibly one of the best things that a driver can do. If you hire an experienced coach it will absolutely be worth the money. A good coach can help you to get your lap times down by at least a second, and much more if you’re a total beginner.
Not only will you be faster on track, but a coach can help you with fitness and assist with making a workout regime and a diet plan to follow. This will help to get you fit and ready for the upcoming season.
Having a coach is also a huge benefit during race weekends. Someone who can give you advice on where you can improve on track, which set up elements you can adjust, or even just to help you formulate a game plan on race day can make a huge difference to your overall performance.
A coach will also be able to keep you motivated. This is especially important when you have one of those demoralizing race weekends where nothing seems to be going right. A coach can help you to keep a positive mindset and salvage a bad weekend.
Shifter karts are the apex predators of the karting world. Often overlooked for being an ‘impure’ form of the sport, these karts can be extremely fun, and they can teach you a lot about motorsport in general.
Using KZ racing as a tool to prepare a young driver for race cars can be extremely helpful. Whether you are going pro or just looking for a new hobby, these tips will help you to get started and hit the ground running in shifter karting.
I created and have been writing on this site since 2019, collaborating with drivers, coaches, engineers and manufacturers to provide you with the most reliable information about motorsport. Find out more about me here.