As a go-kart racer myself, the goal of this article is to help all of you reading right now by getting prepared for the early days of go-karting, whether you want to have a great time with friends every once in a while, or you’re a racer in-the-making!
So, what is the best way for beginners to drive a go-kart? Now, when you consider that go-karting is open to kids, it’s clear that the action itself isn’t hard. After every drive, come back to this article to make sure you aren’t skipping any vital steps that will make you a competent kart driver.
For all of my knowledge as a long-time kart racer, I can’t know what kind of go-karting you are looking to improve or prime yourself for. Because of this, you might find yourself reading this guide and feeling as if some of it doesn’t apply to you. Simply skip through to the parts you are interested in.
Off Track: Before Racing
Unlike regular sports, your go-kart has a powerful engine attached and as such, there’s some crucial preparation you need to think about before jumping in to drive! Everything from bringing the right gear, setting up the kart correctly, knowing how to start the engine and get the kart going; these are all steps you need to take before the fun can truly begin.
And so, I’m going to outline the absolutely essential beginning pieces to this puzzle called go-karting that you have to put in place so that you can enjoy time on the track.
I can’t stress enough how important it is for you to be properly decked out in safety equipment when driving go-karts. At the end of the day, this activity is a motorsport and has all manner of hazards that come with it because of that, so the least you can do is minimize your risk of injury by being prepared.
Not only that, but proper gear will actually make you faster on the track by comparison, so there’s truly no excuse not to wear these life-saving pieces of equipment:
- Crash helmet
- Race suit
- Race gloves
- Race boots
- Rib protector (optional; depends on personal preference)
- Wet weather over-suit (depends on weather)
Never get ready to race without these items and it’ll become second-nature in no time at all! It may seem like a lot of gear to carry around with you, and even remembering the proper gear for wet weather when the forecast hasn’t predicted rain might seem pointless, but it’s always better to be safe than sorry in the end.
Compared to your regular clothing, race suits and every other piece of equipment that make a complete set are designed with aerodynamics in mind as part of a dual-purpose. They also enhance your comfort during your drives, especially when you consider the importance of gloves or a rib protector.
By wearing good hand coverings you’ll be enhancing your grip on the steering wheel due to extra grippy fabric on the palms, and you won’t be getting painful blisters, either. A rib protector will reduce the potential for bruising when you’re on flying laps; just envisage how hard and unforgiving go-kart seats can feel!
Lacking discomfort means you have more capacity to race your heart out, and when you add the fact that all of this gear will protect against accidents, it truly is a win-win situation.
Are you sitting comfortably?
Go-karts are purposely designed to be as universal as possible, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make adjustments to enhance your ability on the track! Even more than that, you need to be comfortable and be able to reach all of the controls at your disposal without pulling a muscle
If you’re renting a kart from somewhere, you won’t have any luck in getting the seat moved closer to the steering wheel or anything like that.
Racing tracks often keep padded seat inserts that can move you closer to the steering wheel, while also minimizing how much you’ll rattle around in the seat. If you’re the owner of your own go-kart, you can tweak the seat position to your heart’s content, but always make sure to remember the following position for optimum, comfortable driving:
Steering Wheel: When you reach forward to hold the wheel, you want to have a slight, easy bend at the elbow. Adjust your seating position until you achieve this. Sitting with a hunch or lean will increase your drag on the track, after all.
Also make sure to grip your steering wheel in a symmetrical way, whether that be ‘hands at 10 to 2’ or any other position that feels comfortable. This will mean you should never have to move your hands on the steering wheel; something absolutely essential for a smooth drive!
Pedals: Similar to reaching the steering wheel, you want your feet to comfortably work the pedals with a slight bend in your legs. Spend some time extending your feet all the way onto both the brake and gas pedals to make sure you can fully utilize both when needed.
Getting on the Track
So, you’ve got all of your safety equipment donned and your kart is properly geared for you personally. The next thing to think about is how to start your go-kart, and this will differ depending on what type rig is being used.
When renting a kart, the track marshals will start the kart for you and you may even think that it isn’t important for you to think about. Pay attention to where the engine is located and see how the marshals start it, if for no other reason than to be aware of where not to put your hands when getting into or out of the kart!
In the context of owning a kart, however, you’ll be the one getting it started, so you absolutely need to know how to do this. Make sure the engine is full of fresh gasoline (87 unleaded will be your best friend) and double-check to make sure that there’s enough oil by checking the dipstick.
Prime the engine with fuel by pressing the proper button and wait until you see fuel bubbling into the dome-like button, and then hit the kill switch. Time to pull the choke lever! Keep this lever out while you pull the starter cord. Wait until you hear a sputtering sort of sound and then push the choke back in, and there you have it!
A lot of new karts have the potential for a ‘push start’ button which, when properly installed, can achieve the whole process with the push of a button. This is fairly common in racing karts.
Before you get on the track, make sure to familiarize yourself with how your kart actually starts and experiment a few times in a safe location with a good amount of space at your disposal just in case.
On Track: The Drive
With proper safety gear on-hand, your kart properly adjusted, and the engine started, you’re ready to begin the actual driving portion of this guide! Just like any motorsport, go-karting requires a lot of concentration and awareness for a multitude of reasons. You need to not only react to potential hazards on track, keep an eye on your competition and handle the kart safely to avoid spins, but it’s also important to race for lap time improvements.
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It’s a real balancing act of pushing the metaphorical envelope to get better, while staying aware of proper driving practices, etiquette and essential knowledge to harmonize all of these things.
Braking and Acceleration
One of the biggest no-no’s in go-karting as a whole is to have your feet pressing on both pedals. This will reduce your speed by a huge margin, and you’ll actually do damage to the brakes by doing this. Make it a conscious habit to press either the gas pedal, or the brake pedal; never both at the same time.
Until you feel more comfortable in the kart, you don’t even want to attempt a technique called ‘feathering’, where you quickly alternate accelerating and braking for quicker cornering. People who do this are very practiced and have disciplined themselves to never press both pedals simultaneously to begin with.
Similar to how carrying too much speed into corners will have you spinning off the track, pushing both pedals can cause a lock-up of your wheels and almost always ends in tears.
With that essential point out of the way, let’s turn our attention to ‘how much’ braking or acceleration you’ll need at various times. When you’re on a straight portion of the track, your gas pedal should be pressed to the position we call ‘flat out’, basically down to the floor. This will give you the optimum acceleration needed to carry your top speeds, ideal for overtaking other drivers and otherwise giving you good lap times.
Go-karts do best when they’re driven in straight lines, since they carry extraordinary speed when they have little resistance acting on them. While driving on straight parts of the track don’t weave around, and try to keep the kart planted firmly on the side of the track you’ll need to take when turning into the next corner.
You can smoothly drift over to this side as opposed to staying there after exiting corners, of course, but the optimum word there is ‘smoothly’. Don’t be snatching at your steering wheel or making harsh movements with it. You should also never have to move your hands on the wheel, even if you have to make a hairpin turn. It will disrupt the smooth, clean lines of your steering input!
Now, when it comes to braking for corners, you never want to be slowing down on the corner itself. Apply all of your braking power before the corner and remember that mantra of go-karts liking straight, clean lines.
Because of this, you’ll be taking most of your corners by staying wide of the corner and then turning into it, as opposed to staying on the side of the track where the corner actually bends around. You’ll struggle to hit the apex in this latter method, and you’ll make the kart turn far more than it wants to.
When it comes to knowing the right application of brakes per corner, that will come from feeling the track you’re driving on specifically. The sharper the bend, the more speed you’ll have to shave off before attempting to turn around it.
Cornering in a go-kart doesn’t mean braking to the proper speed and then staying off the accelerator, either; remember the critical saying of how you should never press your two pedals at the same time? After reaching your cornering point, you want to slowly and gently apply that accelerator again, increasing it slowly to get a clean, fast exit out of the turn.
If you’re driving a shifter kart, your experience on the track will be different to the typical one- or two-speed karts because you have gears to worry about. As such, your braking points and top speeds will differ by quite some margin. In the US, shifter karts possess a clutch paddle on the steering wheel which is used to shift through the gears and you need to treat the kart more like a car.
For optimum speeds while driving in this way you really need to get familiar with the sound of your engine and feel when it needs another gear, or a lesser gear for various points of the track. As a general rule of thumb, you want to take corners in a low gear and start shifting up the gears with your foot on the gas once you’re past the apex (middle point) of the turn.
Don’t be afraid to let your engine rev, either! High revs in the low gears will accelerate your kart that much more because higher gears aren’t designed to make you go faster, but are instead there to maintain and carry that speed. In a similar manner, always make sure to shift down before attempting an overtake because those extra revs and boost of power will safely allow you to pass.
Ah, the mystical, magical work of racing lines on kart tracks! This doesn’t mean that there’ll be painted lines on the asphalt below you, of course, but it refers to the fastest way to make laps of the track. These lines will all differ dependent on the track you’re driving on, but there are a lot of ways to pick out the fastest line from the get-go.
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First and foremost, actually look at the track. There are relatively distinct sections of the track that look lighter in color compared to other parts, and you always want to make a beeline for those paler parts of the track. These visibly lighter parts have been raced on more and you can bet that this is the line you need to take.
During your driver’s briefing, too, most tracks will have a map of the circuit with racing lines drawn on. For your standard single or two-speed karts, this line will look almost looping and lazy compared to how it will feel when you drive, and this is all part of working alongside the kart to produce the smoothest drive possible.
If you stick to the racing lines of a track, your lap times will rapidly improve compared to if you were driving on what is known as the ‘dirty side’ of the track. Tire degradation during races and drives will happen all of the time, and the deposits of the worn-away tires land on the sides of the track around that distinct line which will attach to your warm tires and slow you down considerably!
Where possible, stick to the visible lines on track and you’ll be fine.
Before you jump into a kart, it’s important to be seated comfortably and properly. I went over this earlier in the article in the checks you’ll need to do to on a more basic level, but I’ll quickly explain why it’s important to maintain good posture/ position while driving on the track.
Karts are built to be aerodynamic and lightweight. It goes without saying that you’ll be the heaviest addition to the kart itself! Because of this, the way in which you seat yourself is very important. You want to be able to grasp the steering wheel in a symmetrical way with both hands on either side, and your arms should have a slight bend in the elbow.
And as for your legs, you want to be able to comfortably press all the way on both pedals with a slight bend of your knees. It’s not only for the purpose of comfort, of course, but this way of being seated with your back pressed against the back of the seat gives you a sturdy center of gravity within the kart.
Hunching or reaching too much will disrupt the aerodynamics of your kart and badly affect your body; two distinct reasons why you want to uphold that position throughout your drive. If you begin to slouch and adjust your posture while driving, you can develop bad habits that will inhibit the finer points of how much lap time you can improve upon.
This might sound odd, but bear with me on this one. I’ve previously mentioned how important it is for your movements in the go-kart to be smooth wherever possible on the track, and a lot of this comes from you staying calm and observant while racing.
Trust me, even my body instinctively tenses up when I jump into a kart and I’ve been in many a rig over a lot of years, but it’s absolutely vital to warm yourself up and enjoy the drive. You’ll notice a clear improvement in not only your race-craft, but the lap times you’ll lay down during timed events.
If you couple this level of Zen and concentration with remaining observant of the track and its conditions, you’ll get into a very nice rhythm as a kart driver. Seeing more and taking in more of your surroundings gives you extra power to react to things ahead of time, and will minimize your need for snap turns and stressful situations on the track.
This will come with experience, of course, but the mind-set of staying calm and mindful of what’s on your race track at any given time can be implemented from the get-go (you’ll thank me later).
Maintenance: Making Sure You Can Do It All Again!
Purely and simply, taking good care of your kart will mean that you can jump back in to rinse and repeat the driving for more results. When you’ve finished a hard drive, roll your kart back to where you’ve set up for the day and while the rig is cooling down, inspect every part of its body and build to make sure nothing is coming loose, and otherwise make a list of things you notice.
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Has something come apart from the rest of the bodywork? How did your tires hold up on that run? When the fuel tank has cooled, check what your fuel level is like and think about how much gas you’ll need to take next time.
While you’re getting to grips with your kart and building good habits as a driver, your fuel efficiency won’t likely be as good as it could be, so always over-compensate in terms of how much gas you bring to races/ practices. Somewhere in the ball park of 30 to 40mpg for four-stroke engines, and less for two-stroke engines is a good estimate to think of.
If you’re the primary mechanic for your kart, spend time learning more hints and tips for ways to improve the rig whether it be lengthening the base chassis a touch for more downforce, and overall, make sure to give the kart the TLC it needs and deserves! The more you keep on top of the simple things, the more life a kart will have and the longer it will run.
And as an extra bonus to this step in the guide, the more familiar you are with your kart, the more confident you’ll feel with driving!
Truly, I’ve yet to come across a sport that I enjoy more than go-karting. There’s something exciting about finding small tweaks to your skillset that can result in big improvements, and seeing your lap times get better and better with every drive! For all of its fun and excitement, there’s a large pool of necessary information and skills you need to bring with you to the track in order to drive in a proper manner.
Everything from preparing the kart to getting the essential gear, remembering to follow racing lines to feeling where braking zones are; the variety of things you need to practice and commit to memory makes go-karting more complicated than you perhaps gave it credit for.
Well, when it comes to valuable and essential skills, there can be no corners cut on the journey to becoming a better driver! Just like when on the track, cutting these corners short or taking them incorrectly can only mean bad news for your lap. But with guides like this, offering an insight into every aspect you need to consider when driving a kart, you’ll be cementing good habits in no time!