10 Things I wish I knew when my son started karting
My son Conrad has been karting for a little over 18 months, having started a few months before he turned eight. We have had many twists and turns in our karting journey, getting to the point today where my son is at the front of the pack and I feel like I've learn enough to be able to share some advice with those earlier in the journey.
We went from being all alone at the track, in a second hand kart and trying to work things out for ourselves, to having our own team - Italcorse Asia, representing one of the Italian kart manufacturers and fielding the largest team of kids' racing in Singapore. I'm sharing my top 10 tips with others that are early in their karting career in the hope others my have an easier time than we did.
1. Not all new karts are new
I remember when I started, someone told me "never buy an orphan" which means you never want to buy a kart that is one of a kind. This was great advice and I certainly avoided a couple of great offers from people that wanted to sell a kart that was one-of-a-kind in pit lane.
The problem which I've seen multiple people fall for, is buying new old karts. Plenty of organisations have bought karts new and had them sitting in the shed for sale, only to have a new model come out and nobody wants the old model. At some point they have to unload these old karts and someone new to the sport that doesn't know the difference is exactly what they are looking for. I've seen people sell 5 year old karts that were still in the original box - sold for top dollar to unsuspecting parents who don't understand the kart is far from being a new kart.
2. Find someone who can assess a kart before you buy it
Buying a used kart as your first kart is a great option. You are going to hit the wall, you are going to hit other drivers, you are going to get punted off the track by faster drivers. Doing it in a brand new kart can make your eyes water, so I always think people should consider this option. I personally had lots of trouble with the used kart we bought, which taught me so many lessons which are invaluable to learn early on. Better to have a failure or an impacted race when you are the back of the field that when you are in front!
Check the chassis isn't bent. Having someone put it on the rack and do all the measurements to make sure it isn't bent will save a lot of heart ache later on. Two to five millimetres of bend will throw out a kart completely and even something that was "only raced once" may have hit the wall and be a terrible kart to try and master. One of the early cadets in our team had bought a used kart which was AMAZING at turning left, but was shocking at trying to turn right. he struggled for months before joining the team and as soon as we put him in a straight chassis, he was able to improve.
3. Compliance and homologation are important
Karts and safety gear all have expiry dates and you need to know what they are. Helmets, suits, gloves and boots all have expiry dates. You may choose to use something for practice after that, but when you get to race day, the scrutineers will reject the equipment and race day will be over. I watched a father go to the pro-shop at the track on race day, buy a brand new helmet and give it to his son. When he got to scrutineering, they rejected the helmet and he wasn't allowed to race until we got him another helmet.
Karts also have expiry dates - the homologation of karts means a new model kart is good for a few years of racing, but once they expire they can only be used for practice. Check the compliance tag on everything you buy and make sure it will be good for racing a few years.
4. Coaching is invaluable
You can go around and around the track for years and never get any better or any faster. I've personally watched one of the kids in a different team take the same corner the same way for 18 months and nothing every changes. When coaching our kids, we use his as the example of "what not to do" because he will make the same mistake, without fail every time - too fast into the corner, turns too early, hits the apex too early and then slides out on the exit.
Get some professional coaching early. Spending some money on great coaching today will see your child gain years worth of experience in a matter of weeks and dollars versus results equation is greatly improved when you see these kind of results. I got coaching about 9 months into our journey and if I had my time again, I'd have started much earlier.
5. Get constant feedback on your kart setup
If your child doesn't have the experience to tell you if a kart is setup properly or not, find another kid around the same size, with more experience and let them do a few laps. Most kids with experience will jump at the chance to try someone else's kart and kids have no filter on giving feedback. You'll be amazed when they tell you the brakes are terrible, the top end power is amazing or it has chronic understeer into the corners. You'll also find that having your child see your kart flying around the track removes any excuses of the kart having a problem and generally helps them get faster.
6. Race while you are still slow
There will be a temptation to try and get as fast as possible, before you get into formal races. Being fast does not always win races. Being fast and being able to overtake and defend is what wins races. Before you get crazy fast, get as much race practice as possible, as all the overtaking and defending can only be learnt in a live race environment.
7. Find a community that will share data and experience
Look for a team or a group you can be a part of, with a culture of sharing. Too many people want to hide everything they have ever learnt, because they think it might make your kid faster than theirs. This kind of culture is toxic when kids are trying to learn. Partly, we created Italcorse Asia as a team because we couldn't find this right sharing culture. You want to make others faster, so they push your kid to be faster again. They want to share with you, so you get faster and push them more.
Making kids faster is pretty simple. Take two kids, compare their data. Find where each is faster on a straight, in a corner, by braking more or less, or getting on the power sooner, etc. Take what is faster and replicate it. Every kid will work out different bits of the track and collectively a team, we make everyone faster. If you can't find this culture, then create your own team!
8. Buy an engine with some life left in it
The race engines have a fixed set of piston sizes they can run. For the Rok Vortex engines, there are only five possible piston sizes, 41.88 (new engine), 41.91 41.93 41.95 41.98. Each time the engine is rebuilt, the bore is honed, making it a little larger and a larger piston is usually fitted. Once you get to the last piston, the engine is finished (unless you want to replace the cylinder, which is a major component). When you buy a used engine, it should be fine to pop the head off it and read the piston number which you will see stamped on the top of the piston. You'll see a 41.98 stamped on the piston in the photo. This is much better judge of how old an engine is, than someone telling you it has only been used a couple of times and it is "almost new".
9. Maintenance is everything
In the early days, we were part of a team that paid little attention to maintenance. If the track opened at 9am, they would drag the cart out at 8:45, fuel it up and you were ready to go. One lap and you'd realise the brakes weren't working and you would sit on the side of the track for 2 hours until it got fixed. For kids, track time is everything and great maintenance is what delivers track time. It's the maintenance on Tuesday that makes the weekend work. As a team, we keep a couple of 'hot-spare' karts that can be used in case something fails. They won't be perfect, but dropping the kids into a spare kart that allows them to stay on the track gives the kids more track time and takes some pressure off the mechanic, which allows the karts to be fixed properly.
We came from a situation where maintenance was poor and all the pressure was "your kart is old and no good - you need to buy a new one". Once we created our own team and applied proper maintenance to the 5 year old kart, it was 0.1 seconds slower than a brand new race kart, but you cannot race with it because it's out of homologation. Which leads me to my last point...
10. It's mostly the squishy bit between the seat and the steering wheel
You can spend a lot of time and money trying to improve the kart. Better engine, better chassis setup, better tyres, better seat position, camber, caster, toe out, spark plug, ride height, tyre pressure and more, but the thing that will make the biggest difference to lap times is the squishy bit between the seat and the steering wheel. All of the variables on the kart could make up a tenth of a second each, but the driver braking at the wrong point will lose you a second or two. If you want to invest in getting better lap times and race wins, invest first in the driver through coaching and track time.
About the author:
Stu Garrow is one of the Team Principal's at Italcorse Asia, the largest kids karting team in Singapore. Italcorse Asia is a full service karting team based in Singapore and Malaysia, providing an easy on-ramp for kids to get into karting and quickly achieve racing results.