Release your inner Earnhardt at a go-kart track

Note to Dad: Don't hog all the laps from your kids

Outside: sports, activities, events

April 22, 2004|By Lisa Wiseman | Lisa Wiseman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Ever watch stock car races and think, "That doesn't look so hard. All you have to do is drive fast and turn left. I can do that."

For those frustrated wannabe race car drivers out there, a day at a go-kart track may be just the thing to satisfy your need for speed. Go-kart racing used to be strictly a kiddie activity -- bumper cars without the physical contact. But these days, you're just as likely to see as many adults at the local miniature speedway pretending to be Richard Petty or Dale Earnhardt Jr., as you see children who are pretending to be old enough to drive a real car.

"Sometimes it's the parents and not the kids who don't want to go home at the end of the day," said Dave Callahan, owner of Crofton Raceway in Gambrills, which has been in operation since 1986.

Go-kart racing has changed a lot in the past two decades, Callahan said. For one thing, the karts of today are a lot more sophisticated in design and resemble actual race cars complete with numbers or sponsor decals. They can cost as much as $5,000.Gone are the days when you felt like the go-kart was nothing more than a loud lawnmower with a steering wheel.

The greatest appeal of go-kart racing for adults, Callahan said, is experiencing what it's like to be a real race car driver. "You don't get to go out and race your car every day, or drive a course like this," he said.

Jim Harris, owner of Rounding 3rd Family Entertainment Center in Elkridge, says it's the thrill of competition that draws people to the track. "It's the NASCAR mindset. You're in a race with someone else. You go around the track and try to cut them off, outpace them, outlap them," he said.

Courses like Harris' are equipped with an automatic safety switch that can remotely cut the engines of cars on the track if there's a dangerous situation like a pileup. "Wrecks can happen," he said. However, it is nearly impossible to flip a go-kart, as they are low to the ground and have a wide wheelbase to provide extra stability.

Go-kart racing is well-regulated, Harris said. Tracks are inspected regularly, like a roller coaster or other amusement ride, by the state of Maryland. Children must be at least 42 inches tall to drive the "junior" cars, which only go about 6 or 7 mph, and 54 inches tall to drive the "senior" cars, which can go 17 to 20 mph. Some tracks set stricter guidelines than the state standards.

At 20 mph, it wouldn't seem that driving a go-kart would be much of a thrill, but sitting that low to the ground and on a small track, it feels much, much faster, especially coming into turns. Some speedways, like The Go Kart Track in White Marsh, have what is known as a "slick track," where the road surface is coated with a powder-like substance that causes the car to slide in tight turns.

Why would anyone want to do that?

"It's fun. It's like driving and skidding in the rain," said John Leo, who took ownership of the track three years ago. "It's a challenge. You have to learn how to control the car and turn the wheel when you go into a turn."

But don't think that go-kart racing is only for the "big boys," as Callahan calls his hard-core drivers, typically males between 12 and 35. "We get all types of people," he said, even moms who came to the track intending to sit on the sidelines, or entire birthday parties of 8-year-old girls. "It's a real family activity," Leo said. His speedway in White Marsh has expanded to include three tracks, including one just for younger children, where they won't feel that they will get run down by the big kids. Other go-kart tracks will race the junior cars and senior cars at separate times so that little ones can get a fair chance at driving. For very young children, or those who don't want to drive, some tracks have cars where two people can sit side by side. There are two steering wheels, but, obviously, only one works.

The following is a roundup of area go-kart tracks. It's advisable to call ahead at some tracks as they occasionally close for private parties or races, and most tracks won't operate in severe weather.

The Go Kart Track, 10907 Pulaski Highway, White Marsh, 410-335-6393, www.gokar track.com: Three separate oval tracks: a children's track for junior go-karts; a standard track; and a slick track. Children must be 56 inches tall to drive the senior carts. Cost is $4 for 20 laps. Tickets can also be bought by the book at 10 rides for $37, 15 rides for $50 and 20 rides for $60. Open 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and from 10 a.m. to midnight on Friday and Saturday.

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