Karts : Go Fast

Everyone’s driven a go-kart before, right?

I’m talking those small things commonly found at an amusement park and watched over by a bored teenager who has just as much concern for your safety as he does the geo-political policies of Burma. These are the things that have the stickiness of cotton candy and the smell of sweat.  If you stomp on the accelerator, you might be able to outrun an old lady in a walker.

The track, almost without exception, is flat and simple with gradual curves but at least one sharp corner to add ‘excitement’.  The ‘crashes’ are bumping into one another.  This experience is enhanced by A – a large group of rowdy friends, B – copious amounts of alcohol, or C – both of the previous.

Yeah, loads of fun.

This is the Rock Island Grand Prix.

Courtesy Ryan Stringfield
Courtesy Ryan Stringfield

These are not amusement park go-karts.  Some of the machines that run at the Rock cost over $4,000 and have their own pit crew.  Some are cheaper, maybe as low as $500 but every one of them will put the hurt on anything you pull out of the carnival.

The Course

The Start/Finish line about 3/4ths of the way up on the street to the left.  Down in the lower right is Corner 2.  By the time karts hit there, they’ll be going over 100mph.  Right in the middle of the S-curve is Corner 4 (there’s a red object right under it).  They can go through that as fast as 70 and often do it 2 or 3 wide.  Crashes here are usually more than just bumps.

In the past, I’ve worked Corner 2.  With it’s high speeds and sharp turn, it sees its share of spectacular accidents.  This year I got moved over to Corner 4 which was a nice change of scenery and action.   This is the place where a lot of people try to make their move before the final two corners and the checkers.  So obviously there is potential for heroes and potential for some serious wrecks as karts have a very annoying tendency of bouncing back out into traffic.

Being a Corner Worker (aka Safety Worker) lets you see a lot of things.  For instance, you get to see Karts go airborne.  This happens when they come up on lapped traffic and the faster driver isn’t able to react in time and drives over (yes, OVER) the driver in front, resulting in a very nasty three kart wreck.  Another kart lost a side pod  which skittered across the track into the path of another kart which hit it, blew its front tire, and went into our barrier at full speed.  Took ten minutes to repair that damage.

Add to that the usual ‘ran out of talent’ or ‘took the corner too wide/sharp’, blown tires, thrown chains, and you’ve got yourself a pretty eventful day.   Below, me and Dave flip a kart upright after a crash.  The driver was thrown after flipping twice but didn’t have a scratch on him.

Hey, it was flipped when I got there!
Hey, it was flipped when I got there!

Despite the wrecks, the ambulance was called out only once and that was as a precaution (the driver ended up fine, maybe a bit sore).  Karting is, in general, a safe sport and Rock Island goes above and beyond.   The Quad City Times quoted the race director as saying ‘when other venues are looking to be insured, he said the insurers tell clients that they must meet “Rock Island levels of safety.”  There are about 1,500 bales of hay plus barriers, safety pillows, and other measures put into place between 6pm and midnight on Friday.  Plus the scores of volunteers and corner workers.  It’s a pretty safe gig.

Of course, getting the drivers to listen to us corner workers … well, that’s a whole different matter.  I use those times to practice my drill Sergent voice.

Best race of the day?  Easily the TaG Jrs.  (TaG stands for Touch-and-Go, the method of starting the kart).  Juniors is limited to I think 11 – 15 year olds.  The top three were nose to tail the entire way, swapping the lead frequently.  It was awesome and the crowd was jumping to their feet each time they came by.  The final two laps were insane and intense.

Now let’s get one thing straight – I am not a gear head.  I drive a Prius.  I don’t know the difference between a spark plug and a carburetor.  This race though, it’s addictive and draws you in.  It was five years ago when Greg invited me down to check it out.  Four of those years I’ve helped set up the course.  I’ve gotten to met lots of new people.  Shook the hands of a former Formula One driver, and learned things I never would have imagined learning about.

So let others sit back and relax all weekend.  This is how I want to spend my Labor Day weekend.


(Video courtesy Barry Schonberg)

5 thoughts on “Karts : Go Fast

  1. Barry did not use his turn signal once the entire time. And I am sure he was exceeding the speed limit for a downtown area.

    Cool video. Glad you had a good time. Dad


  2. Great write up Matt. Had fun working the corner with you this year. You’ll be on your own next year – I’m hauling the Rotax down and doing it myself, finally.
    And whats up with teh geo politics of Burma these days? Don’t be dissin’ the Burmese Obama clan…..


  3. A quick note – the video matt has linked here is from Michael Johnson – he was the disabled driver (paralyzed from the waist down). His legs are strapped in – check out the steering wheel – right side is a throttle from a jet ski, the left side has a motorcross brake handle on it.


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