When I first hit a go kart track I had challenged another driver to a race. Little did I know back then, but this guy had raced for years in the Skip Barber series and had even trained with Bob Bundurant.
At that time I took great pride in my ability to be able to control a car under a slide. I thought this was some kind of skill.
What happened next was a complete embarrassment, the guy began to destroy me and lap me like I was a grandma on sleeping pills.
I was completely confused but amazed, how was he doing this? Why was he able to do this? What the hell was going on?
That began a lifelong journey for me, I was making pretty much all of the mistakes I mention here. But I’m going to save you the years it took me to learn about them.
In this article we look at 10 mistakes that kart racers make when trying to drive fast. There are many things that can slow us down in a kart, but eliminate these and you’ll be much faster in no time.
Mistake #1 Sliding
A cardinal rule of karting is that “Sliding is Slow, Traction is Fast”. There are many reasons why we slide and we will look at some of those here. The problem is that when we slide it practically puts the brakes on the go kart. You could almost say that the ‘anti slide’ design is a safety feature of the design, but it’s actually a design intended to allow a go kart to be faster in corners.
A go kart has a solid rear axle, and that means that both rear wheels must always rotate at the same speed. That’s a problem in corners because the arc travelled by the inside wheel must always be less than the arc travelled by the outside wheel. And so because the wheels are the same size, the left rear and right rear tires go into a battle for control when in corners.
In a standard car this is handled by a mechanical marvel known as the differential. The differential allows each wheel to be able to travel independently of each other.
And so the inside wheel of your car can travel more slowly than the outside wheel. But a go kart can not do what the differential allows and if both wheels are flat to the ground then one of them must act something like a brake, skipping and losing traction.
To facilitate this the go kart is designed to ‘tripod’ or tip over onto 3 wheels, where the inside rear wheel lifts off the ground. This allows the inside rear to spin freely while the outside rear handles traction and rotation of the corner. A go kart is able to go quickly through a turn. because of that inside rear wheel lift.
But now consider what happens when the kart slides. That inside rear wheel that is lifted into the air, all of a sudden, comes slapping down onto the ground. At the same time the kart twists and the rear steps out. The rotation of the kart must now deal with two rear tires in battle because when they are flat the kart wants to go in a straight line, not turn.
All of this effectively puts the brakes onto the kart and it is not uncommon to see a kart come to a dead stop after a slide. It is also not uncommon to hear the engine bog down under load as the kart struggles to complete the turn.
Even a very slight slide is going to place a minor braking effect on the kart and throw energy to the wind. At the upper levels of racing it is often just a battle to see who micro-slides the least as they push their karts to edge of the limits.
Mistake #2 Turning and braking at the same time when under maximum brake.
To facilitate this rear wheel lifting the kart is also designed to shift the weight forward while under brakes and to lift the rear inside wheel off the ground when you are turning slightly.
When under a lot of braking pressure BOTH wheels actually become light. This creates a problem that can take half of your braking power away when you turn the wheel.
Now while trail braking (turning and braking at the same time) is an advanced braking technique, many drivers don’t know how to do it correctly and end up coming into turns way too fast and spinning out of control.
The correct way to brake at maximum force is to lift your head up, lean back, and brake in a straight line. Note how the back wheels become light and effectively lift off the ground when under heavy braking.
Mistake #3 Getting on the gas too early
So now that we have established that sliding is the enemy and why let’s consider what happens when you get on the gas too early. In a nutshell, you slide.
The reason is because the forward weight bias created under braking needs time to settle the rear wheel down force again. Usually this is handled by coasting for a short while to allow the back wheels to seat themselves.
As a general rule you should wait until you reach the apex (The middle of the turn) before you attempt to reapply the gas.
Consider the kart in the middle of the image here. The rear wheels are still slightly light and effectively without downforce, while in the middle of a turn and before reaching the apex. If you try to apply gas at this stage of the karts imbalance you will induce a slide.
The solution is to wait, and don’t get back on the gas too early.
Mistake #4 Braking Too Late
There is a common misconception amongst intermediate drivers that the trick to being faster than others is to apply the brakes later than others. Indeed it has the potential to make your straights longer, so why not?
The problem is that it increases the forward bias and jarres the weight transfer violently when you slam on the brakes at the end of a straight. It becomes impossible to maintain control and balance after a certain point.
The best way to brake is to find a moderate point at which you can begin squeezing and slowly increase the pressure with a smooth consistent build up. Then use timing and a “brake point” at which you begin to control your speed into the turn. If you find you are coming in too fast, (because you have a loss of control on entry) then move your brake point forward and brake earlier. If you find you can easily take the turn then you can move your brake point forward.
By dialing your brake point in like this, you can eventually have perfect brake control on every turn.
Mistake #5 Getting off the gas too late
This mistake is somewhat related to mistake #4. Before you can brake you will want to get off the gas. You dont want to be braking and accelerating at the same time either. So at some point you need to make the transition from racing and accelerating to decelerating. Sometimes we have to coast before we make the transition to braking.
In some turns we dont brake, we only lift off the gas and coast for a while before getting back onto the gas.
A common place where this kind of mistake occurs is in sweeper turns. Sweeper turns are deceptive because as you enter them you are at no risk of sliding, but as you get more into the turn the lateral forces build up and eventually you have to release the gas or suffer a loss of control.
But it is often the release of the gas that actually causes the loss of control. This is because as you lift off the gas while in the sweeper your weight shifts forward and the rear wheels lose their downforce. This is the classic case of ‘snap oversteer’ and it is caused by getting off the gas too late.
On the contrary the faster driver lifts off the gas early and as he enters the sweeper for a brief moment. This causes the kart to dip forward and tilt over, establishing firm front and rear outside grip first. Next the fast driver reapplies the gas as others with less experience have to lift and lose control.
As a result the pro travels at full acceleration through zones that others are sliding and scrambling to maintain control.
Mistake #6 Leaning Into Turns
This is a very common problem of new drivers and even some more experienced drivers. As you go through a turn the inertia is going to want to throw you to the outside of the turn, so why not fight it like a motorcycle rider and lean over and into the turn?
There are several problems with this mistake. First the rear inside wheel has more trouble lifting, so we force the rear wheels to stay flat. That causes the binding effect and drag of the rear wheels. It also hinders the kart from gaining maximum roll speed through the turn.
The next problem is that the lateral forces created by your body have a tendency to push the wheels outwards, this makes you more susceptible to sliding.
Here is what happens when you lean out of a turn. You assist the rear inside wheel to lift. You also change the lateral down force so that instead of pushing the weight laterally you push down on top of the wheel. This gives you extra grip.
The important thing to remember though is that you MUST lean out BEFORE you enter the turn. If you start to lean when you are in the turn or going into the turn then usually this is too late, and will upset the kart balance.
So if you are going to lean then do it early, while you are still on the straight.
Mistake #7 Not Knowing and Not Looking Where You’re going
This is a common mistake amongst newer drivers who tend to look either directly ahead or directly at the driver who is just in front of them.
There are always very specific places on the track where you need to focus your attention and your eyes. Those points are your apexes, or the mid points of your turns. You need to know where those points are down to the fraction of an inch if possible.
Mike Smith (US indoor national karting champion) used to be fond of saying, ‘the kart will go where your eyes are looking’. That means if you’re staring at the kart in front of you, and you’re faster than them, you’re either going to hit them or hit what they hit. If you’re looking at the corner, you’re probably going to go around the driver in front of you and not into them.
In the image below the cross hair shows where the apex is for this turn and this is exactly where your eyes need to be. The white line on the track also shows an imaginary path, this is what you literally have to paint onto the track with your imagination so you can drive your wheels over the line. We call this the racing line and it is basically built from the apex and turn in point.
The important thing is to find your apex and to focus your eyes on that point from as early as you can possibly see it.
Mistake #8 Turning in too early or too late.
Another name for this is ‘racing into turns’. This is a common problem among new drivers who are in the ‘racing’ mode. You can imagine the situation, there’s a race on and in the hurry the driver turns in early.
In the image below the red line shows the consequence of turning in early, while the white line shows the preferred line. By turning in early the exit is choked and the driver is out of position for the next turn, which is now extremely difficult to take quickly. The white line driver on the other hand has sacrificed his entry for an accelerated next turn. These kinds of trade offs are considered and made on every track. There is a perfect optimal turn in point at every turn.
Mistake #9 Moving your hands around while in a turn.
This is a common mistake made by drivers who like to “drive by feel”. I often see the front wheels of these drivers flapping around like fish. The only thing I can liken this to is driving a ‘nautical mile’.
Now imagine for a moment that you entered a turn within a split hair of losing traction, you are finely riding the absolute limit of possibility. That is the optimal fastest way to travel a turn. But now what happens when you start quivering your hands around? Those micro movements will displace the weight and push you over the limit.
For this reason you should always look for a way to be able to take a turn by holding your hands steady on one long sweeping optimal arc. You might have to make some adjustments on entry or slowly unwind your exit but the main highest G force portion of the turn should be made and held with one steady input. This will stop you from sliding.
Mistake #10 Trying to drive by reflex and not timing.
Another problem with driving by feel is that the standard human reflexes have about a 200th of a second response time. Even in a relatively slow indoor kart, and a top speed of around 15 meters per second you will travel 3 meters before you can even twitch a response to what you are feeling.
That might as well be a mile off mark. For this reason driving is more about timing than it is reflexes. This means you need to get your bearings early, on straights before turns, and as much in advance as you can.
Always look for ways you can use timing rather than reflexes. One way to do that is to look for marks and markers around the track that you can use for timing. Cracks in the ground, paint and objects on the sides (preferably objects that wont move). This is a cheats way of staying on line, but it works very well.
I remember once while racing in the 24 hour enduro of Charlotte at VLK raceway. I was botching one of the turns every time, and I had a teammate on the radio with me asking “what’s up with that turn?”. I was in the seat for an hour and for the first 15 minutes missed the apex just about every time.
There was just something about that turn that made it impossible to naturally hit the apex.
So I started to time my turn in point by using the tires on the entry as markers. I chose a tire that was somewhere about right and decided I would turn in at that tire. I came through the turn and early apexed. That’s okay I decided next turn I would turn in at the next tire.
Again I came through the turn and early apexed, but not as bad this time. I moved my marker ahead one more tire.
This time it was different, I came through the turn and nailed the apex perfect. I kept my focus on that turn in point marker for the rest of the session and nailed the apex perfectly for the rest of the hour.
That’s how you use timing to beat feel and beat reflexes.
That’s the first 10 mistakes that slow you down in a go kart, that come to my mind. Almost all of them are basically related to avoiding the slide and staying on the driving line. I hope these ideas will help you to find speed on your track.