Saturday, December 21, 2013

In Which Professional Drivers Kick My Ass at Go-Kart Racing (Again)

The sport of kings. When someone invites you karting, you CAN'T say no.

It is Friday night, -7 degrees out, and for some reason, I am sitting in the second row of a rented Ford Econoline, circling an icy parking lot outside a Middle Eastern fast food restaurant in Montreal, Quebec.

“How come the parking lot is full, but there’s no one in the restaurant?” somebody in the back of the van asks.

“No, this place is great,” Rees reassures us from the cockpit. “Hang on a second…” He pins it, sending the van and its eleven passengers in to a short-lived drift. “Aw, it has traction control!” Rees is a professional rally driver. Everyone in the van races something, actually—in addition to a few fellow dirt bikers, there is Greg’s friend Ben, who builds and races vintage sidecar rigs, Fred, a Formula 2000 driver, Frank, who races street bikes, a couple other rally guys, a driving instructor… Where the heck do these people come from, I wonder, and how did they get those jobs? My career envy leads me to a more practical consideration—maybe I should have brought my neck brace. I’m gonna get clobbered.

 Moments later, the van bounces over a raised median, squeezes between the metal posts supporting a large billboard, and skids to a halt on the glare ice of an adjoining lot. We pile out. It’s going to be an interesting night.

Several thousand calories of unidentified protein later, I am feeling more human. I finished the last final exam of my first semester as an engineering student three hours ago, and as a result, the exact details of how I got talked into this venture are hazy to me. Something of the sort happened last year and was an absolute riot, so probably refusing the offer just failed to enter my mind. However, I seem to remember that I have something to do in the morning—something to do in Massachusetts in the morning, something really important—but we’re almost at the karting track, so I decide I'll think about it later.

Chaos reigns indoors as well. The intended party of 20 has become a party of 30, thanks to the evident popularity of Rees’s son Cameron, and we’re going to have to qualify and race in three separate heats. Greg, Ben and I are in the group that will qualify first. 

A scruffy black-clad teenager waves the green flag and I nail the accelerator to the floor. Nonetheless, I’m instantly shunted out of the way from behind. Are my line choices really that bad, or did some skinny teenager get a kart with double horsepower? Greg and Ben pass me in the first five minutes and I see nothing of them for the remainder of our session. I try to stay clear of the traffic and log some fast laps, which will get me a good position in the heat races.

After the qualifier ends, we retire to the lounge—think cement floors, metal tables, and walls plastered with F1 memorabilia—and try to make sense of our printed race logs through a thought-destroying barrage of house music. I haven’t done too badly for myself, I discover—my fastest lap was 30.02 seconds, leaving me fourth so far. Greg is in first and Ben is in second, so we go back to the track and watch the lap board with intense interest as the two other qualifiers progress. It plays out exactly as expected—Greg and Ben have made it to the fast race, and I’ll take pole position in the medium race. Fred, ominously and improbably, is behind me.

After the slow race finishes, me and my competitors in the medium race are reshuffled into the karts they just vacated. As soon as I get in my new ride, I know my lead isn’t going to last past the first corner. I am wearing thin-soled Puma shoes and the accelerator pedal is stuck in the “off” position. I hold the brake and stomp the gas experimentally as we wait in the queue: nothing. The short person pedal extender, a blunted arc of ½ inch metal tubing, digs into the arch of my foot as I push harder… Oh yes, there it goes, after a slight delay. Great.

We line up on the grid, the green flag waves, and I’m barely to the first corner before somebody clips me on their way past and sends me skidding off my line. By the time I’m back on track, I’m in third. My descent through the ranks levels off for a few laps once I get the hang of the kart—when the pedal is down, it has plenty of get-up-and-go, but if I let the pedal off, it stays that way until extreme and increasingly painful pressure is applied. Five laps from the end, Fred laps me. Screw letting off the gas, I decide, and begin modulating my speed only with the brake. What results is an epic battle that has fortuitously been GoPro’d, and it’s more exciting than it looks, because any time you can’t see Fred, his kart is pushing mine. Can you draft someone at 35 mph?

I finish out the race in fourth, but I beat my best lap time from the qualifier by a few tenths, so that’s something. Fred and I shake hands and settle in to watch the fast race, which dissolves into complete pandemonium after one of the contestants loses a wheel—yes, it actually fell off mid-race. Prior to that, Cameron looked all set to edge out his dad for the overall win.

After consuming several beers, stopping for poutine, and buying a package of chicken hearts and “some weird cookies that taste like lotion” (they totally did), our party sets forth on the three-hour journey back to Burlington. Before we even get out of the city, we are faced with an unwelcome sight: why the hell are they doing bridge construction on Friday night in subzero temperatures? The resulting traffic is horrendous, but Rees navigates it with style, evidently fueled by the horrible Eurobeat music pounding from the radio. As he fearlessly cuts someone off to merge left, the guy riding shotgun leans out the window and shouts, “HEY! MOVE OVER, WE’RE AMERICANS! YOU NEED US FOR OUR MILITARY!” Whatever else I’d been planning to do at 12:30 AM tonight, I think, it sure had nothing on this.

Of course, by the time Greg and I reach home at 4:30, my mood has sobered a bit—especially since before I go to bed, I should probably write an email to my editor Kevin Novello explaining why I will not be joining him and Jim Senecal at the Trail Rider Magazine test track in eight hours as previously arranged. I hit the sack not knowing how recent events are about to affect my writing career—but I figure that, as excuses for unprofessional no-shows go, this one will at least get me some points for originality.

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