Karting is one of America’s most significant motorsports categories, yet most don’t know about it. Even in the powersports community, karting is the “ugly step-child.” Purpose-built racing karts are very high-tech and affordable fun. You can spend more on a mountain bike these days than a pre-owned or even brand new kart. So what’s not to love? Why aren’t powersports dealers lining up to carry these mini monsters?
For one thing, kart racing today is more or less a self-contained cottage industry. Kart racers sell to other kart racers. The network of dealers is usually small family racing teams located in key kart racing regions who sell to other racers to get a little better deal on the karts and parts they need to keep racing.
When I was a kid, my dad owned a parts store that also sold racing parts and dune buggies. He came home one day and said he traded a customer a dune-buggy for a “quarter midget” and many spare parts. I had no idea what that was about, but I was all in since it meant I could race.
In the early 80s, my brother and I switched from quarter-midgets powered by 5-hp Continental engines to Yamaha KT100 racing karts. These karts were a big jump from 5 hp around a 1/20th of a mile oval to more than twice that in a two-stroke, air-cooled Yamaha. The engines were built for kart racing in the late 70s as a replacement for Mcculloch engines that were essentially modified chainsaw motors.
At that time, kart races were mostly local events on a 3/8 mile track with only a handful of turns. The track we raced at every week was intended to be a rental kart track in the back property of a bar and pool hall. It was kidney bean-shaped, and a lap was about 13 seconds! But coming from quarter-midgets, where a lap took 7 seconds, it seems like a massive track!
After a few races, we had an engine builder re-ring our engine. But he never split the case to line up the crank and the piston with the cylinder. We “stuck” many pistons that year and eventually switched to one of the top engine builders in the area. We didn’t have any gauges, so he showed us how to tune the engine and pipe for just the right mixture – not too rich but not too lean, just a little puff of smoke at the end of the straightaway. We never seized another engine after that.
After racing cars for ten years, we went back to karting because of our love of the sport. Karting boils down all of the high-tech, high-dollar parts and pieces into the barest form of speed. It’s a driver’s sport. Like racing a motorcycle, your body is a big part of the setup. The way you position your seat and add weight (if necessary to make the minimum requirement) can make a big difference in lap times. Simple adjustments such as front-end toe, caster and tire pressure changes help drivers “dial in” the chassis. The engines are finely tuned, with just the right amount of two-stroke oil to gasoline ratio, so it doesn’t bog down the motor too much or lose the all-important lubrication. It’s a delicate balance between friction and speed.
While Yamaha still makes the KT100S engine, one of the most popular powerplants of all-time in karting, the Briggs & Stratton Animal engine for 4-cycle classes is also very prevalent. But there are so many new classes and engines that were not around 25-30 years ago. The Rotax Max class, for example, is a spec engine package built by BRP that has its own global class. The engine is sealed, and the clutch is a low-speed lock up unit that effectively makes it only useful for getting out of the pits. The karts also have a built-in starter and battery. In the 100cc Yamaha classes, racers need a crew person with an external starter to get them going.
The karts today are as high-tech as any mountain bike with about the same price tag. Karts run $4,000-$6,000 for a roller chassis and up to $10,000 as a complete turnkey, race-ready package. There are also affordable classes where the whole package is less than $5,000 MSRP. Used chassis and karts are available for quite a bit less, but the beating and banging can take a toll on karts. It may not seem like a contact sport, but it is on small tracks where passing is minimal.
According to a racing industry association, there are about 20,000 kart racers in the U.S. While it may not seem like that much, it only rivals the SCCA and some short-tracks for participants in the car racing world. But the crossover from powersports to karting is an awkward one if you are not closely associated with a track or have a lot of knowledge about the sport. Just like motorcycle racing, you have to be there. Most parts suppliers and dealers show up at a track every week because they are racing themselves, and they sell some on the side. There are very few that don’t take part in the sport and only sell products and karts.
Consumables in karting is a big deal, maybe even more than in motorcycle racing. Full-bread racing karts can generate cornering forces similar to an IndyCar or an F1 car, which is why so many professional drivers use karts for training on off-weekends. One way to get your name into the karting and car racing world is to sponsor a racer or bring in a pro racer who is also an avid karting enthusiast to talk about karting to your potential customers.
Overall, karting is not very different from other powersports, except the karts can’t be used anywhere but a track or a closed course. Motorcycles and ROVs have an advantage in that they can be enjoyed on the road or a trail outside of a race track. But how many of your customers are buying full-bred MX bikes to ride on the trails only? There are more than 160 kart tracks around the country, so there’s a good chance your dealership is not far from one. If you’re curious enough, wander out to a local track some Sunday to see what it’s all about. I guarantee you’ll be impressed or at least more open to the idea that a karting line may work for your dealership.