You Had Me at Hello: Ruined by CycleKarts at Tieton Grand Prix
Remember, "How Ya Gonna Keep 'em Down on the Farm (After They've Seen Paree?)?” If you haven’t, it was a smash hit in the summer of 1919. It’s a humorous lamentation that GIs returning from The Great War will never be content with rural living after seeing magnificent cities like Paris. So it didn’t enjoy rotation in my mix-tape collection either, but I couldn’t help but think of it last summer when some good friends invited us to drive to a very un-Paris-like farm town in the hot-and-dry middle of Washington state. The occasion, the Tieton Grand Prix, an event where a bunch of yahoos bomb around in what look like spawns of go-karts and soap-box-derby cars. I desperately wanted to go but, because I was chin deep in a massive job that threatened to kill me, I couldn’t afford any distractions. So I made a pact with myself: go but don’t drive one of the damn things. For to do so would be like a GI alighting upon the City of Light—it would hopelessly and irrevocably ruin me and I’d have to build a kart of my own. So like a dry drunk at Oktoberfest, I stumbled through the weekend, anxious, with a long-forgotten song on constant loop in my head. I had a great time. Seriously, I had a great time because cyclekarts are some of the coolest things I’ve seen on wheels. That’s a statement not to be taken lightly; I write about cars for a living so I’ve seen and done a fair bit. I may be broke from it but at least I have stories. And from what I saw, these people were having more fun at 40mph than I ever did going four times faster (and doing it for way less than 10 percent of the cost). And based on the feedback from last year's article, apparently readers had just as much fun reading it. For the 2015 Tieton Grand Prix, things were a little different. For one, the event boasted 21 karts, far and away the largest number fielded at any event put on by Gittreville, the Seattle club that hosts the Tieton GP. Of them were an Austin 7, a ’40s Maserati (actually a return of an older car), an early ’30s BMW/Wartburg, the Delâge that won the 1914 Indy 500, an MG K3, a teens-era Alfa Romeo, and a ’34 Hudson Indy car, one of the better sorted machines in the field. One guy even brought his version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang! To be clear for cyclekart newbies, these aren't the actual cars mentioned - they're mini representations, owner-built, and powered by a 200cc Honda OHV engine. But one car truly surprised us all. Last year Rhys Nolan flew out from New Zealand for the festivities. This year, though, he brought out fellow Kiwi Mike Thorpe. And they brought something that most of us thought impossible: a cyclekart. (Editor's Note: Originally noted Lloyd Willis joined Rhys, but it was brought to our attention that Mike Thorpe was the fellow.) As incredible as it seems, he built a teens-era Mercedes Benz that broke down into bits - fitting in the three suitcases his airline allowed. Once stateside, he reassembled the car with a borrowed engine and wheels and hit the road. Event organizer Doug Varey extended another generous offer that changed the scope of my journey. Earlier this year Josh Higgins sold his kart leaving him without a ride. So Varey gave us a seat in one of his spare cars, an interpretation of a teens-era GN cycle car, the full-scale inspiration for the cyclekarts. This invitation raised eyebrows. Most praise the GN for its power but some expressed their concerns about its handling. Observations of the GN at speed run the gamut from a benign spookiness to flat-out terrifying. You see, while every kart employs some sort of front suspension, the GN is one of the few karts endowed with it in the rear. And given the confines of the car’s size and its creator’s prior experience designing rear suspension (which was nil until the GN), it’s probably safe to assume that the GN doesn’t boast the perfect rear-roll center or spring rate. And one could make the case those are critical components for a car with a good 80 percent of its weight on the rear wheels. But stability be damned; I was here for the pucker factor and a wily ride sounded perfect. I’m probably more Baby Huey than Hurley Haywood, so I jammed myself into a cockpit designed by and for a man hardly more than half my heft. I fit, albeit barely. But, once in, I came to the conclusion that I’d probably cut off my feet if they got in the way of me driving this thing. Cyclekart, you had me at hello. Participation requires a nom de pilote or driver’s name. Some assume the identities of real racers. Varey is Johnny Dumfries, a 1980s Formula 1 champion. Some just make one up that hints at motorsports, like Higgins is Earl Upgrade. And others go ad absurdum like Max Moseley, AKA Guy Gadbois, Inspector Clouseau’s would-be libertine alter ego in the Return of the Pink Panther. Me? I chose my porn-star name, Ciccio (pronounced chee-cho, our first pet) LaPalma (the street I grew up on). Every year the rougher off-road event claims a few casualties, so moving it to Sunday made everyone breathe a little easier. That put the Grand Prix through Tieton’s streets on Saturday. This being my first time in a kart, I naturally took it easy for at least part of a lap. Tooling around the closed streets seemed about as fun as, and probably even faster than, I imagined. Maybe I was a little more Hurley Heywood than I thought. Then something happened at the end of one fast straight. Even at the best of times cyclekart brakes are the worst, a consequence of trying to stop a car from the rear when all of the load transmits to the front. And the GN is extra special because that brake is a tin drum. And as I later learned, its mechanism was way out of adjustment. Little brakes and lots of hubris hurtled me into one corner just a little too fast for conditions. Faced with the potential of rolling over or the guarantee of driving straight into hay bale, I turned the wheel. Then something magical happened as I entered the corner: the rear briefly and ever so gently tried to pass me. I tried it again at the next corner, although this time I jammed my foot back in the throttle as soon as the back stepped out. The car whisked just a little bit sideways around the turn. Then it dawned on me: that was the spookiness and terrifying feeling that people talked about! It was a drift! A beautiful, spontaneous, and effortless drift! Haha! Move over, Vaughn Gittin Jr. Forget Hurley Haywood; I was Mr. Hyde! That we came in fifth of seven cars in the second heat was of no concern; I was there to play real-life Mario Kart, placing be damned. Results of the Grand Prix Finale that followed aren’t posted, but I passed my fair share of drivers in the 21-kart field. And I didn’t crash, either. So I had that going for me. It’s unfair to call it a competition, owing to the just-for-fun nature of this sport, but the Tieton event has a new run of sorts. The Gittreville crew brokered a deal where racers could drive completely unattended around a four-mile route of roads on Sunday morning. The garden-variety cyclekart is good for about 40mph, which doesn’t sound like much until you remember that the sensation of speed is largely sensory and that your eyes are only a couple feet off the ground. So the opportunity to run flat out for nearly a mile at times is pretty exciting. Combined with the journey from town and back, it’s a lot of seat time on real roads. For the second time in as many years, farmer Craig Campbell opened his orchards for the Campbell Cup, the off-road portion of the event. A missed turn and engine stall put the Upgrade/LaPalma team at the back of the pack in Heat 2, but once again we went just to tear it up. By the Final Heat of the day we were on point, and by dint of a stellar bit of driving by my partner in the first half, all I had to do was maintain the extensive lead against the father-son team of Dan and Nico Stettler (Alphonse Roche and Wildsau respectively) to win the race. The vanquished observed that our success was largely due to the GN’s heralded power - which may be true, but the fact remains that a self-described grandma driver and a bulky wildman beat the top-seeded team. Following that, of course a big party happened to break out during the festivities. Last year we fended for ourselves with a pot-luck barbecue but this year Central Bistro catered the event. Ed Marquand—co-founder with Michael Longyear of Mighty Tieton, the arts-driven movement that promises to revive the sleepy farm village—even got in on the act, pedaling around in a trike hawking Tieton GP-related wares. And as it did last year, Mighty Tieton opened its warehouse for racers to use as a pit area. While we could’ve given another race-focused photo spread of the event, it would look redundant at best. In fact it probably wouldn’t look as good, since I was distracted by my own participation. Instead, I took the opportunity to show more of the culture that makes events like the Tieton Grand Prix so much fun. Because after all, the cars and the race are just excuses for people to get together. It’s a social event that just happens around cars. Enjoy the 50+ photo gallery above for a peek inside or click here for Driving Line's coverage of last year's Teiton Grand Prix. As for me, well, as expected I’m totally ruined from a ride in a cyclekart. Though I can’t guarantee a finished car by next year’s event, I’m already scrounging parts. Because now that I’ve seen Paree, I think the farm really sucks.