Cycle-Kart Racing: The DIYer, Adrenaline-Junkie's Dream
Adrenaline junkies take note! What if we told you there was a form of racing unspoiled by cut-throat competition? A type of racing that favored style, history, camaraderie, and most importantly fun over abstract points or a name on a $5 trophy? Racing in a car that even you can build for less than your monthly mortgage statement? Well breathe into a paper sack before you hyperventilate - because cycle-kart racing is real, low-buck, amateur-friendly racing for the rest of us. Cycle karts have their origins in numerous places, the earliest of them actual cars Britons fashioned from motorcycle parts in the early 20th Century. But they achieved traction stateside as we know it when the late Peter Stevenson, proto cycle-kart builder, published his exploits online. Stevenson’s boyish enthusiasm proved irresistible to would-be racers who capitalized upon his plans to build cycle karts of their own. Though cycle karts achieved a modest worldwide following, they've reached a sort of critical mass in the fertile Pacific Northwest DIY culture. In fact the movement sort of coalesced around a lighting shop, an expansive design space south of Seattle that doubles as an impromptu garage for builders to pool resources and exchange ideas. The rules make two stipulations. Traditionally speaking for cyclekarts to compete in events they have to use Honda GX200 engines and constant-variable transmissions. However, this year promoters allowed for two electric entries, one of them a project from a couple high-school students who proved there’s potential in it. The other rule is written in stone: 17-inch moped wheels. They’re plentiful, strong enough for aggressive use, and maintain the right proportions for a scaled-down prewar racecar. There are plenty more less-official rules, all of them engineered to keep things fun and cool looking. Karts should resemble something historical, preferably sports cars from the period prior to World War II...if only to look right with the spindly wheels. They shouldn’t weigh more than 250 pounds, yet there’s no minimum. It’s a system that encourages progress (lighter cars are more fun) yet governs itself (really light cars also tend to break easier). To facilitate a spirit where winning isn’t everything, the organizers preempt fierce competitiveness by lightly penalizing race winners. You heard it right: winning isn’t everything. That’s not to say these people don’t race. They do and sometimes hard. And in some stretches they’re capable of reaching about 35mph, slow enough to keep serious tangles at bay but with your head a foot or so off the ground it’s fast enough to raise some adrenaline. But most of all karts should bear their maker’s mark. In fact if there’s any sort of elitism, it’s that. This is a community which praises ingenuity and pluck rather than trick parts. With very few exceptions, nobody in this impromptu clan has ever built a full-scale car - and of those who have none had built a cycle kart until very recently. Though not all are beginners they’re rank amateurs in the sense that they couldn’t sell their services—few people will pay to play for risk of violating that do-it-yourself mandate. And that’s where the flavor develops. Those with woodworking skills carve bodies—and in at least one case a frame—from timber. A boat builder laminated his team’s body from fiberglass. A professional hot-rod builder rolled his car’s body on an English wheel, the same tools and methods the craftsmen used nearly a century ago to craft the body on the car he'd been inspired by. And for the lesser-skilled rest of the pack, the parts are readily recognizable as generic stock from the local hardware store. The cycle-kart movement sort of follows the evolution of the go kart in the ’50s: after tiring of racing around parking lots, the group started organizing races at numerous venues with various surfaces like hill climbs on muddy cow trails. With grand schemes in sight, last year the organizers appealed to elders in a sleepy agricultural town on a cinematic-looking plateau in central Washington. Their request: close the city streets for a true city race—a Monaco among farms if you will. Named in honor of its host town, the Tieton Grand Prix evolved into the crown-jewel event for the group. They didn't stop with the town either - this year they worked with Ed Marquand and Michael Longyear, partners in the Mighty Tieton, a consortium of planners, entrepreneurs, and artists dedicated to fostering a creative commons in the town’s old warehouses and shops. Together they convinced a local farmer to repurpose some of his fields’ paths as racetrack—you could say a Baja among the berries if you’re into the alliteration thing. The result was a four-venue race: the road event, the off-road heat, a grudge-match hillclimb up a cinder-lined path, and a timed trials course. All told nearly 20 karts and their teams showed up to compete making this the world’s largest event of its kind. That a racer packed his family and two karts 1,300 miles from Phoenix, Arizona testifies to the event’s significance. One Canadian team’s presence by itself transformed the Tieton Grand Prix into an international affair; however, that nearly pales in comparison to the 18-plus-hour flight one driver endured from New Zealand just to participate. Yeah, the prospect of racing on the cheap among friends for no more than camaraderie really does sound too good to be true. But it isn’t. While proximity makes it impossible for most people outside the northwest to participate, it’s relatively straightforward for even individuals to organize events in their areas: simply letting a few friends go for a spin in a cycle kart is sufficient enough to inspire a fleet of the things. To see more cycle-kart exploits visit the Gittreville Grand Prix website, www.gittrevillegp.com. It’s racing, grass-roots style, with hardly a budget to speak of. And no drama required.