Not Your Average Go-Kart
the Midwest Karting Assoc. takes it to another level
Before I visited Eau Claire Raceway, I didn’t think I held a vestige of interest in anything four-wheeled and speedy (beside my trusty Lumina). But I have to say, it was truly exciting to see that telltale black-and-white checkered flag whipping back and forth, and the karts filing neatly into the pit after a white-knuckled drive.
These aren’t your standard theme-park karts. They are well-oiled machines, and though the karts are technically capable of reaching 100 mph, top speed is determined by the curvaceousness of the course.
Eau Claire’s very own go-kart raceway, located on the same turf as the Menards Distribution Center, is the nearest race track of its kind “this side of Minneapolis.” Midwest Karting Association, which currently leases the track from Menards for $1 a year, is run by enthusiasts such as board member and Altoona resident Peter Atkinson. On a blue-skied Sunday last August, Atkinson roamed “the pit” with me, pointing out what was what and who was who. Usually he’d be gearing up for a race, but his kart was currently suffering from a motor glitch.
The first thing he stressed is that these aren’t your standard theme-park karts, which by regulation can only reach 24 mph. They are well-oiled machines, whose owners breathe life into every bolt. Though the karts are technically capable of reaching 100 mph, top speed is determined by the curvaceousness of the course – there are seven different configurations that the club arranges for race weekends. “Some courses have you hitting 75 mph by the time you break into the corner,” says Atkinson, who joined when his son Taylor, 14, expressed interest. They both bought used karts for just over $1,000, both of which Peter says are competitive.
We hovered near a suited-up Taylor as he slipped into his red kart, #9a. Besides his ergonomic driving suit, he wore a padded vest and protective neck brace, topped with a hefty helmet. A sticker on the kart’s driver-side panel bore Taylor’s name and was flanked on each side with an American and Canadian flag. (The Atkinson family, I learned, is from Canada.) In front of, next to, and behind #9a sat older teenaged boys and girls, and middle-aged men. Peter explained that Taylor, though underage, had been promoted to the senior racing class (15+). His times were nothing to sneeze at.
Peter fist-bumped his son before stepping back to watch the group of seven accelerate away; they stayed bunched together like a school of fish, visibly restrained. With the first glimpse of green flag, a grating roar ensued, and they thinned into single-file. After a lap, Peter gave a whoop. “Yeah!” he said. Then, for me: “Taylor moved up to third.”
Low walls made of linked plastic blocks (think Legos) were there to guard the especially tight turns. “They move together,” says Peter, locking his fingers to demonstrate the event of a crash, “and it absorbs the energy.”
The extent to which MKA values safety, however, is pretty visible. An ambulance is parked next to the track, and before drivers are cut loose, their karts must undergo a safety check. There are also post-race inspections that help ensure legality – in other words, racers can’t Frankenstein their vehicles however they please. “There are very strict rules,” says Peter. The top three karts from each race are subjected to randomized tests. “Techs will either look at the type of fuel, or check the tires, or take the motor apart down to the last bolt … the idea is to make it as fair as we can for any race, so it really is your talent that wins,” says Peter.
Though I heard hints and glimmers of Nascar-caliber ambition, Peter said most are in it for “fun, trophies, and bragging rights.” No cash prizes are allotted. And they’re not so protective of the karts as to say, “hands off.” In fact, they offered me a ride. “We try not to give them more kart than they can handle,” says Peter of curious visitors. If you do try it, I recommend the pole position.
Midwest Karting Association • Menards Distribution Center parking lot, Eau Claire • every other weekend May 21 to Aug. 28 • MKAracing.com