Shifter Kart Racing at Laguna Seca

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Racing karts at Laguna Seca is a thrill like no other. The racing is close and competitive and a majority of the corners flat out with 5-10 karts only inches away! I race with a 2001 stock Honda package, but to enter the stock Honda race at Laguna Seca with NCK I needed a 1999 engine. I was left with two choices; find a new engine or race the smaller modified 125cc (open 125cc shifters) class. So I listed my car for sale and wound up trading with a karting family who was moving into car racing.

Cash and a new kart secured, I went to Musgrave Racing Company in Corona, Ca to inspect my new-to-me 2014 Tony Kart and 1999 engine package. The frame was a bit scratched up but in good condition, however the cylinder had been honed a bit too aggressively into the nikasil liner and would require a slightly larger ring for normal compression. The race was only days away and we could not get the over sized ring and piston in time, so we cleaned it up the best we could and stuck a regular 1999 piston in it. I swapped the fuel system for a simpler and more direct MRC system, and moved all the electrics off the motor and onto my seat for better reliability.

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I broke in the top end on my new-to-me motor at my local track and started playing around with different setups to meet Laguna’s strict 92db sound policy.  I don’t understand why someone would move next door to a race track and then complain about noise but that’s another story altogether… after trying different silencer and air box combinations I found a reasonable setup that would make the 92db without being too restrictive on engine performance. By the end of the day I beat my previous record at the test track by 0.4 of a second with the new kart and restricted package.

It was a Wednesday and the track was green (low grip) just like Laguna Seca would be for the karts… I knew then that Laguna would be a good event for me.

My brother Doug came along to play Pit Boss Butters and enjoy a weekend of camping! He was awesome and a huge help as the weekend’s events started to unfold. We drove up to Laguna Thursday and arrived late around 1 am, but not too late to have a beer and enjoy our camp site before going to bed. In the morning we were awoken by the sounds of track day cars understeering in turn 5 and motoring up the steep hill towards the corkscrew. There’s nothing like waking up at a track for a race weekend!

After a quick breakfast while watching the cars on track we headed down to the Kart pits to set up with Sean Bond, Todd Cameron, and Troy Starheim who are friends from SoCal and supported by the same race shop MRC. It was a big help as I had packed my van too high with supplies and was having a hard time finding the stuff I packed to bring to the race… I wound up borrowing 40 lbs of ballast to add to my 25 lbs of ballast, jets, bolts and tools to meet the 400 lbs class weight.

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Our weekend was shared with lotus cup races, electric run groups, and track day cars…needless to say the kart race groups had limited track time throughout the weekend so the first sessions best lap time would set the grid for the first qualifying race. Most of our group had never raced at this track before so we opted for different gearing on each kart and slightly different jetting to compare numbers when we came in. This was huge and kept our group together at the front. The gearing choice would be a compromise of drafting vs lone running… in a pack the high gear worked wonders but alone it left me a sitting duck on the straights, sometimes I would not even grab 6th gear without a drafting partner… I gambled that the pack would drive hard and that I would be able to make a decent start to hold enough momentum for the higher gearing. It worked for my first race in the secondary class.

Karts attacking the corkscrew on lap 1
Karts attacking the corkscrew on lap 1

The support race (f150cc open) had two on track sessions, a qualifying and a main. I geared up, my brother set tire pressures and pushed my kart over to the grid for qualifying. On my first warm up I noticed the kart was not happy in left hand turns and seemed to be getting angrier with every corner. By the time I made it to Rainey Curve I knew I had lost all air in my back right tire. I dived into the hot pits and drove to the spot my brother was waiting at the wall. I was hoping I had burped air from the tire and it would hold air again. He pumped up my tire with our handy bike pump (not running on a Penske budget yet…) set my pressure and sent me off. All in all only about a minute of track time was lost. I was released from the pits and charged down pit exit to make back my lost time but by the time I entered turn 5 I had already lost all air in the tire again and I was thinking “crap now I have to find another set of tires for the main race and start at the back of the grid without a lap time”.

After the secondary race group main, Happy with my 2nd place finish

The racing on track is close but in the pits there is an impressive amount of camaraderie between the racers. I wound up buying a set of tires on credit from Jimmy McNeil, the man I considered to be my biggest competition in the race. He could have said no but instead sold me the set of tires on credit and at his cost, thanks again. I mounted up the tires in my friend’s trailer, my brother installed them on the kart and we were ready to go racing! I’m not sure what happened to Jimmy in qualifying but he actually started the race behind me, this was a good thing and meant that even though I was not starting at the front I still had a shot to win from 2/3rds back on the grid.

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I took the green flag from 23rd on grid and by the end of the first lap had pushed up to 6th place. My tires held air this time and I continued to charge hard finding drafting partners who were willing to be pushed and I had to take the corners flat out to catch up to Sean who started at the front and was driving fast to hold his lead. I got lucky with the traffic and back markers and made passes without losing momentum.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NZ56FDQ96BY?rel=0&w=853&h=480]

Sean had to slightly lift while lapping a group of slower karts mid corner and that was all I needed to catch the lead pack. I Pushed Sean down the start/finish straight and made my move in the Andretti hairpin, I was now leading the race. We had checked out on most of the field at this point and were sitting comfortably in first and second, or so we thought. Two laps later I hear another kart on my tail and think, “damn it’s Jimmy” as it sounds a bit different than Sean the previous laps before. I tried to take turn 3 flat and hit a bump on track; it kicked my tail out and scrubbed away a couple mph before I corrected it. Jimmy walked by me and won the race. He won by a healthy margin and probably would have just passed me after a long straight if I hadn’t made the error. I was happy with 2nd but knew I had engine & gearing work to do before the West Coast main event the next day.

I should mention that my journey to Laguna Seca started months before I ever got to the race track. My mother, being a Registered Dietitian (www.rd4health.com ), set up a nutrition and exercise program for me which paid off massively at the end of each race day. I wasn’t tired and didn’t need water when my sessions on track were over, I just wanted to keep racing! So when back in the pits I was able to have a beer with some co-drivers and made a couple of tweaks to the kart. Then we retired to our camp site over turn 5 for BBQ. I felt great. Mostly because of the diet I was on and how I trained for the weekend. Thanks Mom!

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The next morning we went down to the pits a bit early to check over my kart again and contemplate different gearing choices for the big main race in the super stock Honda class. I felt that my top end was weak and I was being killed in the straights, I changed my gearing accordingly. Next on the agenda was jetting. The corrected elevation with air pressure and humidity was around 2000 feet. Having already finished 2nd in the support race the day before with conservative rich jetting I wanted to gamble big; go lean and win or go home trying with a busted engine. We made some calls to MRC and got our jet choice sorted, after warming it up on the stand I was impressed with the improvement and optimistic about the race. I warmed the motor for about 20 minutes on the stand just to get it hot enough to not worry about sticking it, then my brother pushed me over to the start grid.

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I was 6th in class but 3 packs back from the first kart to take the green flag. They put the 250cc super karts out first, then modified 125cc, and then finally our stock 1999 Honda cr125 class.   I knew the modified 125cc guys would have the hp to drag race me on the straights and get in the way in the faster corners and I would have to push hard to pass them early. It seemed like as soon as we rounded T11 we were full throttle and racing. Even though the earlier than usual start caught me off guard I had the rpms right and started making ground in the draft on the karts in front of me.

I got a couple places in the first corner and fell in line to work with the pack. For the most part our group worked together drafting to pass the modified field and regain open track space so we could maintain our corner speeds. On the 2nd lap a kart got sideways going into the corkscrew under very late braking and clipped another kart sending one into the sand trap sideways and leaving the other kart to finish the race wounded. I got a couple easy spots with this incident and kept moving forward. This race was the last event of the weekend and by this time most of the other drivers had figured out they could hold more speed in the corners and passing became more difficult. I drafted with my pack and started making moves, the strategy worked and a couple laps later I was third in class and ahead of most of the higher hp modified field.

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At this point Jimmy had checked out with the lead and it was a pack battle for 2nd through 7th place. The drafting started to pick up and partner choice was key. It seemed like every lap had a different running order for my group, and that every other straight I was left without a drafting partner. Towards the end of the race Marks got me back and I was in 4th position. When the white flag was shown at the start/finish my pack turned into a group of sharks that smelled blood in the water. Everyone picked up the intensity and fought hard for whatever they could get, I braked late and made a dive in the last corner before the checkered flag only to watch 2nd and 3rd place walk away from me towards the finish line. I just barely managed to hold my 4th place spot in the drag race to the checkered flag. The race was close and intense and I was thankful for a top 5 finish and the opportunity to compete with all the highly skilled racers. Ever wondered what it looks like to race a shifter kart at Laguna Seca? Take a look at the video below:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2zgEu90C9pg?rel=0&w=853&h=480]

Hanging a kart out at Laguna Seca is something every racing driver should do at least once in their life. Our lap times this year were 1:37’s for the stock class and 1:30 for the 250cc superkarts. This puts us on par with many of the professional series that race at Laguna Seca, while still being affordable for the common man. Race entry is reasonable at $300 for one class and $100 for an additional class, and only one new set of karting tires are required (@$222.00 a set) however I wound up consuming 3 sets during my race weekend due to the downed tire in practice and extra race group entry. You can’t beat the rush of close pack racing on world famous race tracks, I can’t wait for NCK’s next big kart race at Sonoma in November and of course Laguna Seca again this time next year where I hope to go a few steps higher on the podium.

Awesome photographs by www.caliphotography.com

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