MSR Houston had an “I <3 Karting Competition” in February. I paid $250 and signed up for one hell of a good time for four Saturdays.

This was the first time they ever held an event like this, so some things were adjusted as the Challenge went along. The 4 rounds consisted of 2 10-minute practice sessions, one qualifying session that consisted of an out lap, flying lap, and in lap, and then a 20-minute race. Qualifying sessions being split into brackets based on practice times was abandoned with the new qualifying format. Since those of us who signed up were likely more familiar and more competitive with karting than people who came in to have a casual time with friends and family, there would be no black flags or warnings for executing moves with low safety risks (like bumping or side-to-side contact in corners).

The karts we got for each Saturday would be different, randomized by each driver picking out a card with a number of a kart on it. All the karts were tested to make sure they were equal in power.

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I wasn’t familiar with the clockwise direction of the karting track and had only ever run it counter-clockwise. They had to stop the counter-clockwise direction because of a horrible accident a kid got himself into going into the chicanes a long while ago.

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The first round FP sessions was a learning time for me. I can’t remember what positions I had in those sessions (that wasn’t too important), but my best lap time improved from FP1 to FP2. However, I dropped into the lower half of best times in FP2. Most others had gotten their act together sooner than I. When our qualifying sessions came, I slotted in for P4. Qualifying consisted of one driver sent out for his out lap, and when he would be halfway through his flying lap, the next driver was sent out. Our host said that to make things more interesting, P1 and P2 would be starting at the back of the grid.

We had a standing start. My 115 pound weight versus the 200 pound guy in P3 (Kart #18) gave me the advantage off the line. However, early into the race I spun out going into a hard braking corner before the banking on the track. This happened once more and severely reduced my chances of a good finishing position. I was stuck in P8. This would also be my finishing position.

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I had improved by the second round. In FP1, I began identifying my braking points, despite no distance markers available. I had to make my own distance markers in my head using whatever scenery was available: in the corner where I previously spun twice in the race, the track strips edges on the outside of the corner weren’t visibly straight. One part of the strips edges was more protruding than the rest. When I came up within 10 feet of that protrusion, I would begin braking. In the middle of that session it occurred to me I started doing that on my own, and wondered why I hadn’t thought of identifying visual markers before. Not everything I learned in Gran Turismo is easily transferable to real life!

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When qualifying came around, I was confident that I wouldn’t screw up in the second race like I had previously. Qualifying was the most boring session of each round — the fastest FP2 lap times would be lined up at the back of the session. I was at the back of the line three times, and this was my second time there. This wasn’t practice anymore. Nobody really spoke to one another while waiting. Time slowed down, everything got quiet. You just listened to your own thoughts, waiting to qualify. It ate me up, sometimes thinking about where I could improve, then get lazy and just want to get out on track as soon as possible. It felt like twenty minutes had gone by when it was really seven or eight minutes. My kart’s engine was fired up and I was given the motion to go. One out lap, flying lap, and in lap later, and the qualifying results were put up. I had qualified first.

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The heat was on. Last race’s winner qualified P3. For this race, the entire grid was in reverse order. I was terrified. I felt like I had to perform voodoo magic to get to the front of the grid. We were lined up for our race, another standing start. The green flag was waved and everybody was wide open throttle until Chirps, the corner where I had spun out twice.

Immediately, the lightweights had the advantage. The guy who qualified P3 and I gained a couple positions. I decided myself that I was not going to risk anything in the heavy traffic of this slow corner (plus this is where I spun out twice), so I let off the throttle about 30-40 feet ahead of my braking point to give myself run-off room. Just as I was braking, there was a disaster at the middle of the corner. Half the grid got caught in what must have been a mess caused by contact or somebody else spinning out on the racing line. I got lucky and was able to dash between the culprits of the spin outs and traffic that got sent wide as collateral damage. I’d like to think what happened in the crash went something like this:

To my surprise, P3 got caught up in it as well, which I thought was unfortunate but a great opportunity for me. I got out unscathed, lucky as hell I got right there. I jumped ahead what must have been seven or eight positions, as I only had three or four drivers ahead of me after that.

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Some Oppositelock going down in this photo. (Check out that CTS-V wagon!)

My weight was a huge advantage in catching up to the slow qualifiers, one of whom were just not that great (this guy wasn’t even a match for me) or were too heavy to go as fast as I was (truly unfortunate). A race was a race; my advantage of one hundred pounds over the guys in front of me was lethal. Soon I was in P2 and I was hot on the tail of one of the faster guys who luckily escaped the first lap’s disaster. We traded P1 and P2 several times, but then he fell to the same fate I had previously. He spun out at Chirps.

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I drove right on through and all was calm for the next few laps. Behind me was the guy who qualified P3 and I had to act. He was catching me and I tried my best to go even faster. Eventually he caught me and let me know of his presence by love tapping me in the rear while getting onto the banking of the track (Monza). I was feeling the pressure now. I did my best to take defensive lines, but my weakness on the course was the hairpin (Monaco). I would frequently exit out of the corner too slow and thus my kart’s engine was slightly out of the power band and unable to make use of my weight advantage. He eventually got me in that corner and we fought for the lead, me overtaking him on the backstraight or him reeling me in again at Monaco. This went on for some time. He got his defense together better than my offense and with each remaining lap the gap between him and I got fractions of a second larger, with him winning the race by a second or two ahead of me.

There were certain rewards set in place for each round that would award drivers vouchers for free sessions at the karting track. One for the fastest qualifier, the winner of a race, and the hard charger of a race, a driver who overtook the most positions during the race. In this round, I had qualified the fastest and overtook the most positions and got myself two vouchers.

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The third round was a sketchy one. There was the threat of rain the entire weekend. No where was there any sun to be seen. This round was rushed a little bit. The chance of rain was getting stronger the closer noon came, so when our FP2 session was over, we were told that our best lap times from FP2 would be used to arrange the grid for the start of the race (still reverse order). For this race we all were willing to give a rolling start a try, so we lined up at the start/finish line and were instructed to stay two wide in our grid order. We had only one chance to get it right or we would not be allowed to do it for the next round.

We began slowly cruising to the back straight, which comes after the chicanes known as Rotax Revenge. I was in P6, I think. Only then, once the entire grid was straight, two wide, the green flag was waved and off we went. I did not want to risk getting stuck in any traffic in the hairpin of Monaco. There was no reward without a risk, however, as nobody screwed up the slowest corner of the course, fortunately. I dropped back a few positions by holding out for any crashes. However, the corner exit was riddled with traffic and side contact, as I was pushed to the wide going into the first bend after Monaco and forced a driver in front of me to land in the grasses (the one with the cool helmet in the above photo).

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I didn’t know what position I was in at that point, but it was pretty low. All I knew was the couple of drivers up ahead of me were those I could catch since the race had just started. By the middle of the race I had gotten myself up to P6 and the gap between me and P5 was around ten seconds, I estimated. At one point in the race, I felt rain drops on my skin, but the heavens never opened up. My advantage in the rain would have been even higher. However, I needed at least one more lap to overtake P5, but the race was over by the time I was hot on his rear bumper. Once we had all regrouped after the race, we were all yearning for some rain. The challenge would have been nice, and we would have been able to test our abilities in the rain, despite being on slicks.

The final round of the Challenge was looking better than Round 3. Everything felt good that they, except my qualifying was not great and I had qualified P8. That meant the reverse grid order placed me very close to the front. Once the race started, I had taken the lead in a few laps. However I lost it all when the guy in P2 (remember that guy who wasn’t even a match for me?) braked to hard and locked up his wheels and hit my rear hard and knocked me into the grass at Chirps.

He had such a punchable face.

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After that, I was in second to last position. For the rest of the race I was only able to overtake a few drivers. The best I was able to do was P8 for that race. I am still angry over it, I don’t even care that he apologized. He just straight up sucked at driving. But it is what it is, shit happens in races.

I was able to tie for third in points in the championship standings, tied with the guy with the cool helmet. It was decided that I would take third and him fourth, because I had qualified first in the second round and had the hard charger award, where as he had none. It sounded fucked up to me. I guess a decision had to be made somehow.

All the photos in this post are from the first round. Here’s some photos taken afterward from that day.

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I’m the one with two thumbs up (jeebus my hair was short!). The guy to my right was getting faster towards the end of the Challenge. The Indian guy with his arms crossed was consistently the fastest, as well as the one with the red helmet.

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You can see all photos from Round 1 at my Flickr page.