Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Wednesday, September 15, 1993

Karts: The Big-Time Little Machines

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
PARIS - Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher, Riccardo Patrese, Alessandro Zanardi, Jean Alesi and Michael Andretti have something in common besides driving Formula One races.

They were all champion go-kart racers.

Yes, those little four-wheelers powered by lawn mower engines that have become, especially in Europe, a sort of training school for future Grand Prix drivers.

It's a sport that, if not well known on sports pages, has its own world championship, which, with drivers from 24 countries, begins Friday and runs through Sunday in Laval, France.

Patrese won the world championship in 1974. Senna was runner-up in 1979 and '80. Prost was the French and European champion in '73, and the French champion in '74 and '75. Zanardi was the European champion in '87, while Schumacher still drives karts for fun when he's not behind a bigger engine.

"For me, it's the best way for someone to learn racing," Schumacher said in a June interview with Top Karting magazine.

The karting world championship, which debuted in 1964, is run in a different country every year. This week they are revving up at Laval, about 280 kilometers west of Paris. Laval is also about 80 kilometers west of Le Mans, which in addition to its other endurance race holds an annual 24 hours of Le Mans race in karting.

The origin of karting, as it is now universally known to its adherents, is in dispute. Some say it sprang into existence in the 1950s after a bunch of lawn mower engines were mistakenly sent to a U.S. Air Force base, where the airmen welded together some tubular frames, stuck on tires and the engines, and were saved from mowing for another day.

It is agreed that go-karts were born in the U.S. of A. But despite the founding in 1957 of the Go Kart Club of America, which set the first standards for racing, the sport was taken more seriously when it came to Europe. Jean-Marie Balestre, credited with introducing karting to France in 1960, later became the head of the International Automobile Federation, or FIA.

Today, the world championships are operated under the auspices of the International Karting Federation and FIA, and are truly international. Only one American has ever become world champion. That was Lake Speed, in 1978. He later went on to a career in NASCAR, both racing and running his own team.

As sports go, karting is as democratic as any, open to anyone mad enough to save up allowance money. In some categories, karts can cost no more than about $2,000. On the other hand, it is serious business: In the 250cc-motor class, karts hit speeds of 125 miles per hour (200 kph) and are raced on automobile tracks. Even the main categories use 100cc and 125cc two-stroke engines for racing at about 65 mph. In the 125cc category, the karts sometimes even have gearboxes.

Most serious contenders have been racing since they were able to ride a bicycle. Andretti, for example, started at 9 years of age, and now the first official category is for 7-year-olds. But that does not preclude Walter Mitty from seeking a quick fix of intense sensations on a weekend. Top Karting's driver of the month in July was a building contractor by profession, Marc Peteuil, who was a French champion in the '70s and still races in the 250cc category. Peteuil is 58 years old.

The biggest international event of the season is the world championship. But, across Europe, races of many other categories and kinds are held year-'round and a Grand Prix circuit travels from country to country.

"The international races that I did in karting were at an incredibly high level," Schumaker said, "maybe the most difficult races I've ever done."

In France alone, there are more than 13,000 licensed drivers - compared to fewer than 10,000 in North America - and 280 clubs, 17 regional leagues, 90 permanent circuits and 200 occasional ones, with about 400 races a year.

In Britain, which has 21 permanent tracks, about 380 races are held each year.

Following the world championships, the next biggest karting event of '93 will take place Dec. 18-19 at Bercy stadium in Paris. Called the Elf Master Karting Indoor, it will be a settling of accounts for the world's best Formula One drivers. Prost, Senna, Patrese, Schumacher and the others will be racing karts that are identically fitted technologically.

It will prove once and for all who the real world champion is.

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