Top Stories from the Features pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Friday, December 15, 1995

Go-Karting With the Royals

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
PARIS - I'm snuggled in a driver's seat inches from the track, coming up on a hairpin turn at 50 kilometers an hour (it feels like 300). The rain is falling in sheets. I jam down the brakes. Am I heading for a spinout? Nah. Despite the weather the track is dry . . . under the roof of a Paris indoor go-karting center.

The last few years have seen a global proliferation of leisure karting, as tracks move from dirty outdoor venues to clean indoor ones, with bars, pool tables, and video games as side activities. And as the indoor track has brought karting to the city, it is drawing a new public: the professional in his early 20s to early 40s, with more money than time to spend on leisure.

Indoor karting is said to have started in 1986 in England, where Martin Howell was entertainments manager with the London council, and trying to find activities for young offenders. He created the first indoor track, and when the program ended, he decided to open it to the public. Howell's Playscape Pro Racing has gone from offering karting as a delinquent's activity to a Royal Family activity: Princess Diana and her children, William and Harry, were regulars.

The bug spread from Britain to New Zealand in 1989, where there are now at least half a dozen centers. But Europe continues to be the world leader. France created the annual indoor karting championship races in Paris's Bercy stadium in 1993, featuring drivers from Formula One. This caused an explosion of indoor centers in Paris, from none to nearly 10 in two years.

Most of the world's leisure tracks offer four-stroke 160cc engines that are sluggish for pros. Paris's Fun Kart, however, specializes in the plucky two-stroke engines like those that Formula One drivers use at Bercy. Marc Perrissin Fabert started this approach in Toulouse in 1994 after working in the 1980s as a communications director of the Paul Ricard Formula One track on the Côte d'Azur. ''We did a study,'' he said, ''and found that one of the main things that prevented people from taking part in automobile sports, was simply the great distance from the city of most tracks. I thought wouldn't it be interesting to have a racing track in a city, under a roof.'' His Paris track opened last June, and he is studying sites elsewhere in Europe.

Outdoor karting is a complicated affair in Switzerland with its strict safety and pollution regulations. Indoor Karting in Bern, therefore, is on the second floor of a building and uses exclusively electric kart engines.

One of the founders, Mareus Raetz, says that electric karts can go faster indoors with the usually smaller tracks than the gas engine karts. ''You have the same horsepower at 10 kilometers an hour as at 200,'' he said.

Britain remains the country with the most indoor tracks ‹ more than 100 ‹ and karting there has become the latest corporate entertainment craze. ''Eight-five percent of my business,'' said Howell, ''is companies who want to entertain clients, entertain their staff, motivate their people.''

INDOOR karting is not only a battle against the rain, but also against the heat in some countries. some of Britain or the snow of northern U.S., hot countries know it may be cooler inside than out. ''I do consultancy work in Dubai,'' said Howell. ''There are now several Playscape racing centers in Australia. I'll be doing one in Barcelona. I just came back from Majorca.''

While indoor karting allows clients to race all year round, for the owners it is not as simple to maintain as the traditional outdoor track. ''We have very strict safety conditions to meet,'' said Perrissin Fabert. ''With 160,000 cubic meters of air extraction an hour, the air in the center is replaced six times every hour. We have carbon monoxide sensing devices and the moment it goes past the safety limit we are ordered to stop the karts.''

That's not what I want as I come up to the finish line with victory in sight, and the certainty that I will take on Michael Schumacher this weekend in Bercy . . . well, at least in my daydreams.

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