Mainstreams: Go-kart races stir up dust, family fun

by Debbie Griffin

ECM Publishers

 More than a dozen young people between Princeton and Zimmerman zip their go-karts around a dirt track during the Friday nights of summer to the cheer and applause of their fan clubs.
Tyler Rabenberg, 7, of Princeton, beams after one of his go-kart racing victories.

Tyler Rabenberg, 7, of Princeton, beams after one of his go-kart racing victories.

One local family agrees that win, lose or wipeout, the young go-kart drivers and their families have a lot of fun spending time together at the races.

Craig and Jenny Rabenberg, of Zimmerman, said their 7-year-old son, Tyler, began racing at age 5, begging to try the sport after seeing a friend of his doing it. Craig said Tyler referred to his young friend Eric Lamm, grandson of race-car builder Dave Jones.

The Rabenbergs said the sport of go-karting seems to be growing more popular and often involves several generations of a family. They estimate that about 90 percent of go-kart racers are under the age of 16, with nearly an equal number of male and female drivers.

Each one gets help from their parents, pit crew, fan club and sponsors. The Rabenbergs said the kids compete fiercely but, as close friends, play together when they’re not racing.

Jenny said the sport teaches and reinforces good sportsmanship.

The family typically races each weekend during the season, which runs from spring through mid-September. Though they’re usually at the Princeton Speedway or Ramsey Raceway, the Rabenbergs also travel to other races in Minnesota, as well as Wisconsin, Iowa and South Dakota.

Word of mouth tells the families about other race venues, and Jenny said she finds them searching online via Google for ‘go-kart races.’ The Cedar Mills Karting Association offers information at www.cedarmillskarting.com.

Kids may begin racing at age 5, and the Rabenbergs said there are classes for all ages through adult. Younger drivers run at 30 mph, and speeds generally increase as they advance in age and skill.

The Rabenbergs leave some of the decision about racing up to Tyler. Though he always wants to go, he must behave well and earn good grades at his school in Princeton. The three agreed the sport motivates him on and off the race track.

Revving up 

Jenny did not favor the idea of her son racing go-karts until after his first race. The speed seemed dangerous, and she presumed kids that age would not have the necessary reaction time.

She researched the requirements – a helmet, chest pads, neck brace, gloves, long-sleeve jacket, seat belt and, in some races, a protective roll cage around the kart’s cockpit – and then she agreed. The parents wondered if their timid son would take to the fast-moving sport.

Jenny said, “After that first race, we looked at each other and said, ‘Can you believe that?’”

Tyler had shown no fear as he tore around the track. His first-ever race had been the last one of the season, and it made a big and lasting impression.

“That year we bought a kart and painted it orange,” Craig said.

His parents admit it was stressful watching Tyler involved in a no-fault crash but said it didn’t hurt anyone, and both drivers demonstrated concern and good sportsmanship. Tyler said he “wasn’t a bit scared” by the incident.

Craig said the family members learned about racing as they went along. At their first race, they observed everyone thoroughly cleaning the dirt off the tires as soon as each kart left the track, an essential task for good traction.

He said with a smile that they learned a lot in Iowa, where a raceway holds an event for which it sprays the track with sticky pop syrup to give the karts “super traction.”

Tyler has earned a local, state and national title for his age class. He and his parents said other local youth come out on top in their competitions, too: Last year Jake Bellair won the junior class, and Dylan Kromschroeder won the stock medium adult class.

When asked how he drives so well, Tyler smiled, shrugged and said he looks ahead on the track and when ready to pass – “drives right under ‘em.” He chose the number 18 to wear, sharing it with his favorite Nascar driver, Kyle Busch, who races the M&Ms car.

The Rabenbergs invested about $1,000 to get started with a used kart and spend about $50 for each night of racing. Craig noted that the cost is comparable to that of other sports and activities for which specialized equipment is needed.

Kart mechanics

All go-karts race on round, dirt tracks, but Craig said the characteristics of each are different. Treatment of the track includes watering, packing and smoothing to control dust.

To keep it fair, race officials weigh the winning karts to be sure they conform to standards. They also disassemble the overall winner’s machine to be sure it is all regulation. Craig said the motors are alcohol-fueled, usually a 5-horsepower Briggs & Stratton flathead.

Though he has a trailer for the kart, he said the karts fit into the back of a pickup truck.

Kart bodies are made of either plastic or fiberglass. Craig said fiberglass looks better and is shinier while plastic is tougher and allows him to pop dents out easily.

Races usually run in two heats, the winners of which then compete in a feature race. Beginners can practice during non-race times, which vary by raceway.

The Rabenbergs explained that the camaraderie at the tracks made it easy to learn about the sport. Craig said everybody is more than willing to do their part, and Jenny said go-kart racing is “very family-oriented.”

They’re not surprised that it’s growing as others discover the fun and benefits it offers.

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