There are times when you know you're out of your element - like last weekend, when I found myself surrounded by a legion of miniaturized Schumachers at a go-kart race.
I was in the Toronto suburbs, but it may as well have been another planet - the pits were filled with tiny machines and drivers who barely reach my waist. I felt like Gulliver, waking up at a shrunken Grand Prix. Some drivers were eight years old. If it weren't for the racing suits and roaring engines, it could have been a daycare class.
I've often wondered what it would be like to be an F1 driver. The answer: hard. And it begins with a brutal sorting process that gets under way shortly after kindergarten. I watched it in Etobicoke, at the Centennial Park Mini Indy track.
Set next to a golf course, the track is home turf for the Toronto Kart Club, and serves as a spawning ground for new generation of racing hopefuls. Although I'd heard about eight-year-old racers before, seeing them in the flesh came as a shock. Not only were they tiny, they were amazingly quick, scorching around the track like a swarm of gas-powered hornets.
"They learn really fast," said TKC spokesman Sean Weber. "It's a lot more instinctive than people realize."
I was on hand for a media race that would show me the ins and outs of kart racing, a sport noted for its infant drivers and low costs (you can buy a kart for about $1,500 - less than it costs for a single tire on a Formula One car). The engines are similar to those on your lawn mower. Laugh if you want, but karts provide some of the most intense racing you can experience, and virtually every driver in Formula One started in them - including current F1 champion Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull teammate Mark Webber.
Out on the track, I started to see why karting is such an effective training ground. The track was about 500 meters long, but it had 10 turns, and every one was different. We were only going 60 or 70 km/h, but it felt like more, because my hindquarters were just millimetres from the pavement, and the kart skated around beneath me as though the track had been coated with oil. To keep up, I had to ride the ragged edge of traction, sliding through every curve.
My fastest lap was about 35 seconds. That morning, I'd watched eight-year-olds lap the track in less than 34. I'd been whipped by a group of kids who had just finished Grade 2.
I could make excuses. I'd never driven the Etobicoke track before, and I weigh about 120 pounds more than most of the kids. But I have a lifetime of driving experience, including a lot of time on racetracks. And these eight-year-olds were faster than me.
"Don't feel bad," Weber told me. "They drive a lot."
The kids looked like pros. Some were part of a family operation that featured custom trailers and mom and dad pit crews. Many had special driving suits and race helmets with their names stencilled on them. One was Zack Hooper, a 10-year-old from Cambridge who started racing when he was seven. Now he has four sponsors and a team trailer.
Out in the pits, I talked to 11-year-old Tyler Freier, who was tweaking his kart with his dad under a portable awning like the ones you see at an Indy car race.
"We're down on power today," Tyler announced. "We're slow." His dad, Bob, agreed.
Tyler is the current points leader in the Honda Novice division. He isn't in junior high yet, but he already looks like a professional racer, and he knows how to analyze his machine. He and his dad conferred, and decided that the power problem was the result of an experimental camshaft setting that they'd decided to try. "Didn't work," Tyler announced.
Aged 11, Tyler already has two years of racing under his belt. But in karting, he's actually a late starter. Many kids begin practice lapping at six, and start competing at seven. Out at the track, I could see the benefits as Tyler and his friends railed through the turns. They handled the karts with the instinctive ease that my son Will brings to the game of hockey - the little machines were an extension of themselves.
The TKC's Weber told me about one elementary-age racer who came to the track every day after school to run laps until it turned dark. His mom was his mechanic. By the time he turned 10, he had thousands of laps under his belt.
"They get totally dialled in," Weber said. "They're completely comfortable out there."
Out on the track at Centennial, I could see how far ahead of me these kids were. They knew every millimetre of this course, and they rarely used the brakes - they burned off speed by pitching their karts sideways and sliding through the turns. (The eight-year-olds have their engine's power restricted, but they compensate with light weight and instinctual car control.)
At the age of 12, kart racers move up to a new division, where they get extra horsepower. At 15 there is another step, and even more horsepower. At this point, they will be lapping the Centennial track in less than 29 seconds, and will spend most of their time in a state that a normal driver would consider out of control. To teenage racers, this will be a standard condition, and they will inhabit a place where most drivers never go.
That's the secret of racing. When you go fast enough, every vehicle handles badly - even an F1 car. The trick is to get comfortable with that, and stay out on that margin all the time. There's no better way to learn that than in a go-kart. I plan to drive them a lot more. And I have a target - I have to be faster than an eight-year-old. We'll see how it goes.
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