This is the second part of a series of articles that will take you through the entire race day.
RACE DAY, PART I
In the Gate and Practice
By Mike Unger
For the next series of articles I will be taking you through a complete race day. Everything from the time you show up at the front gate to leaving the track after the races are complete. I will be giving you suggestions and guidelines to make your race day go more smoothly and hopefully more successful.
The first part of the series will take you from the time you enter the track to the end of the practice sessions. I will go over the basics such as registration to setting a plan in practice so you have the best chances for success for the races.
Before you even think about entering your first race you need to make sure your kart is completely ready to go. This means yourkart has all the necessary safety requirements for safety tech such as safety wired brake system, functioning brakes, and a safe steering system. In addition to the kart being safe it also needs to be completely prepared to race. This includes things like alignment, scaling, and proper baseline setup. For more details into all of that you can visit www.nkn.com under the ‘How to’ page for an article called Preparing a Kart. That article will take you from the front of the kart to the rear. Using that article as a guide you can show up at the track ready to go.
The first order of business when you come to the track is getting a pit pass. To get a pit pass you will need to sign a waiver acknowledging that you understand the risks of being in the pits and out on the race track and you accept those risks. Paying the nominal fee for the pit pass also in many cases provides insurance should you get hurt at the track. For details check with your local track owner. Most pit passes are wristbands that you will be required to wear whenever you are in the pits and out on the track. After you get the pit pass ask the worker at the gate where you can park. Often there are reserved pit spots and free pit spots. Of course reserved pit spots tend to be closer to the grid so you will have to balance your budget vs. convenience for this decision. While you are asking for directions on where to pit ask them where safety tech is since that will be there next task at hand.
After you get to your pit spot, unpack your stuff and setup your pit spot. Don’t spend too much time on pit setup right now since the line for safety tech will be forming and it will be in your best interest to get that over with as soon as possible. Get your kart on the kart stand, put your helmet and chest protector (if you are with a driver requiring one) and get going to safety tech. In safety tech the official will check out your kart to make sure it has all of the safety wired bolts, functioning brakes and numbers on all 4 sides. Your helmet will also be checked to make sure it meets current requirements. It is extremely smart to do your homework on this long before you get to the track. If your kart does not pass safety tech you will not be allowed on track. Trying to drill a bolt to safety wire it while at the track is not a trivial thing. After you pass safety tech the official will most likely put a sticker on your kart and possibly on your helmet. Before you leave safety tech ask the official where registration is as that will be your next stop.
Registration is where you will register for your class, give them your kartnumber, transponder number (if you have one) and pay for your class entry. If this is a WKA, IKF, SKUSA or other major sanctioning body’s race you will likely need a membership card to the organization in order to race. Check before you go to the race to see how it works. If you are not a member you can buy a 1 day membership right at the track. A one day membership will allow you to be able to race but you will need a full membership to accumulate championship points. Again something you should consider before you get there. One of the big questions I always hear from new racers is how do they decide kart numbers? In many local series it is simply first come first serve on the first race of the season. Then after that you will have to find a number that is not already taken. For regional and national competitions you can reserve your kart number for a fee for the entire season. Like the pit spot you will have to balance your budget vs. convenience on this one. Worst case with a little tape you can modify your race number temporarily or buy new numbers at the track. Before you leave registration, be sure to ask about the race day schedule. You will need to know when practice starts, what the practice order is, and what the race format is. They should be able to help you out with all of that information in registration.
OK, now that you have all of the paperwork done and all the waiting in lines is finished, it is time to get into the business of racing. From now you are in race mode and you need to be focused on preparing yourself and your kart to get the best result. I am going to assume the following things have already been done in your preparation prior to coming to the race. First your kart is fully prepared and you already have a basic setup as a starting point for this track and this time of the year. Second you have driven this track already and at least know the racing line. Finally while this may be your first race but you have done hundreds of laps in a kart and can run laptimes that will at least allow you to mix it up with the pack, maybe not the lead pack but at least with someone. If these assumptions are not true you really should not be at this point. Racing is more that about driving around a track in a kart it’s about competing with at least one other person.
Now at this point in the program you should have enough time to walk the track before official practice starts. I recommend that you always walk the track before each race day regardless if this is your first or 400th time at the track. Walking the track will give you the time to focus on today’s tasks and give you a fresh look at subtle changes in the track since your last lap around.
Starting at the beginning of turn one walk around the track turn by turn. Concentrate on what the surface of the track looks like. Is it dirty and have lots of bits of rubber on it or is clean? How does the track look off-line the passing zones? If the track is dirty on the racing line rest assured by the time it comes around to race the track will be clean but it might mean that the passing zones will remain dirty and slippery. Check for areas where karts tend to step a wheel off the track and kick dirt up on the track. Mentally note those locations as they likely will become dirty and slippery throughout the race day. Check the curbs and the exits of the corners. A new crack in the curbing or a deeper hole in the transition between the track and the grass is something you should be aware of. Part of winning is not popping a chain on the first lap because you didn’t pay attention when you walked the track. Also look at the rubber buildup on the track. Often if the track is a popular place a different series might have been there the week or even day before. More or less rubber that you are used to seeing might mean you need to be more mindful of your setup. Finally pay careful attention of where the electronic scoring loop is on the track. In some cases it might not be marked very well. That will be the place on track that inches can make the difference between winning and losing so be sure to mentally note that one as well.
Now that you walked the track you need to start thinking about how to prepare for practice. If this is your typical race day it is still early in the morning and the air and track temperature is still rising. That means that the track surface will be colder in practice and warmer during the races. In turn the track will have more grip during the race than during practice. So in general you would like the kart to feel a little bit loose at the end of the last practice to avoid experiencing too much understeer during the races. Of course you will have to take into account when your last practice will be relative to when your first race will start. In most cases on race day you will only get two very short timed practice sessions. For that reason you will need some kind of basic strategy so you can efficiently get the most out of practice.
For the first practice the track is likely going to be much cooler and have much less grip so dialing in the handling of the kart will not be very useful. So the goals for this practice are the following:
1. The brakes are working properly
2. The kart tracks straight and doesn’t pull to the left or right
3. The clutch stall speed is correct
4. The engine is working properly and carburetor is tuned correctly
5. Your transponder is working
6. The kart is OK on minimum weight
7. The karts handling is loose
These are simple and straightforward things to check at the first practice but are things that always seem to get overlooked even by veteran racers. I suggest taking it easy the first lap or so and run through the above list on that very first lap. Of course the rest of the pack will be out mixing it up but don’t get caught up in that. There will be plenty of time for racing soon. Right out of the grid is a good time to check your clutch, just mash the gas and note the rpm when the clutch engages. Sometime in the next few seconds check the brakes but do it off line and put your hand up in the air so people behind you know what is going on. You don’t need to get run over by your fellow sleepy competitor. If they don’t, immediately pull off the track and coast to a stop. Get the brakes fixed. If all is OK on the longest straight get up to speed and take your hands off the wheel. The kart should go straight down the track and shouldn’t drift to the left or right. If it does you might need an alignment. Now you need to push things over the next couple laps to make sure the engine feels ok. Don’t forget to listen to the engine especially in the higher rpm areas. If the carb isn’t tuned right this is where it will show up. As the tires heat up take a mental note of the handling characteristics as we will visit that later. When you see the checkered flag slowly pull in and come over the scales. I suggest being at least 3 lbs heavier than the class minimum to be safe. It is far better to be 3lbs over than 0.3lbs under and DQ’d.
Now that first practice is over its time to go over the kart with what you learned. If the clutch stall speed was not correct now is the time to change it. If the kart was pulling one way or the other you need to do an alignment. If the engine was running right you need to check the max rpms and confirm your gearing is correct. If it’s not, fix it now because the next practice is your last shot to get things right. While you are in the pits I suggest you mark the fuel level of your tank with a marker along with the weight when you came over the scales. That way you know you will need to have more fuel than that in it for the races.
With the basics all OK it time to think about setup for this next practice. The track will be better than it was during the first practice but probably not be up to the same grip level you will experience in the race . If you were quite loose the first practice but it was still drivable I would leave it alone as the changing track will help you. If the kart was understeering or tight you need to make a big change to get to the other side of things. If you are tight now things will only get worse from here. The goal for the next practice is by the end of your session the kart should be feeling good and fast. If you can get it there you will be in good shape for the race.
So with that in mind top up your fuel to above the mark you just made, recheck the lug nuts, engine mount, and fuel cap and push up to the grid. As a driver you need to attack this session as if it was qualifying. You need to push the kart as hard as you dare but you need to do it without getting caught up in traffic. Following a slower competitor around for all of practice will not teach you anything about how fast you are. I suggest when you get off the grid you let most of the class go and you work a gap as if you were going to qualify. Use the first lap to warm the tires and do the typical checks. 2 or 3 turns before the finish line you push the kart to the limits. You hit every turn exactly perfectly and mentally note how the kart changes lap after lap. By the last lap you should be happy with the handling or it should be lacking just a little grip. As in the first practice go through the scales and again note the weight at the end of practice. Sometimes the scales used at the tracks are not very reliable and weighing every time you come off will give you a good idea of how close you can get to the minimum weight without getting DQ’d.
OK so now that the final practice is over you have enough info to prepare for the first race. You have the basics covered, the engine is running right, the gearing is right, the handling is very close. You know how much your kart weighs coming off the track and have a idea of how reliable the scales are. With some adjustments that we will cover in next article you will be ready for the first race of the day.