Modern vehicles are increasingly sophisticated, with digital engine and suspension controls and ever more complex mechanical systems. This has given us a world where the humblest entry-level Hyundai hatchback boasts a level of efficiency, reliability, and safety that was once unimaginable in even the most prestigious high-dollar luxury battleship. This is, of course, a good thing--but as we've sometimes lamented here at Car Lust, all of this sophistication also means that there's not as much of a place for the do-it-yourself mechanic as there once was.
The same is true of motorsports. These days, racing is something it usually takes serious dollars to get into. NASCAR "stock car" racing, once the home of self-taught "good ol' boys" who race-prepared Hudson flathead straight sixes by the seat of their pants in corner garages, no longer has much (if anything) to do with "stock" cars--that is, cars you can actually buy at your local dealer and drive on the street. Today's NASCARs are purpose-built racing vehicles costing millions to design and build. Indy cars, F1, endurance racing--these are even less accessable to the non-professional. There's little room these days for the hot rod assembled from junkyard components, the dirt track racer built in someone's garage--hell, even Soap Box Derby cars have been commodified and standardized and come in easy-to-assemble kit form!
So what's left for the backyard automaker? Is there still such a thing as entry-level motorsports for people who design and build their own iron and don't have a degree in mechanical engineering or corporate sponsors writing checks for them? Is there a class of competition cars that can be built by motivated amateur craftsmen of average skill using ordinary materials, hand tools, and kitchen utensils found in the typical American home?
I'm happy to say that there is still such a thing, if you know where to look for it. One example is the sport of cyclekart racing.
- It's a one-seat car weighing no more than 250 pounds, with a maximum length of 98 inches and a maximum width of 40.
- It is built with a plywood unibody, reinforced by frame rails fabricated from 1x3 steel stock.
- The wheelbase should be around 66 inches, and the track is 38 inches.
- The front end uses a solid axle on parallel leaf springs, while the unsprung rear axle is attached directly to the frame about ten inches from the end. The steering gear is built up from standard kart components.
- The engine is a one-cylinder Honda GX200 engine of 196cc displacement producing 5.5 horsepower, driving the right rear wheel--the left one is not powered--through a Comet TAV-30 go-kart transmission.
- The brakes are a Comet go-kart disc on the right rear wheel, actuated by a mechanical lever.
- Total cost should be no more than $1,750 in 2001 dollars ($2,158, adjusted for inflation).
What you end up with is a car that is the spiritual and mechanical successor to the racing "cyclecars" of 90-100 years ago. The cars are usually styled to resemble those old-school racing cyclecars, or prewar open wheel Grand Prix racers. While the top speed is only somewhere around 35 MPH, that's more than fast enough to make things interesting. Riding on skinny tires with small contact patches, a cyclekart has only so much adhesion--the Stevensons discovered early on in their experimentation that front brakes actually made their cars handle worse, because the front tires didn't have enough total grip to both brake and steer at the same time! This forces the driver to rely on skill to compensate for the car's cornering and braking limitations.
The most distinctive feature of cyclekarts is their philosophy. As the Stevensons explain:
They're not serious speed-machines or status-generating show cars. They're purely for the gritty fun and satisfaction of tearing around in a machine you've built yourself....CycleKarts and their builder/drivers don't like to take things too seriously, and certainly not themselves or each other, so overzealous competitiveness is frowned upon, and a win-at-any-cost attitude is not invited back. We do encourage good, sporting competitions for fun, to which end the cars are kept reasonably similar in performance.
To judge from the photos and videos that have been posted by various cyclekarters, a cyclekart event is a big ball of fun for drivers and spectators. I'd like to show you an embedded video of a cyclekart race right here, but I wasn't able to find one. Construction progress reports and test drives aplenty all over YouTube, but no race footage as of this writing. If you want to see a cyclekart race in all its zany glory, I recommend you watch the non-embeddable video of the 2011 Gittreville Grand Prix (held last August) at the Gittreville cyclekart group's website.
I first learned of the existence of cyclekarts through my fellow Car Lust contributor Virgil Exner, Jr. Mr. Exner has a lifelong affection for old-school open wheel racers, and he's shared with us the story of driving down the Pennsylvania Turnpike with his father in a two-seat Indianapolis race car in 1948. When Mr. Exner discovered cyclekarts, he immediately started designing a few.
I don't live that far from South Bend, so, Mr. Exner, if you need a driver for test runs, let me know. If nothing else, I can at least validate that a 95th percentile driver fits in the cockpit!
--Cookie the Dog's Owner
The photos come from Cyclekarts.com and the Gittreville cyclekart group's website. If you want to learn more about these nifty little vehicles, I suggest you visit those two websites and the Yahoo! Cyclekarts Group.