Sunday, August 31, 2003



take wheel

They’re fast. They’re furious. Well maybe not too fast or too furious, but they make some pretty sharp turns. Go-karts can be just the ticket for youngsters too young to (legally) get behind the wheel and adults craving something more adventurous than their sensible minivan or sedan.

The mini race cars whip around curves at speeds up to 12 miles per hour at the Go-Kart Raceway in Crofton, Md., which calls itself “the most challenging go-kart track on the entire planet.” It’s not quite NASCAR, but it’s close enough, featuring a half-mile tire-lined track with dizzying twists and turns and plenty of opportunities for friendly competition.

“It had really sharp turns, and the go-karts go really fast,” says 11-year-old Justin Kent of Annapolis. “I just love riding go-karts.”

Driving them is easy, says John Michael Teabo, 8, of Columbia, Md. You just have to push the pedal with your foot and the car takes off, he explains. Press the green pedal to go, red to stop. The 300-pound cars are powered by small gasoline engines, says Jeremy Williams, raceway mechanic.

If you crash, it’s no problem. The “pit crew” is there to help you out, John Michael says.

“You just drive around, and if you crash, the people just push you, and you’re fine, and you keep on going,” he says. “I tried to race my dad because he kept going in swirls, but then I just passed him.”

The raceway is most popular with the younger crowd, says Paul Cosgrove, the track manager. That popularity has increased after the recent release of movies such as “The Fast and the Furious” and its sequel, “2 Fast 2 Furious.”

“They’ll just start screaming ‘Too fast — too furious.’ It’s exciting for the little kids,” Mr. Cosgrove says. “They see their parents [driving] all the time, and it gives them a chance to get out there and go crazy.”

Not too crazy, though, he says. No bumping is allowed, and drivers will be kicked off the track after one warning. Seat belts are a must, and the cars’ steering wheels are padded to prevent injuries.

Some children would rather take a leisurely lap around the course than put the pedal to the metal, and that’s fine — unless, of course, there’s a race to win.

“My 8-year-old, he’s usually a daredevil, but he’s already been lapped by my 11-year-old,” says Justin’s father, Doug Kent.

“Hey — where’s slowpoke?” Mr. Kent shouts as Justin maneuvers around a tricky bend.

“Back there,” Justin yelps, smiling, head bobbing side to side as his car cruises over bumps in the asphalt track. For Justin, a self-proclaimed experienced go-kart rider, waiting for his little brother is out of the question.

“I just love riding go-karts,” he says. “When I looked at them, they looked a little slow, but when I got in one, it was a lot faster than I thought.”

Even children who are too young or small to drive enjoy the thrill of the chase, says Herbert Goldson, who drove his son, 5-year-old Herb, in a double kart.

Herb was apprehensive about riding in the car at first, Mr. Goldson says, but a lap alongside dad changed his mind.

“Oh yeah, he loves it,” Mr. Goldson says about his son. “He loves the utter excitement of the speed and having somebody behind you, chasing you.”

Parents, too, may be surprised at the fun they have speeding around the track, says Yvette Young of Bowie, whose daughter Briana had her 10th birthday party at the raceway. Adults accompanying smaller children in the double cars at the party quickly became hooked, racing each other around the track, she says.

“I think the adults probably enjoyed it a lot more than the kids,” Mrs. Young says.

Not more than Briana, who says she can’t get enough time behind the wheel.

“It’s so fun, and we get to drive. It’s like real driving,” exclaims the birthday girl, thrilled to be a year closer to taking on the open road. “Everyone always bumps into me, and then I start laughing.”

Good thing it’s just go-karts — for now.

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