By Setsuko Kitaguchi / Yomiuri Shimbun SportswriterOSAKA — Having heard about a burgeoning boom in rental go-karts, I recently visited a circuit in Osaka. This motorsport is said to not only be fun, but also help relieve stress and allow participants shape up their bodies. I have some confidence in my driving abilities, even though I only get behind the wheel on my days off, so I decided to give it a try.
As long as you are 145 centimeters high or taller, you can drive a go-kart without a driver’s license. I visited Maishima Infiniti Circuit. Enveloped by the clapping sounds of engines, I saw go-karts racing like the wind on a track set out using tires. I was a bit nervous as I entered.
“The basic structure [of sport go-karts] is the same as that of go-karts you find in amusement parks and other places,” said Taku Sato, the 39-year-old branch manager of the circuit. “The difference is their high speed. They are extremely simplified versions of cars for Formula One, the top motorsport.”
The go-karts at the circuit are equipped with a 200cc engine and their top speed reaches 60 kph. However, being in a driver’s seat so close to the ground, you feel as if you are running along at nearly twice that speed.
I chose a five-lap run with each lap measuring about 450 meters. Ryuto Hisaba, the 23-year-old deputy branch manager, taught me how to press down the brake and gas pedals. I found that sport go-karts have a very simple structure comprised of the minimum parts necessary for running.
“I’m starting the engine now, so please press the brake pedal down,” Hisaba said. I felt the engine roar to life and, lifting the brake pedal, gingerly depressed the gas pedal. At the first curve, I drove my go-kart slowly. Then I made the next turn. The steering wheel was heavy so if I took my hands off it even for a moment, I couldn’t make any quick steering maneuvers.
When I entered a bend in the track while accelerating, my body was pulled outward. This is horizontal g-force, I thought. Because my go-kart didn’t have a seat belt, I had to use my legs to brace myself against the vehicle. “It will never overturn,” I repeated many times in my mind, as Sato had told me before starting.
I gradually got used to my go-kart and by the third lap I could manage it well. I became able to press the gas pedal to the floor on a long stretch of track so that I came close to the vehicle in front of me. “I may be able to catch up to it,” I thought.
The checkered flag was waved and my five-minute run ended. I received a lap time sheet. Sato gave my driving a thumbs up, saying, “You did well for the first time.”
Driving a go-kart gave me a great sense of exhilaration. I felt like I had become a real race car driver.
Maneuvering the vehicle was fun in and of itself. I was driving it in cold weather in the middle of winter, but when I took off my helmet I realized I had sweated a little. It was like I had just finished a total-body workout.
Because I had been gripping the steering wheel so tightly, my hands were shaking when I took the lap time sheet. I thought I might get sore thigh muscles because I was bracing my legs the whole time.
Mizue Hayashi, who was also trying out go-karting for the first time after one of her friends recommended it to her, said, “I could feel nervous energy pulsing through my arms because the speed was faster than I expected, but it was so fun.”
Actually, driving the vehicle was no more difficult than I had expected. I thought I might get hooked on the pleasant rumble of the engine shaking my body and the feeling of being as one with the go-kart.
Some time later, I realized one unexpected effect of driving a go-kart. When I drove my car, I found I was driving it in a more relaxed manner.
Sato’s words flashed across my mind: “You can drive a car more safely on public roads after driving a go-kart fast” as it can satisfy your desire for high speed.
The racing go-kart market expanded in the late 1980s in Japan when the nation embraced the Formula One racing boom. However, its popularity gradually waned, with the number of go-kart licenses issued by the Japan Automobile Federation falling since its peak of 9,703 in 1995. The declining birthrate and high purchase costs of go-karts are some of the reasons for the decline.
Meanwhile, the number of people using rental go-kart services, in which customers can enjoy driving the vehicles without owning them or getting a license, is growing.
Go-karting is currently possible at nearly 10 locations in the Kansai region alone, including Biwako Sports Land in Otsu and Takaraduka Kart Field in Takarazuka, Hyogo Prefecture. Maishima Infiniti Circuit currently has about 6,000 members. “The number of users is growing, probably because they consider [driving a go-kart] a type of leisure activity,” Sato said.
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