With a backdrop of palm trees and crashing surf, dozens of tiny but powerful race karts roared around a Huntington Beach parking lot Saturday, sounding like a platoon of lawn mowers.
Surfers and sunbathers watched as would-be Mario Andrettis, stuffed into the low-slung, high-tech karts, ‘participated in the first “3 Day Blinds Sprint Kart Grand Prix,” which enthusiasts hope becomes an annual event in Huntington Beach.
The event will benefit the Boys’ and Girls’ Club of Huntington Valley, according to event director Jim Kinder, who founded the Championship Kart Racing Assn. 2 years ago. Drivers were charged entry fees, beginning at $25 for amateurs.
Kart racing is no longer a kids’ game, and they don’t call them Go-Karts anymore. Racing karts have evolved into a high-speed weekend sport with drivers reaching speeds of up to 150 m.p.h. In this race at Huntington Beach, however, 70 to 80 m.p.h. was the standard.
Karts Grow Up
Kart racing “used to be just on supermarket parking lots,” Kinder said. “Now they’ve grown to half the scale of Indy cars.” And at this event, there was a $2,000 purse for a professionals’ race, although most of the races were for amateurs.
Street kart races, now held on a national circuit, aren’t held anywhere else in the county, Kinder said, because cities tend to frown on them.
“The city of Huntington Beach was the most incredibly cooperative city,” he said.
The karts appear tiny, no more than than 26 inches high, almost too small for a grown man. But as the race is about to begin, drivers hunker over, many dressed in black leather, or bright jumpsuits made of lightweight nylon, just like real car racers.
“I’m a frustrated race car driver that can’t go into big cars,” said Newport Beach resident Andy Uphoff, 37. “Money is the reason. It’s a lot less expensive to do this kind of racing.”
Uphoff said he participates in about four kart races a month, and estimated he spends about $400 a month on his obsession.
At Saturday’s race, there was at least one professional race car driver.
Jerril Rice, who won the Detroit Grand Prix in 1982 and finished third in the Long Beach Grand Prix in 1983, got off to a slow start when his kart wouldn’t start right away, but he still won his first race at the Huntington Beach event.
“He just does this to stay in shape,” said Wayne Levitz, who worked with Rice’s pit crew. “He’s the best driver you’ll ever see in a kart. This guy’s awesome.”
The karts have no starters, so a member of the pit crew has to start the kart as the race is about to begin.
Vincent Nowak, 11, of Santa Ana was Uphoff’s pit crew. With greasy hands, Nowak held the start-up kit, powered by a small battery, and readied Uphoff’s kart.
Nowak has spent every weekend for the last month crewing for the kart race shop in Santa Ana that sponsors Uphoff, so he can pay off what he owes on his own race kart. He gets $5 a day for his labor, he said, adding, “I only have $50 more to work off.”
“I think it’ll mean more to him if he’s earning it,” said his father, Gary Nowak.
“What I figure is this is a good sport,” he said. “The people here are honest, they all help each other out and only compete on the track. His mother would rather have him do this than play football. It’s a lot safer.”
Drivers all wore helmets, and bales of hay lined the course. Although several drivers crashed into the hay, no one was injured. City officials did not allow drinking in the parking lot where the event was held, and by late afternoon, Huntington Beach police said there were no reports of trouble.
Although kart racing is not just for kids anymore, youths as young as 12 will compete today in their category.
In many ways, the scene at Saturday’s kart race resembled a day at the car races. For example, there were plenty of women cheering on the drivers from the sidelines.
Stacy Saver, carrying a black poodle, watched Saturday as her husband, Bruce, raced around the track.
“Oh, I’m just so excited,” she said, a timer in one hand. “He just loves racing.”