These days, there’s an alternative to the tried-and-true entry point into professional motorsport. Though the two-cycle kart likely has helped propel more youngsters into top-tier motorsports over the last 50 years than any other vehicle, the high-end racing simulator has recently taken a seat at the table.
The accessibility of the simulator is its most obvious advantage over a go-kart. Introverts, shut-ins, and late-risers probably prefer the digital alternative to the early mornings, sweaty afternoons, and real risks one faces in the go-kart. It’s cheaper than a kart, too, but some purists may argue it’s not the real thing, and cannot serve the aspiring youngster as well as the kart can.
For the last half-century, nearly every professional driver has, at the very least, toyed around with karts. Some dabble, while some spend a decade and hundreds of thousands of dollars competing in karts. Though they may not look hugely intimidating, the physical effort, coordination, and bravery needed to win in competitive karting quickly separates the wheat from the chaff. However, the vast amount of talent in the burgeoning world of sim racing and the new scholarship programs putting sim racers into real cars cannot be overlooked.
The advent of racing simulators over a decade ago has brought a whole new generation of gearheads and would-be racers into a competitive racing environment that is evolving by the day. Better yet, it’s cheaper than karting. It’s cheaper than any form of actual racing, for that matter, and it gives the truly cash-strapped enthusiasts a chance to build skills that will help them when they find the funds or the connections needed to sit in a real car.
To get a better perspective, we’ve spoken with two major figures, one representing the kart camp, and one speaking for sims.
Max Esterson, a New York native and British Formula Ford 1600 standout and GB3 race winner, cut his teeth not in karts, but in iRacing. Rather than take the traditional route into perhaps the most competitive mid-level single-seater racing in the world, he used simulators to hone his craft. It looks like the nights spent with eyes glued to a screen actually paid off.
Lisa Caceres, a professional driver who found her feet in karting, still feels the same passion for the sport as she did when she started some 40 years ago. Nowadays, Lisa is the owner of Race Karts! Inc. and the NorCal series leader of the Teen Mazda Challenge Series, which has allowed her to see career progressions of two generations of professional drivers, some of whom now compete in IMSA and IndyCar.
Different Courses, Same Aims
If seat time is the prime objective in one’s formative racing days, well, hopping on an open lobby race is hard to beat — especially since this can be done any time of day, for as long as one wants, without having to burn a drop of fuel or churn through any tires.
“Before a race weekend or a test, I try to start preparing on the sim pretty far in advance. I find it helpful to do a bit each day rather than doing a ton of hours in a day or two. I try to do some long runs to work on consistency but also do some ‘qualifying’ runs to try to nail a single lap,” Max adds.
A kart is slightly tougher to get out and drive, but the size and relative simplicity of a kart makes it something that drivers can truly practice their craft in without requiring an entire team behind them.
Getting into shape is another aim. The physical demands of a go-kart distinguishes it not only from simulated racing, but also from racing most real cars — at least those that aren’t shod in massive slicks and clad with big wings. The grip offered by a sorted, rigid kart on slicks is enough to tweak the neck pretty quickly, bruise the knees on the steering column, and help veins pop out of the forearms like those of a creatine-fueled bodybuilder. Physically, a kart is hard to match. Memo Gidley, a veteran of the sport, with IndyCar and IMSA credentials, swears by karting. “A gym on wheels,” he calls his shifter kart.
Part of that is due to the dimensions of a kart. Being so short and square, it changes direction better than most racing vehicles. It’s a kart’s incredible, near-telepathic response that makes it easy to overdrive. In fact, so little is required to get a sorted kart to turn, that it’s easy to learn how much is too much. Small wonder that longtime karters are so accurate and comfortable controlling oversteer.
That isn’t to say that sims aren’t physically draining. True, sim racers are spared g-forces and heat, but the sim is fairly physical — at least in the sense that proper manipulation of the inputs plays a major role.
The Right Translation
The accurate physics offered by the big sims like iRacing and Assetto Corsa allow drivers to get a sense of what effects their steering rates and brake pressures have on the car. In fact, the relationships between the inputs are so realistic that an astute driver can synchronize with his rig and begin making the natural adjustments one would make when searching for the limit in a real car.
This helps introduce the driver to the challenges posed by roll, pitch, and other handling traits of a suspended car — to run it consistently near the edge. In this respect, the sim is a better launching pad into full-sized cars.
“With a solid rear axle, no suspension, a fraction of the weight, and (usually) brakes at the rear only, the go-kart is a much edgier thing with very different handling characteristics, and the techniques needed in karting aren’t all transferable to cars,” Max elaborates.
And there’s real communication between the driver and the equipment. If a sim rig is improved with a VR headset and a motion platform — though they’re not totally necessary for driver-sim integration — the information coming through the posterior, the eyes, and the limbs is convincing enough to get the heart rate up and the brow beading with perspiration. “I feel some of the stress at the beginning of a sim race that I do during the real thing,” Max said.
Even with all the realism offered, sims are still not perfect. “I think the limitation with any simulator is just that real sense of speed and danger that are hard to replicate. It’s hard to understand unless you’ve experienced it, but getting used to the feeling of the car moving underneath you is a crucial part of driving that isn’t really conveyed by a sim,” says Max.
Subtler Skills Discussed
The fear component, and learning how to manage it, is another way karting prepares a new racing student for cars. As off-track moments are bound to happen, especially in the introductory stage, at least the lightweight go-kart won’t take as long to stop.
Therefore, a few off-track experiences in a kart will acclimate a new driver to stressful situations and how to manage them — something valuable for driving a heavier, pricier car at higher speeds. “I notice those who don’t have any karting background have a tendency to make costly mistakes in a car that could have been avoided by a little ‘off-tracking practice’ in karts. Those with no karting experience seem to adapt slower to car racing and tend to take longer before they find those fast lap times,” Lisa adds.
There are also the personal qualities drivers get from immersing themselves in the atmosphere of karting. Camaraderie, self-confidence, and the chance to communicate with engineers are all things that cannot be learned in a digital lobby.
That said, there is a supportive atmosphere in sim racing, and Max’s quick progression through the ranks proves its existence. “By 13 or 14, I realized that I was becoming decent on iRacing, so that’s when I started to put in more time and effort, working closely with better sim racers and improving very quickly.” Max took only four years in sim racing before he was fast enough to win races in his first season of British Formula Ford.
The one subject the digital lobby has to teach that karting can’t — at least to the same extent — is setup. The greater range of setup options and the ability to experience what a roll bar change does to a suspended car will put an ambitious driver in good stead for the future. Some might say that the changes made in a simulator don’t have the precise effect that a real-life change of the same sort would make, but the general change is replicated, thereby giving the student a greater sense of what they like in a suspended car and how to achieve it.
Market, Exposure and Perception
Obviously, the prevalence of computers makes the sim market a huge advantage when reaching out to youngsters. Karting isn’t widely discussed, and some of us need a friend from a racing family to introduce us to the sport. The world of computer gaming has made simulators far more accessible.
“The sim racing market has definitely exploded over the last few years, especially with the COVID situation. Sim racing is obviously much more accessible and has a larger base than karting because it’s cheaper. I don’t know if it will eclipse karting, but I think sim racing is becoming a necessary training tool, with or without karting, to start a career as a driver,” Max describes.
For as long as karting has been around, and for as much good as it has done for so many racers, it remains misunderstood and under-appreciated, at least in the United States. The diminutive racing kart also appears quite dinky in some eyes, which, as a result, likely dissuades some from trying one. That just goes to show how many racers fail to understand the relationship between mass and performance. Lisa feels this reluctance to try is due to pride.
“Maybe these guys know what a kart is capable of, but they don’t want to be deflated by not getting up to speed right away,” she said. “Those of us who’ve driven karts know it takes a while to really go fast. Plus, you’ve got to be in great shape to do it. Even if you’re used to tracking a 700-horsepower car, a powerful kart on sticky tires is going to be way more exhausting.”
Adding to the problems of public perception, States-side promotion hasn’t been great, at least until recently. It seems that karting is now getting more of the recognition it deserves, largely through proponents now enjoying life at the top of the motorsports pyramid. “It’s not what we’d like to have, but it’s way better than what it was when I started. I hear big names thank karting for their success over broadcasts more and more often!” Lisa said.
More than Rivals
Serious drivers have to study both avenues and do what they can to have the broadest range of experience possible. Among professionals, a large part of remaining in shape during the off-season is regular karting. Simulators help a driver prepare for an until-then unseen circuit. The former costs more, but provides the sensations and mindset needed to succeed. The second offers some of those, but makes up for its shortcomings with convenience and in-home access to most of the world’s greatest cars and tracks.
Due to data acquisition, online racing and an ever-expanding market, today’s racing forces ambitious drivers to use all the tools at their disposal to succeed. Therefore, sim racing and karting ought to be seen as imperfect tools that, when used in conjunction, offer nearly all that’s necessary to become a world-class driver.