WHAT do Michael Schumacher, Paul Tracy and Danica Patrick have in common? In addition to being rich and famous race car drivers they also got their start behind the wheel of a go-kart.
In fact, practically every famous racer in the world honed their racing chops in one of these mini machines, and the sport is becoming increasingly popular right here in Manitoba.
The Manitoba Karting Association currently features more than 40 drivers ranging in age from seven to 50 that compete in a total of 10 race events throughout the summer at the Gimli Motorsports Park.
Karting is often the entry point for young racers who move on to other classes of vehicles, but it can also be an economical way for amateurs of all ages to try their hand at racing. For those who stay in karting it is also a haven for serious racers and is sanctioned as an international motorsport.
It is often said that the family that races together stays together and after spending a day at the track watching kids of all ages rip around the track while their families cheer them on it's easy to see why. These folks go fast and have fun.
Michael Copp, an 11-year-old racer from Cooks Creek, is in his third season of racing and is thrilled with the sport.
"It was kind of scary at first but once I got the hang of it it's been really fun", said Michael, who races in two classes and helps his father Jeff work on the karts in their well-equipped backyard shop. The family loads up a truck and trailer and heads to the track throughout the summer to hang out with their racing friends and participate in some fierce but fun competition. For Michael, his biggest accomplishment occurred on the day before his tenth birthday when he got his first chance to step onto the podium.
"It's a big competition and it's just as fun as hockey or baseball", added Michael, who is a huge NASCAR fan and dreams of one day racing in the Sprint Cup. His favourite driver is Bobby Labonte because in Michael's words, "even though he doesn't always win he never gives up."
For Michael's father Jeff, a veteran metal fabricator and a seasoned race car driver in his own right, watching his young son race karts has been a total riot and his face lights up with excitement when he talks about it.
"I just get such a kick out of watching him race," said Copp, who has put his own racing hobby at Red River Co-op Speedway on hold to support Michael. "It's a great way to spend time with him and we really enjoy it as a family."
For Guy Budel, another veteran racer who put his drag racing hobby on hold to support his 12-year-old daughter Alexis in her karting endeavours, it's also been a thrill to watch his daughter compete and have fun. The Beausejour family loads up a motorhome and tows a trailer not just to the Gimli track but as far away as Saskatoon and Calgary so Alexis can race.
"As much as I enjoyed racing myself, there really is nothing like watching Alexis race and the time we get to spend together getting the karts ready and competing at the track is priceless," said Budel, who is a manager of a NAPA auto parts store. For Alexis, karting has become serious business; she has sought out sponsors and keeps them updated with her own personal website. Alexis is also a huge race fan and even named her puppy Danica to pay tribute to her favourite racer.
"It's just so much fun and everyone is so nice," added Alexis as she geared up for another race.
Her father is also the vice-president of the Manitoba Karting Association and is quick to point out the immense commitment from volunteers required to keep the racing events moving.
"It's not just the parents who volunteer their time," said Budel. "We also have many committed individuals who donate countless hours to the sport and we simply couldn't do it without them."
Budel especially likes the family aspect of kart racing.
"We camp out at the track with other families, have barbecues and pot-luck dinners and really have a great time."
Although the sport can be expensive and like any racing the sky is the limit regarding how much money you invest, according to Jeff Copp it's more affordable than you might think.
"Used karts and all of the necessary safety equipment are easily obtained,. You can get into the sport for less than $3,000."
Although it is big fun, safety is of paramount importance. The karts must pass a tech inspection before heading out on the track and all drivers must wear approved gear including full-faced helmets and racing suits.
Watching the racers roar around the track at more than 100 km/h is extremely entertaining and Both Budel and Copp chuckle as they admit they have each attempted to race against their kids ... and lost.
"It's really amazing just how fast they go," added Copp. "I was chasing Michael around the track last summer in a practice session and he ripped through a corner in front of me at full speed. As I approached the same turn I felt myself lifting off the gas pedal."
There are two days of racing scheduled this weekend. If you'd like to watch the action, or get involved, check out www.kartingmanitoba.ca for more information and directions to the track.