“For two people to race? That will be about an hour-and-15-minute wait,” the blonde lady in charge of the front desk at K1 Speed says. That seems like a long wait to me for just a short activity, but apparently it is not uncommon since my boyfriend Troy seems unfazed by the idea of sitting around for an hour. I’m only half-listening to their conversation, concentrating more on wrapping my head around the go-karting track that takes up most of the building.
Someone who hasn’t gone go-karting before might expect something like a miniature version of a real dirt racing track. It would be outside in the sun (I had put on sunscreen this morning), and be a simple dirt oval with dangerous-looking contraptions racing around sending clouds into the air. This go-karting racetrack looks more like an oversized toy! It’s a little rubber track that winds around in different-sized curves. Everything is painted solid, vibrant colors. There are black rubber track, red-and-white barriers and gates, orange, black, and red helmets, and shiny black go-karts. The go-karts are mostly just the bed of a car with a steering wheel and chair backing.
The cashier points first-timers to a row of computers, where new racers create a “K1 Speed account.” Instead of normal computer mice, the cursor is driven by a little car that looks like a Corvette Stingray. The computer sends registration information to the cashier, who has minors have someone over 18 sign their liability release form. (Interestingly enough, K1 Speed does not require a parent or guardian to sign the form; anyone with the minor who is over 18 can sign for them, including my 18-year-old boyfriend.) Once registration is complete, racers are left to hang out in the building until the announcer calls them to their race over the speakers.
K1 Speed is very enthusiastic about racing. Two NASCARS sit in the entrance with other pieces of cars decoratively scattered around. Every wall features posters for racing. The racetrack walls are covered with ads for K1 Speed classes and their professional events. Posters by the main desk list the weekly, yearly, and all-time record holders and their times and scores. Right after the entrance, there is a museum displaying professional racing relics that spans two floors.
K1 Speed decorates the walk from the entrance to the cashier with a museum of cases filled with racing memorabilia. One case has Dale Earnhardt’s race suit, a picture of him winning some award, and a signed red helmet. Many cases are filled with similar collections from other famous drivers. One even has a steering wheel. A cluster of chairs gives visitors a chance to feel what a racecar driver sits in. They aren’t very comfortable and hold people tightly, making them seem better sized for teenage girls than adult male drivers.
On the other side K1 Speed sells racing paraphernalia. There are millions of inexpensive K1 Speed brand T-shirts and hoodies, and the center displays the “cool” stuff that is far from cheap. Personal helmets and quality head socks for diehard go-karters as well as some unrecognizable car stuff and general car fan goodies are sold for exorbitant prices. The same car mice used on the registration computers cost $40-$65. The box of the Lamborghini Murcielago mouse has a label in another language that looks suspiciously like it would have priced the mouse at $20. Outside the store are two groups of tables where people are watching the ongoing race.
A glass wall separates the racetrack from the rest of the building, with areas inside and out of it to watch the races. A few tables that are painted and embossed to resemble giant Red Bull cans ring the glass walling. People sit at them with the drinks they weren’t supposed to take out of the building’s attached Subway and idly watch the races. While I am watching, I see two crashes and a spinout.
Glass doors open to a patio area right above the racing track with more Red Bull tables to view the race. The patio is more exciting because it is right next to the race where the racers’ faces are visible. The better view is traded for a less pleasant atmosphere. The air feels slightly heavy and uncomfortably warm.
“It’s improved a lot with the new company,” a man says. “Now it just smells like rubber instead of rubber and headache-inducing fumes, and the noise is one tenth of what it used to be.” A second race is about to begin. The group is lined up in karts in the holding area. An employee drags a wall to the side and they take off into their race.
Around the corner from the viewing deck, is a small arcade for people to play in while they wait for their race. In the arcade, some college guys are competing over the pool and air hockey tables.
“There’s no way you’re gonna make that, dude.” The shot narrowly misses. “No, goddammit! It was going in!” is followed by his friends crowing. A man is trying his hand at a basketball game. The goal is to make as many baskets as possible before two minutes are up. He seems to think rapidly missing all of his shots is the most efficient strategy. Some young kids are bickering over whether one was allowed to grab water from Subway’s drink machine without buying it. Parents come over to calm them down. The kids’ attention switches to getting coins for the arcade games. There are no tickets to earn for doing well, but most of the games give numerical scores to compare with friends.
At the moment, K1 Racing has an even gender ratio, mostly due to a girls’ volleyball team, but the games hint that that isn’t common. The arcade features mostly male-oriented games: basketball hoops, Star Wars pinball, zombie shooting, a punching bag strength test, motorcycle riding, deer hunting, and racecar driving. This is nicely balanced out by a Ms. Pacman game hiding in the corner.
I hear another announcement echoing from the speakers.
“Erin R, please head down to the racetrack. Your race awaits.”
As a first-time racer, I get called early for a briefing on rules and how to drive. Fortunately, this lesson has been cut down from a 10-minute class old customers talked about to a simple tw0-minute list of what the flags mean and how to reverse the go-kart.
By then all the other racers are called down to get themselves ready. I’m directed to a box of “head socks” to keep the helmets clean. Since they are used only once each day, there are boxes full of very cheap banana-yellow itchy head socks.
They also are not optimally designed for a girl’s long hair. I can’t seem to fit it on my head but manage to completely tangle all of my hair inside the cap in the attempt and permanently pin my bangs on the middle of my forehead in my eyes. Hoping to hide the silliness of the yellow headgear, I grab a black helmet with red-orange flames. The helmets turn out to be much larger than I expected, and I’m turned into a ridiculous bobble head before proceeding to my kart.
Each person goes to their assigned go-kart and buckles into the harness and drives forward into the holding area. The steering wheel is stiff, so I don’t turn it enough and get my kart stuck on a corner. An employee comes over right away and advises me to reverse my car. I can’t seem to get the “brake, reverse switch, unbreak” combo to work right. He doesn’t seem sympathetic to my difficulties and reverses the car for me so I can back away from the corner. I’m instructed to turn to the right, away from the corner, but I still manage to catch my back wheel on the same corner this time.
I attract another employee, who brings me a booster seat to help me reach the pedals with more than my toes. As I get out to make room for the booster, the two employees give up on my driving skills and just lift my car away from the corner. The race starts without me realizing it. I assumed we were just driving forward to get everyone on the track, but it appears as soon as people are on the track, they have free rein to race ahead.
Once I realize we are racing, I start driving at what I judge to be a decent speed. The car in front of me speeds out of view and I decide to pick up the pace. Taking a fast corner causes my car to make a bunch of little skips to the side, completely rattling the go-kart and taking away all the speed. I’m not a naturally skilled driver and assume that’s normal when turning corners quickly and I have to deal with the uncomfortableness to get a fast time.
I keep driving around the track with my method of high-speed skidding around curves when I come across a complete 180 turn on the far side of the track. This turn destroys people who aren’t aware of it, and I feel fortunate that these cars are very carefully built not to roll. I notice that the walling around tricky corners, where people are more likely to crash, is filled with tires to cushion the impact.
At the start line an employee is supervising the race. She waves a blue flag with an orange stripe at me signaling me to pull to the outside so the three cars I had been holding up could pass me. Almost every time I get back to the lap line this happens. The go-karts go scary fast, and I shy away from going full speed.
As the race goes on, I get a bit more confident in my ability to go fast and not crash and manage to hold pace with some people and even pass a couple. Twice other drivers crash and skid out of control. Someone presses a button to cut the power to our cars so we can only drive about a mile an hour until the driver resets his kart. I sit around wondering if we are supposed to stop, but all the other drivers use the opportunity to inch ahead of opponents or position themselves at the apex of corners.
I pick up a tip from other drivers whom I see braking right before they go into a corner and then pressing the gas as they are driving through it. It reduces much of the skidding and even gives a faster time because as much speed isn’t lost.
I’m surprised to see the race supervisor waving a checkered flag signaling the end of the race—I feel as though I was just figuring out how the track worked and there was no way I had driven 14 laps.
After we make our way out of the racetrack and drive our cars back to their holding pens, everyone returns the borrowed racing gear and makes their way back into the rest of the building. Off the side of the main counter we find paper printouts of the results of our personal races. I managed to place eighth out of 10 with an average lap time of 38.507 seconds.
After grabbing their papers, many customers stay to hang out even if they are finished with their races.
One teen summarizes my feelings toward the place nicely: “It’s a great place to go with your friends on the weekend. You play games in the arcade or hang out and eat and watch the races while you’re waiting for your own turn to go.”