For a good many gearheads, one’s first experience driving a motorized vehicle was in the seat of a go-kart, and definitely not behind the wheel of dad’s Chrysler Dynasty while taking it for a quick spin down a rural two-lane before he got home from work.
Certainly not. No sir.
These days, it’s a lot easier for kids to get comfortable behind the wheel long before they try for their driver’s licence. Go-kart tracks are abound, of both the indoor and outdoor variety. Thing is, though, while they quench Young Stig’s need for speed, they don’t teach much about car control and how to react in a panic situation.
This is where Toyota’s kartSTART program comes in. A travelling road show of go-karts making its way across Canada during the summer months, it offers kids aged ten and up the chance to experience the excitement of driving in a safe environment, all while learning a few things about car control from experienced instructors.
Russ Bond has been involved in motorsport for over 20 years, racing everything from karts to stock cars. Safe to say, then, the man knows a thing or two about car control.
“Driving is a learned talent, and the more you practice, the better you’ll get at it,” explained Mr. Bond under cloudy skies at the Scotia Speedworld track just outside Halifax, Nova Scotia. “Anything we can do to establish a strong foundation of responsible and safe driving habits in a fun way is beyond rewarding.”
Arriving at the track, our very own ten-year old correspondent was fitted out for a Toyota-branded racing suit before being handed a properly-sized Snell helmet and gloves. A total of twenty kids, ranging in age from ten to late-teens, kept the kartSTART workers busy as head-honcho Bond set up for the first half of the program, consisting of classroom instruction on basic driving techniques and car control.
Now, I’ve been in a lot of classrooms and, without fail, there is always at least one kid not paying attention. Not here. Russ Bond kept their focus with explanations of how throttle inputs affect the balance of a kart, the importance of situational awareness, and what to do if a spin occurs.
The intent, Mr. Bond told me after the lesson, is to familiarize kids with car control so they develop good habits early and are better prepared to take on the DVP with confidence when they do get their driver’s license. Sure beats palming the keys to dad’s Dynasty, after all.
Classroom session over, our ten-year old test pilot and the rest of the morning’s youthful participants were led out onto the racetrack where twenty go-karts were waiting. With Russ’s instruction ringing in their ears, they were plugged into appropriately-sized karts and set on their way. Guiding them around the track were a couple of pace karts, piloted by kartSTART employees and ensuring that all hands kept to a reasonable speed.
The kartSTART track used part of the main racing oval before skirting into the infield, making a kidney-shaped circuit which gave the go-kart drivers a shot at both left and right turns. Bordered with tires and soft barriers, the driving session is designed to promote confidence and instill good habits behind the wheel.
The pace karts gradually ramp up the speed until the young drivers are feeling the edge of their capability. Contact between karts is, of course, not allowed but the occasional spin-out is not frowned upon. Looping a kart 180 degrees in a tight left-hander simply means the student is exploring the limits of kart control at a safe speed while, at the same time, reinforcing the importance of situational awareness to other drivers who then have to avoid the wayward kart. Torrential rain the night before our Thursday morning session slickened the track, assuring that some karts were spinning like a Maytag washer.
Asked what he learned about driving at kartSTART, our ten-year old Stig said “Always go slow around the turns and try not to press the gas when your wheels are turned or you’ll crash into the wall.” Good advice, and not too far off some basic instruction adults will be given at big-kid track schools. “It was pretty fast, I learned a lot, and it was really fun.” Sounds like a winning combination, then.
New drivers often need all the help they can get, so a program that’s designed to give kids and their families a real-world understanding of the physics behind driving motorized vehicles is extremely valuable. Naturally, with parents on hand, Toyota takes the opportunity to show off their wares, with a lineup of Toyota products available for test drives after the kiddos have finished with the karts. Keeping with the safety theme, the kartSTART employees demonstrate the Safety Sense suite of features installed in new Toyota cars, trucks, and crossovers.
The half-day program wraps up with a photo session of the young karters and a catered lunch in the on-site Toyota hospitality tent. With karting experiences dancing in their heads and driving instruction ringing in their ears, the fledgling drivers are treated to a gift bag of goodies to take with them before they hit the road.
Toyota kartSTART tours across the country during summer months, starting in late-June or early-July and wrapping up at the end of August. Check out the kartSTART website for details on the program and find more information about Toyota Safety Sense.