THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

(Fred J. Field for The Boston Globe)

Karts deliver racing with a rush

Email|Print| Text size + By Marty Basch
Globe Correspondent / March 31, 2007

SCARBOROUGH, Maine -- With his pedal to the metal, Stephen Johnson piloted his sleek racing machine across the finish line as the black- and- white checkered flag waved.

Johnson beamed after his first-place finish, particularly when he saw his lap times on a printout.

"That was my personal best," he said. "I took a tenth off my previous best lap time."

Johnson, 37, isn't a professional race car driver. He's a restaurant owner from North Conway, N.H., who makes the hour long drive to the outskirts of Portland about twice a month for the adrenaline rush of indoor karting in a Scarborough industrial park.

Racing at Maine Indoor Karting is as competitive as the drivers make it. Friends, colleagues, and family members race with strangers seated inches off the ground in Formula karts capable of reaching 40 miles per hour around a track buffered with tire barriers.

This is not the summertime, outdoor go-kart track of your childhood. These are modern, expensive, slick-tired karts. They provide gravitational forces that give racers a good feel for the upper body strength needed by the pros who drive the real things.

Safety is paramount on the 1,200-foot track. First-timers must show a valid driver's license before viewing a brief pre race video designed to familiarize racers with the karts, the track, and the flags track marshals wave. In addition to the standard red, green, cautionary yellow, and checkered flags, a blue flag with orange slash signals racers to allow others to pass. If a marshal wants to meet with a racer, perhaps about a mechanical issue, a black flag is unfurled. No bumping is allowed, and drivers issued three warnings are done for the day.

During my recent visit, about a half-dozen people largely in their 20s and 30s watched the video, including some rent-a-car company employees on a corporate outing. They then went to the drivers' room to don one-piece racing suits, helmets, balaclava-like head socks, and neck braces with protective padding before entering the track area.

Racers of all abilities squeezed into the karts, adjusted their seats, strapped themselves in, and became familiar with the green accelerator pedal on the right and the red brake operated with the left foot. A marshal came by to start the engines. The arena echoed with a roar. Helmets filtered the white noise. Thumbs sprouted upward. The green flag came out. Racers quickly left the pit .

The fearless zoomed ahead. Those who knew what they were doing took the corners and S-turns with calculating precision, taking the line of least resistance with hardly a tap on the brake.

But some used caution in those first fast laps, even braking too much. Hitting the red pedal at the wrong time in a tight turn makes the kart's rear fishtail and costs valuable time.

It didn't take long for the blue flag with orange slash to be pointed at a few neophyte racers who soon were lapped. Drivers signaled with the passing flag could only turn their heads and watch in amazement as faster racers flew by inches from each other.

During the safety session, the no-bumping rule was stressed. But on the track, bumping was a reality. The turns were battlegrounds for precious real estate and jarring contact was inevitable. Those who fishtailed at the wrong time got hit by other racers.

Then, suddenly, the checkered flag was waved. Then came the yellow caution flag, and a whirlwind of yellow flashing lights. Racers slowed to drive to the pit, the race over.

Pumped with the thrill of the race, the drivers left their karts to see the printouts of results that declared "Adam" the winner, while "Crash" came in last. In about eight minutes, the racers had completed between 14 and 19 laps. The stats included average and best lap times.

Among the rookie drivers was Scarborough's Dan Chaplick, 37, the rental car company regional manager who was leading the corporate outing.

" I thought maybe you take some practice laps," Chaplick said afterward in a telephone interview. "But you just get right into it. I was tentative for the first lap, but after that just keep the pedal down and go."

A regular like Johnson competes against himself, too. "To me, this is like chess," he said. "There is a strategy."

Marc Cardullo, the track's marketing director, had some tips for first-timers : Move the seat forward for better handling. Learn where to make the turns. Have a loose grip on the steering wheel and use incremental moves. Don't slide or hit another kart -- both slow you down.

And most important: "If someone passes you, follow them," Cardullo said. "They know what they're doing."

Marty Basch, a New Hampshire-based writer, can be reached at marty@martybasch.com.

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