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Flipping Out Over Kart Wheels

June 01, 1989|RALPH NICHOLS | Times Staff Writer

Jackie Paradis watched the sleek silver-and-black go-kart zip down the straightaway of the quarter-mile course and sighed. Not even the buzz of the go-kart's 100cc Yamaha engine sounded like Paradis remembered.

"The karts were not as sophisticated back then," Paradis said.

Paradis spent part of her youth at this same isolated sprint-kart race course on the Ventura-Oxnard border. She worked in the concession stand as a teen-ager while her father staged weekly go-kart or sprint-kart races.

At one of the races, Paradis met her future husband, Larry, who also was a karting enthusiast.

Twenty-seven years later, Paradis, of La Crescenta, barely recognized the sophisticated-looking sprint-karts buzzing around the course's nine turns at speeds of 60 m.p.h.

"Go-kart racing was great, especially for the kids because they learned how to drive responsibly," Paradis said.

Safe driving skills are still stressed in kart racing, yet most of the students who go through Jim Hall's Racing/Karting School in Ventura are adults. The average age of Hall's students is 33, and 10% of the 8,500 racers who have gone through the school are women.

Karting in the '80s appeals to businessmen, stockbrokers, airline pilots--just about anyone who would rather get behind the wheel of a race car than watch auto racing on cable television.

"It gives people a chance to learn something hands-on that is a lot of fun and does not involve a lot of time," Hall said.

A karting class provides basic instruction in steering, acceleration, braking, cornering and kart safety. Some students, such as Derek Wilcox of Woodland Hills, advance into professional kart racing after quickly accelerating through the 14 classes of karting.

"For those who want to go into racing larger cars, this is the perfect place to start," said Donna Alija, 33, of Ventura, an instructor at Hall's school. "Karting gives you a base to start in racing. This is a Formula One race car that's condensed in size."

Most beginning kart drivers never race competitively, however. They race for recreation.

"A lot of drivers start with ambitions of getting into other forms of racing," Hall said. "But there are many, especially those in the (age) 30s-to-50s range, who stay right in this sport for years."

Hall provides all the necessary equipment, including helmet, racing jacket and a sprint-kart that is equipped with a 100cc Yamaha Piston Port engine--capable of going from zero to a peak speed of 60 m.p.h. in seven seconds.

Hall said: "We take someone who has never driven a performance vehicle and at the end of two days, they may not be the best race-car driver in the world, but they will be able to do some passing and racing in controlled races."

Alija took up karting nearly two years ago. She now teaches sprint-kart racing and is one of the sport's most enthusiastic advocates.

"It's a feeling different from anything else to be in a sprint-kart that's three-quarters-of-an-inch off the ground going 60 m.p.h.," Alija said. "That rush of adrenalin you get when you're behind the wheel gives your whole body a great feeling."

Alija likens karting to meditation because of the total concentration a driver needs to maneuver a sprint kart around a race course.

It can also be a dangerous sport if a driver becomes overconfident.

"We have all different types of drivers come through the classes," Alija said. "Some guys will drive up in their Porsches, Ferraris and Jaguars and think they know how to drive a race car. But there is a lot more involved in karting. All they have to do is spin out once on turn No. 4 and they come around."

Russ Callenberg, 40, a stockbroker from San Rafael, Calif., drove from the Bay Area to take a karting course at Hall's school, one of only two professional karting schools in the United States. (The other is in Ohio.) Callenberg races on weekends to relieve stress from his job.

"What's great about karting is that you can get that real high adrenalin rush at safe speeds," Callenberg said. "It feels like you're going 800 m.p.h. out there, but you're not."

Callenberg picked the right area to pursue sprint-kart racing. Ever since the Go-Kart Club of America held its first organized races in the Rose Bowl parking lot in 1957, Southern California has been the hub of karting.

More than 1,500 of the estimated 5,000 sprint-kart racers nationwide live in California. Races are held every weekend throughout Southern California.

Karting has flourished in Southern California because the area's temperate climate can support a year-round season.

Hall, who has a degree in psychology from UC Santa Barbara, was drawn to racing long before he opened his karting school in 1982. His father, Jim Hall, Sr., is a former Indianapolis 500 champion.

Hall spent his summers in the late '70s working with his father's racing crews, where he learned engineering, race-car design and mechanical skills.

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