The Intimidated

Before you even ask, I came in last. Eighth out of eight drivers, a rank so low that my name didn’t even fit on the illuminated scoreboard suspended above the racetrack. I was the caboose. The hind end. The big loser.

I have only these facts to offer in my defense: It was my first visit to the RPM Indoor Kart Racing and Conference Center, I haven’t driven anything faster than a moped in five years and I couldn’t reach the break pedal on my kart.

Driving is a high-anxiety activity for me, but I figured karts were more like toys than actual motor vehicles. Third-graders operate them. How challenging could they be? Then I walked into RPM and saw helmeted drivers piloting ground-level racers around sweeping turns at top speeds of 40 miles per hour, tires squealing. I wasn’t there five minutes before a driver spun into a 180 and received a lengthy admonishment from a track official.

“I will cry if my kart does that,” I announced to no one in particular as I watched the action through the lobby’s floor-to-ceiling windows. My heart rate accelerated along with the sound of nine-horsepower engines, accompanied by a piped-in rock soundtrack. Forget about fun, I thought, I’ll be happy if I don’t crash.

After receiving an RPM membership card and a black knit “head sock” to wear under my helmet, I was assigned a 10-minute race on the Unbound Track—the faster of the two available routes in the expansive warehouse. (On Mondays, both tracks are joined for an extra challenge.)

I lingered in the café upstairs until my race number was called, watching NASCAR footage on one of several televisions and trying to muster some automotive mettle. Then I donned a regulation red-and-black jumpsuit and headed to the briefing room, where we watched a short training video narrated by a vivacious woman in a form-fitting jumpsuit. It focused primarily on the various flags a track official might wave in our direction: yellow for caution, black for a penalty, etc. It also explained how to modify the gas and break pedals so children could reach them.

I didn’t expect to need this last bit of information, but once I climbed into my kart, I was surprised to discover I was too short to reach the pedals. I leaned over and switched them into kid mode and followed the other cars onto the track.

Determined to keep up with the pack, I hit the gas and picked up speed on the straightaway. I felt bold and daring. Then I realized my break pedal had disappeared. My car skidded around a turn as I slid down in my seat, my toes stretching into empty space. The pedal had reverted to its adult position. I eased to the right shoulder, letting everyone lap me as I tried in vain to readjust the pedal. No luck.

A smarter driver (i.e. someone who is not a total wuss) would have recognized the almost non-existent danger of a kart crash and ridden the curves at high speed for the sheer thrill of it, but I’m embarrassed to admit anxiety got the best of me. I decelerated well in advance of every turn to avoid fishtailing. The other racers were trying to win the Indy 500 and I was a grandma on a trip to the grocery store.

As I continued my moderately paced laps, 10 minutes began to seem like a long time. I consoled myself by thinking that, rather than being an obstacle to the other drivers, I actually added a challenge to the race. If they didn’t drive quickly enough on the straightaway, they’d get stuck behind me on the curves and ruin their time. Welcome to the advanced course, suckers.

My cheekiness vanished the minute I received my Track Smack printout, which detailed my lap times and race position. My fastest lap (31.6 seconds) was almost twice as slow as the winner’s, so I had no choice but to shed my jumpsuit and slink out the door. Sometimes you smack. Sometimes you get smacked.