I’ve never considered myself to be a racing fan. Like most sports, I appreciated the skill required from afar, but never felt drawn to it as a spectator. Even while attending the inaugural weekend of the F1 races when a track opened up in the southeast corner of Austin, Texas, I enjoyed watching the finely-tuned cars fly by in brightly colored blurs, but never really cared who won.
And yet, when the opportunity came up to take part in a kart race as part of a promotional tie-in for the Ryan Reynolds/Samuel L. Jackson movie The Hitman’s Bodyguard, I found myself hyped. Set up by Fons PR — a company known for immersive, experiential press days that ranged from whole hog roasts, paintball matches, and satanic-themed escape rooms — the event was sure to be fun, regardless of my own personal interests.
Once I’d signed up, I was under the impression it was going to be a simple go-kart race, cruising around a circular track in a glorified riding lawnmower — the amateur racing-equivalent to bowling with bumpers lining the gutters. Once I arrived at the Driveway Austin Motorsports track, however, it was clear that this was not going to be the case. After getting the necessary info from my driver’s license and signing off on a release form (an unusual requirement for any press event), I was told to sit down for a 20 minute briefing and tutorial.
The first thing that was made abundantly clear was that this was not bumper cars, it was an event to be taken seriously. The hosts explained that race followed the rules set by F1, then showed a video tutorial accompanied by a lecture. The whole session covered how to enter and exit the vehicles, the different flags and what they mean, and a detailed overhead map of the track — complete with the route to follow to increase your chances for winning. At the end, they added one specific disclaimer: If someone lost a race and then blamed the kart they were driving, a track employee would race in it. If they didn’t win, your race was free. If they did, your race cost double.
Following the tutorial, we went out to the track to start the race, and I really started to realize how out of my depth I was. First off, I was one a few attendees who borrowed one of the helmets kept on-hand. The racers I’d be up against brought their own helmets. Some brought racing gloves, seat liners, and whole outfits. I was a first-timer in a sea of seasoned professionals.
Even worse, I’ve never been one for speed, period. I avoid driving on interstates at all cost, always adhere to the speed limit, and am 100% used to people passing me on the road. Even in the slow lane. For added context, I also drive a 2004 Buick that I inherited from my grandmother-in-law, which I named Blanche. This is very “on brand” for my personal driving habits.
Then, before the race even started, I ended up burning my arm on the motor, located just behind the seat to the right, despite the fact it was one of the first things covered in our tutorial. Also, this seems like a good time to mention that I’d managed to miss my turn when I was driving to the track. Suffice to say, none of this was going well.
Anyway, after getting my picture taken with the movie poster and squirt gun — this was a promo event after all — they fired up the engines and we were off.
The first lap was strictly a reconnaissance lap, which gave everyone a feel for the track so you could get used to handling the kart and anticipating its several twists and turns. We’d been told which curbs we should avoid, as well as which ones he could not only drive over, but would even help race us more effectively. After that first lap, we lined up two-by-two at the official starting point, marked by a guy with the green flag. After I rolled in dead last and took my position, the flag was dropped and the actual race was officially underway.
Despite having forgotten the pinnacle rule of not putting your arm on a scalding hot engine, I remained pretty cognizant about how to handle the throttle and brakes — perhaps to a fault. If you slammed on the brakes too suddenly, the back wheels could lock up and cause your car to spin out on the track. Obviously, I really didn’t want this to happen, the additional warning from our instructor that they didn’t “want anyone ending up in the emergency room” prompted me to be a little too light on the throttle — at least for the first few laps.
With the race now underway, the easiest comparison I could come up with was Mario Kart. The first couple laps, if there were power-ups available (which there weren’t, obviously), I’d have been given a string of Bullet Bills. But realistically, even an unlimited supply of blue shells wouldn’t have done much to save me.
Still, none of my overt caution or dull throbbing pain on my right arm deterred me from having a genuinely good time. Despite the fact that I was taking it too easy on the throttle, easing into turns like an overly cautious senior citizen (again, I drive a 2004 Buick), it was easy to shrug off what I imagined the spectators to be thinking (or saying) about my conservative approach to kart racing. Even the fact that I’d been lapped by every single other driver at least once didn’t manage to bother me.
By my final lap, having grown increasingly comfortable with handling the kart, I’d gotten a bit more liberal with the use of the throttle, and even found myself relishing the sound of my tires squealing as I slid into the turns. Though were warned about how traveling at speeds of 60- mph could cause your helmet to lift off your head, nothing could quite prepare me for the feeling of my body actually hovering above the seat when whipping around the track. Sure, 60 mph doesn’t seem fast, especially when surrounded by a half-ton of metal, but in a kart this size it almost feels like you’re about to hit warp speed at any given moment.
When it was all said and done I climbed out of my racing kart, feeling overcome with adrenaline while my legs felt a little like Jell-O (something I was not expecting). No one seemed particularly interested in who finished in what spot, and most of the spectators were simply excited to take their turns behind the wheel.
It didn’t occur to me until I was watching the next race that time passes differently when you’re driving. In the kart, with your helmet on and the wheels spinning, the race seems like it’s unending — and not just because I’d taken the first couple laps at a much more cautious speed. This was more like some kind of Interstellar paradox. With time slowed down, it allowed for complete and total focus on the track and plenty of time to anticipate your next move. When watching a race from the sidelines, seeing the cars whipping their way around the track, the whole thing was over in just a few minutes.
Only then did I start to really understand the appeal of racing as a sport — both as a spectator and as a participant. When you’re in the driver’s seat, everything else gets shut out, and suddenly your whole world is nothing more than the stretch of pavement that lies ahead.
Later, I thought about the famous quote by actor and racing enthusiast Steve McQueen. “Racing is life. Anything that happens before or after is just waiting” and felt like I understood the man’s point. While the experience alone wasn’t enough to suddenly turn me into a full-fledged racing fan, change my rather conservative driving habits, or even prompt me to buy a sweet Le Mans racing jacket, the appeal of racing made sense in a way I hadn’t expected. Because in racing, like in life, you have a simple choice: You can view yourself in competition with every other car on the track, or you can shut the world out and be alone with nothing more than that tiny bit of road in front of you.