The Art of Karting

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Written by The Staff of Motorsport Marketing

From the Sept. 2017 issue

Posted in Features


Story by Bill Holland

What do Ayrton Senna, Jeff Gordon, Michael Schumacher, Darrell Waltrip, Lewis Hamilton, Tony Stewart, Sebastian Vettel and Kyle Busch have in common? Sure, they’re all highly talented, championship-winning race car drivers-most ranked among the all-time best at their craft. But if you drill deeper, you’ll find they all got their start in go-karts, just like a huge number of other Formula 1, NASCAR and SCCA stars.

By all accounts, the development of the modern-day go-kart–now usually just called a kart–can be attributed to Art Ingels, a race car fabricator who worked for noted constructor Kurtis Kraft in Glendale, California. Frank Kurtis and his crew built many of the notable Offenhauser-powered roadsters that dominated the Indianapolis 500 in the 1950s, driven by the likes of Bill Vukovich, Rodger Ward and Sam Hanks. Kurtis also manufactured a distinctive Chrysler Hemi-powered sports car in the early 1950s, the Kurtis 500S.

In 1956 Ingels assembled his spartan creation mostly from scrap steel tubing, bolted on a West Bend lawnmower engine and, after creating quite a stir in his neighborhood, took it to the parking lot at the famed Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. The unique vehicle attracted considerable attention, and within short order a number of similar machines were constructed and commenced doing battle.

Two of the early adopters were Duffy Livingstone and Roy Desbrow, who were partners in a nearby muffler shop and themselves expert welders. A third member of the group, Bill Rowles, was the source for the surplus West Bend lawnmower engines that were used. The trio started manufacturing karts commercially at GP Muffler and were soon enjoying success beyond their wildest imaginations.

Media Attention

The name “go-kart” was coined by Lynn Wineland, who himself went on to achieve considerable prominence in the automotive field. At the time, Wineland was doing freelance commercial art work. He soon became the art director for Rod & Custom magazine, and the multi-talented Wineland subsequently rose through the ranks to become the magazine’s editor. He ultimately took the helm of Robert E. Petersen’s mothership, Hot Rod. Wineland is also said to be responsible for coining the word “minibike.”

Magazines like Rod & Custom and Hot Rod played an important role in the meteoric growth of karting. GP ran some ads for their kits and were soon besieged with orders for the $129 vehicles. Recognizing they were onto something really big, the trio, along with three minor partners, formed Go Kart Manufacturing Co., Inc., in Azusa, California.

A rival sprung up literally down the street in the form of Bug Engineering, also headquartered in Azusa. Founded by Tom and Faye Pierson, the company produced a plethora of products over the years and remains to this day a source for go-kart parts. (The company morphed into K&P Manufacturing, now run by Pierson sons Tommy and Jon.)

Perhaps the most famous “product” of Bug was Faye herself, who raced under the sobriquet Ladybug. She traveled far and wide to demonstrate the competition merits of the company’s karts and racked up race wins around the globe. Her exploits merited a prominent spot in the World Karting Association Hall of Fame.

As karting grew in popularity–and in annoyance to neighbors–it required more than the Rose Bowl parking lot. Soon the fledgling sport found a home in the parking lot of the Eastland Shopping Center in West Covina. But the first purpose-built track was created by Go Kart Manufacturing in Azusa.

Soon thereafter, Frank and Mary Adams built a track on their farm in nearby Riverside. Thanks to a family abundant with kids, grandkids and now great-grandkids, the facility-known today as Adams Motorsports Park-still thrives. In addition to karts, the track hosts time attack, drifting and two-wheeled events.

Beyond California

The late 1950s and early 1960s were heady days for karting. Before long there were an estimated 30-plus manufacturers cranking out kits and karts, with the sport exploding beyond its Southern California roots. A national championship event was established by the North American Kart Association in Rockford, Illinois, and other venues came to host karting’s elite in competition.

One of the most noteworthy of the lot was Mickey Rupp of Mansfield, Ohio. In addition to winning a slew of races in karts, he went on to compete in the USAC Championship Car series in the mid-1960s and scored a sixth-place finish at the Indianapolis 500.

More importantly, perhaps, he founded Rupp Manufacturing, at one point the fledgling sport’s most prolific builder. Rupp’s first products were known as Dart Karts, and other models followed, including the A-Bone, Lancer and Monza Jr. The company expanded into minibikes, snowmobiles and other vehicles, eventually growing to employ more than 800 people.

Another driver who touched both the Indy 500 and karting worlds was Jim Rathmann, the winner of the I960 race at the Brickyard and a three-time runner-up. The versatile Rathmann was also one of the first oval track specialists to try his hand at road racing, taking part in the Sebring 12-hour event a number of times in a class-winning Corvette.

Jim Rathmann Racing Equipment’s Xterminator karts came out of Dallas and won several important championships in the early 1960s. These machines pioneered technology like all-aluminum frames. Plus, while most karts of the era employed rudimentary steering consisting of an arm at the base of the column that connected directly to the spindles via linkage, the Rathmann Xterminator had a genuine rack-and-pinion setup.

Going from one extreme to the other, instead of having spot brakes on the rear axle, the Xterminator had massive scuffs that applied friction directly to the rear tires. While certainly not as elegant as disc brakes, the scuff setup was deemed very effective and was said to allow drivers to go deeper into the corners.

And Then Silence

Unfortunately, the karting craze ended almost as fast as it started. By 1962 Go Kart Manufacturing Co. was at its zenith, and noted TV personality Art Linkletter–yes, the one from “House Party,” “Kids Say the Darndest Things” and others–made a bid to buy the company. He was rebuffed–and probably was relieved in the end. Business waned, expenses grew, and the company filed for bankruptcy soon thereafter.

Jim Patronite, an accountant and minor shareholder in Go-Kart Mfg., picked up the pieces and formed Azusa Engineering, which is still in operation with his son and nephew tending to business. Rupp Manufacturing begat Rupp Industries and came to focus on snowmobiles and minibikes.

In 1973 Mickey Rupp sold a controlling interest in the company to an investment group headed by Joe Hrudka (of Mr. Gasket fame), and Rupp Industries fell victim to a stagnant economy, poor snow and other factors. Its doors were closed in 1978. That first wave of Southern California karting had ended.

Karting Resurgence

After a bit of a breather, the U.S. again has an active kart racing scene featuring a giant array of classes, including spec and starter ranks for both kids and adults. Brand-new gear is just a mouse click away, with engines coming from popular brands like Honda, Rotax and Briggs & Stratton.

At the top end are sophisticated shifter karts boasting about 50 horsepower, front and rear discs, six-speed sequential transmissions and top speeds north of 125 mph. These kits are priced way above $10,000–a far cry from the $129 price tag in the sport’s formative years.

But for those who long for the simpler times, when five-horsepower lawnmower engines and chain drives were in vogue, there is a lively vintage karting movement. You can find some excellent examples of 1960s-era go-karts for sale on eBay and other outlets–and, of course, your investment in the hobby can escalate as far as you let it. Kinda reminds you of vintage sports car racing, eh?

“The late 1950s and early 1960s were heady days for karting. Before long there were an estimated 30–plus manufacturers.”

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Reader comments:

Pete Gossett
Pete Gossett MegaDork
Oct. 16, 2017 7:18 p.m.

I know someone with an original Kurtis quarter-midget hanging on his garage wall. He picked it up at a rummage sale years ago for $100 because the seller thought it was "just an old go-kart". 

Randy_Forbes
Randy_Forbes New Reader
Oct. 22, 2017 1:26 a.m.

Here's a 1961 McCulloch R1 I restored about a decade ago.  Now that our once empty subdivision is nearly fully populated, I don't even fire it up anymore; relegated to garage art.

While Mc9s or 20s would be period correct, it has 91s on it now, along with an Airheart (hydraulic) disc brake and Hegar quick-change sprocket hubs.  The wheels are genuine McCulloch magnesium (I think they cast under contract by Hands) and an original steering wheel wrapped in BMW M Rdstr Nappa Leather.

Until I fitted a Eurosport Twinscrew supercharger to my '99 M Rdstr, I think this was the quickest thing__up to 60 mph__in the garage!

 

TRoglodyte
TRoglodyte UltraDork
Oct. 22, 2017 5:24 p.m.

That looks a lot like the Fox kart I first drove in 1970, it had a Mac 101 on it. I was hooked.

LMGill
LMGill New Reader
Oct. 24, 2017 10:35 a.m.

Cool article. I was born in 61 and growing up in Connecticut, I had little knowledge of the birth of karting. My father apparently did and was inspired very early on, as he built a custom Kart in 58/59-60. Being a welder for the aircraft company, TAG Alloy, he made his in aluminum, all TIG welded. It had rack & pinon steering, drum brakes, leather upholstery and a Homelite motor. He told me, the Homelite reps were so impressed with the power of this Homelite and the kart, they gave him an experimental twin carb motor in trade for the one in the kart. My dad said it never ran consistently as the carbs would drift out of sinc quickly. So he blocked off the one port and ran it as a single carb motor. Eventually a friend gave him a Triumph Tiger Cub motor. He added a clutch lever to the steering colum and mounted a shifter under the right knee.

Sometime in the mid 60's my brothers polished it up an entered it in a Hartford car show and one a trophy. I drove it with the remounted Homelite motor sometime in the early 70's. When we moved to Arizona, my dad left to my brother who lived in Hartford. Unfortunately, it was stolen out of his basement sometime in the 90's I think. He recently gave me a bunch of pictures of the cart I had never seen. These were taken in March, 1961.

My Dad's dad in the Kart out front of our house in East Glastonbury. On the back it says "Pop in "RR's Go Go Speed Car".

Good view of the custom fuel tank and the twin Carb Homelite (Both I still have)

The underside of the all aluminum constructed frame. Note the twin chain drives.

The old man tuning the kart for a run at Lime Rock Park, July 4th, 1960

The Triumph motor installed. The twin chain drives replaced with a single drive axle at the back. Now with a custom oil tank as well.

 

I suspect the kart ended up at a scrap yard for the aluminum value, but I have always hoped it survived and is out there somewhere.

 

Chris

Randy_Forbes
Randy_Forbes New Reader
Oct. 24, 2017 2:37 p.m.

Chris, 

You REALLY SHOULD post your story and pictures on the VKA (Vintage Karting Association) Facebook page__they'd not only go nuts over it, but there's also a chance that a) someone knows more about it, or b) it'll fill in the missing blanks for someone that might've seen or heard about it back in the day.

https://www.facebook.com/groups/1394603367499268/

Oh, and of course, I absolutely love it!  I too hope that it survived, and is being taken care of__maybe you'll find out...

 

Jerry From LA
Jerry From LA SuperDork
Oct. 26, 2017 7:53 p.m.

Little-known karting fact:  Tom Medley of Stroker McGurk and Hot Rod Magazine fame, was an early adopter and helped karting spread across the country.  He was still racing karts after he retired from the magazine business in the '80s.  Tom's son Gary (also a kart devotee and owner of an indecent modified FIAT 124 sedan with a 1600 twincam) reproduced his dad's iconic karting cartoon on black cotton tee-shirts as seen below.  We just happened to have a few here at Autobooks-Aerobooks for the princely sum of $24.95 plus shipping.  This is of course purely informational as nothing is expressed or implied by the National Canoe Sinking Association (nudge-nudge-wink-wink).  We think they're cool.

http://photoberkit.com/copper/displayimage.php?pid=1741&fullsize=1

 

trigun7469
trigun7469 SuperDork
Nov. 7, 2017 12:34 p.m.

smiley

efahl
efahl New Reader
Nov. 8, 2017 11:16 a.m.

I had a Bug in the late '60s, which we hacked up into a semi-enduro shifter cart long before those things even existed.  The original lawn mower engine seemed way too anemic to us, so we first put the motor from my Bridgestone 90 on it, but that wasn't enough.  We got a Yamaha 80 from one of their little motox bikes and that was its final incarnation before I left it to my brother when I moved away from home.  It would do 75-80 mph and scared the beejeesuz out of most drivers, but boy it was fun.

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