Speedy Recovery

With the economy stalled in first gear, strip-mall stalwarts like Kmart have left cavernous buildings in the wake of their demise. This is bad news for shoppers, of course, but good news for motorsport enthusiasts. Built inside one of these defunct discount centers is Brooklyn Center’s Thunder Alley, the nation’s largest indoor go-kart track. Business there is booming, showing little respect for the recession.

The other night, I found myself strapped into a bucket seat and prepared to burn rubber in my maiden go-kart race. I was nervous. It might have been the exhaust fumes choking the air. It might have been the three high-testosterone teenagers revving their engines behind me. Especially the one with the all-star wrestling mohawk and the pentagram necklace.
Though teenage drivers dominate the ranks at Thunder Alley, it’s worth noting that the all-time speed record is held by a gentleman who races under the moniker Ol’ Sarge. He’s 74.

So it was with trepidation that I eyed the grey-haired father next to me, whose personal fan club leaned against the chain-link fence (just under a sign warning “do not lean on the fence”) screaming “daddy, daddy, go, go, go” before breaking into a chorus of dog howls. He assured me it was his first time “on this track.”

REO Speedwagon blared in the background (“take it on the run, baby”), and I strained to hear 17-year-old race marshal Tony Richter. “These are race cars, not bumper cars. Take your first lap slow. After the straightaway there’s a hairpin curve at the end. Slow down! Hittin’ the wall at forty is not fun.” Indeed, the 6.5 horsepower Honda engines can rocket the tiny machines to 40 mph with an involuntary twitch of the ankle.

“If you see me waving the yellow flag, slow down, there’s a crash. Blue means let the kart behind you pass. You all know what the checkered flag means. The black flag is the penalty flag. If you see it, pull over; I need to talk to you about your driving,” Richter bellowed his over-rehearsed lines to us with a lackadaisical authority. If a driver declines to follow the rules or has a panic attack, all of the cars are equipped with a computerized system that allows track officials to slow down or stop any car from a keyboard.

One by one we peeled out of the pit. Leaning back in the low-riding kart, I jetted down the straightway with a visions of trophy girls on my arms, their breasts heaving, in the winner’s circle. The fantasy was quickly nixed, as my go-kart fishtailed and threatened to eject me into the blue and yellow barrier lining the first hairpin corner. I recovered just in time to crank a hard right, wheels squealing.

I managed to work my way through the snaking passages and suddenly found myself jockeying for position with two of the kids. Setting them up on corner number three, I went wide before diving inside. They were soon eating my dust.

Just as I was basking in my future NASCAR glory, the senior driver nudged my kart, deftly lapping me. We were only halfway through the race. Humbled, I realized the memory of Dale Earnhardt was safe from my driving prowess for the time being.—John Tribbett