Vintage karting is bringing racers back on track
We’re a long time away from the heyday of karting in America. In fact, there is a feeling among veterans of this form of racing that the era of karting for the sake of karting is behind us, having been replaced by video games. Many abandoned go-kart tracks across the country can attest to this. Some say that the sport has shifted to merely serving as a stepping stone for those aiming to start a career in racing and has become too reliant on modern technology—in contrast to the white-knuckle, ear-splitting chainsaw engine days when blowing up an engine, cracking a few ribs and going home with road rash was called a good weekend of racing.
The golden age of karting may be in the rear view mirror, preserved now only in photos and grainy home movies, but it’s not gone completely. There are more than a few die-hards out there keeping that flame alive—even when the flame is an engine fire—and they’re more than willing to find and restore vintage karts to race them again.
One of those die-hards is Rusty Becker, whose one-car Long Island garage has become a go-kart bay hosting two vintage machines—including a ’73 Margay Cheetah—that are back in action after decades, like Becker himself.
“I started racing karts in 1970,” Becker says. “It was the Long Island Karting Association. There used to be a track out in Westhampton. That’s where I started and that’s where I did most of my racing up until the mid-’70s. And then I got into running more national races, and I ran all around the East Coast: upstate New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Vermont, all over the place.”
Becker, 62, first retired from karting in 1987 after many successful seasons racing against, among others, John Oates of Hall & Oates. Becker’s dual-engine Margay Cheetah retired as well, but the allure of this grassroots form of motorsport is hard to shake for those who enjoyed it in their younger days.
“I happened to be driving past the Nassau Coliseum one day, and I saw kart racing in the parking lot, and it turns out it was my old club,” Becker says. “I went in there, and they were having a vintage race that day, and there are about eight, 10 machines along these lines—the old McCulloch straight-up karts—and the first guy I talked to, I started telling him stories: ‘I used to race these things; this looks great; if I could find a blitz kart like the very first one I’ve ever had, I’d probably do this.’ And he said, ‘I have one in my garage.’”
It wasn’t long before Becker got the smaller, single-engine McCulloch running, but he still had his old Margay Cheetah mounted in the rafters of his small garage, now beckoning to be put back into action.
“This kart was in storage from ’87 until this spring,” Becker says as he readies the kart for its return to competition. “It used to hang up there, and before that, it stayed at my parents’ garage under a couple of blankets forever. After the Grand Nationals, I didn’t even clean it, I just put it up against the wall and threw a bunch of covers over it. I don’t think I looked at it for 20 years.”
“It was in remarkably good shape considering that it had been sitting,” Becker adds. “It was never heated, but in a dry garage the whole time it was in storage. I stripped it to the last nut and bolt, sandblasted the frame, I painted the frame myself, I polished all the aluminum. I had to rebuild the hydraulic brakes; they were all shot. The main thing I had to spend money on was the motors. The motors needed to be completely gone over.”
These were fickle machines even when they were running in top shape—which is a reality that’s rarely appreciated by those who pilot contemporary karts—requiring constant tuning on and off the track. The fact that karts like these only weigh a couple hundred pounds does not indicate that they’re simple; it simply means that everything is miniaturized.
“The actual restoration of the kart, I started in April, and I’ve been working like a fiend on it ever since, basically,” Becker says. “Probably 12 to 15 hours a week at least, straight on through. And for the last couple of weeks, it seems like I’ve been living in the garage.”The Cheetah is powered by two Yamaha two-stroke engines, 100cc each, and they can rev up to about 15,000 rpm. Top speed is approximately 90 mph, and racers do hit these speeds on the straightaways on the larger tracks, like the one Becker will take his Cheetah to for its first post-refinement heats.
“The first Yamahas came out in ’78, ’79,” Becker says. “They sold the engines complete with a chassis. The chassis was junk, but the engines were good. We all used to race McCullochs like that, which were fast, just as fast basically as the Yamahas when the Yamahas first came out, but extremely unreliable. If you get two races out of a McCulloch without seizing it or having something break, you’re doing good!”
We follow Becker to Oakland Valley Race Park in tiny Cuddebackville, New York, for the Cheetah’s first competitive outing in 31 years. This expansive (for go-karts) and very technical track greets us with picturesque fog on a drizzly Saturday morning, but even at 8 a.m., dozens of drivers are already busy working on their vintage karts, which are waking up and coughing to life. The air smells liberally of oil and two-stroke exhaust, with cigarette smoke adding to the fog hanging over the track. The bad news, of course, is that it takes hours for the track to dry, with karts helping by doing practice laps.Practice laps soon give way to qualifying, and the competition starts to get serious. Becker’s kart is doing well, but the front brakes have faded a bit in practice the day before. The damp conditions don’t favor going all-out—and this goes for the competition, as well.“They’re pretty laid-back,” Becker says of his rivals. “I’m trying to be laid-back about it also. I don’t want to hurt myself. We race—we are actually racing, we’re not playing—but there’s like a gentleman’s agreement that we really don’t want to flip each other or smash up each other’s equipment.”
Vintage kart racing isn’t a one-person sport. All karts have a team, and they are transported in trailers, pickups or even minivans, with drivers’ families often serving as mechanics and crews. Just starting these vintage karts is a Formula 1 start in miniature, as “crews” tend to the tiny engines and spin them into life. Teams often bring more than one kart because there are different classes even within vintage karting; between heats, many drivers scramble to get out of one kart and into another that’s being readied and warmed up by the crews.
“Basically, once the track gets wet, it becomes like surviving: trying to get around the track without spinning or hitting something. You go out there with the intention of not crashing. You can’t really race.”
Becker’s kart comes in third out of seven in qualifying, with those fading front brakes keeping him from hanging on longer on the main straightaway. But it’s a good result given the damp conditions that prompt some spinouts but no major wrecks.