Say “karting” to most people in the US and they’ll think, “Oh, go-karts. How cute.”
Karting—the racing of “go-karts” is something less than a niche sport in the US; more a cult activity. Serious racers own their own machines, wrench them themselves, and participate in a very insular world of races in a scattering of regional tracks, very much below the radar of the general public. It is just about the most niche of all forms of organized motorsport in the US.
There are many Arrive-and-Drive tracks where the public can just show up, get into a kart and drive fast in 8- or 10-minute sessions against each other. There are also tracks with Arrive-and-Drive leagues for people who wish to race seriously but don’t have the time or money to own and race their own machine. These are quite rare.
Having spent a major part of my career as a motorsports writer and broadcaster covering Indy Cars, NASCAR, and SCCA, no surprise that I have always wanted to race, but circumstance and finance made it nothing more than a pipe dream. An exhaust-pipe dream, I suppose.
A few years ago an indoor track opened about five minutes from our house, and I began spending a few hours a week running hot laps. Then an outdoor track opened with an Arrive-and-Drive league on what had been a parking lot on the outskirts of Baltimore Washington International Airport, also minutes away. Last year I finished eighth in points in a league where I gave away more than 50 years and 100 pounds to the whippersnappers in the league. Which brings us to Le Mans.
During our stay here in France in the summer of 2016 I discovered what major league karting is really about. I had no idea.
In the US, almost all karting is similar to American short-track auto racing. Events consist of a brief qualifying period, then heats, and then a final, none much longer than ten minutes or so. It is every man for himself. That was karting for me.
In Europe it is an entirely different beast. Karting is endurance racing, with races that range in length from 2 or 3 hours to 6, 7, 12, 18, and the Grands Mammus, 24 or even 30 hours. Drivers, pilotes in French, are in the cockpit for up to an hour at a time, and teams require as many as six drivers for a 24-hour event; race rules limit drivers to maximum driving time per shift, usually from 45 minutes to an hour.
This kart endurance racing is enormous in Europe, and especially in France, where Le Mans is an absolute temple in the religion of speed. It is difficult to process what big business this is, and how prominent it is in the public awareness. It is the portal to major motor racing and it is serious business. Every one of the greats, from Michael Schumacher, to Lewis Hamilton, to all of the other current drivers on the F1 circuit came through karting.
There are major-league style tracks all over the country, indeed all over Europe. On any given weekend there will be multiple endurance races all around France, with fields of 30, 40, or more teams in multiple engine classes. In the immediate vicinity of the Le Mans automobile racing circuit there are no fewer than three major karting facilities and on the same weekend there are often at least two events being run simultaneously. When I say major league, I mean it; pristine track surfaces, wide runoff areas, grandstands, restaurants, bars (!), and track-view table seating areas.
One day back in 2016 Anthony told me his close friend Ludo Voisin is captain of one of the top teams in France, the Le Mans Racing Team (LMRT). They were competing in the karting 24 hours of Le Mans that weekend, and we were invited into the pits. The Karting 24 Heures du Mans, the big apple. It was a seminal moment.
We watched. We soaked it in. I asked a lot of questions. Before we left the track that day Anthony and I had made plans to dive deep into the sport, with a goal of driving in the 24 Heures du Mans on the Le Mans International track. Make that a bucket list item.
Since that day we have come a long, long way. We have formed a base three-man team, Anthony, me, and Anthony’s dad, Yannik. Ludo Voisin has taken us under his wing as mentor, and has signed on to be a team member when LMRT is not in the same race. And, oh yes, along the way LMRT placed on the podium in the 2019 edition of the 24 Heures du Mans! Good Lord.
As soon as I arrived in November we began practicing at the Le Mans area tracks (alas, the Le Mans International track is only used for races so there is no practice availability). Through December, January, and February we ran on courses including the world-renowned Alain Prost circuit, in all weather.
Oh, forgot to mention. They race in the rain here, no rain tires. Slicks in the rain. Practice, baby, practice.
In February the team made its debut appearance. Behold, the Grey Wolves Racing Team, GWRT. We may not be fastest, but we are the oldest, and we aim to finish!
Armed with Ludo as our mentor/race captain, the first race was 7 hours, on a grey (how appropriate), rainy Saturday. RAIN! It was a hell of a way to introduce myself to endurance racing. Forty-five-minute shifts; on for 45, off for 90 minutes, then back on for 45, for 7 hours. It was exhilarating, exhausting, and addictive. I could hardly wait for the next race, and we were triumphant at the end. We drove clean, we didn’t finish last, and by the end of the event we had become something of the darlings of not only the race organizers, but other teams as well. One race into the season and we were already well known and recognized around the pit garages.
Le Mans style start. Anthony, second from right in the rain suit, sprints to the kart at the start.
Soon after, COVID hit, the confinement went into effect, and racing came to a halt, but by June things returned to a semblance of normal. Lo and behold, race organizers announced a 6-hour event at the Le Mans International circuit—the Bucket List track!
Six Hours, three drivers. Ludo and LMRT would also be in the race so we’d be racing against them, although racing against them consists largely of moving over as they blow past. Which, as it turns out is exactly what happened as I was running at top speed down the back straight to one of only two places on the track where you touch the brake. A kart moved inside me and I gave a wave to let him know to take the corner, and it turned out to be Ludo, who gave a thumbs up as he slipped by.
Unlike in February it was a glorious, sunny, warm day. Like February it was exhausting. But we were running at Le Mans International! And I was thrilled., especially when after the fact, Ludo told us the 10 top teams in France had been in the field.
Grey Wolves Racing Team is alive and well. In mid-August the season resumes with a 7-hour event in Alencon, about two hours away from here, followed by three more races over the next three weeks, including another 3-hour event at Le Mans International, all aiming towards the biggest event of this season, an 18-hour race in October. Our ultimate goal: next spring, the 2021 24 Heures du Mans.
The chronological age of the team members (Anthony is the young punk at age 43; Yannik and I are 72), while giving some people pause for admiration, has also given rise to suggestions for sponsorships because of our demographic. Like hearing aids, glasses, and (not funny) funeral homes.
To give you an idea of the reality of this, check out the link below. It is a team video from LMRT who finished on the podium in Le Mans last year. Full screen is good.
And no, we’re not yet this good, but we are building an infrastructure.