What follows is a true story from my youth in rural Western North Carolina:
The Go Kart
I don’t remember the exact year that my father came home with the go kart frame, but I believe that I must have been around fourteen or maybe fifteen years old. The frame was new and complete with steering, brakes, wheels, tires and seat. It did not however have a motor.
My father assured me that the lack of a motor was no problem because he owned an old, two cylinder chain saw that was designed for two men to use. He said that big, old motor would do just fine and so we set about putting the chain saw engine on the go kart. After accomplishing that task, we guessed at the gear ratio and got a sprocket that fit the motor, and then were able to run a chain around that sprocket and the one on the axle.
One shortcoming was that it was direct drive, there was no clutch mechanism and so if the motor was running the kart was moving, providing of course that the rear wheels were on the ground. It had to be started by either pushing, or by manually spinning a back tire while the rear of the kart was lifted off the ground. Another slight issue was that the brake was nothing more than flat steel pads that pressed against the surface of the rear tires when the brake pedal was depressed. Certainly not the most sophisticated or efficient of braking systems, but I was far more interested in going that stopping anyway.
The engine didn’t perform very well at lower revolutions, but really seemed to enjoy running wide open. And oh yeah, it was very, very loud. Both of those things suited me and made the whole enterprise more exciting.
Finally one night my dad and I had the thing assembled and the engine running the best we could. He suggested that I take it for a test run and that he would follow me in his car, and I would be able to see to drive by his headlights. I know what you’re thinking, but it made sense to us at the time. It was a week night and there was no traffic to speak of on the rural road where we lived, so the danger from motor vehicles was pretty slim.
We propped the kart up on a cinder block, I sat down and fastened the seat belt that we had installed, and my dad spun a rear tire starting the engine. Then he rushed to his car which was already running with the lights turned on. I shifted my body weight back and forth until the kart slipped of the concrete block and I was off! Down the gravel driveway I went, and then turned right on the paved road with dad right behind me. After going about a hundred yards from our house I was feeling pretty confident and in control. I pressed the gas pedal all the way down.
I can remember to this day that the kart really accelerated, and that I left dad, and unfortunately his headlights as well behind. My eyes started to water as the go kart and I quite rapidly arrived at the place where I was supposed to turn around. I let up on the gas pedal but that act had no effect on anything, the throttle was stuck wide open. I pushed the brake but that also had very little consequence on the kart’s speed. Unable to turn around, I turned left onto another paved road that I was familiar with. Dad’s lights were too far back to be of any use to me, and I knew that soon the pavement ended, and that the road became a twisting, steep, mountain dirt road.
Just before the pavement ended, there was a house on the left that had a long, sweeping semi-circular driveway, and I thought that was my best chance to get turned around. Straining to see in the dark and pushing the brake hoping it might have some effect, I tried turning into the driveway but missed it by just enough to send me across their front yard and through the lower branches of a huge Holly tree. I was however now headed in the right direction and just as I navigated back into the paved road I passed dad coming the other way.
I’m sure that the reader must be asking themselves about now, “Why didn’t he just switch the motor off?” That’s easy to explain, we really were more interested in keeping the cantankerous motor running than shutting it off. During all the testing in the garage the kart had been on blocks and we shut the motor off by using the original switch mounted on the chainsaw’s motor. Believe me, about the time I went through the branches of the Holly tree I was starting to see the value of a kill switch that I could reach while driving!
Eyes watering, I hurtled through the darkness back down the hill to our house and pushing the brake for all I was worth did manage to slow the kart down some and I turned into our driveway, but losing control right at that point I passed between the big wooden gate posts sliding sideways, and thankfully the motor stalled and went silent.
My friend Jim came to visit the next day and I told him about the experience and about passing his house with the throttle stuck wide open the night before. He said that he was in his bedroom and when he heard the noise of the kart going by he asked his mother what it was. She said, “I’m not sure, Jim, but I think they’re moving hell and just came by with the first load!”
A week or so later I took the Kart for a little drive around the neighborhood and somehow lost control in a turn where a preacher lived not far from us. I got the kart under control and back on the road only after running through the flower bed in the front yard of the parsonage. I drove a few more miles at full speed, for the greatest part, and then back home where I found two North Carolina Highway Patrol officers waiting for me. They claimed that they had tried to stop me but that I had outrun them on the crooked roads. I have no idea if that was true or not, but it is possible I suppose because the engine was so noisy that I wouldn’t have heard a siren.
I was cited for no driver’s license, no tag, speeding, failure to stop for the officers, and several other offenses. I had to go to the court of a blind judge who said that I sounded like a good boy, and fined me either eleven or twenty one dollars, I can’t remember which now.
According to my friend who attended a church near where we lived, the next Sunday the preacher said some derogatory things about speeding and go karts in his sermon. I am convinced to this day that it was him that called the Highway Patrol because of a few squashed flowers, and I have had a lingering mistrust of preachers ever since.
copyright Bill North 2014