What I Did Last Summer
by Cindy Shepard (1997)
This last summer I embarked on a wondrous journey. This was a journey of clutches and carburetors. I began to race. To me, racing can be exhilarating and in the same night, heartbreaking.
In the early part of May, my dad and I set up a small tube Invader chassis and the required Yamaha engine with a restrictor plate for the North Texas Kartway. It was nightmare-ish in a sense because, being the girl I was, I knew nothing about slipping the engine clutch or changing the ex between the header and the pipe to make it run better.
Another thing that scared me was that I was the only girl in my class. If everybody would show up, there’d be 16 to 18 guys in the Junior Restricted Yamaha class. All of them were pretty much always elbow-deep in chain lube or grease. I was always clean.
I think of myself as being raised in a go-kart. One of my first memories was racing dirt out in our pasture with 8 or 9 of my dad’s friends. I was only three or four at the time but I learned how to drive the kart and keep it somewhat under control. I think that was the only thing that saved me ten years later… the early experience.
My first race was in late May. I remember that there were 13 kids,
including myself, entered. It was a pretty decent Saturday night. I mean, right now, night races are unbearable. The sun goes down late and the track doesn’t work until the last heat. It’s always a comfortable 98° outside and a lovely 99% humidity.
Anyway, my dad and I arrived at the track at 4:00 to test and get the kart set up. It wasn’t easy. That was my first experience I had ever had with that stupid clutch. That thing, I swear, was out to get me! We couldn’t get it to settle. If we over slipped it, it’d rev up too high and if we under slipped it, it would kick in wrong and mess everything up. Of course my dad is questioning me on how the kart feels and the clutch and if we need to change the sprocket and the flex and the fuel and the tuning and I thought I was going to go out of my mind. Well, 7:00 finally rolled around and it was time to start what seemed to be Mission : Very Impossible. We began things with a driver’s meeting which, might I add, was duly boring. After some of the other classes ran, the grid steward called us to get our karts lined up. Luckily, since I was a rookie, I got to start in the back. From a racing aspect that wasn’t good at all but from
the person who was behind the steering wheel and very nervous, that was just fine. We did the warm up lap and I then hated every inch of that asphalt. We finally got bunched up through the last turn and the flagman waved the green flag. My whole purpose from there was to not get killed. I somehow managed to make it and when I was back into the pits, my dad started in with the questions again!
“How’s it handling? What’s the kart doing? Do we need to take a tooth of? What about the clutch? Is it slipping okay? How’s it pointing?” and on and on and on. I finally told him that it was fine and to not touch a thing. In the second heat, I think the kid in front of me got a little too racy and spun and it was all I could do to avoid him.
Picture this: you’re sitting in a seat one inch off the ground where, if you flip, the only roll bar you have is your head. Yeah, we’re required to wear jeans, a jacket, gloves, a neck collar, and a helmet but it still hurts. You’re traveling down the straightaway at approximately fifty miles an hour in the dark on slicks. (Slicks are a type of tires that have no tread to them.) There’re lights on the track but of course they’re always pointed directly into your eyes or off in the distance where they’re not doing much good. You come into a highly banked corner at top speed and begin the decent to the apex of the turn and just as centrifugal force pulls you out to the outside of the track, the kid four inches from your front bumper overloads it and spins. As you try to decide which direction to commit to, you’re closing on the kid’s sideways kart very fast. You finally decide to take him on the inside and pray that his rear wheels don’t suddenly hook up and he’s catapulted forward right into you’re right side; the expensive side. (That’s where the motor is.)
Well, when you finally open your eyes and realize that you’re entering turn two and better get moving because you have ten guys on you’re rear, you breathe a quick, shaky sigh of relief and then cut off the number fourteen kart because he bumped you first. Exciting? Well, not really. That’s what we in the trade call, “Racing”.
That’s where it started and I spent all of my summer doing it. Out of six races, I’ve gotten two seconds and a third. (One of the seconds would’ve been a first if the fourteen kart, Mark, hadn’t have helped me to the outside of the track. He’s still in denial.) I attended the Jim Hall Kart Racing School in Ventura, CA this summer and learned some new breaking techniques and improved on getting to know what makes the karts tick. The track was a really nice facility. The people at the track were really nice people. All in all, I had an awesome time.
After all of the classes and drills, it was time to come home and show these guys up and surprisingly, that was my nest hour. I walked into the pits, inhaled deeply, and the lovely perfume of racing gas welcomed me home. I’m still working on the kart and, in a way, the kart’s still working on me. I have since conquered my fear of the clutch, figured out the ex and can pretty much drive with the rest of them.
Also, I have figured out who the guys are and they seem to know me pretty well. I think that we’ve gotten past that awkward stage and now if someone needs help putting the kart on the stand and I just happen to be walking down the paddock, they’ll say, “Hey…” The closer we get, the better the races get. We’re figuring out who likes to take who, when, and where which makes things a lot more interesting.
Well, that’s pretty much the highlight of my entire summer. I did some other stuff but the biggest change was getting used to sacrificing my Saturday and Wednesday nights to our local kart track.