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Places to Spin

Circuit Akigase
Prices from ¥2,000 for a 7-lap rental to ¥165,000 for half-day track use for groups up to 40. 1099 Kamiokubo, Urawa-shi, Saitama Prefecture. Tel: 048-855-7862. Closed Mondays, or Tuesdays following Mondays that are holidays.

New Tokyo Circuit
¥2,000-¥6,000. 249 Kaminihonmatsu, Hikida, Ichihara-shi, Chiba Prefecture. Tel: 0436-36-3139. Closed Mondays, or Tuesdays following Mondays that are holidays.

Mobara Motor Sports Land
¥3,000-¥5,200. Daida, Mobara-shi, Chiba Prefecture. Tel: 0475-25-4433. Open every day.

Oi Matsuda Kart Land
¥2,000-¥6,000. Nakaimachi, Ashigarakamigun, Kanagawa Prefecture. Tel: 0465-81-2557. Open every day.

Fujimiya Shiraito Speed Land
¥2,000-¥3,500. 7429-7 Okubo, Fujimiya-shi, Shizuoka Prefecture. Tel: 0544-54-0708.

Tsumagoi International Kart Course
¥2,300-¥9,000. 2000 Mansui, Kakegawa-shi, Shizuoka Prefecture. Tel: 0537-24-9820.


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449: German incursion
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447: Italian stallion
The new Alfa Romeo 156 GTA, Italy's answer to the sedans of Stuttgart and Bavaria
445: Finish line
Formula One arrives in Japan next weekend, and Tokyoites have a chance to check out the action
443: A la kart
Carlo Niederberger whizzes around the track for a weekend of unlicensed thrills and shrills
441: Top heavy
Daihatsu's first foray into the two-seater sports car market-the Copen
439: Biker babes
Justin Gardiner finds that Japan's bike manufacturers are getting in touch with their feminine side
437: Bubble economy
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435: Ace queen
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433: Lease on life
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431: Horse power
What makes an object a work of art? Can a machine be truly beautiful?
429: The X-files
Jaguar is counting on its X-TYPE compact sports sedans to woo Japan's big spenders: the working women
427: Combinations unlocked
Looking for something on the side?
425: Fancy Dress
Justin Gardiner reports on the custom car craze and shows you how to get some style of your own
423: Torque of the town
Paul Thompson comes to grips with the 29th Annual Tokyo Motorcycle Show
421: Kawaii cars
Hot on the heels of the major European manufacturers, Japanese carmakers have learned that it's cool, and profitable, to be cute. Justin Gardiner reports
419: Off the top
Spring is springing, blossoms are blossoming and the sun is nearly warm enough for some serious sunning
417: Batteries included
With the unveiling of its electric Q-Car range, Takara Co. zooms from the world of toys to that of personal transport
415: New urban mobility
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413: Small talk
Japanese K-cars make it to the big time
411: The big little Beemer
Join the BMW club for less
409: Cool coupe
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407: Autopia in Omiya
Tycoon Hata's incredible collection classic cars
405: A Car for All Seasons
A convertible for a frosty Japanese winter?
403: Alternative American
The Alternative American - Erik Buell's White Lightning lives up to its racy reputation
400: Power Cell


A la kart

Carlo Niederberger whizzes around the track for a weekend of unlicensed thrills and shrills.

Sitting in the cramped quarters of a kart waiting to be push-started by your team can be quite a bracing experience-and downright addictive. The tiny machines boast a minimum of skeletal bodywork, with tires the size of CDs and a steering wheel much stiffer than those on arcade racers. You, in fact, are the heaviest component. Once rolling, it's hard not to be amazed at the power surge when your foot hits the gas, and it takes nerves to keep the pedal pressed down. When the race is finished it matters little whether you've come in first place or last, because the ride itself was thrilling enough.

Welcome to the world of Tokyo kart racing, a thriving scene that offers customers the chance to literally walk off the street and into a racecar-albeit a small one. Not to be confused with go-karts, their smaller cousins, karts have become so popular that they've spawned professional racing leagues here in Japan. Indeed, illustrious Formula One racers like the late Ayrton Senna and the Schumacher brothers were weaned on karts, and participation at the higher levels requires drivers to obtain licenses. But with a half dozen tracks lying a stone's throw from the city center, and with prices starting at around ¥2,000 per spin, Kanto's tiny racetracks beckon even non-racing residents with the lure of cheap-and fast-thrills.

Going for a spin in the rain

Bare bones racing
Although it's not much to look at, Akigase Circuit in nearby Saitama Prefecture is one center of Kanto's kart universe. "Compared to other, prettier tracks, this one looks bare, but its atmosphere is incomparable, with hundreds of drivers who show up on weekends," enthuses Yamaha karts sales expert Yoshizo Ozaki. The 550m track with a 150m straightaway awaits even the most inexperienced novices, offering a "time attack" run that costs ¥2,000 for seven laps on a first come, first served basis. Drivers are issued a helmet and gloves, and the only requirements are that they be over five feet tall and wear sports shoes and clothes that cover every limb.

But seven laps go by quickly, and once the racing bug bites, drivers often seek out organized competitions. For them, Akigase offers two types of races, both of which see 6 to 12 drivers out on the track at a time. The "sprint pack" (¥12,000) involves an 8-lap qualifying race and a 12-lap final with up to 8 competitors, while the "race pack" (¥10,000), with up to 12 drivers, features a 20-minute qualifying session followed by a 45-minute all-out racing session. Drivers can rent karts that come mounted with Honda RX160 four-stroke engines, and both events end on a podium with trophies doused in champagne.

Seasoned kart drivers, many of whom own their own vehicles, often claim that rentals are un-serviced and under-performing and don't offer a great deal of fun. Ozaki counters that rental karts are usually fine, which is reassuring for those who don't want to shell out tens of thousands of yen for a secondhand vehicle. Most rentals, and, in fact, most racing karts in general, do not have transmissions, and are simply operated by an accelerator under the right foot and a brake under the left. Karts reach speeds of anywhere between 40 to 160km/h, depending on the model, engine, tires, how they have been tuned and serviced and so on-much like options on full-size motor vehicles. Karts are just less expensive and do not require a license to ride.

Ticket to ride
Getting more deeply involved in the sport requires honoring weekly on-track commitments and enrolling in a league, which does require a permit. That kart licenses are expensive and troublesome to obtain, though, are misconceptions. The Yamaha-sponsored SL Kart Club issues licenses honored at all tracks for as little ¥12,000, and this involves only a half-day's academic and practical training, including understanding the mechanics of karts as well as the manners and regulations pertaining to official races. SL's licenses come in several categories corresponding to different classes of vehicles, from the S Stock karts for novices and intermediates racers all the way up to the YZ Stock 125, which are designed for experts. The Japan Automobile Federation also issues licenses, as do individual circuits, albeit for use on their tracks only.

So for those young and willing enough, establishing a reputation on the kart tracks is a passport to great things in the world of motor sports. Others, meanwhile, can join the ordinary crowd and kick back at any of the numerous kart circuits that dot the Kanto region and beyond.

Photos courtesy of Yamaha