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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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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