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Go kart racers put the pedal to the metal

KC Cook races in the K1 Speed Grand Prix.
KC Cook races in the K1 Speed Grand Prix.
Bryan Mitchell

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Everyone knows that driving in L.A. is pretty much all straight lines and traffic jams. If you’ve ever been stuck on the highway, fantasizing about going as fast as you can, there’s someone who may be able to help.

Seth Brownle is one of the managers at K1 Speed in Torrance, an all-electric indoor go karting center.

“So it’s really thrilling, it’s really exhilarating, and it’s really the closest thing that you’re gonna get to an actual say NASCAR or F1 race, or anything like that,” said Brownle.

Now, before you dismiss go karting as kids’ stuff, realize this is probably different from the fun center karts you’re used to. The racetrack looks like a maze. Thick plastic dividers, candy-striped red and white, mark out a torturous course. Racers zip around hairpin turns as a scoreboard keeps track of their laps. The speed limit is 45 mph.

The Race Is On

The center has racing leagues twice a year. Winners get big trophies and bigger bragging rights and, believe it or not, the competition is intense.

“Oh you’d be surprised how into it these guys get. A lot of them have their own gear, their own helmets,“ said Brownle.

Single races are $20, and for a truly devoted guy like Emilio Garcia III, the costs can run up pretty quickly.

“I remember my first year in ‘07, I probably spent almost $8,000 dollars from as much as I raced back then. Now it’s not as much, but on average it’s up in the few thousand, you know, but my first two to three years, it was just ridiculous. I mean, honestly, it was up there as far as dollar figures,” said Garcia.

Now he says he’s thinking of getting into outdoor racing, with gas-powered karts that go up to 70 or 80 miles per hour. There is professional go karting, with world championships and prize money. But at 49, Garcia just enjoys the stress release of racing.

“I’m actually a moving contractor...After a day when you’re dealing with employees and people, you build up so much stress throughout the duration of a day. So instead of hitting a bar, I come here, jump in these go karts, and I go out there and race, and it’s just a sense of therapy, so to speak,” Garcia added.

Reporter Jed Kim Goes Native

To understand, I need to try it out. The rules are simple: no bumping, each race is 14 laps long, and it doesn’t matter what place you finish in. You win by having the fastest single lap time. Since it’s my first time, Brownle tells me to shoot for 30 seconds. That goal in mind, I strap on a helmet, buckle in, and adjust my seat. The flag waves, and I take off.

I am completely unprepared for how physically demanding it is to drive one of these things. The wind is deafening. When I turn, centrifugal force pushes against me, and it feels like I have to lean in just to stay in the kart. It’s also scary how fast the turns come — I misjudge them once or twice.

A microphone and camera are strapped to my helmet, and they capture my descent into madness. I am jumpy adrenaline. I’m sweating. My muscles are bruised. My hands are shaking so badly I can barely hold onto my microphone.

Brownle’s at the finish line with a printout of my results. I was dead last.

“But you did really well! You’re definitely in that respectable category that we talked about earlier. You’re doing well,” said Brownle of my 28-seconds-per-lap score.

My time is a full second-and-a-half behind the leader’s, and anyone who’s familiar with racing knows that’s practically an eternity.

Still, I’ll be dreaming of those 28 seconds of speed as I head home. It’s rush hour in L.A.