Shifter Kart Racing: The Complete Guide

Go kart racing is a favorite pastime for some children and adults as it's an easy skill to pick up and amusement parks all over North America provide inexpensive rental options. International racing competitions also exist, and drivers can get annual licenses and optimize their karts for the best performance.

There are also different racing formats that you can expect to see both domestically and internationally. The three primary formats include sprints, speedways, and endurance. Several organizations exist around the globe that help to support and regulate karting as well.

Multiple people driving a go kart

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Shifter kart racing is a kind of road racing with motorized vehicles called go-karts or karts. These open wheeled karts come in a few different designs and are usually driven on tracks similar to other race cars, but scaled down.

Kart racing has frequently been labeled as the gateway to other motorsports, and many Formula One drivers used to race go-karts when they were younger. There is some variability in how fast karts can travel, but some are capable of going up to 160 miles per hour.

Motors and Tires

Shifter karts may have an electric motor, but most are powered by a four-stroke motor. These karts are also suitable for off-roading if they have the right tires and other components to keep the driver safe.

It's important to note that tires for karts will have speed ratings and the proper tires must be used for racing karts and commercial go-karts. Tires come in many different sizes and have varying characteristics for specific purposes, but they all need to be properly seated on a rim and balanced to avoid vibrations and damage to the kart. 

There are different kinds of karts that are best suited for different age groups. These start with a kid kart that typically has a 50cc engine, all the way up to a 125cc shifter kart. Higher performing karts that can go up to 125 miles an hour can retail for more than $4000.

Key Components of Shifter Karts

There are a few significant components on karts that help them operate well in a variety of conditions. Having a structurally sound yet flexible chassis helps aid in performance, and the transmission, tires, and motor all have an effect on how the kart handles overall.


The chassis on a kart is unique because there is no roll cage or suspension and the chassis must, therefore, be quite flexible. The kinds of chassis on a kart have been given different names in the U.S. based on their category:

  • Offset
  • Caged
  • Open
  • Straight

Chassis used in the international karting competition, ruled by organizations called Commission Internationale de Karting - nternationale de l'Automobile are required to be either open or straight.

Changes to how stiff or flexible the chassis is will result in changes to how the kart handles under different circumstances. Even the temperature of the track can have an impact on the chassis, and there may be bars on either end of the kart to aid in stiffening or loosening the chassis.


There is no differential on a go-kart, and therefore one tire will have to slide when the kart takes a corner on a track. There are typically design changes to the chassis so that one wheel will lift up as the kart turns a corner which allows for the slide required.

The transmission also has a chain that helps move power from the engine to one of the axles. You can remove the axle sprockets and the engine on a kart for repairs or replacement, but there is some science behind the ratio of these parts and optimal performance.


bunch of tires

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There are a variety of kart tires available that have different treads, diameters, and purposes. Some tires will resemble a lawn mower wheel while others are much more substantial and have aggressive treads appropriate for off-roading.

Slicks or flat tires meant for racing will have different grips that range from soft to very hard. In international races, drivers are allowed to choose the tires they wish to have on their karts, and slicks are popular choices due to how soft they can be.

There are also special tires for rain that have grooves and are more narrow than racing tires. Not all competitions will allow rain tires, so it's a good idea to confirm in advance. There are also tires for off-roading and winter conditions that have different treads and densities to fit the conditions they are designed to accommodate.


grayscale photography of vintage car engine

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There are different engine types for go-karts, but most of them use an electric motor, a two-stroke engine, or a four-stroke engine. Dedicated manufacturers create these engines for use in go-karts and the commercial go karts you find in amusement parks traditionally use either a four-stroke engine or an electrical motor.

Racing karts will have either a two-stroke or four-stroke engine with the two-stroke being made by manufacturers that specialize in kart motors. Four stroke engines are available as standard engines used for other industrial applications from brands such as Tecumseh, Honda, and Briggs & Stratton.

Licenses and Equipment

As the driver of a kart, you'll need some basic equipment for safety when out on the track. In general, you'll need a good helmet that meets the proper certification such as K2005 or SA2005, and you’ll also need a driving suit that protects you from abrasions.

Gloves and boots that cover the ankles are also required, and a racing balaclava is also needed. Optional equipment includes a neck brace and rib protector that aren't always worn but are very highly recommended. There is no requirement that any of the equipment be fire retardant or made from fire-resistant materials.

The license that you need to drive and compete in a shifter kart will vary based on your location, but in general, you'll need a specific license to race in certain events. The appropriate governing body in your area or the relevant association will issue licenses for a fee.

Part of the annual fee that you pay for your license may include some basic insurance, but you should confirm how much coverage is included when you apply for a license. There are different categories of licenses for the various levels of competition and age groups, but practice licenses are typically not too difficult to obtain.

Some countries such as France may require you to pass a medical exam in order to get your annual license, and there may also be a capability assessment set by the organization responsible for issuing licenses.

Shift Kart Race Formats

Kart races are seen as very economical as drivers can get go karts for only a few thousand dollars. There are few barriers to entry for this competitive hobby, and it can easily be part of the average person’s free time.

For those that want to compete in kart racing, there are licenses needed for competitors over the age of 8. Much of the highest level of racing occurs outside of the United States; however, several domestic organizations help to regulate the sport.

Racing comes in a few different formats, and drivers will be divided into age groups spanning three years, or groups based on weight. For adults, there is a "senior" label for categories that include drivers aged 15 or 16 years old and older.


The speedway is a popular type of kart racing that has a distance around a tenth of a mile to a quarter of a mile long on a paved track. Traditionally, tracks include four left turns, and two straight-away, with very few tracks having any notable symmetry.

Most of the speedway's seen both domestically and internationally will have a more oblong shape that may resemble an egg or an unevenly shaped oval. Events can last between four and twenty laps

The World Karting Association (WKA) uses transponders on their speedway so that karts can race in smaller groups. The goal is to have the fastest lap time, and those with the best times go on to other races. 

The International Kart Federation (IKF) uses a two-part format that includes a ten-lap race followed by a final round consisting of twenty laps. The position a driver finishes in for both of these races determines their place in the lineup for the “feature” race.

There are go karts that exist with chassis that have been altered specifically for this kind of course that only features left turns. The chassis on this type of go kart has been changed so that it is offset for better handling and the ability to make a number of adjustments.

This kind of track may also be paved over with clay or other types of pavement, and special tires may be used depending on the material that makes up the path. Most speedway races will have two parts: a trophy dash consisting of four laps, and the main or feature race that is typically twenty laps.


Sprint races are slightly different from other kinds of tracks as they are dedicated solely to karting. This kind of track has a more irregular shape that features both left and right sided turns with track lengths varying widely between a quarter mile to a full mile.

These shorter races focus more on how fast the driver can go while handling different turns and other features of the track. A driver must be quite skilled at passing other karts as they maneuver around the curves of the track.

Since there is a small number of laps in the average race, drivers have to make every bit of their sprint race count as the winner is determined by overall scoring. Each race lasts about fifteen minutes, and it is common to have at least three heats followed by a feature or final race that determines who wins a trophy.

This format is common with higher levels of competition, and the Karting World Championships use this layout for their competition.


Endurance races are very different in the sense that they are much longer overall and can last anywhere from thirty minutes to twenty-four hours. There may only be one driver, or there can be several if the race is set up in relay fashion.

Endurance races require a great amount of consistency, pit strategy, and reliability and drivers must balance that with their overall speed during the event. In the United States this kind of racing is frequently referred to as “Enduro” racing with most events lasting thirty to forty-five minutes.

These Enduro races are usually held on legitimate race tracks that have been modified to fit the kart racing course that is greater than 1.5 miles but less than four miles in length. This type of racing is seen as being more affordable and an easier way for young people to get started on kart racing.

​Racing Categories

People driving shifter kart on a race track

​Image via Pixabay

As with many sports, there are different classes in kart racing that are sometimes also referred to as formula. Each organization or competition will likely have their own rules and regulations, so it's a good idea to read up each year for specifics.


National races refer to races that represent a country as a whole, and not races that are specific to the United States. Countries such as the UK and Australia also host many different karting races complete with several different classes.

United Kingdom

In the UK you can find three different championships that feature only the National Karting Series which is called Super One.

The Super One championship is part of three series that host different kinds of kart categories. The Rotax series, the MSA series, and the TKM series all have their own specific classes that drivers are divided into.

The Rotax series has four categories: Minimax, Senior Max, Junior Max, and Senior Max 177. The MSA series has five categories: Cadet, Super Cadet, KF2, KF#, and Formula KGP. The TKM series also has four categories: TKM Senior four-stroke, Formula TKM Extreme, Formula Junior TKM, and the Honda Cadet group that was added in 2006.

There are other championships that take place in the UK, and one of those is the BirelART series which features Junior 100cc, Cadet 60cc, Senior Light 125cc, and Senior Heavy 125cc. The light and heavy labels in these categories refer to the drivers’ weight class.


In Australia there are a number of different classes used including:

  • Rookie
  • Cadet (formerly Midget)
  • Junior National
  • Senior Rotax, National, Clubman, and TAG
  • Junior: National Pro, Rotax, and Clubman

Most of these classes will also have a light and a heavy version with a few that will also have super heavy.

United States

In the United States, karting is popular in the Midwest and the southeast of the country. On the west side of the country, European racing style is most prominent, and the 125cc kart that uses the Honda CR125 has become a favorite. 

Similar to go-kart racing is dirt track racing which also uses open-wheeled racing karts on an oval track. This racing is frequently labeled "Dirt Oval Classes," and it was popular in the 1920s and 1930s.


Internationally it is the CIK-FIA championships that decide which drivers go on to compete in the World Championship. There are several categories for these championships with the top level called OK. The junior version of these groups is the OKJ. There are also the KZ1 and KZ2 categories which both use a 125cc engine, and the Superkart group.

The Superkart uses a 250cc engine which can go quite a bit faster than the smaller 125cc engine. The OK and OKJ groups use a 125cc two-stroke engine that lacks a gearbox and is water-cooled.

The Kart World Championship (KWC) is another CIK-FIA category race that takes place in a different location each year with the kart type and characteristics changing as well.

Janice Friedman

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