Don't believe go-kart misinformation. Know you source. Part 1

by Peter F. Olesen, P.E.

We retain Pete Olesen to design all the go-kart tracks, miniature golf courses and bumper boat ponds for our client's projects. Thanks Pete for letting us share your article with our readers.

This article is written to the people searching the web to obtain information concerning the design of concession go-kart tracks as part of their “due diligence” in planning their own facility. Many have found this to be their only way to get information on possible consultants, kart manufacturers and contractors, as there is very little if any other source of written material to be found. Some owners of existing facilities are reluctant to pass on information because they fear possible competition, because they aren't the original owners or because they hired a design build firm to design and build their facility and have no real data to pass on.

After reviewing a number of web pages on the design and construction of go-kart tracks, I must say I am disturbed by the misinformation some are presenting. Much of the information being presented as factual is far from current, or in some instances, misleading or even incorrect and unsafe. It appears that some of the data on current web sites has been there for many years, and is very out of date.

We take exception when design criteria is presented by people that may not be fully informed as to the proper design elements that should be considered in the establishment of specifications and design criteria to be applied.

Newcomers seeking valid information should read everything carefully and check out the information presented. You may be proceeding with very outdated or incorrect information. Because information or data is presented in a factual way on a web page doesn't mean it is even close to being correct. Check out anyone providing the data you hope to use. This includes this writer as well.

Modern go-kart track design has changed in many ways. While a number of web pages appear to be providing up-to-date information, they are actually presenting concepts and criteria that may have been around for more than twenty years and have long since been replaced by more modern and effective methods for constructing pavements that assure smoother and safer ride experiences, as well as greater longevity and improved appearance. This is even truer in terms of driver safety and improved riding experiences.

Time is money certainly applies here. Every time the track supervisor shuts down traffic on the track to either respond to an accident or to untangle spinouts, minutes of productive revenue time are lost. It takes more than a pretty picture to result in an effective track design that can result in an operator's success. Experience, both good and bad can develop safer, more entertaining designs.

C.J. Barrymore's, Clinton Township, MI go-kart track designed by Pete Olesen

Track pavement design

We strongly recommend that Portland Cement Concrete pavement be used for all concession go-kart tracks for a number of reasons. This includes a long maintenance free life span, a smoother surface with greatly reduced tire wear and guest comfort and the ability to be back in operation more rapidly after rainfall. Portland Cement Concrete pavements will not experience surface fluctuations in hot weather as will bituminous concrete (asphalt, blacktop) pavement, which is a “live pavement” and is subject to rutting or shoving when it heats up, often resulting in hydroplaning caused by water remaining in the depressions in the surface. Bituminous concrete also will deteriorate in areas with no traffic. Look at large bituminous concrete surfaced parking lots. The pavement oxidizes and crumbles in areas where there is little or no parking.

Paving process

One kart manufacturer on their web page stated that vibratory screeds should not be used on tracks with banked curves. This manufacturer also constructed tracks and apparently found that vibratory screeds messed up the wet mixes they were placing, by causing the wetter mix to flow down on the banked turns. Some contractors use as wet a mix as possible to speed up finishing, which then increase their profit (at the expense of the track owner). Wetter concrete results in lower strength, tends to fluctuate in smoothness, and has a greater tendency to spall off after a few years and takes longer to be ready for kart operation after a rainfall due to ponding.

We take strong exception to this misinformed practice, as we always call for the use of vibratory screeds as part of our construction specifications. The use of the vibratory screed assures a smoother surface and greater consistency than can be accomplished by manual finishing. The use of a drier mix also results in greater slab strength. Some contractors have had problems with vibratory screeds due to their increasing the water content in the concrete mix to make finishing the surface a little easier. Adding water results in a higher slump (the amount a sample cone of concrete mix taken from the concrete pour will spread out when placed on a flat surface) making it more difficult to place the mix on a slope and reducing the strength of the resulting pavement. Adding unnecessary water to the mix also increases the potential for surface spalling (flaking). Our firm's track pavement specification recommends a six bag concrete mix with a low slump (3 inches). This results in higher pavement strength and a smoother, longer lasting surface.

We also call for 1½ pounds of chopped fiber mesh per cubic yard to reduce the effect of surface tension on the pavement surface during the initial cure period. This greatly reduces the number of surface hairline cracks that occur when fiber mesh is not used (these hairline cracks will cause surface spalling or flaking in the future). Contrary to statements by many in the industry, the fiber mesh is not added to increase the strength of the slab, as it only increases tensile strength by several pounds per square inch.

Track barrier rail system:

Track barrier rail systems should be installed continuously along both edges of the go-kart track, including through the pit entrances and exits. We strongly recommend that this system consists of a concrete barrier curb backing, automobile tires lying flat, connected to both the curb and the vertically mounted steel track barrier plate.

The primary purpose of the barrier system is to contain the karts on the track. A second benefit is gained when the system consists of a vertical steel barrier rail bolted to automobile tires lying flat on the pavement surface and anchored to a concrete barrier curb, steel rods or angle bars inserted into the concrete or special angle plates anchored to the pavement by anchor bolts. This added benefit is the energy absorbing ability of this system to cushion impacts. Karts that run into this barrier compress the tires, reducing impact, and as a reaction to the compression, the tire and steel components seek to return to their uncompressed condition, redirecting karts back onto the track. Variations of this barrier system are the most widely used and safest barrier system in use today.

There are several alternate methods for anchoring the tires, including single or double reinforcing rod pins, with or without backing plates, steel angles mounted vertically or angle plate anchors bolted to the pavement surface. While all of these elements work to some degree, we feel that they are all subject to a collapse and resulting “double hit” when the tire is compressed approximately 50% and wraps around the pin assemblies. We have observed individually anchored (pin mounted) tire systems to have a greater potential for the rail bending and “kinking” than the system using the barrier curb.

In the past a number of kart manufacturers and designers have expressed the opinion that “when the tires are installed touching each other, they will buckle in such a manner as to raise the barrier rail when karts hit them and that the karts will run beneath the rails.” This is an opinion that is not supported by reality. The actual reasons for karts driving beneath the barrier rail vary, including the use of steel barrier rail that is too light (the thickness and width of steel barrier rail elements has increased as karts have become heavier and designers and operators have come to understand the value of added rail size), the ground clearance of the rail was too high (allowing the karts to shove under) and multiple kart impacts at the same moment (the higher weight of the combined karts forcing the rail upward). There are existing tracks that have been in operation for more than twenty-five years with tires touching one another that have never reported a kart driving beneath the rail.

One kart manufacturer's web site recommends a track barrier rail size of ½ inch by 6 inches. This may have been satisfactory when karts weighed less. This is too light to withstand the potential of the rail rising up on forceful impacts by the heavier karts on the market today traveling at 18 to 20 miles per hour. Establishing the correct rail size varies by track due to the weight of the karts, speeds, tire spacing and the ground clearance of the rail above the pavement. If the karts are going to travel at lower speeds, smaller rail cross-sections could be used.

Several manufacturers recommend and offer alternative solutions to using automobile tires in the barrier system. These include “D” rubbers inserted between the vertical barrier rail and the support posts. Their disadvantage is the low compression distance they provide (varying from approximately 1 ½ inches to approximately 8 inches, as opposed to 24 inches or more with automobile tires) which greatly decreases the impact on both the kart and driver. Other manufacturers have developed a variety of plastic or polyethylene barrier units, which interlock by various means. This writer feels they are inferior in their performance and provide far less energy absorption.

In years past, many track builders used plastic drainage pipe as a track barrier, with a number of fatalities directly associated with them. Unfortunately many of these barrier systems are still in use. Their energy absorption is far less and as far back as 1993 Philips Petroleum sent a message to the industry asking them to stop using their pipe as a barrier system as it was not designed or suited for such use. A number of serious injuries and deaths have been reported in the U.S. and Canada as a result of the pipe being used as a barrier.

Every year someone comes out with a new “better” barrier system, but to-date no system provides equivalent energy absorption and rebounding capability. The major complaints about tires have been their width, which results in the system being slightly wider than some of its competitors, causing the tire barrier system to be slightly wider than its competitors. This writer prefers to base his track designs on the barrier curb and gutter, automobile tire and steel barrier rail system and will continue to do so.

Pit design

Safe pit design includes approach and exit track barriers, queue line rails, child proof fencing, latching gates, safety islands and lanes, spinner tires, pit gates, signage and kart shutoff systems. The pits should be at an elevation above the adjacent track to utilize gravity to help slow down karts entering the pits. This also allows for positive drainage away from the pit lanes.

There are two basic pit concepts in use today. One is an open pit where the karts are not separated other than by painted lane marking on the floor and the other a combination of raised islands and single kart capacity pit lanes, keeping karts in single file per lane. There are a few manufacturers, track builders and operators that prefer the open pit design, but they are in the minority.

The only benefit of an open pit is that it is slightly less expensive to construct. The arguments made in defense of open pits rests on people getting their feet stuck between the karts and the island edges. This should be measured against the more dangerous potential of pit attendants or guests standing in the pits being struck and upended by karts coming through the pits (many instances of this in years past). We feel that possible abrasions or sprained ankles are less serious than fractured skulls or broken limbs.

The modern approach to designing pit islands calls for the use of spinner tires at the front of the island to provide impact attenuation as well as redirecting karts into the adjacent lane. Far more tracks are being constructed with islands because the lane and island concept is safer, greatly enhances control of karts and improves loading and unloading for maximum through-put (number of rides per hour).

Establishing track construction budgets

We recently visited a web site that stated track barrier steel would cost $0.20 cents per pound. Odds are, that with current steel prices, you will be spending more than three times that amount, with the probability that prices will continue to rise. This site also says the cost per foot for a good track, including pavement, barrier system queue lines, pit area, fencing, light poles and lighting will cost from approximately $65.00 to $100.00 per foot of track, not including a pit canopy, maintenance garage, ticket sales building or the go-karts.

The web page didn't indicate what year those costs were developed, but it certainly isn't recent. We estimate that the current (2017) cost to construct a quality track containing the items listed in the above estimate will range from $240.00 to $300.00 per foot (based on a centerline length of 800 feet). Labor and material costs vary in many parts of the country and it may be possible to slightly reduce the above estimate. Pit canopies can cost from $80,000.00 to more than $150,000.00 when roll-up doors are added. Roll-up doors on pit canopies eliminate the need for separate kart storage buildings. The maintenance garage can be a prefab one-car garage. Where the facility has a building in use as part of an FEC operation, the point-of-sales can and should be located in that building to reduce staffing requirements.

The introduction of debit card systems with remote kiosk recharging systems has modernized the sale of rides by enabling guests to purchase additional rides at the kiosk rather than having to go back to the point of sales counter. By use of admission gates at the track entrance, the potential of staff letting friends ride free is almost completely eliminated (never say never).

© 2017 Entertainment Concepts, Inc.

To be continued. Watch for part 2 of Peter's article in next issue of our Leisure eNewsletter.

Peter is president of Entertainment Concepts, Inc. (formerly Peter F. Olesen and Associates, Inc.). He is a licensed professional engineer in several states. He founded the firm in 1984 and in the ensuing years has been responsible for the development of more than 500 separate family entertainment industry projects Peter's projects have spanned initial concepts, feasibility studies, assistance in developing business plans, final design and preparation of contract plans and specifications, construction layout and related services for both new projects and existing facility renovations and modifications. Peter can be reached via his website, at or 847.561-7013.