ST. PETE GRAND PRIX: Go-Karting with the Pros

By Felix R. Albuerne Jr., Digital Media Producer
Last Updated: Wednesday, February 22, 2017, 9:37 AM EST

So when was the last time YOU went Go-Karting?

It's a question every adult may ask themselves when faced with the prospect of getting behind the wheel in one of Andersen RacePark's 40-mph-capable speed machines.

For a parent whose child loves Go-Karting or for an adult who has never grown up, maybe the answer is "last week" or "last month." For most other folks, it's a significantly longer period, long enough to maybe make them think twice about strapping on a helmet and getting behind the wheel.

But could you just say "No, thanks," if you had the chance to race with the pros? If you had the chance to match times and maybe trade a little paint with the men and women who race open wheels, like the ones who will be participating in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 9-10?

Gets a little more difficult to say "no" under those circumstances, doesn't it? Competitive juices start flowing, and maybe you even say to yourself, "Heck, when was the last time THEY got in a Go-Kart? It's not the same as being in a Formula 1 car -- Go-Karts only have one gear!"

The odds would be even. Or so you might think.

A day at the track

These were the thoughts that ran through my head as I joined assembled media down in Palmetto for the 2017 Mayors & Media Karting Challenge. There I was, set to kart-race alongside professional drivers, local government officials, and even fellow reporters. I could hear Days of Thunder's Cole Trickle (Tom Cruise) saying to Robert Duvall's Harry Hogge "Let me drive -- I won't embarass you." I can do this.

First came the preliminaries. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, by all accounts a Go-Karting enthusiast who was tough to beat on the track, opened the media opportunity with a warm welcome to everyone. He was being nice, but from what I heard, once on the track, the mayor would leave all niceties in the dust.

St. Petersburg Mayor and ace Go-Kart driver Rick Kriseman. (Felix Albuerne, staff)

Then came the drivers. Among their number were up-and-comers running on the Pirelli World Challenge, like Orlando natives Shea Holbrook and Eric Powell. Others were cutting their teeth in the Mazda Road to Indy series, the middle tier of open wheels racing, some as young as 15-year-old Sting Ray Robb of Boise, Idaho.

The two Verizon IndyCar drivers driving for AJ Foyt Racing in the Grand Prix of St. Pete, Conor Daly and Carlos Munoz, wrapped up the press event. Their remarks were short -- they, like everyone else there, were eager to get on to the fun of the afternoon: getting behind the wheel and dropping the hammer.

Rubber hits the road

Once we were all at the track, the mood changed. Specifically, the trash talking began. More was clearly at stake than just plastic trophies today -- a year's worth of bragging rights were on the line, particularly between Mayor Kriseman and his peers.

My fellow Bay News 9'er Sara Belsole saw an advantage in all that braggadocio. "They'll take each other out," Sara said, "and I'll just cruise right on by them."

Behind Sara Belsole's sunny smile was the will to win and a plan to get it done. (Felix Albuerne, staff)

To formulate my strategy, I turned to my team's leader, Mazda Road to Indy driver Oliver Askew. A Jupiter, Florida resident who grew up Go-Karting, often on the very track we were all set to take on, Askew, 21, proved to be the perfect resource.

"Rule No. 1 probably, is try not to spin out, because then, that will cost us a lot of time," Askew said. "Turns three and four don't have much grip, and then the hard braking zone heading into Turn six, that right hair-pin? Make sure that you're off the brake entering the corner, because if you carry too much brake into it, you're probably going to spin out."

A lot to remember, especially with adrenaline pumping and all that pride and honor on the line? No problem. I got this.

Green flag to ... red flag?

I put Askew's words into practice, or at least tried to, during our practice laps. Didn't spin out, didn't come in last, all very encouraging results.

Then it was time for the real thing. Teamed with Askew and three other drivers, we would all get six laps around the track in the #28 kart, shooting for the best possible times.

Karts lined up for competition. (Felix Albuerne, staff)

As Team Four, we started the race in the fourth position. Askew took the first six laps and got us into second place. Our next driver up managed even better, putting us at the head of the pack.

Then it was my turn. Sara was three cars behind me. The goal seemed simple: just hold on to the lead.

After one lap, I still had no cars ahead of me. Heading into turn five, however, that all changed.

One car came out of nowhere and passed me. I moved to the inside to hold the lead over two others coming up hard on my right. And then ...

It wasn't quite a crash. More like an impromptu meeting in the middle of the road from which none of our three cars could extricate themselves. And Sara went right by.

Our cars had to be pulled free from one another one at a time before we could finish the lap under a red flag and all line up for a restart. By the time I got back to that line, I was in last.

First to last after two laps. Cole Trickle, it turned out, I was not.

I finished my remaining laps without incident, and actually managed to move up a position before turning it over to the next driver. It was left to him and Askew, who would run the final six laps, to make sure we didn't completely belly-flop.

I did what any humbled driver might do in my place, I imagined. I retreated to the food tent to nurse my wounds and have lunch.

A surprise ending

By the time we were done with the free food, the pros were back on the track finishing their final laps. There was no way of really telling who was in what place at that point, as the event was clearly winding down.

Once the race finally finished, the organizers huddled to get the results and prepare to hand out trophies. Mind you, in all the years Bay News 9 has covered this event, we've never so much as placed in the Top 3.

In third place came Team Six, lead by none other than Sting Ray Robb and ... Sara Belsole!

Photo: Felix Albuerne, staff

But then the real shocker came. In second place ... TEAM FOUR! Thanks to an Andersen RaceWay track record time, Oliver Askew managed to wipe out my mistakes and get us on the winner's platform! Guess that's why he's the pro.

Who took first? Who cares! We placed in two of the top three spots! We made history for Bay News 9!

And any illusions I might have had about racing at any level were dispelled once and for all.

It was a good day all around.

The last time I get behind the wheel of a go-kart for a while. (Felix Albuerne, staff)