How do you put some joy back in racing? Drop-kick the rule box and get small.

driving the cyclekart, a pint-sized throwback death wish
Ian Allen

Modern race cars are magnificent things, objects of danger and beauty that glisten with temptation in our fantasies. In great temples of speed, we gather to watch them race. Daredevil elites who centuries ago would’ve battled on horseback pilot them. The action is dramatic, poetic, thrilling. And utterly beyond our grasp.

This story originally appeared in Volume 12 of Road & Track.

But how ’bout some fizz for the common man? For thrill-seekers without Red Bull patches affixed to their Nomex suits (or even a comma in the bank-account balance), there is an answer, so long as you ask the right questions of racing.

I offer the humble, spectacular Cyclekart.

The Cyclekart was conceived as a one-fingered salute to the establishment, so the legend goes. From a circle of insiders gathered around Negronis and Rainier tallboys in an industrial Seattle warehouse, several versions of the Cyclekart’s hazy history percolate forth.

driving the cyclekart, a pint-sized throwback death wish
Ian Allen

“I think it started in France,” said Daniel, a Swiss architect and Cyclekart builder. “Or maybe it was England.” He paused, then considered me there, cocktail in hand. “Yeah, definitely France or England.”

To skirt taxes levied on car owners, I was told, an impish proletariat took to the shed. There, stoking the rich man’s ire, they produced rolling revolution, a scaled-down four-wheeler driven by motorcycle parts. Their wheeled rebellion offered a bike’s mechanical honesty wrapped in chic prewar drag. The Cyclekart was born. Definitely in France. Or maybe England.

The karts were raced, because of course they were. At their fractional scale, Cyclekarts offer fractional costs, with less power, weight, and speed to chew through consumables. But the kart’s stature amplifies racing’s outsize thrills, with flimsy bodywork just one terrifying moment from becoming a coffin and a cockpit so low, you can lean out and grind your elbow into hamburger on the pavement.

driving the cyclekart, a pint-sized throwback death wish

Dirt-track racing, as American as baseball (only far better).

Ian Allen

After my first run-up near Cyclekart Vmax, I came back with tears streaked from the corners of my eyes to the edges of my grin. Wear goggles next time, they said, or you might lose an eye. Oh.

Maybe Cyclekart history went hazy because people learned those sorts of lessons through a sort of collective head trauma. Or maybe it’s the Negronis and beer. Maybe it’s because the Cyclekart community is hazier still. You’ll notice no surnames in this piece. More than one source provided a face-to-face interview, all smiles and backslaps, then emailed me later to ask for a nom de guerre. Even, one of the better resources for learning about these things, notes, “We don’t have plans for CycleKarts and won’t answer requests for such.”

But if the first rule of Cyclekarts is don’t talk about Cyclekarts, and the second is don’t talk about Cyclekarts, the third must be to spread the gospel. Because despite the low public profile, the Cyclekart community beckoned me like an interstate billboard.

driving the cyclekart, a pint-sized throwback death wish

Every corner of Doug’s Seattle shop seems to hold a kart in one stage of repair or another (plus a couple of empty cans of restoration fuel).

Ian Allen

One contingent meets Thursdays at Doug’s warehouse. Doug, an industrial lighting designer of some acclaim, runs his business from a gearhead Wonka playground near Seattle’s SoDo district. I joked that the sprawling warehouse must be a front, its army of machinery assembled to build Cyclekarts first and do business second.

Doug raised an eyebrow. I waved at a dozen or so Cyclekarts stacked on shelves, then motioned to another half-dozen karts displayed about the warehouse floor like war trophies. A straight-piped Cyclekart belched past the warehouse. Doug’s eyebrow raised higher still.

When I first arrived that evening, all evidence seemed to support this theory. One Cyclekart builder, Max, was learning to shape a fender on the company’s English wheel. Another builder, Steve, showed up to Doug’s for the first time, a dead-on pint-size Silver Arrow in tow. He led me around the kart and explained exactly how he molded the fiberglass body by hand, laid it over a foam buck of his own creation. Per the rules of this Cyclekart enclave, every inch of Steve’s kart was built by hand. That’s the beauty of it all, he said—you can’t buy what they have.

driving the cyclekart, a pint-sized throwback death wish

Wood, steel, a ladder frame. The Cyclekart is simplicity itself, rolling on four motorcycle wheels.

Ian Allen

“And you can’t blame the asshole mechanic,” Max added. “Well, you can, but the asshole is you.”

At another end of the warehouse, past a neat wooden buck against which metal body panels would be beaten into shape, another homebrew kart appeared, its raised figure speckled to the hilt in dried mud. Its designer, likely wanted by Interpol under the assumed alias Earl Upgrade, pointed out the Cyclekart’s wooden wheel spokes. Each gorgeous piece was drawn in CAD programs and milled by the shop’s fancy CNC machine. Hardly amateur.

“It just snowballs, man,” he said. “I got tired of a bunch of pipe-dream racing projects either run out of money or run out of ambition. I was looking for a way to go have fun racing with my friends for cheap. I stumbled across Cyclekarts and boom, that was it.”

The best part about Cyclekarts, he said, is taking your skill set up a notch, whether that’s learning how to anneal or figuring out how to piece together archaic wheels with modernity’s finest equipment. It’s about sharing your knowledge and passion within the carefully self-selected community.

driving the cyclekart, a pint-sized throwback death wish

Cyclekarts welcome every age group, even octogenarians.

Ian Allen

These ideas resonate with the Cyclekart history: Nothing should separate us from speed except our will and our ideas. The rulebook—whatever that means in this space beyond regulation—should never stand in the way of running the damned things ragged.

So most Cyclekarts are built loosely around a 38-inch rear track from the outboard edge of one wheel to the other. The wheelbase should remain faithful in proportion to the real-world racer that inspired its design but shouldn’t stray much from the 66-inch ideal. This keeps the karts level on size.

A spec engine, Honda’s 200-cc GX, powered Cyclekarts for decades. But the 212-cc Predator, a far cheaper option, has bucked Honda’s offering of late. The kart’s basic frame can be laid out using whatever material lives in the back of your garage. More capable builders lay immaculate TIG welds to erect their aluminum substructure. Other Cyclekarts are held together by wood screws and a prayer.

driving the cyclekart, a pint-sized throwback death wish

The Predator 212 in all its 6.5-horse glory.

Ian Allen

Both approaches are revered here, so long as you’re simply doing. Plop the engine behind your seat, wrap the frame in bodywork, and set the thing rolling on four Sixties motorcycle wheels. Just make sure you look good while doing it; everyone seems to get into the Hollywood spirit, donning prewar-themed race gear at events. Bone-white coveralls, goggles, leather gloves.

The cosplay feels campy and earnest, and the scale of the cars tends to underplay the danger of slotting your legs past a Cyclekart’s single seat. But make no mistake, a Cyclekart can bite.

Before I left the warehouse, Doug pulled out a phone to show me videos of the racing. In one clip, an ER doctor’s Cyclekart flew into a dirt corner with its primitive suspension bound up tighter than an enraged cobra. The kart’s knobby tires suddenly caught, snapping the kart onto its side, dislocating the doctor’s shoulder and badly lacerating his hand before the wreckage slid to a halt. The following driver, who captured the footage, took evasive action straight into a barrier. There’s no seatbelts or roll cages here. But at least there was a one-handed medical expert on the scene.

driving the cyclekart, a pint-sized throwback death wish

Doctor John, owner of two healthy hands.

Ian Allen

It’s a furtive brand of danger the group savors, the real reason for the aliases and vagaries. One bad crash could topple the entire house of cards with a wrecking ball of litigation. And yet . . . in whispers I heard about the unsanctioned predawn races held on the public roads of Puget Sound’s small islands, the midnight rides down private country trails in Eastern Washington, and an off-grid dirt track north of Seattle, free from prying eyes.

“I [came to] Cyclekarts because it was underground,” Mr. Upgrade said. “There was an outlaw element to it.”

I went searching.

Two days later, off a paved country two-lane and onto dirt I went, past an abandoned school bus and a boat up on crates. A rural American upbringing told me that if I found the wrong driveway, I’d likely explain the mistake to a shotgun barrel.

driving the cyclekart, a pint-sized throwback death wish

Chain Drive, Stick Axle, Straight Pipe. Great band names and essentials for a Cyclekart build.

Ian Allen

Then Slyme Dawg Invitational Speedway came into view. A second contingent of Northwest Cyclekart fanatics calls the track home.

What an elemental temple it is. An hour north of Seattle’s industrial center, Slyme Dawg has no bleachers for adoring fans, no concession stands or monogrammed pop-ups to shield superstar talent from the sun’s brutality. What they do have is “the best redneck hippie farmer party you’ve ever been to,” according to Ryan, the track’s de facto manager.

Fine by me.

The track was carved from dairy pasture along the lazy Stillaguamish River in 1989. An invite-only racing series for 2.0-liter carbureted spec cars sprouted from a 13-kegs-per-weekend party atmosphere. When those spec sedans got too spendy to run, the Cyclekarts found a home here, perfectly suited to the scaled-down oval.

driving the cyclekart, a pint-sized throwback death wish

Slyme Dawg gets dusty. luckily, there’s a water tractor to calm the surface.

Ian Allen

During a quick track walk, Ryan explained Slyme Dawg’s character. The track heaves with rainwater each winter, reviving the clay surface with siltation from below. Then the surface is treated to regular grooming from spring through fall. Like all great tracks, Slyme Dawg packs nuance into every inch of its two corners, one tight bend and one sweeper that uncoils into hard barriers.

“Rule one,” Ryan said, “don’t hit the wall.”

The track’s dirt surface and short oval rein in speed—I bet the racers rarely crest 30 mph here—but as I sardined my legs into the No. 36 car, graciously lent by John, the doctor, I was issued a final warning.

“We don’t run insurance. You just accept risk here,” said Eric, the track’s owner. Thankfully, this time John was standing by with two functioning hands.

driving the cyclekart, a pint-sized throwback death wish

We bet the real Silver Arrows never get mud-packed teeth.

Ian Allen

Ben, in the tangerine No. 13 kart, led me onto the track for a few warm-up laps before the other Cyclekarts joined in the parade. After gradually bringing up the speed lap by lap, I got motioned up alongside another kart. Ryan dropped a green flag from the track’s podium ahead.

At speed, a Cyclekart feels like the love child of a go-kart and a particularly horny riding mower. A four-stroke dirt bike’s blatting soundtrack beats against your helmet. You lift at corner entry and snap the wheel inward. There’s a split second of yaw before the suspension cambers out and locks up against itself.

Once set, you chase wide-open throttle earlier and earlier, lifting shorter and harder, entering the corners faster and faster, catching an inside wheel against the track’s grassy inner edge, then swinging wide and as close to the wall as you dare. There’s no real seat or even lap belts to brace against, so you curl your shoulders toward the wheel and grip the thing like a ladder swaying 90 feet in the air. You saw the wheel against tiny bits of oversteer, working every muscle above your beltline. Chopping cords of wood demands less of your shoulders and hands.

driving the cyclekart, a pint-sized throwback death wish

Never have you seen a more blissful dirt track than Slyme Dawg, and due to its secretive keepers, you likely never will.

Ian Allen

I wriggled free of a couple of karts and fell into a rhythm, trying one line or another until the caution flag shook at me for daring too close to the wall. Turns out, in the heat of the moment, ideas like “I wonder whether I really need brakes” supersede fears of snapped clavicles. When the checkered flag fell after a handful of laps, I let off the throttle and rolled back into the pits.

I sat for a second in the idling Cyclekart, hands trembling from the adrenaline and the effort. I’d rarely felt more alive. The experience was every bit as real as the action I’d seen far-off from the grandstands of a superspeedway or from behind the wheel in more serious races I’d run myself.

It’s the result of the many hours wrenching alone in the garage on a car only you can finish, the time spent checking wheel spokes with a wrench between races, the secrecy, and sweating over an English wheel without a sponsor activation or a Monster Energy logo for 200 miles. Real competition. Real joy. The formula’s simple, really.

Eric could see me beaming even through my helmet visor, my upper half showered in mud and dust. “You can tell when people are having fun, ’cause their teeth are all fulla dirt,” he yelled.

Shouldn’t we all be chasing that?

Kyle Kinard The only member of staff to flip a grain truck on its roof, Kyle Kinard is R&T’s senior editor and resident malcontent.


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