By John Basher
The average U.S. highway speed is 70 miles per hour. A 450 four-stroke can reach upwards of 65 mph on a motocross track. Aside from speed, these transportation devices have little in common. A father of four, toting his precious cargo inside a minivan bound for grandma’s house, is more worried about getting to his destination on time than beating the other drivers to the inside line on the next bend on Interstate 5. Yet in driving, as well as riding a dirt bike, the mind must properly judge distance and speed. This commonality is true in all sports—from NASCAR to baseball to curling. However, the senses are heightened when speeds are increased and distances are shortened. The mind must act as a super-processor by deciphering information and reacting with lightning-fast precision as the time-space continuum changes.
The orange MXA lid isn't just for motocross anymore.
Don’t believe me? Drive on the highway and maintain the speed limit. Then, drive on a curved road while maintaining the speed limit. If you’re a speed junkie, you’ll love the rush of adrenaline as the tires squeal and the car slides. For many, the thrill is worth the risk of careening off a mountainside. That’s why motorsports are so popular. NASCAR, Formula 1 and MotoGP are huge markets, with exorbitant television packages and millions of fans. The average person can relate to the car stars because they also drive a car. Granted, it’s a 180-degree difference from what Jimmy Johnson and Sebastian Vettel drive, but they feel the bond. On a smaller scale, everyone who has ever ridden a Harley, Goldwing or Vespa thinks he is the next Valentino Rossi. It’s not hard to see that sports get their followers from those who have a personal connection to the activity. Every kid in America played baseball and football. Those are mainstream sports. Very few have ever jumped out of an airplane, thus the dearth of skydiving fans.
The Musgrave Racing father-son combo – Willy (on the left) and Billy.
Motocross riders are a small but passionate bunch. We thirst for the speed, danger, challenge and the competitive atmosphere that comes with riding a dirt bike. There is no substitute for motocross. Or is there? That’s exactly the question that MXA test rider Willy Musgrave asked himself six years ago. A former AMA National Pro, after almost 40 years of racing motocross, Willy started to feel complacent. He’d done and seen it all, investing his life into a sport. Musgrave had won a round of the World Supercross Championships in India, worked as the production manager at a motorcycle company, built exhaust pipes for the White Brothers and DR.D, ran a major distributing company, and has been an MXA test rider for decades. Willy should have been pleased with his accomplishments.
As in motocross, getting a shifter kart properly set up takes time and money.
Do the same thing long enough and you might eventually grow tired of it. That’s obvious for an accountant, but not for a motocross rider. But Willy wanted to add more excitement to his life. So, in 2008, Willy decided to buy a shifter kart and split his attention between dirt and asphalt. Don’t get us wrong, Willy was still racing and testing bikes (and finished second behind Doug Dubach in the 2013 Over-50 World Vet Championships), but his energies were divided. So was his bank account. Willy spent $9500 each on two new Arrow karts and convinced his son Billy, a 250 Pro, to try something new.
Willy Musgrave has been a long-time MXA test rider. Here he puts the 2006 KTM 450SXF through its paces.
Most people associate go-karting with the rickety bumper cars that are prevalent at county fairs and children’s entertainment centers. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Karting, with shifter karts in particular, is intense. It requires cognitive, cerebral and physical competence to pilot a 200-plus-pound kart around a track—let alone race it with any success. Going over 80 miles per hour sitting 2 inches off the ground with only a plastic bumper protecting you from a concrete wall is insane. Covering 117 feet per second and entering a chicane with tires lining the track will make you think twice about overcooking the corner. Shifter karting isn’t for the faint of heart.
Billy Musgrave is a 250 Pro who never switched to four-strokes. He finished fourth in the 2012 World Two-Stroke Championships.
Willy Musgrave fell in love with the four-wheel sport almost immediately. He said, “After racing motocross for so long, I was looking for another competitive outlet. I was initially leery of shifter karts, because the upfront cost was expensive and I didn’t know if I would like it. Once I made the investment and drove a few times, I was blown away. There wasn’t any way that I could stop doing it.”
|New tread is imperative in karting. These four race-spec tires cost $200 a set.
The MXA wrecking crew had reservations about Willy’s decision to pursue a new activity when he asked if he could start an MXA kart team made up of motocross racers. We wanted him at the motocross races with us and wondered what was so mystifying that he would skip the occasional motocross race to drive around in a parking lot. Willy said that we would understand if we went with him. So, we met the Musgraves at California Speedway to get a better understanding of shifter karting.
Old age and treachery don’t always overcome youth and skill. Willy’s son Billy is 21 years old. He’s also the 2012 Super Nationals S2 class winner in Las Vegas. That is the equivalent of winning a Loretta Lynn’s National title in the A class. During their learning seasons, the Musgraves battled one another for bragging rights. Then, last year, Billy stepped up his game. He’s not on the fast track to kart stardom; he has already arrived (as his timed qualifying in Las Vegas was faster than any other driver in any class).
That win earned him his ticket to the Pro class.
Willy’s no slouch. The older Musgrave has won his fair share of races in the Vet class (just as he has in motocross), and he’s also bringing his entrepreneurial skills into karting. Willy started Musgrave Racing Company (www.musgraveracing.com) out of his race shop in Corona, California. He sells complete Honda CR125 engines (either 1999 or 2001 model years), as well as radiators, exhausts, cables, batteries and a host of other kart-specific products. Naturally sales skyrocketed after Billy won the Super Nationals on an MRC privateer kart.
TACKLING THE LEARNING CURVE OF ASPHALT
Aside from MRC, Musgrave delved into shifter-kart rentals and track-test days. For $250 for a half day or $400 for a full day, you can meet Willy at any of the SoCal kart tracks and spin laps on a supplied shifter kart. Jody arranged with Willy for assistant editor Daryl Ecklund and me to go to California Speedway to try our luck at shifter karting. Fortunately, since Willy has been an MXA test rider for 26 years, he took special joy in showing us the ins and outs of karting.
We quickly discovered that there are many similarities between motocross and shifter karting. Both use dirt bike engines—although in shifter karts, the power source of choice is almost totally two-stroke. They make four-stroke karts, but it isn’t the hot setup in the karting world. Both motocross and karting rely on shifting as well as using a clutch. What they don’t share is suspension. In motocross we spend long hours trying to get the forks and shocks dialed in, while a kart doesn’t have suspension. It depends on frame flex and a myriad of intricate setup tricks to fine-tune the performance of the vehicle. In fact, during the day of our test, Willy swapped out the rear-axle diameter in an effort to make the rear of the kart more rigid for better handling. It did the trick.
As with motocross, line selection and shifting points are also vital. Much to our surprise, the six-speed CR125 was eye-watering fast. That engine might strain on a motocross track, but on asphalt, with incredible traction, the engine ripped. The meat of the powerband was from 8500 rpm to 12,500 rpm, and there was a lot of shifting to keep it there. We shifted, with a hand lever located next to the steering wheel, around 50 times on a 45-second course. Willy plugs up the power valve, because otherwise they would never shut.
We quickly discovered that fractions of a second make all the difference in the world. Unlike in motocross, where it’s possible to regain time from a blown corner by riding harder and deeper into the next corner, it’s hard to mask any mistakes when karting. Failing to properly set up for a corner will add time. Overcooking a turn will slow you down. Not keeping the engine running at the optimum rpm range will really hinder a lap time. Of course, Daryl and I did all of the aforementioned no-nos and several more.
A shifter kart retails for around $9500. It very well might be the best money that you’ve ever spent.
Musgrave admitted that there was a 50-percent success rate among first-time kart drivers. People either take to it like a fish to water, or they flounder on the asphalt. Luckily for Daryl and me, there is a positive correlation between motocross experience and achievement in karting. It makes sense, but Willy also mentioned that he has taught several top Pro riders (names withheld so as not to cause embarrassment) who were terrible behind the wheel. Our resident National Pro Daryl Ecklund immediately grasped the concept of going fast in a shifter kart. He knocked off several 48-second lap times in his first driving session. Meanwhile, I struggled to find any modicum of comfort inside the kart. I dogged it in with a measly 54-second time.
Ever the teacher, Willy pulled us aside and offered advice. He recommended several better lines to Daryl and suggestted that I shift out of the granny gear and wind out the engine. Billy Musgrave led us out for the second session. It was kind of like having Ryan Villopoto say, “Follow me.” Billy went slow enough for us to follow his swooping lines and zeroed in on his shifting points. The tactic worked, because Ecklund shaved two seconds off his time, and I knocked a full six seconds off my previous time. Eat your heart out, Michael Schumacher!
If you’re interested in learning how to drive a shifter kart, then Willy Musgrave is your man. He offers half- and full-day programs.
After logging 15 laps, we pulled into the pits, tired but excited at the prospect of further improving. I found it interesting that we were so fatigued, complaining about having a sore back and weak left forearm. In karting, most of the strain is put on the left arm, while the right hand takes care of shifting. The hand-operated clutch, located behind the left side of the steering wheel, is mostly used for starting and stopping.
In the third and final session we entered the track a bit cocky. Shaving time was going to be a breeze. I figured that we both could dip into the 44-second range and threaten young Billy Musgrave’s track record time of 43 seconds. How delusional we had become! I’ll admit that we were overzealous, lacking proper technique and forethought to keep the tires gripped and moving forward. The rudimentary approach might work in motocross, but not in karting. Consistent, mistake-free laps add up, but we were going backwards. Frustrated, we pulled into the pits with half the rubber worn off the MG tires—which, at $200 for a set, are quite expensive—and gasped for air. Daryl asked, “How could I not improve? I was holding the gas on extra long, hitting the brakes late, and I kept the engine revving.” That’s when Willy Musgrave cracked a smile and said, “This isn’t motocross. Smoothness and precision are important. You both have the talent to do well at shifter-kart racing. Maybe with a few years of practice you could really do something.” We looked at one another with a puzzled look, flabbergasted by wily Willy’s response.
Behold three members of the MXA kart team: Greg Nelson (222), Billy Musgrave (622) and Willy Musgrave (black kart). These six-speed, Honda CR125-powered karts can go over 100 miles an hour. It’s exhilirating.
Willy was right. Shifter karting certainly isn’t motocross. Even so, it’s relateable in so many ways. And, without a doubt, it’s a very addictive hobby. I understood why Musgrave caught the shifter-karting bug. As the day wound down, Daryl and I pulled out of California Speedway and looked one last time at the track. Daryl said, “That was so much fun! I can’t wait to do it again. I bet that I could go even faster.”
I smiled, then noticed Billy Musgrave out on the track running hot laps. He took the hairpin so smooth that the kart seemed to be glued to the asphalt. I gasped and said to no one in particular, “So that’s how it’s done. I could totally do that!” Just then we laughed. It so happens that motocross riders share another trait—overconfidence.
For more info about the Musgrave Racing Company or their kart ride days and schools, go to
www.musgraveracing.com or call (951) 314-4595 or (951) 278-8885..
CHAD REED, KARTING ENTHUSIAST
Chad Reed always wanted to own a shifter kart. After achieving success in racing he rewarded himself by building a track in Florida and buying five karts.
WHAT DREW YOU TO SHIFTER KARTS?
"There’s no secret that I have a passion for four wheels. One day I hope to race, whether it’s full-time or part-time. I actually grew up about a mile from a good-size international course in Australia. I never owned a kart, but I would always go and watch the drivers, and I dreamed of one day owning a kart. I’ve been fortunate enough to do well over the years and have enough money laying around to build my own track and have some karts. I’m not a guy that owns $300,000 karts. I put my money into my property in Florida so that I can have a track. I have five karts with CRF250 four-stroke engines, built by HPD [Honda Performance Development] and one 125 two-stroke. I’ve had Mitch [Payton] build me some pipes. It’s a great hobby and I love it."
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF DRIVING A KART?
"It’s really good for hand-eye coordination. Also, the lines that you drive on a kart are similar to what you would use on a dirt bike. Driving karts allows me to open my mind up to new lines. Most people tend to dive to the inside of turns on a dirt bike, but you can’t do that and have success in karting. You must carry momentum. For me, karting is practical and also fun."
WHERE DID YOU GET THE IDEA TO BUILD YOUR OWN TRACK?
"I’ve owned a 125 two-stroke shifter kart since 2002. I used to drive it a little bit when I was living in California, but since I moved to Florida, I didn’t use it much. I didn’t have a track nor the time to invest into driving. However, over the last five years, I’ve been really close friends with Mick Doohan [five-time Moto GP champion], and he has a track at his house in Oz. I got the idea to build a track from Mick. He has five chassis built, and one of them actually has a KTM 450 engine in it, which is pretty gnarly! I haven’t used a 450 engine, because it’s hard enough keeping up on tires using a 250 engine. I did like that by using a KTM engine you have the advantage of an electric start, because otherwise you have to bump-start the kart."
YOU’VE BEEN KNOWN TO LET FRIENDS DRIVE YOUR KARTS. HOW QUICKLY DO THEY PICK IT UP?
"It’s funny, because I have some very good motocross racers visit my house, and I respect what they can do on a bike, but some of them are really bad. It makes me realize that driving a shifter kart isn’t as easy as it looks. I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of experience driving four wheels. A lot of my friends immediately put them off the track. Apparently they think that the karts are designed for the dirt [laughter]."
DO YOU FIND THAT MOTOCROSS RIDERS ADAPT FASTER TO KARTING THAN THE AVERAGE JOE?
"Absolutely. Most racers I’ve seen are quick to pick it up. My buddy Jason Thomas didn’t pick it up very fast, but I have a good laugh beating up on him. Me and Byrner [Michael Byrne] have pretty good battles. When the track gets slick, then I’ll have the upper hand, but for the most part Byrner picked it up fast. Dean Wilson is a ways off, but he can get in a kart and keep it on the asphalt. Karting totally relates to what we do. It’s all about teaching the mind to look at different lines. Moto guys always want to dive to the inside, and that really hinders progress in any form of four-wheel racing. Even when I got on a Supermoto bike back in 2005, one of the first things I learned was that I had to open up my turns and stay wide.
TAKE A LAP AROUND CALFIORNIA SPEEDWAY WITH THE MXA KART TEAM