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January 4, 2005

Popularity of indoor go-kart racing accelerates in Bay Area

By Matt Nauman
Mercury News

Silicon Valley's economy has been going around in circles for the past few years, but that hasn't been all bad for Dave Robison and his GoKart Racer business.

Going around in circles, and doing it faster than anyone else, is what it's all about at the indoor karting facility in Burlingame, not far from San Francisco's airport.

GoKart Racer is making money -- much of it from corporate clients who still consider team building and employee-reward activities as vital parts of their business.

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Very popular in Europe, indoor go-karting is growing in the United States. Besides this 70,000-square-foot, year-old facility in Burlingame, other indoor kart companies operate in Santa Clara and Fremont.

"When you say go-kart, people think dirty little things, kids around the block, I did that when I was a kid," said Robison. "Our thing here is an adult entertainment, grown-up fun is what it is. It's hard for people to realize that."

GoKart Racer is about adults acting like kids. They wear race suits and helmets and then drive around one of three race tracks trying to pass each other. And when they're done, they brag about it.

"It's an absolute blast," said Mike Andreotti, who beat fellow workers from Applied Biosystems during a recent visit to GoKart Racer.

Andreotti's boss, Scott Bradley, finished second. "We were looking for something fun to do so the group could get away from the stresses of work," he said. The Foster City company makes instruments used in life-science testing and research.

Kelly Daniels, a project manager like Bradley, said the experience was, in this order, "awesome," "great" and "amazing."

After the 20-lap race, she was laughing about the experience.

"For somebody who gets a lot of speeding tickets, I came in seventh out of 10, so what does that tell you?" she said.

That banter is typical, said Robison.

GoKart Racer has hosted as many as 500 to 600 people at a single event. About 100 employees is typical.

`Reward your team'

"It's a good way to reward your team by bringing everyone together, making them more united as workers. It's really what you're trying to do, especially if you have new people," Robison said.

Bradley, whose best lap on the Monza Track was 34.49 seconds, said it cost about $50 a person, which was paid for by the company. Kart racing beat out things like paintball or visiting the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, he said.

Some folks get addicted. Genentech has offices in nearby South San Francisco. Its swing-shift workers get off at 9:30 p.m. and GoKart closes at 10 most nights. But they've been such loyal and frequent customers that GoKart stays open just for them on occasion, Robison said.

Visitors to GoKart Racer start by signing in on a kiosk. On it, they can choose from one of two tracks -- Yokahama Tire or Monza -- and whether they'd like to do practice laps in search of their fastest time or an actual race against other drivers. (On occasion the two tracks are combined into the Super Track, Robison said, which becomes the longest indoor track in the United States.)

Each racer becomes a member of GoKart Racer for a year and gets a membership card that can be swiped on future visits. Then, after getting equipped with a racing suit -- Robison made sure to include XXL sizes for larger adults -- and sitting through an introductory video, participants go race.

Each driver gets into a 200-pound Stratos go-kart complete with a 9-horsepower motor. They come with racing slick tires and plastic guards so wheels of dueling cars don't lock up.

"Top speed for a good driver is 35 mph," Robison said. "They don't realize how fast that is -- 35 in a go-kart feels like double the actual speed."

An operator in a booth can stop or slow down the cars in case of trouble, while workers with flags tell drivers if they need to slow down or pull over for violating rules.

After just 20 to 30 minutes of racing, drivers emerge jazzed -- and sweating.

"It was actually a bit shocking that people got as competitive as they did," said Michelle Adiao, who coordinated an event for 75 to 100 people from Cisco Systems.

Robison said his business is now about 40 percent corporate and 60 percent individual racers, but it's headed toward an even split.

`Curiosity, too'

"There's a lot of demand for something like this, and a lot of curiosity, too," he said. "It's something you might dream about doing. Any common person can do this, which is really a cool thing."

Opened in December 2003, GoKart Racer has about 30,000 members, according to spokeswoman Holly Hartz.

GoKart Racer was "an instant hit," Robison said, but reached a plateau after being open about six months. Over the past month, it was very busy with the holiday party season.

One of its largest events was a private function for employees of Sony who celebrated the coming U.S. launch of the portable PlayStation. It featured dozens of races, ending up with the top 15 qualifiers competing for the three top spots on the lobby podium, which resembles a race track's winner's circle.

The theme of that event, Robison said, was "It's not a game, it's the real thing."

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