Even Ayrton Senna started small.

Hi, who are you?
My name is Sami Lappalainen, and I’m one of the two owners of Kart’in Club.

What do you offer here?
A high-quality, very safe, kart racing experience. Individuals and families can come in from the street and race right away. And for companies we offer not only a great track to enjoy, but other activities and extras.

When did this come to exist?
We started in 1999. At the time there were no high-quality indoor kart tracks in Helsinki, and that was the main motivation to build it.

Do you have a background in racing?
Yeah, I’ve been involved in motor-sports for thirty years. I have driven motocross, enduro, and quarter-mile drag racing. I have also been working in rally teams (WRC) as a mechanic.

Do you still race?
No, but my son competes in Formula Renault, and I’m helping with that.

There’s a ton of money invested into this; cars, space, equipment, employees. Does it make sense from a business point of view? How did you know it would work before you began?
Yes, it works for us nowadays. But when we began other people focused on the business aspects. My role was to concentrate on the technical stuff: designing the circuit, implementing the tracking systems, and so on. Fifteen years ago it was much more difficult to bring customers in, marketing was made in a different way back then. But now, if you know how to use social media, you can get a lot of exposure quicker and cheaper.

You mentioned other services for companies. What do they get?
They can be on the track for a full hour, during which they have a warm-up, qualification, the race itself, and then a podium ceremony with champagne and trophies. And of course they have a great meal and drinks (our catering is very good) and access to saunas and the conference room. It’s convenient for them to have it all in one place.

Let’s talk about the karts.
We have two kinds of karts, one for young drivers and the other for adults. They are made by SODI, a French manufacturer that makes the best karts in the world, very safe and reliable. They are central-clutch (single-gear), 16 kph max speed, 4-stroke engine machines.

4-stroke? I thought they were electrical. How do you prevent people from not asphyxiating from the gas exhaust in this closed environment?
Oh, we picked this place exactly for that. Before we moved in, this hall was designed to hold 400 buses, so they had installed a massive ventilation system to handle the exhaust. So back then the system was dealing with the gases of 400 buses just fine, today it’s just 15 little cars. It can move a huge amount of air in a second.

Racers must use, besides the helmet, a full suit and gloves. Is it for show?
No, it’s for safety reasons. And the suit protects you from dust and grit and oil.

The karts seem to have a very low center of gravity, but can they flip over?
We’ve never had a kart turning over in here, but I’ve seen it happen in other tracks. There’s always a risk, but in fifteen years and almost 8.000.000 (eight million) km we’ve had very few accidents.

What’s the most horrific thing you’ve seen?
Well… nothing horrific during races. But stuff can happen after the race.

Yeah, I imagine it can get very competitive. Are there ever rows after the races?
Sometimes, yeah. Finnish drivers suck it up, but some foreigners can be a bit… hot-headed.

Do people not familiar with racing get an introduction?
Yes, definitely. There’s a briefing where we teach how to drive, how the karts work, how to set the seats in the optimal position, how to circulate in the track, what do the lighting signals mean, the rules for racing, and so on. We emphasize the importance of not colliding with other cars. These are not bumping cars, it’s a like a professional competition in which drivers avoid contact at all costs.

The professional career of F1 champion Ayrton Senna began with karts, so everything you learn here, in these small racing cars, can be applied later on to racing in more powerful cars. Do you explain concepts such as the racing line, the apex, entry and exit points, breaking techniques, etc?
We give everybody a basic introduction to racing concepts, and if someone wants to know more advanced stuff we will discuss it, sure. But I can tell you there are two types of racers, those who can learn with patience, effort and time, and naturals. I know personally all the current Formula 1 racers (Kimi, Valtteri), the guys that came before them, and most of the smaller formula racers currently active in Europe. For those guys, getting the fastest lap times comes naturally, there’s no need to explain anything. They get it on their own, it seems they were born to drive fast. For the rest, we can make anybody fast on the track, and it can take from six months up to six years. So it is possible, if they really want it and are willing to learn and do the work.

What’s your approach?
It’s all about learning individual skills and then putting them all together. You start off achieving a fast lap. Then you continue by doing twenty fast laps. Then you need to learn how to overtake (where can you do it and how). And on and on. It’s a combination of brains and physical skills.

Do racers “grow up” and move on to bigger races?
Yeah, I have seen lots of young racers who started here move on to kart championships. This is the easiest way, not only for kids but for adults too, to experience racing in a safe environment and see how far it takes you.

In this season of Formula 1, the Mercedes team has built the fastest machines on the track (last year it was Red Bull) and it’s boring to see how they take off from the pack and finish the race way ahead of everybody else. Is it different here? Are all the karts the same?
It’s inevitable that some cars are faster than others. I was interviewed by a car magazine some years ago, and I had to test three (supposedly) exact same stock cars out of the factory, side-by-side: fuel consumption, acceleration, breaking distance, and so on. It turns out they were very different. So here, if the car is under-steering, you’ll need to adjust your driving style, break early, try to get a bit sideways before the apex, those things can’t be helped.

If somebody asks for a little adjustment on a car, will you do it?
If we have the time, yeah.

Does the track layout stay always the same?
We change it two or three times per year, to keep it interesting for everybody.

Who designs the tracks? Do you copy classic circuits?
My employees and I design them from scratch. And our concern is safety above all. Many drivers ask us for long straights to maximize speed, but for us safety comes before thrill.

If anybody wants to come here regularly, do you offer some sort of discount?
If you drive ten times, you get one free (a ten-minute drive is 20 eu). If you become a Silver Club member it costs 15 eu per ten minutes.

Are there many women racing?
Sure. Thirty percent of the racers are women.

How do they do on the track?
Quite well. Some are faster than the guys. They have a good mentality for the track, and are very consistent. They get better lap times.

Kart’ing Club can be enjoyed at Koskelantie 39, Helsinki, and this is their website.