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Go-kart - July 2016

The right staff is key to go-kart gold

by Mike Bederka

Dan Hansen doesn’t hit the brakes when asked about the most important aspect of running a successful—and profitable—go-kart track. The sales manager for J&J Amusements, in Salem, Oregon, says training employees to operate safely is “the key to your city—it’s everything.”

Family entertainment centers (FECs) looking to rev up go-kart revenue should take a holistic view of operations. However, the backbone of a dominant attraction comes from having qualified, well-trained staff members for all positions.

Hiring and Training

On the service side of maintaining a smooth-running fleet, Hansen recommends looking for experienced people with pride in their work, an eye for detail, and the purchasing know-how to buy the right parts at the best value. When filtering through applicants, retired auto mechanics and military vets should be bumped to the top of the list, he says, adding he recommends candidates pass a general garage pre-test in order to be considered.

Ironically, Dutch Magrath III has found less success with highly trained mechanics. Instead of addressing easy fixes like flat tires, they spend hours tearing down motors, which causes more down time for karts and lost revenue, says the president of Amusement Products and owner of Sir Goony’s Fun Zone, both in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

He would rather work with staffers who possess superior mechanical aptitude and a willingness to learn. “If you can turn a bolt, tighten a nut, and know the difference between a wrench and screwdriver, I can use you,” Magrath says.

Like the mechanics, the go-kart attendants play a crucial role in maintaining a safe, profitable attraction.

Being located in the entertainment hub of Branson, Missouri, the Track Family Fun Parks look for charismatic, enthusiastic, and cheerful employees, says Andy McNeely, director of operations. They can’t be all style and no substance, though.

Trainers go through a detailed checklist with trainees that covers all aspects of the go-kart experience, including:

Discuss one cycle of operation in detail.

Explain how to greet guests as they enter the ride and how to scan cards.

Discuss height requirements and how to check the height of guests.

Show how to assist guests in the seat. Discuss seatbelt check and show how to physically check.

Discuss gassing procedures.

Discuss scanning the area for anything that needs to be corrected and fixing wrecks.

Explain why horseplay is not allowed.

Discuss reporting accidents.

Discuss guests with disabilities.

All staff members also learn Track Family Fun Parks’ thorough safety standard operating procedures. One item, for example, requires the controller to move to the front of the pit and give or receive the designated thumbs-up from all assistant controllers verifying the ride is clear and ready to be released.

“We run our go-karts like a roller coaster,” says McNeely of the tight operation.

The FEC, which boasts a whopping 285 cars in its stable, employs a preload system and motivates staff to maximize guest throughput, he says. The top crew of the day might receive movie passes, but it’s really more about bragging rights when crew members’ names are posted on the whiteboard and announced during the standing meeting before every shift. “Then, it’s on,” McNeely says.

Even with a focus on efficiency, safety never takes a backseat. Staff must pass random audits that hit all parts of the training, such as: Was the welcome announcement played? Were the rules enforced by crew? Did the crew member open the exit gate?

Shop Time

When the boom of the weekend rolls around and half the fleet requires repairs or needed parts are out of stock, an FEC whiffs at any meaty chance of creating a profitable attraction.

“If you do the preventive maintenance, with daily, weekly, and monthly checks, you will have very little down time,” Hansen stresses.

Using higher-tech tracking software might be in a facility’s best interest, but Hansen admits most shops take an old-school approach of pencil and paper (with some exceptions for Excel) to log the car number and any necessary maintenance.

Regardless of the method, tracking service allows staff members to pick up anomalies they might not have otherwise noticed, Hansen says. For example, if one car needed 10 new sparkplugs compared with five on the others, it might show something amiss with the engine that requires further attention.

Moving on to the parts checklist, a well-stocked garage should contain an ample supply of items like tires, belts, oil, air filters, sparkplugs, nuts, bolts, washers, carbonator components, batteries, and fuses, says Magrath, who has 14 electric go-karts at Sir Goony’s. Of course, business volume and a gas vs. electric fleet will dictate the exact needs.

Magrath cautions against harvesting the facility’s extra go-karts for spare pieces. The car will be eventually stripped down—and likely unusable—when an FEC needs it in a pinch. He recommends keeping spare parts primed for action as a better solution to avoid business sputtering during the busy times.

“For instance, have at least 10 tires already mounted on the rims, aired up at the right pressure, and ready to go,” he says. “If you have a flat, all you have to do is grab a tire off the rack, pull off four lug bolts, slap on the new tire, tighten the bolts, and take it back out. You can do that in a five-minute ride.”

Think Outside the Track

Sometimes it may require a creative spark to turn the go-karts into something a little more special for guests and lure them back for another spin.

Take Cody Go Karts in North Platte, Nebraska. Loyal customers had cruised around the tracks there for more than 30 years, and while business remained steady, owner Jeff Gaedke thought a new wrinkle could change—and improve—the overall experience.

He wanted to create a track timing solution to allow customers to see their last, best, and average lap times. While Gaedke knew some systems already existed on the market, the self-described electronics software design hobbyist felt they might be a little too intensive to install.

So, with a $5,000 investment in some RFID technology and a touch of hope, he ducked into his garage to write the software.

“I took a risk,” Gaedke says.

After a few seasons of tweaking and troubleshooting, the timing system worked as planned for summer 2015. A TV display, which features advertising to help offset the cost, shows each racer’s time to the hundredth of a second.

“After they’re done, guests literally run around the gate to see how they did,” he says. “It’s really popular.”

Other factors like a change in ticket prices and an increase in minimum wage make it tough to quantify exactly how much his go-kart business has grown with the innovation. However, Gaedke has definitely seen a jump in immediate repeat rides, as customers quickly seek to beat their friends and best previous times.

“We’ve almost made it a new ride because we added a bit of technology,” he says. 

Take the Checkered Flag: Five More Go-Kart Tips

Look to Creative Promotions. Go-kart tracks can become a hands-on learning center to teach high school students about the dangers of drunk driving, says Dutch Magrath III of Amusement Products and Sir Goony’s. During the slower daytime periods, an FEC can shut down the track for area driver’s education programs. Students wear special goggles that change depth perception and alter reaction time, mimicking what it’s like to drive under the influence. The track’s safety ­barrier or remote safety shutdown system can help avoid any accidents, but students will certainly learn their lesson, he says.

Keep It Clean. Dirty tracks turn into dirty go-karts. Not only can that gunk end up in the engine and cause extra maintenance issues, the grimy appearance can turn off riders. “People don’t feel safe if it’s not a good-looking product,” says Andy McNeely of the Track Family Fun Parks. He recommends at least daily track cleanings.

Don’t Idle. Many facilities mistakenly let their gas go-karts run all day long, Magrath says. “If a car doesn’t run a race in a 15-minute time period, it should be shut off. In 30 minutes, it will rise to 100 degrees Celsius. When sitting in that super-heated condition, you’re destroying the oil, which means you need to change the oil more frequently, and if you don’t, then you’re destroying the engine.”

Give Them Choices. Guests can become grumpy when they have to contend with a long wait for the go-karts, says Jeff Gaedke of Cody Go Karts. Rather than shortening the length of the ride to churn through a crowd (which may mean more reckless driving), give guests options until the line thins out. Recommend another nearby attraction or give them some free casual games to play. Cody Go Karts features cornhole and a ladder toss close to the track to satisfy this need.

Add Audiovisual Elements. Along with having a well-trained staff to guide guests through the ride, FECs should add clear signage and video monitors that detail key instructions like buckling the seatbelt, tying up hair, and keeping hands on the wheel, says Dan Hansen, a 25-year expert with J&J Amusements. It gives an extra level of safety protection and can quicken throughput.