Racing Time Is Still Family Time Thanks to a Father’s Custom RC Kart for His Son
Racer Jim Bist wanted his son, Sam, to enjoy race weekends with him, despite Sam's cerebral palsy. So he found a way.
The evening sun filtered through low-hanging Midwestern clouds already so heavy with moisture, they were practically sagging. The thin coat of rain that's already fallen has scattered across endless waves of green hills and the gray pavement at GingerMan Raceway near South Haven, Michigan. It's late on a muggy Saturday in July, close to 9 p.m. and if it weren't for the smell of fresh rain, grilled burgers and gasoline would fill every nose from here to Chicago, two hours away.
Jim Bist, dressed in shorts a blue T-shirt and with closely cropped salt-and-pepper hair, leans over to his son, Sam. "Are you ready?" he asks. "The rain may come back so we may have to hurry."
Sam, nearly 15 years old, replies quickly with a glance skyward. Up means "Yes," down means "No." When he's not speaking via a computer that translates his eye movements, his upward and downward gazes work in a pinch for his parents. Sam's severe cerebral palsy limits his speech, not his understanding.
"He's there, he just can't really talk," Bist says to me.
Bist, his wife Laura, and their race team strap Sam into a black OMP seat with brown pillows underneath the bright red belts of a five-point harness. Sam's bespoke go-kart—one-of-one—is all his own, so he can race on the same tracks as his father. The all-electric kart is remote-controlled and fast. Perhaps not fast enough for Sam, though.
The rain doesn't return tonight but that doesn't matter. There won't be a dry eye soon.
The tube-frame, full-size kart isn't Sam's first, but it's by far the most complicated. When Sam was younger, Bist applied his childhood fascination with RC cars to a smaller, battery-powered electric car. Think Power Wheels meets RadioShack.
"For what it was, it was great," Bist told me later. "We used the same components from RC cars—servos and steering—to cruise around the soccer fields. Sam was getting bigger though, and he’d come to the track with me. I just wanted a cool way to get him involved."
In 2019, Bist leveled up his RC know-how with his daytime adult profession as a software consultant to include his son.
"This was going to be a five-year project with everything going on. Easy," Bist said. Mission creep set in: The steering would be far more complicated than anything he's ever done. Where would Bist source the kart? Who could help him fabricate the parts? How does the same concept that worked in the first version apply to the bigger version? How could he talk Laura into letting him work weekends, potentially for the next five years, on another project car?
"I also value my marriage," Bist said with a smile.
It's true. But he's also never been alone in his project.
Although there were initial hurdles in finding a donor vehicle—kart sellers typically prefer wholesale transactions versus individual buyers—those barriers broke down quickly once he explained his project. Bist's plan: Rehab an old go-kart with RC-controlled steering, electric power, an adult-sized race seat, and cage. Not impossible, but surely not easy.
"‘That sounds like an awesome project,’" Bist recalled the California-based kart salesperson telling him. "‘We have no idea how you’re going to do that. But we’ll sell you one.’"
One job down. Hundreds more to go.
"As soon as the kart showed up, I was like ‘OK. Now what?’" Bist said with a chuckle. "My brother and I started to map out what we needed, how we could apply the same principles of the first version to a bigger version. The kart we got was entirely too fast—my wife saw it and almost lost it."
But his enthusiasm for his son was inescapable. The more people heard about his project, the more people wanted to help. Near Detroit, where Bist lives, executives at M1 Concourse's karting track offered a promising lead: A nearby shop, PMD Automotive Garage, was working on a fleet of new electric karts for M1. Maybe they could help?
"I called up Gordon [Heidacker] and he just said, ‘Bring me the kart. We’ll go from there,’" Bist said.
"It was challenging for all the right reasons," Heidacker, who is CEO of PMD, told me about the project. "All of us wanted to get Sam something he's never had before."
Heidacker's crew of 20 technicians got to work.
Nothing about Sam's kart was easy. The tiny Arduino controller and RC components built for much smaller applications needed to work on a much bigger, more powerful kart. The power and speed controller were simultaneously thrilling and terrifying.
While Heidacker and his team worked on CAD drawings, fabrication, and installation, Bist checked in with calibration and tuning, parts, and further help. How could they make sure the kart shut off when it was out of range of the controller? How would they remove unnecessary controls to give Sam more space inside? How could they manufacture redundant safety systems? Time, patience, Sam, and more would factor into the build.
"I also value my marriage," Bist said again with a smile.
During the pandemic, the two teams—Bist and Heidacker at PDM—kept working. Finally, in August 2021, Bist got a call.
"'It's done,'" he remembered Heidacker telling him plainly. "I couldn't believe it."
"It was an all-hands-on-deck project for us," Heidacker said later. Hundreds of hours by dozens of people made it possible. "It was great for us to do something we’ve never done before. We’re a do-the-right-thing company."
Bist took Sam to PMD to test the kart in the parking lot. Every employee watched.
"[Sam] let out a huge laugh and that was enough for us," Heidacker said. "We know he's not that vocal and that meant so much to all of us."
"It was just a really cool thing, seeing the guys who worked on it, just a really cool thing," Bist said.
Next step? Track time with the full complement of gear, people, but importantly: father and son.
Bist's local track is Waterford Hills Road Racing in Clarkston, Michigan: a 1.5-mile circuit with enough space to hit triple-digits, room for 20 cars, and 14 corners. Bist knows the track like a local and vied for a local series championship by the last race of the 2021 Lemons season. But Bist's mind couldn't have been further from any trophy that he could win that day.
"We wrecked the car in the morning [of the last race]. It was the greatest thing to happen to me. I could focus on Sam and the kart," Bist said. As soon as the race was over and the track was clear, Sam and his kart could have their maiden run.
Sam loaded in and passed through the paddock when Bist saw the response. Dozens of teams lined up at the gate, inspectors scrutineered Sam in his kart, the race announcer broadcasted Sam's lap from start to finish through every corner. When it was over, Sam was presented with his own checkered flag.
"I still get emotional when I think about that," Bist tells me before a deep breath. "That people would take that time to stop, come over, and be a part of that. I can't put that into words."
The Bist family didn't leave empty-handed: Sam was awarded his first trophy in his own race class.
"Watching people clap for him, that was awesome. That kid had so much swag—I was kind of jealous," he said.
The controller range for the kart is a few feet, and a dozen or so at best, which requires Bist to follow along in a golf cart to steer the kart for Sam. His first run at Waterford Hills was good, Bist said, but Sam's first words after the initial outing indicated otherwise: "The golf cart almost won."
"He never asks what I’m racing; he always wants to know if we’re bringing the kart," Bist said.
Bist loads up Sam after a rainy race this past July at GingerMan, where we meet. Although Bist's out of contention for a Lemons class trophy, there's hardly any resignation in his smile.
Walking the racetrack is common during weekend race events, once the cars leave the track. But there's always a caveat: no motorized vehicles—feet or pedal power only. Bist's been granted an exception for Sam, because of course.
"Once people see it and get what it is, people do what they can to help," he says.
Bist, a driver, a spotter, and I load into a golf cart to photograph Sam's lap. Sturdy, strong, but only 5 mph for now, Sam tears down the front straight at GingerMan with his dad at the controls. Bist's smile shines brighter than the rising moon, Laura's pride was audible, and many Lemons teams cheered Sam on—louder than they did for their team, in some cases.
"He always tells me, ‘Faster, faster!’" Bist shouts from the cart to me.
Bist follows the racing line he took just a few hours ago, around a slight left-hander that leads into a horseshoe-shaped right turn that sweeps through the Michigan plains and into a long straight. People cheer from the grandstands. Bist stops the kart to take pictures.
"Did you have a good time tonight?" Bist asks Sam.
Sam, belted in, a smile creeping into the corners of his mouth, replies quickly: One look up.
"He sure did," says Bist.
We all did.
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