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Golden gears

Pushing a 6.5-horsepower go-kart up to 45 mph indoors is an atypical way to celebrate an 86th birthday, but on Thursday night, Fred Onan had good company at Go Kart Hero in Medford.

"This is not some stuffy old birthday party," Onan said.

Racing with names such as "Hot Grandma," "Sidecar" and Onan's nickname "Troubles," 10 men and women over the age of 65 raced in heats of five for first-, second- and third-place trophies in a time-trial "Senior Shoot Out" organized in honor of Onan's birthday. Participation was free courtesy of Onan and a discounted rate through the track, which typically charges $17 per racer.

Onan, of Gold Hill, says he's at the indoor raceway, converted from a warehouse building, nearly every day.

"My wife pulls up, drops me off, goes shopping and picks me up. They call it 'Freddy's Day Care,' " Onan said.

Onan chose to celebrate his 86th birthday at the track instead of settling for the slower-paced activities normally geared toward retirees. His actual birthday is today, but Go Kart Hero was better able to accommodate the special event Thursday.

"Senior citizens don't have enough to do, in my opinion," Onan said, lamenting dull indoor activities. "I want them to have something exciting."

Long-time friend Janet Sessions of Gold Hill said she seeks similar thrills. She owns four kayaks, went paragliding last year and still thirsts for new adventures.

"Is it moral? Is it legal? Is it fun? Sign me up," Sessions said. "When I'm 73 and a half, I know I have just a little bit of time."

Racing in the first heat, Sessions was fired up as she studied her lap times.

"I beat a man," she exclaimed, as she held the printout.

Sessions, who serves as president of the Gold Hill Historical Society, said exhilaration was a silver lining she discovered a couple years ago after losing her husband.

"My husband would never let me go out and have fun because it was always too dangerous," she said. 

Onan's daughter, Cathi Onan, traveled from her home on Whidbey Island, Wash., to help celebrate and observe the spectacle.

"I figured if I could get down here, I wouldn't want to miss this," Cathi Onan said.

She said the light-hearted event was typical of her fun-loving father. She recalled traveling to similar kart tracks in Colorado with as many as nine kids packed in a little VW.

"He would load the neighborhood in a Volkswagen Bug," Cathi Onan said. "Fifty years later, he's still doing it!"

The event was Ron Bloom's first time at Go Kart Hero. The Medford resident chose the nickname "Sidecar" after his replica 1941 German military motorcycle and sidecar in his garage.

"I love it, man. It was fun — I felt like a kid again," Bloom said. "They're a lot faster than I thought."

Onan has participated in various forms of dirt and club racing since he was 21, most recently in a dwarf car at the Southern Oregon Speedway dirt track until just a few years ago. He brought in his original racing helmet to mark the occasion.

"That was the best we had — it was just cardboard," Onan said, pointing out its flimsier construction.

Onan said Go Kart Hero gives him a similar rush in a safer environment. All racers must watch an orientation video with flag instructions, wear a three-point seat belt, neck brace and Department of Transportation-approved helmet. As a further precaution, the go-karts' throttles can be shut off remotely at any time.

"I've had some real bad wrecks, and I don't feel a thing," Onan said. "I feel there's no danger whatsoever."

Contact is inevitable when aggressive drivers share the nine-turn course, as Bloom discovered. Following the first heat, Bloom sheepishly apologized to another driver for spinning him out.

"He hit the wall, and that was a jolt," Bloom said.

Onan scored the fastest lap in the first heat, but he keeps it in perspective.

"It looked like I was going fast, but I only turned a 29 (second lap)," Onan said, noting other drivers commonly achieve 26- or 27-second laps at the track. "But I was having more fun than they are."

Reach newsroom assistant Nick Morgan at nmorgan@mailtribune.com.

Fred Onan invited a group of friends to what he called a 'go-kart senior shoot-out' at Go-Kart Hero. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch
Janet Sessions accelerates out of a turn while helping her friend Fred Onan celebrate his 86th birthday at Go-Kart Hero in Medford Thursday night. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch