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Drivers love this rush hour

(ran PC edition of Pasco Times)

A test drive of the revamped Malibu Grand Prix proves why this place has been around since 1978.

As the black racing slicks of my sleek speed machine eased into the starting lane, the steering wheel felt like a live animal in my hands.

The engine growled at a high idle. The accelerator danced deliciously beneath my right foot. The first two turns of the twisted track awaited my assault.

And then the light turned green. Go Speed Racer time.

Since 1978, Malibu Grand Prix has served the racing needs of Tampa's zoom community. Located on Nebraska Avenue just south of Bearss Avenue, the go-cart and amusement complex has been a constant temptation for commuters on Interstate 75.

I figure I must have driven past Malibu Grand Prix thousands of times since it opened the year before I graduated from high school. Always thought about taking that last Tampa exit off the highway and trying my hand at some real driving, but never took the plunge.

Until this week.

Malibu officials recently celebrated a grand reopening, due in part to some long overdue renovations.

"It's really a night and day difference," said Keith Fertl, Malibu's sales and marketing manager. "We did a lot of sprucing up."

The "Daytona Pavilion," a building in front of Malibu's Indy-style race course, has been redesigned to serve as a meeting space for corporate outings. "The Castle," home to three birthday party rooms, snack bar and game room, underwent a total face lift inside and out.

The two miniature golf courses, situated around a series of ponds and waterfalls beneath old oak trees, got new putting surfaces. Upgraded, too, is the machinery at Malibu's softball and baseball batting cages.

And the go-carts at Malibu's second, smaller, all-ages track got new bodies. Drivers must be at least 54 inches tall, and passengers must be 42 inches tall to ride with a driver 16 or older.

The main Grand Prix course features "Virage" cars that are three-quarter scale versions of real Formula One racers. These beauties, which can reach speeds of 50 mph on a straightaway, are Malibu's main attraction and the focal point of my need for speed.

Drivers must be 18 or older and have a valid driver's license. Mine says I'm 37 and that I have a motorcycle endorsement. It also says I'm an organ donor, which I'm hoping won't come into play today.

Kris Kozlowski, the 19-year-old pit crew chief, has just guided the racer before me off the track. Kathrine Yakimovich, a young woman from the Czech Republic and my only competition on this hot weekday afternoon, had just turned a few laps in the 58-second range.

That's pretty fast, says Kozlowski, whose fastest lap during his four years working at Malibu was around 53 seconds. Not far off the track record of 49.1 seconds.

With those numbers dancing in my head, with the heat waves rising off the concrete course, with the Virage's motor screaming in my ear, I set off to show the world that I can carve turns and mash the gas with the best of them.

The first series of turns are tight and I cut the corners too sharply, throwing two wheels up on the red and white berms. Kozlowski had advised against this. Slows you down.

For better control, I begin hitting the brakes hard before ripping into the sweeping turns. This seems to work as I power back up through the short straight-aways. Coming around the next to last turn before the finish line, the rear wheels are whining and slipping as the car's power overcomes its traction.

But I manage to keep it on the track for one last left turn into pit road.

I'm surprised to find that I'm out of breath and panting like I've just run the 100-yard dash. My arms feel limp and there's a serious adrenaline rush going on through the rest of my body.

With anxious eyes I gaze up at the large digital timer ... and there it is ... 66 seconds?! The little old lady from Pasadena could run this course in under 66 seconds. That's a full 8 seconds off Yakimovich's time.

With five laps remaining on my ticket pack (costs range from $2.95 for one lap to $19.50 for 11 laps), I vow to improve.

"Did you use the brake at all?" Kozlowski asked me. "Well, don't. Just let off on the gas when you get to the turns."

Good advice. On my next five laps, I turn times in the high 50-second range and even score a brisk 55-second run when everything goes just right.

"You did pretty good," Kozlowski says.

With that encouragement and the echo of the engine's roar still ringing in my ears, I know I'll be coming back.

Fast.

If you go:

Malibu Grand Prix, 1432 N Nebraska Ave., is open Sunday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 10 a.m. to midnight.

Grand Prix racing is $2.95 for one lap, $12.95 for five laps, $15.50 for seven laps and $19.50 for 11 laps.

Sprint cars, for drivers at least 54 inches tall, cost $4.25 for a 4{-minute session.

Batting cages operate on $1 tokens, which get you 16 pitches. They can also be rented for $13 for a half hour or $19 for an hour.

Miniature golf costs $6.25 for adults, $5.25 for children 12 and under, nothing for kids 3 and under, and $5.25 for seniors.

The game room has games for all ages.

Special rates are available for groups of 10 or more. For information, call 977-6272.

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