WHERE HAVE ALL THE "SMOKEYS" GONE? 

 

By John Copeland

I just came from the Performance Racing Industry trade show in Columbus, Ohio and what a treat for a motorsports enthusiast. Each year the big-time racing industry brings together manufacturers of just about every possible bit of equipment, parts, and tooling involved in building, maintaining, and campaigning all sorts of race cars. But the high point of the event for me was the chance to meet and exchange a few words with legendary mechanic, car owner, and racing icon Smokey Yunick. For more than 4 decades, Yunick has symbolized the inventive, inquisitive, and creative spirit that has made racing, and stock car racing in particular, the sport it is today.

But meeting Smokey Yunick made me a little sad too; sad for the apparent loss of men like him in today's racing world. How have we come to a point where the goal is for everybody to race the same cars (or karts), with the same engines, the same everything. Whatever happened to the "I wonder what would happen if..." guys? Where did the "I bet this would go faster if...." people go? In a nation founded by people unsatisfied with doing things the way everybody else did them, it seems to me we have lost something priceless; the drive to make things better.

In karting we have seen relentless pressure to move more and more toward spec racers in spec classes. Single engine-make classes with rigidly controlled tech requirements, 2 cycle classes with spec can mufflers or spec pipes with specified lengths, these are the fastest growing classes we see. But it doesn't end there. Every day I see customers at the shop, or talk to them on the phone, who want to buy, for example, a new clutch. You pull it off the shelf and the first thing they ask is "Is that already set at the right RPM?" When you explain that the factory doesn't do that they ask, "Then can you set it for me at the best RPM?" It's the same with pipes, tires, whatever. Do these karters lack the desire to take control of their own fate on the racetrack, or are they totally in the dark about what it takes to tune their set-ups, or do they just want someone else to blame when they aren't fast enough?

I'm not suggesting that there isn't an important place for spec classes in karting. But I think their promotion as the "place to be" karting-wise is misguided. Accomplished karters need to be encouraged to move up with faster, more complex, more sophisticated classes. That not only affords them an opportunity to demonstrate their skills and experience, but it also moves them away from the ranks of the less experienced, increasing the beginner's chances of enjoying some degree of satisfying success.

Karters have, to a large degree, lost track of the kind of original-thinkers who founded karting and fostered it's tremendous growth. Instead, karting's newest participants are coming into a sport where, guided by manufacturers, kart shops, and sanctioning bodies, they think that their creativity is limited to fancy helmet paint jobs and designer driving suits. Those manufacturers, organizations, and retailers control the fate of karting. By ignoring the "tuners classes", the modifieds, the stock-appearings, and the opens, they provide no opportunity for the truly inventive, creative, or curious to express themselves in karting. It's a segment of the motorsports population karting needs to cultivate, not minimize.

Unless we're satisfied to become a sport of motorized lemmings, all identical, all committed to pursuing a goal set by someone else, karting must give every karter the opportunity to chart their own course.