WHERE HAVE ALL THE KARTERS GONE?   

 

By John Copeland

In my travels each season I get around to lots of different racetracks. They're mostly in the Midwest these day, as my long-distance racing days are mostly behind me now. But even if I don't get out to see them in person, I hear from customers and friends who go to tracks almost everywhere they race karts, from Florida to Oregon, and I'm hearing some disturbing things.

It seems that I'm not the only racer who's staying closer to home. Financial realities being what they are, if I have to choose between racing more often at my local track, or spending more traveling money and doing less racing, my wandering days are numbered. Not that I'm suggesting that there is anything wrong with that. Racing is what it's all about, and the more, the better. The karters who pull their stuff out once a year and head off to Daytona aren't really going south to race, they're going to socialize, and to party, and to get away from whatever the December weatherman throws at them wherever they live. They'll be frustrated, and uncompetitive, and quite possibly dangerous. No, the more you race, the better. But never leaving the friendly confines of your local track has it's downside as well.

Karting, more than any other type of motorsport, is a friendly affair. It's about meeting new people, testing yourself against them. Racing week after week against the same folks doesn't just deny you the opportunity to meet new racers, it can get pretty boring too! The same goes for racing on the same track week after week. There's a lot of personal satisfaction to going to a new track, studying the course, and then learning how to go fast there. It's one reason, I think, that many street racers are among the best tuners in karting. Each week they go to a different course. If they're lucky, it hasn't changed substantially since they saw it last, a year ago! Otherwise, it's either a modified layout from the one they ran on before, or a course they've never even seen. In only one or two practice sessions, these karters have to learn the track, figure out the gearing, clutch, pipe, or whatever, and get ready to race! And just because they hit the set up one week, is no guarantee that they'll even be close at whatever track they go to the next week.

What I'm suggesting here, is that all of us need to get out more. We need to sample what other tracks in our area have to offer. We need to test the competitive water there, so to speak; to see if we like the people that race at this track better than the ones that race at that track. Please note, I'm not suggesting that you hunt around until you find some little backwater track where you can consistently beat the pants off everybody else. That won't be fun for long, either for you or for the regulars at that track. Instead, I'm suggesting that you look around at all the racing your area has to offer. Test yourself against racers you've never run against before, on their home turf. Look for the toughest competition you can find, then go there. If you can measure up and whip them, then, by golly, you've really done something.

Whether we're talking about dirt racing, sprint asphalt, or enduro, having the same group of people racing, in the same classes, at the same track week after week, is not healthy, either for the racers or the racetrack. Don't forget, generally only a handful of racers have a shot at winning at any given event. They're generally the ones who've made the greatest effort, had the most experience, and, sometimes, spent the most money. But if the same few karters win, week in and week out, it won't be long until the fields begin to dwindle. The guys running in the back of the pack can tell themselves that they're only doing it for fun, but it won't stay fun for very many weeks of getting drubbed by the same front-runners. There needs to be enough turnover in the field that beginners and low-budget racers don't get discouraged and quit. One way to do that is to encourage more karters to travel around to different tracks. Too many kart shops and engine builders fall into the trap of making a name for themselves at their local track, only to discover that their dominance of the events only alienates potential customers. If 30 years of karting has taught me anything, it's that having customers win races is vastly more productive, reputation-wise, than having shop owners or their employees or shop drivers win.

There's another plus to racing at different tracks; you're more likely to pick up new ideas, learn new tricks, and see different set-ups. If you want to continue to grow as a racer and as a tuner, it's vital that you see as many different racers, and the way they do things, as possible. I promise you, if you spend just 1/2 your race weekends racing at tracks other than your local haunt, you'll pick up dozens of helpful bits and pieces. You may see a hot new chassis you've never come across before, or it may be something as simple as a neat new way to set up your pit equipment. You never know what you'll learn. But one thing you do know is that, if you never leave your "home" track, you'll probably never see any of it.

And now a word to clubs and tracks out there: WAKE UP!!! If you're not willing or able to encourage new racers to come to your track, if you don't have a solid plan to solicit racers from outside your group of "regulars" to come to your track, you may as well start planning your shutdown now. No club, and no track, can survive for long with only the support of their regular racers. Karting is, to a large degree, a transient sport. People move away, change jobs, loose their jobs, get married, get divorced, and a thousand other things that cause them to quit karting. Without a constant influx of new racers, you can't survive. Add to that the frustrated racers who quit because they just aren't having any fun getting whipped by the same guys every week, and you have the recipe for another track closed down. Look around at the other recreational businesses and see how they've re-invented themselves to keep their clientele interested. Bars and taverns now boast big-screen TV and karaoke nights. Golf courses and bowling alleys have goofy promotions and fun competitions. Everybody is battling to bring in new customers and keep existing customers coming back. What makes clubs and tracks think they're any different? Don't give me that "It's the friendly spirit of competition" baloney. 99% of the karters out there race because it's fun. And they'll keep racing as long as it's fun, and not a minute longer! It's up to the clubs, the tracks, and to kart shops and engine builders, to keep uppermost in their minds that their job is to see to it that their customers are having fun! As soon as you loose sight of that, you've begun to lose them. It won't take very many 'no-fun' race weekends, particularly for beginners, before they say "To hell with this. I'm selling this stuff and buying a boat!" When this happens, we all lose. You may be at the pinnacle of the sport, a winner every weekend. But without all those other guys, beginners, backmarkers, and middle-of-the-packers, you wouldn't have anyplace to race, or anybody to race with.

So, after all this gloom and doom talk, what can you do to help? Well, you can do lot's of things, depending on where you fit into the picture. First and foremost, you can get around a little more. Go to other tracks, be friendly, check out what's going on at other places. Spread yourself around a little. It'll be fun, and it'll be good for your racing. If you're involved in your local track or club, try to look past your track's boundaries and set up cooperative relationships with other tracks and clubs in your area. Try not to schedule on top of each other. This is not supposed to be a competition between tracks! There are only so many karters to so around, so make the most of them. What's good for your neighboring track is not necessarily bad for you, unless you make it bad. Encourage inter-track rivalries by promoting each other's events and encouraging your regulars to run over there from time to time, and vice versa. And most importantly, when new people come to your track, whether you're involved in the club or putting on the race, or not, go out of your way to make them welcome. Say HI, find out if they know where to sign in, where the bathrooms are, etc. In short, treat them like you'd like someone to treat you at a strange track. If your club or track awards points each race toward season-end championships, try putting on dual point events at other tracks, and bring their racers to your track for similar events. I'm also a big believer in holding several non-points events each season, to allow those racers chasing points a chance to get around to other tracks without hurting their chances in the points series.

The point is, if you want to continue to enjoy our sport, you have to take an active role in promoting it's growth. None of us can sit back and assume that somebody else will do it. Tracks, particularly dirt tracks, seem to pop up overnight, but they also close up almost as quickly. Just because your favorite track is doing ok right now is no reason to think that it can't be the next victim. Helping promote karting means bringing new people to the track when you go, and seeing to it that they understand what's going on and that they have a good time. Most of us take karting's peculiarities for granted. But for the first-timer, our multiple classes, heat races, moto-cross scoring, drawing for starting position, and so on, are terribly confusing. Most likely, it's not like any other kind of racing they've seen on TV or anywhere else. Without your help to explain it, it all seems unorganized and confusing. (Come to think of it, it is sometimes unorganized and confusing.) If your goal is to interest your guest in getting involved in karting, it's up to you to help him or her to make sense of it all. This is probably a good time to bring up the issue of sportsmanship too. We all go to the track to compete and, hopefully, to win. Emotions run high and, sometimes, tempers too. Don't forget that visitors, whether they be your guest or someone else's, are taking it all in. They're deciding if this is a recreational activity that they and their family might want to get involved with. Seeing drivers or crew members lose their tempers, yell at officials, curse, or otherwise misbehave, doesn't help create an inviting atmosphere for potential karters. Those of us who are already involved know that these things can sometimes happen, and that they usually aren't as serious as they appear. But newcomers don't have the benefit of our experience. They might find a fist-fight at the scales is entertaining, but you can bet they won't want to get their families involved in a sport like that. Remember, your behavior at the track, and that of your fellow competitors and others, sets a continuous example of what karting is about. It you want to continue to bring new people into karting and to assure that the sport will continue, behave like people are watching, because they are.

Karting is a wonderful, exciting family sport. It provides a creative, competitive outlet for people of all ages, with a variety of skill levels, regardless of their degree of involvement. But for karting to continue, for it to finally mature into the "Motorsport of the 90's" (or the 80's, or the 70's if you remember the hype), everyone is going to have to take an active role in promoting it.

We not only have to work harder at keeping the karters involved that we have now, we have to seriously pursue new karters. And we have to all work together to make sure that karting is more fun for them than anything else that they've done. If that means we have to find ways to give newcomers special attention, then let's find ways to do that. If it means getting out of the old rut of whupping up on the same guys week after week at your local track, and getting away to other places to race, giving the local "also-rans" a chance, then we should be doing that too.

I'm anxious to hear your ideas about getting and keeping new karters in the sport, so let me hear from you.