|WKA FOREIGN CHASSIS BAN MISSES THE MARK|
By John Copeland
The recent announcement that WKA will require the use of American-made chassis (or chassis meeting "American specs) in several of its most popular series' is certain to make waves throughout the sport for years to come. In conversations with several individuals, both WKA insiders and others, it appears that everybody has a good idea about why this action was taken. Some profess that it's high time WKA looked out for its own. Others see this move as a giant step backwards. Let's look at the arguments.
"European manufacturers are selling karts at prohibitively high prices, running karters out of the sport." Unquestionably the price of European karts is higher than that of most American- made karts. Why is that? Distributors of European karts attract prospective dealers by promising profit margins almost double what the dealer can make on an American kart. In fact, the dealer cost on the two is not all that much different. Neither is the "list" price. The difference is that American manufacturers, distributors, and dealers have ruined the market by selling karts (and everything else) at "Racer Net", whatever that is. They've created a market that values low price over service, quality, and everything else. If dealers selling American karts want to know why dealers selling European chassis are prospering, they should start by comparing their marketing techniques. And karters aren't leaving the sport just because they can't afford the higher priced karts. There are a dozen reason why people quit karting, but the foremost reason is because all the B___S___ makes it no fun anymore. Unsportsmanlike behavior, self-serving officials, and manipulative governing bodies are the real culprits here. Throwing up artificial barriers to limit competition is just another verse of the same old "self-interest" tune.
"American karts just can't compete with the European chassis." Unquestionably the Europeans have built a better mousetrap. I don't know of anybody who would honestly dispute that the European karts have, in general, gotten ahead of us technically. Why? It's mostly a matter of focus. While American karting has supported a bewildering flood of classes for virtually any engine you can come up with, while American karting has saddled competitors with expensive, troublesome, and ever-changing clutches and pipes, International karting has adopted rational rules limiting classes and approved engines, requiring direct drive, and spec pipes. As a result, European kart manufacturers have taken chassis development very seriously and their drivers have become savvy chassis tuners. With clutches and pipes out of the picture, chassis design and tuning become the critical factor in gaining a competitive advantage. I don't believe for a minute that American kart manufacturers aren't as smart, or talented as their European counterparts. They just haven't had the motivation or the need to dramatically push the envelope. We heard the same cry go up when Japanese automobiles first came to the States. "They're so economical!" "They're so advanced!" "We can't compete!" "It isn't fair!" "Ban them!" And what happened? Detroit found that they really could compete. Driven by market forces, American car makers learned to build more advanced, more economical cars that American buyers wanted. And Japanese manufacturers who wanted to build a bigger market share learned to do so by building many of their cars here. It's safe to assume that foreign kart manufacturers will follow suit. They may set up plants to build karts in the States, or they may get around the rules by importing components and assembling them here. Either way, don't kid yourself that this step from WKA will stem the tide of European karts. The real key to making American karts more competitive is for American manufacturers to rise to the challenge and produce karts equal to or superior to the best the Europeans have to offer.
"The influx of European karts will put lots of small kart builders out of business." This may be true, but is it necessarily a bad thing? Let's face it. There are only so many kart buyers each year. And those buyers have to be divided up between all the various makes and models of karts available. With every small-timer out there with a tube bender and a MIG welder turning out frames, there aren't enough buyers to go around. As a result, the historically major manufacturers, Margay, Coyote, Invader, Emmick, etc., are facing smaller and smaller market shares. Without sufficient sales to fund research and development work, they're faced with an almost insurmountable disadvantage. Their technology stagnates. And, since most of the small-time frame builders only copy the designs of the major builders, with a few minor changes, their technology stagnates too. The major European manufacturers can afford to hire engineering staffs to design and develop their karts because they sell more frames. And part of the reason they sell more frames is because there are fewer of them to devide up the market. When you cut the pie up into too many pieces, everybody goes hungry.
"Closing down the small chassis builders is un-American. Being able to start your own business and build your own product is part of the American dream." So it is. No argument there. But just because you allow people to build and sell karts of their own design and construction doesn't mean you don't have a right, or an obligation, to regulate them. WKA and the other sanctioning bodies already specify certain technical requirements for chassis design and construction, and those are recognized as being in the best interest of the sport overall. I'm not suggesting that those people not be allowed to design, build, race and sell their own kart. But its a far cry from building a few karts to sell to running in National competitions. There are plenty of local and regional races that don't require any form of licensing for drivers, or other restrictions. As long as karts meet basic design and safety standards, there is no shortage of places for limited production karts to run. But race series' that lead to National Championships might well be best served by requiring competitors to run generally available, approved chassis.
If all this sounds like I'm in favor of the WKA ban on foreign chassis, you're wrong. There are lots of proven ways to manage competition from foreign manufacturers; ways that encourage development and promote healthy competition. But throwing up artificial barriers like "no foreign-made karts" is not one of them. Racing around the world has been successful in managing growth, controlling design development, and encouraging business by using well-reasoned homologation procedures. Requiring manufacturers to prove that they have produced an adequate number of frames, or engines, or whatever, and that those items meet the required specifications, insures that competitors can have access to the tools they need to pursue a National or International title. Requiring that homologated frames have "American" spec steering shafts, axles not to exceed 1 3/8" diameter, and so on will put all the manufacturers, foreign and domestic, on the same page. Then its up to the American manufacturers to rise to the challenge, to optimize their designs to compete with their overseas counterparts. Likewise, the European manufacturers will have to revise their designs to meet the American specs. In the end, karting and karters are the winners.
Finally, there are some who argue "Technology is ruining karting." "We have to stop the technology from advancing!" Well my friends, technology is the ultimate irresistible force. Progress marches on as surely the sun rises in the East every morning. Like it or not, karting will continue to get more technologically advanced. And while I'll agree that $5000 data acquisition systems are not for everybody, would you like to give up your current chassis for one of the straight-rail, 1 inch stepped axle, straight front axle frames from 20 years ago? And you 2 cycle racers, do any of you long to trade in your reliable Yamaha for the fragile, temperamental McCullochs of the past? No, it appears that technology is only the enemy when it rains on your own personal parade. Make no mistake, technology is relentless. But it will only be the enemy if you fail to manage it.
Karting's strength has always been its affordable nature. And I believe that many of those who support WKA's ban on foreign chassis see it from only that perspective. But we can, and should, take aggressive measures to control costs, to solicit new participants, and to retain the karters we have now. I'm sure this step by WKA is well-intentioned, but it is ill-considered. The time-honored way to improve market competition is to encourage new companies to enter the market. You have to mandate that they meet required specifications. Then you let them battle it out for the buyer's attention. Invariably quality improves, pricing stays competitive, and the buyer is the winner.
Finally a word about the future. If we keep ignoring the real problems of this sport, we don't have a future. According to some sources, the average life-span of a karter is only 3 years. Everybody with a stake in karting needs to look at that statistic and ask how they figure into the equation. Clubs, sanctioning bodies, shops, manufacturers, importers, and individual racers need to examine their roles. If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem. What are you doing to bring new people into karting and how can you do it better? What are you doing that may be leading to existing karters quitting and how do you stop it? Retailers, manufacturers, clubs and tracks are all so worried about their share of the market, that they're forgotten how critical the size of the market is. Motorsports worldwide is enjoying unprecedented growth. Karting in particular, is growing around the world, yet many American manufacturers and distributors report soft sales in 1996. Blaming it on foreign competition, or on new technology, or on the rising cost of racing is just a way to avoid facing the real cause. It's time to wake up and smell the coffee. If you want to see the one thing that can save the sport we love, and the industry that supports it, look in the mirror.