View Full Version : kartig article

08-02-03, 11:09 AM

Duh, thats KARTING.

And I just realized you have to sign up for the NY Times. Here is the article

Going for Glory (In Miniature)

nly a handful of racing fans were watching when John Kindhart crossed the finish line on a bright Saturday in late June, but judging from his reaction, you would think that the entire world had just witnessed his first-place performance at a track 40 miles northeast of Pittsburgh.

He pumped his fists and performed a tight series of doughnuts on the track's front straightaway, sending smoke into the air and leaving a rubber circle that would remain for the rest of the weekend. Jubilantly, he marched toward the winner's podium, where he answered some standard post-race questions from the track's announcer. Yes, this had been a thrilling win. Of course, he had to salute the skill of his competitors. And he thanked his racing team. "They make my job a lot easier," he said. Through it all, Mr. Kindhart beamed as if he were being photographed for a Wheaties box.

Mr. Kindhart, a 38-year-old Volvo service manager from Lake Dallas, Tex., is on a mission: to become the continent's fastest driver of shifter karts — a type of high-speed go-kart with a gearbox — above the age of 34. This year, the quest will cost him about $40,000. That figure includes, just for starters, his three customized motors, at about $8,000 each; the onboard computers that analyze his track performance section by section, letting him know how deep into a turn he can drive before hitting the brakes and the ideal spots along the track to shift gears; and, of course, the travel expenses to send himself and his pit crew to Florida and Oklahoma in pursuit of his goal.

"It's getting to be a full-time deal," he said.

Shifter karts have been around since the 1970's, after some enterprising daredevils placed engines and transmissions made for motocross motorcycles on go-karts and gave birth to five-foot-long, 200-pound vehicles with up to 45 horsepower, that can go from zero to 60 miles per hour in three seconds and reach top speeds of 135 m.p.h.

The result, say shifter fans, is an experience with some of the same thrills as Formula One racing, without the hefty price tag. (A new shifter kart costs $4,000 to $10,000 and today might have an engine and gearbox made specifically for kart use.)

Traditionally, shifter karts have been driven by moneyed adults casually racing at local clubs or hungry young men and boys trying to begin professional racing careers. (Among the racing stars who started out in karts are Tony Stewart of Nascar; Paul Tracy, a professional driver in the Champ Car racing series; and Sarah Fisher, who has raced in the Indianapolis 500.)

But there are also people like Mr. Kindhart and his rivals, men who know they are too old to drive race cars professionally but who can't let go of the dream of competing at the national level.

"I always wanted to race, but my mother was protective and wouldn't allow it," said Jeff Carter, a boyish 35-year-old gym instructor from Oklahoma City. Shifter-kart racing fulfills the old dream. "It's not what I wanted it to be — it's not big cars," he said. "But it's exciting."

Mr. Kindhart and Mr. Carter were racing at the BeaveRun Motorsports Complex in Wampum, Pa., a new facility with a winding track full of challenging S-curves and rib-rattling terrain. They were there to compete in the third round in the eastern zone of the Skusa (Superkarts! USA) ProMoto Tour, a four-round circuit that will culminate in the World Finals in Norman, Okla., on Aug. 24. The ProMoto Tour is in its fifth year, but this is the first season that Mr. Kindhart and Mr. Carter's class — the Super G, for drivers 35 and over — has been offered at the professional level. The winners of the top classes can receive up to $2,000 at each round, but Super G drivers can win purses only at the finals.

To the uninitiated, the ProMoto Tour seemed to have all the pomp and circumstance of a Formula One event. At the opening ceremonies, the racers all stood solemnly for the American and Canadian national anthems. After each race, the top three finishers took their place on a small podium, where they thanked their sponsors and crews and sprayed one another with cheap Champagne. And if you closed your eyes when Doug Stiffler manned the public-address system, you would have thought you were among a capacity crowd at Le Mans. "It looks like a beautiful weekend for some racing!" Mr. Stiffler yelled, his enthusiastic, high-pitched voice complementing the roar of revving engines. "Do not go anywhere, ladies and gentlemen! Find your favorite spots and stay there!"

But if you watched the events with your eyes open, you would have wondered at whom, exactly, Mr. Stiffler's nonstop spiel was directed. There were no bleachers full of fans to take in the action — the handful of stragglers that did show up perched themselves on a far hill, out of earshot of his exhortations. Aside from one specialty magazine, no sports news outlets were in attendance. And although most of the drivers considered themselves professionals, it is unlikely that even the most die-hard racing enthusiast would have heard of them. "It's an old cliché that shifter-kart racing is the best-kept secret in motor sports," lamented Jim Murley, the chief executive of Skusa. "Well, it actually is."

And even in the spectator-free environment at BeaveRun, the Super G class drew a special degree of apathy. While most of the racers and crews headed to the track to watch the competitive Pro IC races, where a 14-year-old juggernaut named Wade Van Hooser was locked in a heated points battle with Jonathan Branam, a mild-mannered 17-year-old, most scattered back to their trailers when Mr. Kindhart and his cohort wheeled up to the starting line.

The turnout at BeaveRun, Mr. Murley said, was exceptionally meager. Still, he admitted, shifter-kart racing is not yet a spectator sport. Over the past half-decade or so, Mr. Murley and others have spent countless hours and dollars trying to publicize it. Today, shifter-kart racers can choose between two professional-level national tournaments, the ProMoto Tour and the new Champ Car Stars of Tomorrow tour. (The two are planning to merge in November.) Two national magazines, Shifter Kart Illustrated and KartSport Magazine, are dedicated to covering the sport. And in 2000, Speed Channel, a national cable network, began broadcasting some shifter-kart events.

"Traditionally, karting in this country has been something that happens out in a cornfield or on some little track, which is fine but the sport never grows," said Bobby Rahal, a three-time Champ Car champion who early this year took an ownership stake in the Stars of Tomorrow franchise. "We're trying to take it to a level where it hasn't been in the past."

MOST of the drivers at BeaveRun were teenagers or younger, tooling their karts around the track with the intensity of a high-school football hopeful performing in front of a University of Michigan scout. Mr. Murley started what would become the over-34 class last year, recognizing that the older drivers, with "businesses to go back to on Monday morning," as he put it, might be better off away from the teenagers. "Doing battle with the young bucks who haven't learned how to spell `fear' yet," he said, "can put a hurting on you sometimes."

Still, he said the older competitors' races were exciting. "I'll tell you," he said, "when you look at them on the grid and they pull their visors down so you can't see the briefcases under their eyes, they look just as fast as the fastest man on the planet."

Driving an uncovered vehicle on a crowded track at more than 100 m.p.h. is not a risk-free endeavor, and even these relatively mellowed drivers (whom some of the younger competitors laughingly dismissed as Super Grandpas) have their share of accidents. Last month, at a ProMoto event at the Texas Motor Speedway in Dallas, two over-34 drivers had collisions after developing mechanical problems with their karts. The drivers sustained concussions in the separate incidents and had to be airlifted by helicopter to a hospital.

"You'd think in our group, we'd be a little bit calm and less aggressive," said John Spindler, a 43-year-old furniture manufacturer and designer from Ottawa. "For us, it's the spirit of competition. It's fun."

Mr. Kindhart ended up having a good weekend at BeaveRun. Not only did he win the Saturday finals, he won the Sunday race as well, taking the lead when Mr. Carter's rear brakes went out and sent him into the dirt for a few precious seconds. The victories gave Mr. Kindhart the Eastern championship and put him in a good position to take the nationals in Norman.

But it seems success only sharpened the old desire. Now Mr. Kindhart is looking beyond shifter karts, hoping for a chance to drive cars in an entry-level open-wheel circuit, like a Formula Mazda or Fran-Am series, and sending out his résumé to potential sponsors.

"That's what I'm shooting for," he said, even as he acknowledged it would not be easy to scare up the necessary money. "It's hard to get something going."