EKN Driver Diary: TJ Koyen – Midwest Indoor Nationals
Playing in the dirt for veteran sprint kart racer from Wisconsin
eKartingNews.com has a number of loyal and helpful members of the EKN Community on the Forums. TJ Koyen is one of them. The son of KartLift and DeepSeat owner Tim Koyen, TJ is the owner of Oktane Visual and has been karting for 13 years. Koyen has raced from club, regional to the national level in sprint karting, and was an annual EKN TaG Driver Rankings Top-50 driver. TJ had the opportunity to compete for the first time in a dirt oval kart at the recent Midwest Indoor Nationals in Du Quoin, Illinois. He was able to give us his first-person viewpoint of going from a sprint kart background to his first dirt oval experience.
Here in the Midwest, our racing off-season is brutal. Typically, it begins somewhere around October, when karts begin kicking up fallen leaves around the circuit, and it ends whenever the snowfall stops for the year and the tundra begins to thaw back out. Personally, I had gone several months without sitting in a kart seat and cabin fever was starting to set in. So a couple months ago when my good friend and Octane Visual customer Mike Cromwell offered me a chance to go racing a few weeks earlier than usual, so I of course jumped at the opportunity. There was only one catch; the race in question was the Midwest Indoor Nationals, a major dirt oval karting event that Mike was promoting. I had never even been to a dirt kart race, let alone driven in one, but it doesn’t matter. If it’s a road course or oval, I want to drive. So I graciously accepted his offer.
Friday morning, March 11, I had packed my gear bag with my fancy glitter and pink custom helmet, my custom fitted suit, and gold race boots, hoping to stand out as much as possible. The race was taking place at the Du Quoin Fairgrounds in Du Quoin, IL so I had over six hours of driving time ahead of me. I arrived at the beautiful Southern Illinois Center about two hours before practice began at 5pm so I could get all setup and get my kart scaled. My ride for the weekend was courtesy of the fantastic Hobson family. John Hobson is one of Mike Cromwell’s good friends, and assisted in promoting the event. He and his son Tony, who would be racing that weekend as well, have been dirt kart racing for years and brought a lot of skill and experience to the table. When I arrived, they had my kart set up in their pit area with everything ready to go. I just needed to bolt wheels and my engine on. My steed was an Avenger chassis, which I was told was around 12 years old. Coming from sprint racing where a chassis can be worn out in 12 races, I was a bit skeptical but John promised that the kart was fast and would work great. After getting the clone engine mounted with some help from the other guys John had pitting with him, we tossed wheels and some fresh Hoosier tires on and went out for my first practice session.
As I sat on the grid waiting to go out, I was immediately aware that I was totally out of my element and completely uncomfortable in the kart. The driving posture, where I was laying down with the engine’s header literally inches from my head, my hands on top of the wheel and my elbows cramped in rubbing against the engine, was all completely foreign to me and I couldn’t help but try and pull myself up in the seat the entire first session. All the stagger from the different sized tires made the kart pull hard to the left, and I had to have the wheel pointed right on the straights to keep the kart going straight ahead. I had no reference to where the nose of the kart was, since I couldn’t see over the steering wheel and the huge fiberglass nose encased my legs. The first session ended up going okay, I didn’t crash or spin, but it was taking me a while to get used to everything, and the kart handled like I was driving on ice.
When I came in, I relayed all this to John, and he simply replied in his southern drawl that the kart wasn’t even setup yet and the tires weren’t properly treated. He just wanted to get a heat cycle on them first before we started really working. After that, it got more bizarre, because I had to take the wheels off the kart and wash all the dirt off so we could start applying tire prep. I kept joking all weekend that in sprint racing, you get your tires and the officials tell you not to mess with them. Put them on your kart and set the pressures. In dirt racing, all you do is mess with tires. John applied what he thought was going to be the best prep for the ever-changing dirt conditions, played with the independent caster and camber on the front end, and we waited for our next session.
Once I got on the track for practice two, I started having fun. The kart had come to life, just as John had promised it would. The track had started to pack down and dry out a bit, and I was pleasantly surprised at how much grip the dirt actually had. We came off the track, cleaned the dirt off the tires, reapplied prep, and repeated this process a few more times until the end of the practice day. It was very interesting seeing the track change so much. We talk about keeping up with the track in sprint racing, but this was a whole new level. The surface went from tacky mud to dry, slick, rubbered-in dust, which was nearly on par with the grip you would see on an asphalt track by the end of the night. Each condition required a different type of tire treatment or air pressure adjustment. The open tire rule meant you could change tires virtually whenever you wanted, to nearly whatever tire you wanted. We made almost no chassis adjustments throughout the night, just tire adjustments. My confidence was growing and I was excited to get out on track and start doing some timed sessions on Saturday.
The race day activities kicked off early Saturday, with a very full schedule of classes and races to run. We got one practice session in the morning, followed by heats, qualifying, last chance races, B-mains, and finals. Mike had entered me in the Adult 340 class, which as the name suggests, runs a clone engine with a minimum kart/driver weight of 340lbs. He had also entered me in the Pro 365 class, which was the same engine setup, just with 25 pounds of weight added and a big paycheck for the winner. The Pro classes ran qualifying sessions, where three karts went out on the track at a time for three timed laps, and then the next three went out and so on. The non-Pro classes would run heat races with starting positions determined by a random draw.
My first event would be the Adult 340 heat race. I was feeling pretty confident that I would do okay, but I didn’t really have a chance to race wheel-to-wheel with anyone in practice so I would be learning as I went. I would be starting inside row five and I quickly learned that oval racing is a little more aggressive than sprint racing. Immediately on the start I was shoved aside, nearly spinning, before gathering the kart back up and falling to the back. From there I recomposed myself and focused on going forward. The kart actually was handling well and I was able to make up a few positions as I settled into a rhythm. Unfortunately, the heats were only 8 laps long, and on a 10 second track, that doesn’t give you much time to recover from an incident. I ended up fifth, just missing the transfer spot by one position. This meant I would be running the LCQ later in the night. When we got back to the pits, we reviewed the MyChron data and to my surprise, I was only a tenth off the leaders. That included my teammate, Tony Hobson, who had finished high enough to transfer to the main in that heat. I was happy with the kart so we didn’t make any changes and prepped the tires for the Pro 365 qualifying session.
There was a lot of downtime between sessions since there were many heats races and lots of yellow flags, which meant 8 laps took a long time in some cases. I tried to watch and study every class that went out, just to learn as much as I could. The racing was aggressive and fast-paced. Multiple passes and re-passes took place every lap, and there was no shortage of contact. With one fast racing line around the bottom of the circuit, it was a matter of moving your opponent off that line to complete the pass. I was getting pretty comfortable in the kart now and was finally getting the hang of the racing etiquette so I had more confidence going into qualifying. I rolled off 58th of 65 karts in the stacked Pro 365 class. I was feeling good about my chances considering the pace I had shown in the previous heat, but when I rolled onto the track for my three laps, I choked a little bit. My first lap I overdrove turn one, putting me up into the marbles and ruining that lap. Lap two, I drove a little conservatively and banked a clean lap, but I knew the kart had more in it so again I tried to push on lap 3 and overdrove that one as well, nearly putting myself into the wall off the corner. I was disappointed with my effort, and even more so when I checked the times and I saw I ended up P56. The times were incredibly close. Just a few tenths covered the top half of the field. My 11.2 lap time was quite a ways off the 10.3 fast time and I knew we had work to do. John decided to try a different tire prep and make some slight chassis adjustments to get the kart to be more free for the 340 LCQ, which was next.
I started the LCQ race in 11th place and needed a top-four finish to transfer to the final event. It would be tough, especially in just eight laps, but as soon as the flag dropped, I knew we had a super strong kart. John’s adjustments put the kart on rails, and I was working through traffic with ease. Turning my best laps of the weekend, I was able to charge forward to fifth place and was closing on the fourth spot. Unfortunately, I simply ran out of time and missed the transfer by one position. I couldn’t help but be all smiles coming off the track though, and neither could John or the rest of the crew. We were all so stoked at how fast we were and they were impressed how I was able to come through the field like I did. It was the most fun I had ever had while not making a race. And we had a good setup direction for the 365 heat races Tony and I would be contesting next.
We decided to use a different set of tires – used with a softer compound – to try and keep up with the track for my heat race, and used the same setup info we gathered from my LCQ. I would line up last for my heat because of my poor qualifying effort. The transfers were a little different for this race. I needed a top-three finish to move onto the LCQ, which then I would need to transfer out of to go on to the final.
From the drop of the green flag though, I was making good progress and starting the climb forward. The kart wasn’t quite as dialed in as it had been before, but it had good balance and was very comfortable. I had worked up to fifth before getting bumped up out of the groove. I got into the marbles and couldn’t save the kart from spinning into the wall. I backed it into the barrier, and tried to get going immediately again. The caution didn’t come out and as I got going, the leaders were coming up on my fast. In turn one, I tried to stay out of the way, but ended up getting into the marbles again, resulting in another slightly embarrassing spin into the barriers, which got me stuck in the hay bales and drew a caution. The kart had no damage, but my pride was a little sore. I had made it all weekend without a single spin or incident. I wasn’t sure if I was a lap down or not, so I soldiered on when the green came back out, making up one position to finish sixth.
My chances of making the final had evaporated and just like that, I was done racing for the weekend. One positive thing was that although the kart wasn’t handling so great, both Tony and I echoed the same feelings of our karts lacking grip and not digging into the track, and that gave me some confidence that I had gotten the hang of this dirt driving thing and I knew what I was talking about. We got back to the pits and I cleaned up my kart and tires. By this time, the evening’s events had run into the night, and it was about 11:00pm. I was exhausted and had a long day, but there was a lot of racing left to do for those who had made the finals. I wanted to stay around and watch Tony’s races, but I was ready to fall asleep and I knew it would be hours before they got done. I learned the next morning that racing had gone past 4am. And you thought the SuperNationals was a long day.
Overall, I was super happy to have gotten the chance to go try this event. The race was organized pretty well and the people were super friendly and everyone was very helpful. There was no ill feelings towards the kid with the pink helmet and fancy suit, who stuck out like a sore thumb in a sea of white Simpson helmets, faded jeans, and karting jackets. John, Tony and all the other guys pitted with them were great hosts and I had a ton of fun working with them.
I learned so much and it was such a challenge to adapt to a totally different style of racing. Everything is opposite of what you do in sprint karting. When driving, you pull the wheel with your inside hand and don’t even use your outside hand, compared to pushing the wheel in a sprint kart. You’re laying down and not using your body to change the kart’s attitude. There are almost no chassis adjustments, just tire prep and compound adjustments. The racing is full contact and almost anything goes. But even with the all the differences, the goal is the same and the people are just as great. Everyone wants to win at the end of the day, but everyone is respectful and friendly and we all just want to race and have fun.
I certainly had a blast and I would like to thank Mike Cromwell and his family and John Hobson and his family for putting on such a fun event and giving me an opportunity to come and play in the dirt for the weekend.