Morning Coffee: Wednesday – July 15

Pre-Event Testing – A Necessity or a Detriment to the Sport?

(Photo: On Track Promotions - otp.ca)

If you’ve been around the sport of karting for an extended period of time, you’ve had the opportunity to watch the evolution of race weekend scheduling. We’ve went from the week-long summer karting festivals that were the old-school, well-attended IKF Grand Nationals to tight two-day events to extended three-day race weekends with Friday practice and now, in some cases, five-day events with unlimited testing. When I started racing in 1995, my kart club rocked and rolled through a five-class Saturday morning schedule in about five hours, running from 8:00 am to 1:00 pm to make room for the rental karts that actually made the track money. It was a seven-day-a-week amusement park when we weren’t enjoying our events, so we couldn’t practice at all. We ran the traditional morning practice, two heat races and a main event each race day; pea-picking for the first race, inverting for the second, and then starting the main based on your accrued points. It’s a basic club racing approach that teaches drivers to pass, and not just run away from the competition each race with blinding speed. For me, I practiced when I raced. That’s what my budget allowed and I was happy as I could be.

But this column isn’t focused on the racing itself, but instead on the amount of practice that drivers are or are not getting, as the case may be. Over the last 20 years, I’ve listened to countless comments and discussions on open practice for major national and regional events. In the late 90s and early 2000s, not many people travelled to tracks to test prior to major cross-country events. The costs, of course, didn’t make a lot of sense. You were essentially doubling your racing budget by testing at a facility across the country. That’s what you did when you tested at home. I remember talking with the top factory and national teams from NorCal, guys like Trackmagic, Leading Edge, KLS Racing and CTS Race Karts, who believed that they could learn everything they needed to by testing at Dixon, the challenging and well-known bullring. Guys who travelled to test at the track early were almost considered to be ‘cheating’, or at the very least using their big budgets to sidestep the spirit and intent of the sport and the paddock community. These days, pre-event testing is not just the norm, it’s considered to be almost required. We complain about the cost of karting, but we’re all OK with doubling travel expenses to get in track time on a surface that will be much different come race time. In the 2000s, events would hold a full practice day on Friday, which was more than enough for most drivers to get a handle on the track. Yes, there was a little home track knowledge, but that was part of the game. If you were located in the right region, the series would eventually run an event in your backyard and you’d have the headstart.

(Photo: On Track Promotions - otp.ca)

(Photo: On Track Promotions – otp.ca)

If we follow the timeline, as teams started to add more and more pre-event testing in the mid-2000s, Paul Zalud’s Snap-On Stars of Karting series made the decision to limit pre-event testing by locking down the track, attempting to close down the facilities for the week leading up to the race. They also signed up for the labor-intensive and cost-heavy approach of running temporary circuit races to help save the teams and drivers from themselves. Zalud invested considerably in making sure his series finales were held on temp circuits, always trying to keep the costs down for racers. During the series’ run in the mid-2000s, we all attended National Finals on temp circuits at Disney World in Orlando, the Woodbine Race Track in Toronto and a couple races on the infield pavement at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Not surprising, this is one of the key benefits that racers love about temporary circuits. They provide a level playing field. This was part of the motivation by former Superkarts! USA president Jim Murley when he took the SuperNationals from the Las Vegas Karting Center in Sloan, NV to the Rio in 2002 and then Sam Boyd Stadium in 2004. The SuperNationals have not been held on a purpose-built track since 2001.

Aside from the temp circuits, the sport’s acceptance of more open testing has been growing over the past 8-10 years. Things started to change when the Florida Winter Tour became a larger part of the sport’s national scene, attracting teams from all over North America. Over the years, under Bill Wright’s leadership, the FWT developed a solid business model, one that was very lucrative for the tracks that supported the series and hosted events. Practice was left wide-open heading into the weekends, as drivers trekked down from the winter climates of the north to get in a week of ‘karting vacation’. There were many drivers who practiced and tested before the FWT event, having not driven since the fall. Once the FWT went to back-to-back weekends, teams would remain at a track for the mid-week days between the races, testing every day. The three-day race weekends from the FWT’s initial years in the late 90s and early 2000’s became essentially two-week-long ordeals.

Regardless of how much testing is actually being made legal and available is one thing, but the real question is just how much testing do drivers actually need. And that’s one of the questions that I’m asking to all of our readers. This isn’t a commentary on what I believe is needed or how I think testing is affecting the sport. It’s merely fueling some discussion so that the different organizations can view the feedback. How much testing is needed for a major national or regional event? Is a full day of testing on the Friday prior to the race weekend enough? Is extending the practice to Thursday AND Friday better for drivers who need to travel into the event? Is it enough to cancel the need for a separate trip? Or…are we giving our racers too much testing? If they’re trying to graduate to cars, I can tell you this…they better not get too used to days and days of on-track testing for an event. In the Mazda Road to Indy, as is the case with all the leading development cars series, track time in very limited. You’ll likely get a couple 30-minute practice sessions ahead of qualifying and two races. If you need a couple days of hardcore testing to get up to speed, you’ll be way behind the eight ball once you get into a car program.

(Photo: On Track Promotions - otp.ca)

(Photo: On Track Promotions – otp.ca)

As I see it, we’re going in the other direction, and I’d love to get the feedback from racers on this trend. What do you guys really want? The new Rotax US Open series extended its program to three days of actual competition, which are preceded by two full days of practice. Superkarts! USA has traditionally locked down the track for a full week before a Pro Tour event and they’ve often run a different track configuration, which was off-limits for a month or so before the race. For the upcoming SummerNationals at New Castle, Thursday practice is now open and is being run by the track. In these competitive times, do these extra practice days help those who are travelling in from long distances? Is it cheaper to add one day of practice to an event in an effort to replace a full trip to the track in the weeks prior to the race? (Editor’s Note: I should have also added in this segment centered on the current approach of the sport’s major series that the USPKS has a note in their rulebook stating that “Testing Monday thru Thursday the week of the event will not be permitted…. Anything outside of a rental kart is not allowed”. This has been the approach by SKUSA as well).

The last component to this argument remains the usefulness of testing a couple weeks before an event, considering the fact that the track will be undoubtedly different once the rubber is laid down by 200+ karts. Is it useless testing? Is it detrimental for a young driver to be given so much time to come up to speed? Or…is the level of competition these days so close that if you don’t test, you just won’t be able to catch up over the two days of Saturday-Sunday competition.

From where I sit, I’m simply struck by the contrast in the mindset from the early 2000s to 2015 karting in North America. The conversations are still similar, however. It’s the same argument as Y2K. Do we restrict testing heading into a race, which keeps costs down but provides an increased home track advantage, or do we open up testing to level the playing field and provide increased revenue for the track and the teams?

A catch-22, for certain.

Your thoughts? Comment below so we can start a meaningful discussion with actual racer input.

Race safe,

Rob Howden
Editor-in-Chief / Publisher
eKartingNews.com

7 thoughts on “Morning Coffee: Wednesday – July 15

  1. Too much practice = increase cost=reduced fields – Route 66’s schedule has the right idea – 3 rounds of practice on Sat and then race -Friday practice just adds to the cost which hurts the smaller teams – and you are correct about other forms of racing – last NASCAR race there was no practice due to weather and it was a good race, Indy car at Milwaukee practice, qualify and race the same day – local short tracks on Sat nite have little or no practice –
    my vote is to limit practice to the day of the event –

  2. More testing is short sighted. It increases revenue for the track and teams, but will burn people out (both time and money).

    No doubt testing on the actual track helps. Is it going to take a 10th place guy and let him win? no. will it take a guy that was battling for first and make him the clear winner? 100%.

    I have plenty of examples of this. One recent one:
    Lennox came over to run the regional race at DKC before the spring nats last year. he won, of course. he is a professional driver and very good. However, he didnt destroy the regional field in S1. He won, yes.

    fast forward to the spring nats.. after extensive testing, he absolutely destroyed the national level drivers. It was pretty awesome to watch him beat a field of such talented drivers so easily.

    How do you fix it? dunno. Dont allow testing for 30 days prior? the guys with the money/time will show up days 32 and 31. I do think that is better than what is going on now though.

    I have personal experience with both of the scenarios as well.

  3. You guys are presenting two different voices from two different places in the sport, and they are equally valid. As Jordon states, you’re not going to stop someone with a big budget from testing if they want to, because they’ll be there before the ban starts to get their track time in. The approach of running a special race or regional race the weekend before the national is also being done, which attracts drivers and helps with the regional series. When it comes to a regional program like the Route 66 series, you can limit testing and practice time, because it is a true regional series that draws from a tighter sphere of competition (ie. local clubs).

    Jordon, or anyone else, what are you thoughts on adding a Thursday practice to big national races. Many believe that you should be able to learn a track in a day, but for those who want more, would having two full days of official practice put an end of most of the pre-event testing?

  4. I’ll respond first to the point of track conditions not being equal to race conditions on the weekend of the national event. This is 100% true, to a certain extent. By that what I mean is it depends on what is being promoted at that track approximately one month before the race. I say a month because you have to draw a line somewhere to have some basis for argument.

    If you are promoting a regional or local race or any other kind of race on the host track with the same configuration being run, then you are basically telling those drivers that compete in the top 5 of any class that you need to come out for that race if you want a shot at winning. Why? Because you can pretty much guaranty that at least 2 of the top 5 drivers will be there and if you don’t you are already behind when you show up. Reason being any race like that will attract enough karts to get grip levels close enough to national level conditions. Maybe not exact, but close enough to be useful.

    That being said, if there is no organized effort for a large group of karts to be on track at any one given time before a big race it for sure diminishes the usefulness of testing there before the race. I personally would never show up to test beforehand if there were no race to show up to in order to simulate grip levels.

    Sure, you will have people that arrive and do independent testing, but as David was leading to how useful is that really? It will only help those that are still working their way up through the national field because they are still learning and getting experience. And that’s great.

    There is no perfect system that is for sure. But if I had a chance to design my own format, this is what it would look like.

    Thursday-Friday Practice
    Sat-Sun Racing
    No control on what races do/don’t happen for 35 days before the race other than configuration. Any race 30 days before must either run backwards, or a completely different configuration.

    It’s not perfect, but at least it should satisfy most peoples urge for extra testing. If you can’t figure it out in 2 days then you’re in trouble anyway. One day should be enough, but two days you have no excuses.

  5. Of course the other problem is time off school –

    • I think one full day on Friday is plenty with races on Saturday and Sunday. I think USPKS and Skusa, prior to this spring national, have it right. All this week long practice is way too expensive and pulling kids out of school for most or all of a week is crazy, even though we’ve done it in the past. Driving people out of the sport and won’t survive on the wealthy few. Show up prepared and with a plan.

  6. As a racer I would say friday only is enough. If I put on a track operator hat I realize that the small rents that the large series pay to tracks is barely enough to cover costs particularly if they are demanding facility upgrades and such. The money made by the tracks is in the practice and trust me it is not a lot. If practice revenue is cut off from the track then the promoters need to offer the local hosts something extra, such as a cut of entries, walk up pit pass sales etc. It would give the local clubs and shops to encourage their racers to run the event. Currently to model does not encouraged the participation, actually just the opposite. the series sells the tires and fuel to the racers so the local shops wont sell that stuff even to the locals. The local racers end up spending a mint to run the big event and then have a financial hangover and miss the next two or three club races, or decide that they want the big show excitement and are now above the club racing and move on (this does happen).

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