Morning Coffee: Friday – April 29

Pushing To The Next Level

As I sit at the desk in my hotel room, just before the start of official practice for the seventh running of the Superkarts! USA SpringNationals, I can’t help but think about the fact that national-level karting is on the verge of being able to finally move to the next level.  During my 20 years as a journalist in this sport, I’ve watched the rise and fall of several national programs that during their time were pushing national level karting to new heights.  And therein lies the problem, because for some reason, both the karting industry and its community have a penchant for trying to destroy those who find success in our sport.  I’ve watched every emerging series get beat down by its own racers and team owners, normally due to the fact that they believed that the organization was getting too strong, too cocky, too powerful or too ‘rich’, as if they knew anything about the true financial bottom line of managing that particular program.  This is something that needs to stop, if we ever want karting to be more than it is today.

This particular Morning Coffee column is simply a ‘call to action’. It’s a call for support of our sport, so that we may finally see the benefits of the hard work that is being put it by organizations, promoters, race teams, shops and our racers, themselves.

Currently, Superkarts! USA is on-deck and primed to take our sport to the next level, and I’m crossing my fingers that we won’t crush the next potential advancement because we’re worried about the balance of perceived power.  SKUSA v2016 is solidifying the sport, locking in the technical specs, investing aggressively in true television coverage that is putting the sport in front of the masses, and they’re putting on some of the best races in the country. We all sit back and say that we want well-run events, big numbers, and TV….well, we have it, this weekend in Phoenix at the SpringNationals, the opening round of the 2016 SKUSA Pro Tour.  We have a top-notch national crew that’s been together for many years, over 250 drivers in the paddock and coverage on the CBS Sport Network.

Ironically, the negative trend of destroying our own, which I’ve painfully watched and endured for years, started with SKUSA’s push of the growing shifterkart phenomenon in 1998 and 1999.  The Jim Murley-lead SKUSA ProMoto Tour most certainly took national karting to the next level, as did the first years of the SuperNationals in the late 1990s and early 2000s.  The numbers were growing, races were being taped for TV and the events were exciting and well-run.  Everything we needed, right?  For some reason, this was not the case in the end. It was not enough.  Internal strife between SKUSA and the team and shop owners caused a rupture that opened the door for the arrival of the well-funded Stars of Karting program, and their focus on the CIK classes like ICC, ICA and JICA found many supporters.  All the air was taken out of SKUSA’s sails and their momentum collapsed. Sadly, when the Stars of Karting finally emerged as the firm successor after a two-year battle, the sport spent a couple years just trying to get back to where SKUSA was in 2002.  Momentum gone, years lost. One step up and two steps back.  It was our own version of the CART-IRL disaster that still haunts in the IndyCar series.  The Stars of Karting would flourish after a couple of years, with the industry behind it, and they too finally brought back TV, they had the numbers, and it appeared that they may have been able to take us to the promised land.  But, like SKUSA before them, it would not last.

The Stars of Karting’s Paul Zalud would eventually suffer the same fate as Jim Murley, having his motives questioned by his own paddock, beat down for on-track decisions by his staff, and then second-guessed for his ability to actually make money from the significant sponsors that the series attracted to market to the growing entry numbers that flocked to the well-run program.  When Zalud attempted to remove himself from the sport, the sale of the Stars of Karting program to new owners fell through and the Championship Karting International (CKI) program broke cover soon after and assumed the former SoK dates.  For all intents and purposes, the series just changed its colors, albeit with new ownership.  The inherent problems remained, such as the pending move from the beloved ICA and JICA program to the new KF formula, which would face its own problems.  Once again, karting took three steps backwards; TV was gone, the numbers decreased, and where we were once on the verge of flirting with rising to the level of a mainstream extreme sport with TV coverage, we found ourselves with no national circuit at all.

After a couple years in hiatus, cue the return of SKUSA in 2010 with Tom Kutscher and his staff launching the Pro Tour. A recovery effort was finally in place.  However, we were essentially back to square one, back where we were in 1999. The first SKUSA SpringNationals at Sonoma drew just over 100 entries, very similar to what Jim Murley pulled back in 1999.

Fast forward to this weekend, and over 260 drivers are expected for the seventh running of the SpringNationals, as SKUSA has worked continuously to evolve their program little by little, with sustainable improvements.  They dialed in their tech package and spec equipment, they focused on three strong events culminating in the biggest race of all, the SuperNationals, and their dropping north of $150,000 on a television package that is designed to introduce the sport to countless people through the CBS Sports Network shows.  Again, we’re on the verge.

I’ve written many article centered on our need to focus on the growth of the foundation: club racing.  Thankfully, I see this in play all over the country.  But, I also have great optimism for the future of our sport thanks to the many strong winter and regional series that are bringing racers together for thrilling competition.  The Florida Winter Tour and Challenge of the Americas are giving opportunities for people to race in the off-season.  The United States Pro Kart Series remains incredibly strong and well-supported and the WKA Manufacturers Cup is on a comeback.  The F Series Gearup Challenge is enjoying continued momentum and is solidifying regional racing in the Northeast.  Likewise, the SKUSA California ProKart Challenge is having a banner year as well in the Southwest with the Can-Am Karting Challenge set to begin in May.  This is all good stuff.  We have a growing wave of grassroots support centered around the Briggs 206, regional racing his strong all over the country and SKUSA is now promoting the biggest national series the country has seen during my 20 years in the sport.

So, when I look at what SKUSA is doing with the Pro Tour, I simply hope that the growth and momentum that they have heading into 2016 will be supported and not judged.  I hope that this will be the wave that takes us into unchartered waters, where we finally draw the interest and eyes of mainstream motorsports, and potentially the extreme sport commercial product manufacturers that could position karting in a new light.  I’ve watched karting destroy the best thing it has had going on more than one occasion.  Sooner or later, my wish is that we’ll get out of our own way and let our sport soar to new heights.

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