Morning Coffee: Friday, May 6

A Major Rethink To Bringing Back Racecraft

Meetings before on-track sessions were a major part of the SKUSA SpringNationals weekend (Photo: On Track Promotions - otp.ca)

The sport of karting has evolved a great deal through its 60 years of existence, but the overall approach to competition may have changed the most over the last five years alone, especially at the national level.  This unique segment of our world is now characterized by pro-level transport truck haulers and toterhomes, unlimited testing, and full-time driver coaches.  So, with all this ‘coaching’, why is the on-track racing so ridiculously bad right now?  Why are so many starts complete wreckfests, and why can’t drivers stay out of the rear bumper of the competitor ahead of them? Why are organizers being forced to push their race directing staff to be heavy on penalties to change the racing, and why do they need more and more officials and corners workers to keep an eye on the racing all the way through the pack.  When did quality racecraft get exchanged for full contact sport?  How did these drivers develop the belief that driving into someone to gain is position is acceptable?  I know that in my mind, based on my high regard for racecraft, it’s not something I would ever do deliberately.  When did this change?

This past weekend at the Superkarts! USA SpringNationals in Phoenix, we saw another rough event in terms of an over-abundance of contact and poor on-track conduct.  I will submit that the characteristics of the track run in the counter-clockwise direction made that a very poor decision, and that passing was incredibly difficult, but that is still not an excuse to drive like an idiot.  I’ve communicated with many racers, parents and industry members over the last four days, discussing the lack of penalty calls despite the vocal threat of action, the complete lack of quality racecraft and, interestingly, because it as offered by a highly-respected industry member, the concept of penalizing not only the drivers but the teams and coaches as well.   It’s very apparent that everyone wants something to be done to raise the quality of the racing.

Let’s start with the officiating that we saw last weekend.

It’s all bark and no bite.”

“They didn’t call anything.”

Starts are the responsibility of the driver, not how the officials conduct the event (Photo: EKN)

Starts are the responsibility of the driver, not how the officials conduct the event (Photo: EKN)

These are just two of the numerous comments I was presented with this week, but I heard them from many people.  Everyone has an opinion based on his or her own experiences, while mine comes from surveying the situation from the tower, and from a place void of any favoritism or personal connection.  I just call it as I see it, so here’s my take.  As you probably know, I announce the races from the tower alongside Timing and Scoring, so I am privy to the radio communication between officials.  I can tell you that I heard countless calls from the Race Director requesting position penalties for avoidable contact throughout the weekend.  These penalties are listed on the results that are posted after each session, but they’re not announced on the PA, which likely takes a little sting out of the lesson.  Were there penalties?  Yes, lots of them.  Were there enough?  Not even close.

What this group of drivers needs right now is a weekend where they are penalized so aggressively that they’ll learn their lesson and so that a new day will begin.  If I were in charge, I’d put eight people in turn one with notebooks and order them to drop a 10-position penalty on anyone who touches the rear bumper of the driver in front of him.  In addition, if a competitor does not raise his or her hand and slow visibly coming through a waving yellow flag corner, it’s a 10-position penalty.  It’s time to drop a sledgehammer on these drivers, because things are out of control.  If we want to put an emphasis back on quality racecraft, we need to completely eradicate what poses as ‘racing’ right now.  Thankfully, the front of the fields in S1, S4 and X30 Master are providing a quality example of how to get it done. It’s a little rough around the edges at times, but we can chalk that up to hardcore racing.  X30 Senior was pretty decent at the front, but from outside the top-10 backwards, it’s ugly.  The Junior, Mini and Micro classes were embarrassing.

So, if racecraft is becoming more and more non-existent, where do we focus the attention?

Here’s a little example of part of the problem. I was detailed over the weekend on a particular post-session dialogue between an official and a father and son that blew me away.  The driver had ignored three black flags during a practice session, and not surprisingly, this prompted a discussion with the Race Director.  In this conversation, the driver was asked why he ignored the flags, and he looked straight at his father and said “but Dad, you told be to ignore the black flag and keep going!”

Really?  Is this where we are?  If you’re a parent who is teaching this to your son or daughter, what are you doing? What, on earth, could you be trying to accomplish?

Proper coaching can help eliminate some of the issues we are seeing at the national level (Photo: On Track Promotions - otp.ca)

Proper coaching can help eliminate some of the issues we are seeing at the national level (Photo: On Track Promotions – otp.ca)

I’ve heard so many stories from officials, and other parents, on pit lane who have overheard other parents and coaches firing up their drivers, telling them to actually push their way to the front.  They’re being told to keep the throttle down after the green heading into the opening corner, or “knock the guy out of the way”.  This epidemic of poor racecraft is starting somewhere, and as I think any parent knows, it starts at home.  It starts in the team tent.  Team owners and coaches need to be teaching quality racecraft, the purity of the sport, and learning how to make contact-free passes.

Folks, here’s the harsh reality.  In terms of your success at this level of the sport, nobody in pro car racing cares if you win.  All they care about is that you graduate from karting with quality racecraft….and have a big enough budget to support a program at that level.  That is the cold hard truth.  If your son or daughter wins karting events by smashing and bashing their way to the front, you’ll be paying for a ton of crash damage in open wheel formula car racing.  That’s just a little heads-up from me, and I spend lots of time at that level of competition.

If a coach is teaching a driver to race with contact and excessive aggression, I can tell you that they are only hurting this racer’s chance at success if they are planning a move to open wheel formula car racing. If the driver wants to become a professional, they need to be taught racecraft and how to pass without contact, not with it.  If a karter were to drive in the USF2000 series of the Mazda Road to Indy, like they did in Phoenix, their crash damage bill would be over $50,000 after the first weekend.  There is zero room for contact in any open wheel racing, so why is anyone teaching it?

Much of the discussion I’ve had this week centered on the lack of penalties and the severity of those that were actually issued.  Maybe it’s time to strike even deeper.  I completely agree that more penalties need to be issued, and as I detailed above, let’s stop beating around the bush and let’s drop that hammer.  But, if we want to truly change the quality of our racing, is it time to penalize the source as well?  It was suggested by a few this week that we add monetary fines on the parents and coaches.  I think this is a very interesting idea.  Coaches and tuners are paid daily salaries plus expenses.  Maybe hitting them where it hurts, in the wallet, will curb them from instructing their pilots to drive like they do.  Right now, there is no recourse.  The parents demand results, and the pressure is high on everyone involved, but if the penalties struck deeper then just on-track and extended into the team tent, maybe we’d see a shift in the quality of the racing were exposed to at this time.

There’s a major issue with national level racecraft, so maybe the sport needs a major change to turn the tide.

20 thoughts on “Morning Coffee: Friday, May 6

  1. I can’t possibly agree more….

  2. What if you used something like paint balls on the front of the karts where the rule is if you burst your paint ball you get the black flag?

  3. Rob, you can’t fix stupid. Your article shows the problem: The top-10 in the fastest adult classes have figured out that you DON’T win by bashing other karts. It’s basic physics–every time you hit another object you lose momentum by transferring energy to the other object. Lost momentum means you’re going slower. Sure, once and a while the other driver loses control and you gain a position but most of the time the loser will be you (and your wallet).
    As for the kid classes, no matter what the sport there’s always a group of psycho little league parents who scream, argue and will do anything to win as they live vicariously through their victim children. I don’t think there is fix for this.

  4. Great read Rob,
    I would like to share what is done in the org we race in now.
    In the event of contract you are required to fill out a contact form within 30 mins. If you fail to file paper you lose any defense and penalized.
    Video is mandatory and is reviewed after contact, no video=no argument. Race Director then assess points (as well as penalties) if a driver reaches 10 points (in 12 months) you are suspended. Even if you were hit from behind you may get 1 point (the offending driver will get more) the thought in that if you keep getting hit you may be part of the problem.
    They also fine you $$$ for certain infractions and when you go to register for the next event it must be paid or you don’t race.
    This doesn’t fix bad driving but it works pretty well.

    Just some input from the outside.

  5. Jim,

    I think there is a fix for everything. Try something….if it doesn’t work, try something else. If that doesn’t work, try something else. Each failure is at the very least a learning experience. Honestly, I think it could be cleaned up with one overly-aggressive weekend of harsh penalties by the officiating staff.

    It could also be fixed by taking off the full-width rear bumpers, but that’s not going to happen any time soon.

  6. The full width rear bumpers were a bad answer to the lack of common sense and racecraft by drivers, parents and hired coaches, who spent way too much money on karting because they thought it would take them to a pro racing career. The result was an even worse problem because now overaggressive behavior had fewer consequences. Now they have another bad idea, to follow all the previous bad ideas, which is the drop down nosecone. The simple problem is that karting has drawn too much attention as the “Road to the Bigtime”, and that has caused people to behave stupidly. And for those that know they’ll never make it, karting is their own little Super Bowl and they try to win at all costs. We can add all the little pieces of plastic and steel we want to the karts, but all that does is make them heavier and more costly. Until we change people’s attitudes, the racing will not change. I’ve personally witnessed a driver coach on the grid telling one of his drivers to wreck their way to the front if necessary. This same driver was also a minor (racing in the Sr. classes) and was told that if you punt someone on the track and he touches you at the scale line, you tell me and I’ll have him ejected because you are a minor. I won’t name him, but this driver was on the SKUSA podium in a junior class last year, so this isn’t just a thing further back in the pack, its some of the front runners too. This is simply unacceptable behavior by anyone. If you’re going to drive like an a-hole, then expect to be confronted at the scales. If you can’t get out of your kart and shake hands with the rest of your competitors at the end of the day, then no one wants to race with you, stay home.

    Another issue is the weak penalties. The penalty needs to fit the crime. You punt a guy and end his day, you finish behind him. You punt a guy and he comes back to finish ahead of you, you still get a 2 position penalty, regardless of where either of you finish. There is no such thing as an incident “taking care of itself”.

    And to Rob’s point about announcing penalties…I have harped about this forever, because if you don’t announce it, it never happened. At Route 66, I announce them all, and it adds integrity to the series. People actually realize that something is being done, and that there are consequences. Are we perfect, nope, but at least we do something about it and make sure everyone knows it. Every series needs to announce the penalties so that they act as a real deterrent, period.

  7. “Discussion” “questions ” after ignoring a black flag?
    Turn in your transponder is the response to that. If my son ignores a black flag, you won’t be able to find him to ask him questions.

  8. Tim, I like the idea of announcing all penalties. As far as an incident “taking care of itself” or “penalty served”, I’ve heard that several times as well… and usually it’s used in place of avoidable contact because the lead driver didn’t lose a position, but the offender usually did. I disagree with this also. If you make avoidable contact you should be penalized. Period. It may seem harsh on the surface, but as Rob mentioned it fosters an environment of contact and aggressive driving.

  9. require front and rear facing cameras. Don’t produce footage, automatic penalty.

    Organizations would need to have a full time video guy with the right equipment to quickly find the action and then produce an edited version for the race director (etc) to review.

    World Challenge does this. (basically).

    Due to the nature of karting (high grip, massive brakes, low weight, etc) there will always be contact because the racing is so close. But shoving people out of the way should not be tolerated, period.

  10. Let’s get one thing very clear 1st….Professional Drivers…in karting there are a few, just because you enter a pro race does not make you a Pro, a professional racer understands race craft. If a series is going to let anyone enter these races without any qualified racecraft training, the outcome will always be the same, when some one enters and their 1st experience of a “start” or “black flag” etc is on race day..
    Myself and our group work very hard to train our drivers, and even hold them back a little longer, to have more experience with club racing,or pratice a proper pass.
    I also think you hit the nail on the head with the parents, I see more times than not a parent tell the driver to push up to front quick or you will be held back. I am the parent of a junior driver, and when he gets ” taken out” from behind I don’t blame other driver in front of my son, I tell my son he has to drive faster, so he doesn’t get caught, or give up the position and get it back later (if not in 1st)
    the penalties should be harsh for unsafe racing, but the series and clubs should also work together to aid in driver Development, like they do in all other sports…you know the ones you can’t just say “I am a pro” and compete in on a weekend.otherwise NHL/NFL/MLB & F1…Here I come….

  11. The Drop Down front nose has been a great help to making racing better in Europe. I was originally completely against this concept but I’ve changed my opinion after seeing many of the races there. I believe the bumper will be a step in the right direction that could have an immediate positive effect.

  12. I also believe that black flagging a driver for contact is not the right call. Sort it out after the checker – there may be another side to a story once things are settled down or further information is given. No other form of racing that I know of black flags a driver out of the race for an infraction. A penalty after the fact will always be the better choice.

  13. My kid is a gentle passer. It actually holds him back in national events where his speed is fine but others bang him out of the way while he waits to make a clean pass. I am always walking the fine line of teaching him to be more aggressive vs racing clean. He races clean by nature, but the reality is he needs to get a little dirty to compete nationally in Cadet with the current state of things. No two ways about it. I hope things do change to the contrary though. Penalizing tuners and coaches monetarily will not change anything. Any parents that are paying for tuners and coaches are able to pay fines too. It will only hurt the rest of us schlepps.

  14. With all the plastic used for safety it breeds the thought of contact be a no problem incident. Before plastic bumper, side pods and nerf bars if you hit someone you could be hurt so it was avoided, now with these products for safety you don`t have to worry about breaking an ankle cause you went into someone. There will always be some contact but with not having to worry as much there will be more, sometimes the new things to make something better have bad side effects, just the opinion of an old karter.

  15. The easiest way to cure the problem is to do away with those full contact rear bumpers and the full front battering ram. After a few karts go airborne from real wheel to wheel contact the problem will fix it’s self.
    If you gave the Indy cars full contact bumpers that were as strong as what we have on the karts, they too would be bumping and shoving.
    Watch NASCAR. Bumping to move a guy out of your way is a way of life there. That is what is to be expected when a driver has the equipment to push and shove his way through traffic. Take away that equipment and fix the problem. THEN the drivers will learn momentum and how to pass clean.

  16. Go back to the basic’s — four number panels and little side nerf bar’s — get rid of all the BS that has been added in the name of safety — it is not safer as it has made the drivers fearless and they drive like the karts are bumper-cars.

  17. Could you make an example of the best drivers by rewarding them with video coverage for positive reinforcement? Make it an honor to carry the organizations video camera for most clean passes.

    It is great to see racers coming up with good ideas because it will solve the problem. Every racer and his supporters should be asked to contribute to the solutions, giving everyone a vested interest in the multiple ideas that make it better. Karting is evolving and will require updates as things change.
    The article is well written and the responses are honest heartfelt.

  18. So far I think Matt has identified the most practical solution. Nothing will be perfect–even in F1 someone almost always whines when a penalty comes down.
    I’ve gotta disagree with the notion that taking away bumpers and nerd bars is any kind of fix. That logic would dictate that racing would be safer if we got rid of helmets and safety suits. As Jordan mentioned, the nature of these beasts means there will be contact. I’ll tolerate several races where I end up with black marks on my side pods or a couple lost positions, in preference to the race where another kart climbs over or drives through me with no protection between me and that kart.
    Not all contact is deliberate or avoidable: Last year I had a kart drive over my radiator and wind up on top of me because its throttle stuck open and he t-boned me.

  19. While there are good things posted here about the current state of racecraft, or lack there of, this isn’t a equipment problem, this is a “lack of respect” for your fellow racer problem.

    You might not like the guy in front of you, or three spots in front of you, but you should respect and race that person in a manner that is clean, and in a manner in which you would like to be raced.

    My local club and regional series I run, all stress respect, in drivers meetings, and the scale lines.

    Do things get heated…….absolutely, but coming back and just punting your way through the field is no way to solve it, or “get even”.

    I’ll also add that once the bar has been set as to what will and or won’t be called, you have just built the frame work for rough and bad driving, or good hard clean racing. It’s up to the race director.

    We also have to remember that race directors can be put into a tough spot with having to make calls, and racers etc need to understand that the call was made, and it might not have gone their way, that doesn’t mean that the next three calls won’t.

    I watched Tom park an entire field of tag senior drivers in Vegas a few years ago because of the rough driving and two red flags. When our driver came back after, his response was “I would have done the same thing, it was stupid out there”

  20. The more global issue is that without any national licensing program, or orgs. talking to each other, someone can leave a SKUSA event (for example) and go cause mayhem with WKA, Rotax, USPKS, etc. In a couple of instances where an org. has banned a driver for fighting, for instance, we at Rock Island have tried to support that organization by not letting them race here. But often we may not even hear about it.

    With so many series in the country, does it really matter to that driver if they are disciplined? They can easily race somewhere else. Great piece and good discussion!!

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