EKN One-on-One: Michael Burrell – USAC Karting
Long-time motorsports sanctioning body diving in with two major karting events for 2017
The USAC name has been a big part of the motorsports industry since 1956. The United States Auto Club is one of the sanctioning bodies of auto racing in the United States, and a founding member of the Automobile Competition Committee for the United States (ACCUS). USAC is known widely as the sanctioning body for open wheel racing, including IndyCar, Silver Crown Series, Sprint Car, Midget and Quarter Midget. In 2017, USAC also became the sanctioning body for the F1600, F2000 and Atlantic Championships, and has formed a karting division to host events.
Leading the USAC Karting division is long-time kart racer and industry member Michael Burrell. The Indiana native has enjoyed a long career around motorsports and karting, and is looking to bring USAC into the karting scene in 2017. The two major events scheduled under the USAC calendar include the inaugural ‘Battle at the Brickyard’ in July and with the rejuvenation of the Elkhart Grand Prix in August.
As he and USAC prepare for the 2017, we tracked down Burrell to get some insight as to what will happen with both events.
eKartingNews.com: It has been just over a month since the announcement of karts joining the ‘Battle at the Brickyard’ event at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. What has the overall feedback been from the karting community and those surrounding the USAC organization?
Michael Burrell: Overall, the feedback from karters has been awesome. I’ve heard from karters coast-to-coast and from Canada who have told me their personal Indy dreams and stories, and they’ve said they’re coming. And I’ve heard from karters who haven’t raced in years, but are returning to the sport primarily to prepare for this event. Of course, there have been a few naysayers who’ve said the track isn’t technical enough or looks too fast; but it’s Indianapolis, it’s supposed to be fast! As for the karting industry, there is solid interest from a few importers and manufacturers. We’re going to start to really contact most of them soon; I know many of their customers and drivers are excited to come!
There are a couple of schedule conflicts that same weekend, which I know many of those drivers want to come to Indy. Unfortunately, we really didn’t get much of a choice on dates; when the Indianapolis Motor Speedway says ‘here’s your date’, it’s not open for debate. There just aren’t enough weekends in a Midwest summer. We’re hoping this becomes an annual event, and everyone will get their chance to race at Indy.
EKN: For those who are not familiar with you and your resume, give us a brief history of your involvement in karting and motorsports in general?
MB: I started racing karts in 1991 when I was in high school, and pretty much ‘retired’ from driving after 2011. I’ve worked full or part-time in IndyCar since 1994 as a mechanic, marketing/PR director, spotter, and more. As much fun as working in IndyCar is, karting has always been my passion. I was the editor for National Kart News magazine from 2004-2011, and worked for National Karting Alliance since helping develop their rulebook, which is widely used in dirt and oval racing. Currently, I’m working for both NKA as a consultant and USAC developing their karting program and other projects here.
EKN: Aside from your involvement, what prompted USAC to get involved more in karting?
MB: USAC is a founding and full member of ACCUS, the US arm of the FIA and CIK. As USAC takes a more active role in ACCUS, being more involved at the “grassroots level” and with divisions of motorsports in which minors can compete – such as quarter midgets and karts – promoting and developing a few karting events was a natural step. In 2017, USAC will also promote the revamped Elkhart Riverwalk Grand Prix street race in Elkhart, IN.
USAC has potential benefits they can bring to karting, and they’re not looking to be “a big car organization” overseeing karting. They have incredible name recognition, relationships, and ‘depth’ behind the scenes that can be leveraged to help karting as a whole. What other kart sanctioning body has a full-time staff of a dozen people to help their events?
Additionally, we’re putting together a race staff that almost anyone in karting should recognize with good experienced karting race officials to run the event. I’ve told them we have one shot to make a first impression and get it right at Indianapolis. We can’t afford to screw up.
Finally, USAC is known for usually having some pretty cool trophies. How cool would it be to have one on the mantle from the first time a kart ever raced at Indianapolis. It’d be a sure conversation starter!
EKN: You mentioned the Elkhart Riverwalk Grand Prix. It will be 22 years since karts buzzed around the northern Indiana city. When did discussions about bringing the event back begin?
MB: Mayor Neese of Elkhart did an interview with the local paper in May about wanting to bring the race back. We developed a business plan and presented to him for revitalizing the race and they agreed that it met their goals for the city. Response from businesses in the area has been outstanding! Elkhart is the trailer and RV manufacturing capital of the world, and karters are their ideal demographic.
I know that the Superkarts! USA Pro Tour SummerNationals is at New Castle that weekend, and that will be unfortunate for a few racers who would do both. However, for the most part, we’re looking at two different demographics of karters. I think it will be an exciting weekend in Indiana for the whole sport of karting!
EKN: These two events USAC is promoting will be separate one-offs with no championship tabulation conducted, correct?
MB: Correct. Two separate cool one-off events! Classes will be slightly different between the two. Elkhart classes will be very similar to Rock Island, and IMS will be more like USPKS or WKA.
EKN: Back to the ‘Battle at the Brickyard’, the initial release stated the event was not open to the public. What was meant by this? Is the race an ‘invitation-only’ event?
MB: That was a bit confusing to karters, and to me at first. The event is going to be open to any/all qualified karters, and the website with class and entry information (www.usackarting.com) will go live on February 1.
When IMS wrote that release, they sent it out over the PR Wire service, so almost every newspaper and TV station in the US and many international outlets received it. They were just trying to state that IMS would not be selling tickets to this event. For a karter, it will work like any other kart race: enter, sign the waiver, get a wristband, and race.
In regards to entries, there was a rumor it’d be at least $500 to enter without tires. That’s not the case. We’re working hard to keep the entry cost under $200 to allow almost anyone who wants to the opportunity to say they raced at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
EKN: Also in the announcement was the statement ‘classes for drivers 12 & up’. To confirm, there will be no Kid Kart or Cadet level divisions offered at the Brickyard?
MB: Right now, no, for a couple of reasons. First, when we were testing the track we thought it was too wide and too fast. There are some places the track is over 70’ wide; it would make some of the four-wide New Castle cadet races look sane. So, it’s a safety concern.
Secondly, we want to create an event for racers who appreciate the history and significance of where they are racing. It’s hard for most 7-8 year olds to realize how special it is to get to race at IMS; for that matter, it’s hard for most people under 20 to probably truly appreciate the significance of this opportunity.
We are going to look at a “short track” option for Junior 1 (Junior Sportsman) racers; however, no promises yet. But as for kid karts, it’s not happening. I strongly believe kid karts are a learning class that has no point at “national level” events; stay home and get your kid karter a 1,000 laps at your home track this summer.
EKN: Speaking of classes, there has not been a confirmed list of categories that will be offered at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
MB: That hasn’t been 100% finalized. If we ran every class that people have contacted me about, we’d need a two-week show.
You’re going to see a lot of the most popular classes in the US offered. USAC has strong relationships with Briggs and Honda, so we’re looking at 3-4 Briggs 206 classes – and I can state they will all be CIK style bodywork – along with Honda CR125 shifters.
I’m also a strong supporter of the Yamaha KT-100. There are thousands, maybe a hundred thousand, of those engines in the US and they’re still affordable. In my opinion, the sustainability and possible growth in US sprint karting lies with the Briggs 206 and getting those Yamahas off the shelves.
We’ll also have some sort of TAG class or classes, but I’m not sure yet if they’ll be IAME, Rotax, or both. Hopefully, we have room for both! In total, our goal it to have about 12 classes and provide everyone with a lot of track time!
EKN: Many karting events have a spec tire that competitors must adhere to. Many street races and road racing do not require a certain compound or brand. Has USAC made any decisions regarding tire rules?
MB: Regarding tires, nothing is finalized yet. USAC has a strong and longstanding relationship with Hoosier; that’s no secret. We are not doing this to be ‘the Hoosier series’. Karting has already given tire companies too much power by exclusively aligning with one company.
Hoosier will be involved. My preference is to come up with a program that benefits the racers too, not just the promoter. So we’re researching all options to keep costs low and competition fare.
EKN: What is your outlook for the Elkhart Riverwalk Grand Prix? It’s not the original circuit that saw record numbers in the 90s, but something very unique. What age groups and classes is USAC looking at there?
MB: Elkhart classes will be very similar to Rock Island GP’s line-up: Briggs 206, Yamaha Can, 125cc Shifter, TAG, and an 80cc Shifter class. There will also be a 2-hour Briggs 206 Endurance race on Saturday night (minimum 2 drivers, hot stops like RoboPong, etc.). Ages will only be 12+. My goal is 200 entries this year. Yes, much smaller than the original event in its heyday; but the whole sport is smaller.
The whole weekend will have an “80’s theme”, as a ‘throwback’ to the original race. There’s going to be a KISS cover band in concert on Saturday night and maybe another 80s type band and a few other 1980’s surprises. I’m actually as excited about Elkhart as Indy! At Indy, we’re going to have some fun stuff planned on Main St. in Speedway with the Dallara factory and Speedway Indoor Karting, along with many others. Should be pretty cool too.
EKN: As we see with the Rock Island Grand Prix and the Streets of Lancaster Grand Prix – there is nothing like a city that gets behind a karting event. It really helps promote the sport outside the sport. In closing, what else would you like to say about the Indy event?
MB: I can’t emphasize enough what a great opportunity and honor this is for karting. This is the sacred ground of motorsports; no matter where you go in the world everyone has heard of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Sure, we’re not racing on the oval, but for 99.9% of us, this is as close as we’ll ever get.
We don’t know if it will continue in 2018 and beyond. We hope so, but that depends on the karters as much as USAC. Karters need to respect the facility and respect each other on-track. This can’t be a “S^!* Show”. We aren’t going to put up with stupidity on track; if you’re running tenth with two corners to go, you’re not going to win. Don’t do something dumb that screws up the whole event.
The USAC quarter midget race has been there six years now. Their event grows each year, and receives more and more “perks” each year. Last year, we got to put 270 cars on the oval for a demonstration lap! It was the most cars ever on the oval at the same time. I can’t imagine what it was like for those kids to round the first corner in 54 rows of five behind the pace truck; I’m sure people touring the museum and grounds were confused and amazed!
I’m confident that with everyone’s cooperation we can grow the karting side of the event too, and become a permanent fixture on the IMS calendar.
The next EKN One-on-One will feature Superkarts! USA CEO Tom Kutscher as the organization is set to begin the 2017 season, with the region programs and the inaugural SKUSA Pro Tour WinerNationals.
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The venues sound fun. I mean, who wouldn’t like to say they raced at the Brickyard. Not sure we need another organization promoting karting events, however. More dates, more conflicts, more splitting already thin fields. And, 80cc shifters.? Really?
The 80cc Shifter has strong numbers in the Indiana area. There were 13 at Rock Island and the SIRA series averages over 20 for their races in 2016. Obviously, if you think you can get 30 karts in a class, it’s best to offer it.
I’d bet there will be 25+ 80s at Indy