|EKN One on One: Paul Zalud - Stars of Karting
| Paul Zalud|
When you are at the top of the food chain, everyone looks up to you as the bar to reach. In karting, the Snap-on Stars of Karting series is the top level of karting in North America. As the only true national program in a very large geographical area, the program - entering its 10th year in business - continues to evolve each year in order to bring the top-caliber teams/pilots competing against one another for the biggest prize purse covered in the most media outlets as possible.
Continuing to keep his program on top is the Stars of Karting President Paul Zalud. The point man for the organization has helped to promote over 100 individual events, distributed over $1.5 million dollars in cash, scholarships, tools and prizes and brought the series to national television status with over 17 original broadcasts.
The past four years have essentially gone on cue but with the economy and karting industry going through changing times, Zalud has recognized this and is looking to the future to keep his program as the pinnacle of North America karting. We were able to track him down for questions regarding the past season, the newly restructured Stars organization, and the outlook for 2009 and beyond.
eKartingNews.com: First off, thanks for taking the time to chat with us about the Stars of Karting, this past year and the future of the organization. From the recent announcements, it looks like we're going to see some new things coming down the pipe. However, let's start with a look at last year. Please give us your own personal grade on the 2008 Stars of Karting season, both racing and organization-wise.
Paul Zalud: Overall, I would give the series a ‘B’. I could not be more proud of all of our officials and support personnel. I would give our working and operations group an ‘A’. It amazes me how many we times we are faced with adversity and we are able to deal with this in a timely, well thought-out and professional way, time and time again. I know that it has become almost comedic what has been thrown our way. I think the only thing we are missing on our list of natural disasters is a… well no, I think we have them all covered now. But I hope that people understand and appreciate the effort our team gives to this sport and to our customers and they do it endlessly. And as we all know, usually without much fan fair and thanks. So I will always go out of my way to give credit where credit is due. This is truly the single biggest asset we have and what I believe sets our series apart.
The single biggest area we need to address remains our event promotion, specifically our desire to create more of a show of our individual events. With the recent announcement that we are adding key personnel, I am confident that we are going to be able to finally meet our own expectations. Our events come off as very strict and regulated and they are a lot of hard work for our competitors. We make no excuses for this as we have a tremendous amount of responsibility to everyone’s investment of time and money being spent to determine a true national champion for North America and, in this regard, I think we do very well, giving ourselves a ‘B+’. But we are missing the element of fun and an atmosphere of family amongst series and teams. We need to incorporate exciting features; music, dash-for-cash events, vendor participation, etc. And, we need to do more with local Chamber of Commerce a month before we come into town. Our events bring in approximately $600,000 to a local community over a five-day span and that is a significant number and one that a town will need to help us promote. I would give our event promotions a ‘C’. There’s definitely room for improvement there.
EKN: Now sticking with the grading process, what kind of marks would you give the individual classes from the past year?
PZ: I was very happy with the racing this year, but we’re watching the trends in grids sizes, both in the Stars series and across the country and this will be important as we evolve into the future. We are the sport’s national championship
Let’s start with Cadet and I’ll give them a ‘B+’. What a great class! It amazes me every time I watch these young drivers that they are as young as they are. The racing is always the closest and is, more times than not, the best behaved. Some of the parents, on the other hand…
I think that JICA deserves a ‘B+’ as well. This remains perhaps our strongest class in terms of support and in terms of competition. The downfall is the lack of a grassroots feeder system to our national level. Imagine what this class could be if we had that.
In its second year in our program, I think that our Stars TaG class earns a ‘B’. It goes without saying that the TaG concept is the future of karting. This will be our strongest category, I am confident. I expect our entries in this class to increase substantially, hopefully leading to a second-level TaG Pro category in the future. I like how there are any number of drivers who have a chance to win on any given day. I expect the fields to get deeper with talent.
We launched TaG ICC this year, and just didn’t see the growth we were hoping for, so I had to give it a ‘D’. We are committed to the concept of this class. Shifter karts have always been my personal favorite and I think that this can be said for a lot of people. We are going to address some of the elements next year that we feel hurt the participation in the class. Stars will take more responsibility in helping to develop incentives for shops.
Now for our headline class, ICC. Our core group of star drivers is impressive and I think the competition earns a ‘B’ this year. The thing that brings the grade down is the diminishing field and lack of depth. Because of this, the flagship class, I am afraid to say, may be coming to an end. Our series has to support categories that are run around the country and that provide our importers and dealers the opportunity for a profit center. We all love watching the drivers and the performance in this class and it will be difficult to find a replacement. We do have what we feel is the perfect alternative, one that keeps the appeal of this class in tact while addressing the issues that are critical to our teams profitability. As much as I hate to admit this, we lost control of the costs associated with running competitively at this level. This is a process that started years ago and it has now escalated to the point that there is no longer a demand for the product. It should not be assumed that dealers and race teams will continue to invest the money it takes to run in this class when it does not result in sales. Simply, it is time we reel Pro shifter racing in.
EKN: Those sounds like fair assessments. In your final statement on ICC, you mention a ‘perfect alternative’. Are you talking about Stock Moto, which would address the current engine purchase costs and expensive maintenance and repair costs?
PZ: Stock Moto could be the answer and we will consider this over the next month.
EKN: On the topic of class structure adjustments, the recent announcement that the Stars TaG will be Leopard-only stirred some negative commentary on our forums. It is obvious that any restrictions like this would not come with 100% approval, and I’m sure you have thoughts on these reactions. I know that you stay away from posting on the forums, so given this One-on-One opportunity, would you care to respond? I’m sure there were specific reasons for limiting the class to a single engine.
PZ: As far as adjusting the TaG category and going to a single engine, we simply had no choice. At the end of 2007, we had a very successful mix with the Leopard and ROK TT in our Stars TaG category. The class was our strongest and it had the most potential for us. When the ROK engine left our stewardship at the end of the season (’07), almost immediately there was a marked increase in its performance. This escalation of performance continued through the winter months to the point that it became very problematic to Leopard owners and our series. The problem was two-fold; first, through no fault of our own, the engine was allowed to go unchecked to a point where it made a Leopard’s performance appear to be obsolete.
The second issue was that the industry was looking to us just prior to the start of our season as if it was our problem to fix, a very frustrating circumstance to find ourselves in. We can only control a product while it is in our stewardship and our officials and our level of compliance exceeds all others. All of a sudden, we found ourselves in an unenviable situation and we were faced with some difficult decisions. Possible resolutions to this unbalanced performance issue were to go to one engine and make all the ROK owners mad, go to one engine and make all of the Leopard owners mad, not go to just one engine or the other and have them both mad, or fix the problem that was perpetuated while the program was out of our control. Given what little time we had before the start of our 2008 season, we did the right thing, the honest thing and the professional thing and, frankly, the only thing we could have done; we spent almost a month and close to $20,000 once again on equivalency testing and development, creating parody within the class, proven during our 2008 season.
The determining factor to go to a single engine in this class for 2009 was that we could not let history repeat itself and given that we are at the end of the year and want to give our competitors as much notice as possible, our decision to go to a single engine was done so for the purpose of maintaining control over our class elements for the future.
EKN: From the online postings, it looks a little that this announcement came as a surprise to some in the industry. Another surprise was the release from IAME regarding an updated Leopard engine. We had heard rumors, but now armed with the official word, how is this totally new powerplant going to fit in?
PZ: I think it is important to note that we did communicate our intentions to go to a Leopard-only status for the Stars TaG category to the manufacturer principals, this was done months ago. We advised each of them of our desire to investigate a new category for a Pro TaG class and have it be based on the performances of the Rok TT with our 2008 restrictions removed, allowing the Rok TT to operate as designed. Although no decision has been made at this time, it is still a category we are investigating. It is also important to note relating to the Leopard-only class that at no time did our organization ever contemplate the use of the new Leopard engine. We will look to help IAME and its importers introduce the new product in the future, if indeed that is the right thing to do for our customers, but it will certainly not be in 2009.
As to the negative commentary on the forums, we cannot worry about these things. It is not possible to please everyone and it is not realistic to think we can. When we make decisions, we do so with a lot of thought and it is based on what we feel is the best decision for the majority of our customers, teams and our sponsors. I have to stay away from the forums because I have responsibilities to our corporate sponsors, an element that no one else has to deal with. I cannot debate tit-for-tat as I represent some very large corporations. My conduct therefore is held to a much different standard, we are expected to rise above it and I think we do, I know we do.
But if I may, when the karting community piles on with negative campaigns (no matter who it is), this has a negative effect on all of us. As we look to get support for the sport of karting outside the karting industry, it makes it difficult when we have no single site that is dedicated to the positives karting provides so many people. We cannot expect to change human nature and human nature thrives on controversy, it seems. It is just too bad that given the choice, 90% of the time people take the low road. There are just as many things that are positive in karting for the number of times people talk about the negative. It’s just too bad that this is the case as we are all selling ourselves short and, more importantly, our sport that we love so much.
EKN: The consistent stream of negativity is certainly tough to take sometimes. That said, the Stars organization has made some additional steps to improve its program in 2008, the most evident being the position of some new names in the administration. You announced that Mike Tetreault would be working closer with Stars as the Director of Event Coordination and that Mike Maurini would step into the PR role left vacant by Jeff Swoboda. We all read the release, but we’d still like to inquire as to reasons behind bringing these individuals on-board. The recent results have certainly been positive.
PZ: First of all, I want to thank Jeff Swoboda for the years of hard work he put into the Stars of Karting. His campaign to find outside support for the series was always endless and often unappreciated by the benefactors of his work. If we were not able to subsidize the overhead of running this national program through corporate support, we would be forced to pass the bulk of the financial shortfall on to all the drivers, families and teams, something that I have always stated that I will not do. Jeff will remain involved by his participation on our new Advisory Panel and he will also remain involved with our critical corporate partners.
The reasons we needed to bring in Mike Maurini are obvious, we needed to replace what Jeff had been doing. But given the opportunity, we also needed to separate the multitasking that had been taking place and allow Mike to concentrate solely on stories, content and PR. He has done a great job for us right out of the gate and we will continue to improve our own need to create more buzz surrounding our events.
With myself taking more and more time this last year to concentrate on getting our own track built here in Seattle, there were some operational things that fell through the cracks and this was no one’s fault but my own. It is unrealistic to think that for the next two years the Seattle track will not continue to take up a vast amount of my time and so I need help, which is where Mike Tetreault can be a huge ally to me and our series. The politics of karting are what take up the majority of my time and who better to appoint as the eyes and ears of what is being said in the pits but the King himself? He has a very good relationship with the majority and I think that everyone can feel comfortable that their concerns will be articulated back to the series with honesty. Mike is actually doing a lot more though, both Mikes are. Everyone associated with Stars has this series’ best interest at heart and they are prepared to do as much as it takes to address the areas needing attention in order to maintain our standing as the pinnacle of karting here. Anything less is not fair to our customers, our sponsors, our officials, or the series as a whole.
With these appointments, I will actually have time to almost exclusively concentrate on corporate relations and the business of the Stars of Karting, which is a very tough business to run.
As to the constant stream of negativity which I have addressed once before, the day they quit trying to bring us down to their level is the day that we have problems. I just wish that more people would speak up about the good this sport provides these young drivers, the opportunities it provides families to spend time together, and the importance of karting on the future of motorsports. Not to say the great sport it is on its own for those of us that remain.
EKN: So as Mike and Mike work to strengthen the lines of communication with the teams, drivers and media, when is the truly important news coming? I know that we’ve been able to see the working schedule, but when will it become official and ready for the public?
PZ: If we roll this interview out before the end of the week, I expect that EKN will be able to pair it up nicely as the schedule will be done and ready to release by Friday. Mike Tetreault talked with a lot of people and it was clear that we needed to look at ways to help keep the costs down for our competitors in 2009. We felt that promoting our events while teams are already in the vicinity of our scheduled races would cut down substantially on travel costs.
Stars of Karting Releases 2009 Schedule
EKN: Paul, the series is certainly coastal-based this year with race at all four corners of the country, capped by the two more central locations for the Race of the Americas and the National Finals. We hear a lot about how expensive it is to run Stars, but to us, aren’t the inherent travel costs the biggest factor in the overall investment needed to run Stars? I mean, tires are tires, equipment is equipment, it’s the same as running a club event…and there’s no debating the value for dollars in regards to track time at Stars events…
PZ: The problem we have here in North America is that it is such a big land mass. In Europe, they can have a well-supported series, drawing from just as many people packed into less than one of our coasts. The costs associated with entering into a Stars event itself are not terribly expensive, especially in comparison to other racing. In fact, it is a huge value, especially when you look at our return of prizes, exposure, cash, and products that we distribute annually. What is expensive is the cost of travel, an element that we have little control over. The costs of competition and keeping up with the curve, however, are expensive, but who ultimately drives those costs
On our side, we have the opportunity to reel in some costs that have quite honestly gotten out of hand and we have already taken steps to do just that. Not always popular, we understand, but needed just the same. And there is the fact that this is not a regional program, it is the only true national championship in the country. There is always going to be a national series. If it were not us, it would be someone else and regardless of the classes, the venues, and the formats, it would have many of the same issues we all are faced with now.
Recently, here at the track we are building in Seattle, I had the chance to go next door to the drag strip during a regional event. They had 850 entries, every other tow rig was a half million dollar bus, the drag cars had to have been in excess of $50K each average and all of the teams were stocked to the hilt with all the spares. I took the time to go and walk the pits. Everyone was having a blast, helping each other out and working their butts off. Many had traveled a long way to participate. All were racing for a trophy… that’s it. For our customers and all those in karting, I wish for us to be able to have the same experience when we are racing.
EKN: We can’t disagree with that. Travel costs are travel costs, whatever the organization. That said, I know that you’re ready to do some traveling along with many of us to the SKUSA SuperNationals in Las Vegas next week. It looks like its going to be a great event. What are your thoughts?
PZ: The broad appeal that the SuperNats has to the majority, and the fact that it is not a series event, makes this the single biggest karting event we all get to enjoy. Face it, it is cool as hell. I would race it in a second myself, in fact, if I could allow myself to take the time. I was a part of SKUSA for a long time and I’m nostalgic for it for all the same reasons as everyone else. This event is good for the sport of karting, for all of us in karting. Our series is good for the sport, and the WKA and IKF are good for the sport. We all have our place and I think a lot of people expect us to take exception to the fact that Tom, Patti and SKUSA get all this attention and credit for this event. They deserve to get it. I am one of the few people who can truly appreciate what they have to go through to pull this off and my hat is off to them. I actually do have to show up and take care of some CIK elements to the event but really, I get to sit back and watch someone else sweat, how is that not enjoyable!
I do wish all the rumors and innuendo that is so prominent in this sport could go away. I would like to think that with all the economic turmoil we are all faced with now, that this is actually an opportunity. It is an opportunity to reel in some of what has gotten out of hand and it should be an opportunity for the orgs to come together and make some decisions that makes it better, easier, cheaper for all of us.
EKN: We’re looking forward to seeing you there, Paul. Would you and Tom be up for a sit down during one of our EKN Happy Hour podcasts?
PZ: Of Course, you’re buying the first round right?
EKN: Without a doubt.