|EKN One-on-One: Van Gilder - World Karting Association
| Van Gilder|
Celebrating its 39th anniversary this year, the World Karting Association (WKA) has grown to become the largest sanctioning body for kart racing in the United States and one of the largest in the world. With over 3,000 current active members, the member-owned, non-profit corporation has been establishing rules and procedures standards used by many series and tracks across the country for many, many years. The organization has been battling through some hardships recently, but thanks to the dedicated efforts of many key individuals, the WKA is once again moving in the right direction. In 2008, Van Gilder was appointed as Executive Director under new WKA President Rick Dresang, all with the stated purpose of rebuilding the WKA from its foundation up.
Gilder began in karting back in 1964 and has been in the industry full-time since 1977 when he purchased Karting Sales from Stu Syverson. The company eventually evolved into what is now known as Elite Karting. Gilder has worked with a number of karting stars over the years and has ties to other forms of motorsports as well. Aside from being a driver and part of the industry, he has been a longtime supporter of WKA as a Trustee, the Director of Competition, a Secretary Officer and member of numerous committees. In his new role as Executive Director, Gilder works with the WKA staff and trustees on the day-to-day operations of the organization with the support and direction of President Dresang.
In between meetings, Gilder was able to speak with us from his home office about the past two years for WKA and what is on the horizon for the sanctioning body.
eKartingNews.com: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us.
Van Gilder: No problem.
EKN: What have the past two years been like as the WKA Executive Director? Try to walk us through a typical day in your role.
VG: Itís been challenging. With all the issues that face karting in this economy, we are dealing with how some race tracks operate day-to-day to stay alive and what we can do, in some cases, to help guide the clubs and facilities. The technical updates that WKA has issued recently helped to clear up a majority of the rules. The tire prep issue going away, somewhat, and our ability of controlling it while researching better ways to prevent it was and is a major hurdle. The management of the tire programs in the other series as been another issue weíve tackled to insure, to the best of our abilities, that the programs can work so that people can understand and we can control them. Sponsorship has been a huge part of the program in the last two years in trying to reestablish some contacts with old sponsors and trying to work with new sponsors and trying to keep the industry alive so-to-speak all-around.
EKN: With all the many issues on your plate, your typical day depends on the current issues that need to be address, correct?
VG: Yes, there will be a day completely involved with the staff at the office. With five full-time people having varied positions, we can spend a full day on logistics of a race event, prior to and follow a race, including managing the insurance program, what we have to do for the pit passes, waivers, etc. Sometimes a day can be spent completely on an event and everybody in the office has some little piece of that, such as the editor of the magazine getting the webpage and PitBoards done, Keith (Shampine) and Buddy (Long) tag-teaming on what we are going to put up on the website, as well as the logistics like parking and long-term planning for events at the Road America, New Jersey Motorsports Park and Daytona facilities.
Some weeks you spend half the days just working through all the things you need to agree in principal about what we are going to do. A meeting with the Daytona group involves about 12 people from just their side with all varying degrees of issues that need to be addressed to make the event run smoothly. This ties back into the WKA office and the workers we bring in, making sure what they can and cannot do and what is required of them. It can eat up an entire week just for one event and itís just logistics and planning.
EKN: The other side of that is you keep in constant contact with the trustees and officers that run the organization.
VG: Yeah. There isnít a day that goes by during the week that Rick Dresang and myself have not had multiple conversations. We have the Executive Committee, who is my first line of communication that I go to because, in some cases, we have to discuss issues that a trustee may not know about because he will have to vote about it in the near future. Thus, we have to figure out what to do so that when it is presented to the trustees, everyone has equal knowledge of what they are voting on when it happens. When trustees have questions, concerns, policy or whatever, they typically contact me 99% of the time. And if I need to direct them somewhere else, I tell them that they should contact this person in the office or this person in the field. This way, I have some awareness of what is going on within the office and the trustees at all times so that people donít waste their time going to the wrong person. If they need an operations issue, I make sure they go to Buddy. And if they need something in regards to what Sissy handles, they go to Sissy. Some days Iím a traffic cop basically, making sure people head in the right direction.
EKN: Since yourself and Rick Dresang were appointed to the positions you currently hold with WKA, what do you feel have been the three biggest accomplishments that the organization has made?
VG: Thatís toughÖI would say having a strong relationship with the Daytona group again and, through the efforts of Buddy and others, to be back on the dirt in Daytona. The relationship that we have formed with Road America that was broken 15-16 years ago, that is a very strong relationship again and that was a great deal of effort to work through to make it happen. The other part of it was retaining the staff that was in place before Rick and I were brought into the management of WKA. A lot of companies would have basically changed everything, but we have been able to retain our key people that have been there for years and move forward.
EKN: Looking ahead, what are three things you see that may be changed, revised, or added under the WKA umbrella?
VG: Well, Iím hoping the dirt program, through some of the changes and revisions, will grow to a greater level. I also think that our doubleheader race programs - where we try to do two events at one location - will continue to flourish for a lot of reasons. One of which is that by bringing more people to one area, we make WKA and kartingís value greater because the backside of the program. People very frequently do not think about this when we come into town and there are 1100-1500 entries at a multiple venue event. The cities, towns, hotels, restaurants, gas stations and grocery stores all really see the presence that karting brings to them. I think those programs have not only make it easier for WKA to work these events, including staffing with quality people, but it has also brought a greater economic impact to the region the events are at.
This, in-turn, is good for karting because we are internally funded. Everybody is tapped out in this economy. We need something to have the awareness that karting is more important than a lot of folks believe it is or understand it to be. Having an economic impact in several regions could be one of the first steps to bring awareness to a multi-national company that could help fund karting that doesnít come from entry fees or people spending money in our industry. Thatís something I think is very important in the program we are trying to work with some of the doubleheader events.
Again, it also brings different groups of people together, such as our next race is Kershaw (Carolina Motorsports Park). We are going to have Gold Cup and Road Race together. That is a pairing that is rare, but we have 42 entries in the Briggs Animal class at Daytona so we had an outstanding four-cycle road racing contingent there. Maybe the intermingling of these two groups, similar to when we combine the Man Cup and Road Race, or the Speedway and Gold Cup at New Castle, have a value to the industry. I think it has a value to our membership, and I think it has a value to WKA to state to people outside the industry in an effort to show potential supporters what we bring to these towns. While itís not a NASCAR event, itís a pretty strong contingent of family people.
EKN: A recent change in the organization was moving WKAís Karting Scene magazine to an online publication. It was explained in the press release that it will help save the organization money in printing costs. What other changes have been or will be made to help save operating costs?
VG: Weíve made many changes over the last two years. When we print our financials as we do twice a year now, which is something that was long needed, people will be able to see a brief outline and see, like everything else, gross revenue was down however we are sustaining at a better level than we have in the past. That has been through the work of the staff Ďgoing on a dietí in certain things. Weíve changed everything within the organization like phone services, insurance, printing machines, etc. We look at everything on a daily basis from the truck, to the phones, to postage, to how shipping is done and timeliness of shipping. If we can get stuff out the door two days earlier and it can be ship ground versus three-day select, at the end of the year that is a very large number. We are just looking at trying to be a little more proactive and a little more timely with everything we do operations-wise. Assembling our event staff earlier than we did in the past to take better advantage of travel arrangements is another example. Itís been basically looking from the top to the bottom of operations and making sure weíve been doing the best job we can do.
EKN: One topic of note is the affiliation that the WKA has with ACCUS (Automobile Competition Committee for the United States). Please explain, for those who do not understand, what ACCUS actually does for motorsports in the United States and why it is important for WKA to be aligned with the organization.
VG: ACCUS is an arm of FIA (Federation Internationale de Automoblie), which basically guides all of your major motorsports worldwide. They are the overseeing arm of the CIK in Europe, which has long-reaching roots to a lot of karting organizations like WSK and others. They do the homologations, licensing and testing for impact studies, and the likes of that.
ACCUS here in the United States is the licensing company for the Bonneville Salt Flats, your ARCA, USAC, etc. It is involved in the licensing as it applies to FIA motorsports and, at this point in time, the president of ACCUS Nick Craw is also the first American to be a presiding officer of FIA (Senate President). So, for the first time, America has real representation at a high level with FIA.
ACCUS has two annual meetings and when we go to these meetings, we sit down with the Frances, Mike Helton, Tony George when he was at Indy, all the names and people involved with the major sanctioning bodies in the country. The first year, Rick and I went and we didnít know what to think, but we were very sincerely welcomed and some hands were put out to us for advice. When we went last year, the opening remarks were from Rick himself to tell the industry about the first major motorsports event of the New Year because they considered our event at Daytona as the start of the year. We gave them a report and they were very interested to see where our numbers were off and where they werenít. Thatís the value there. We have the ability to pick up the phone and call someone that might not have been reachable on a very sensitive or important subject.
Also, all the CIK licensing goes through WKA through ACCUS in the United States so that is also another commodity that we make available to all karters. If you need to go to Europe and you need a CIK license, weíre the party that helps attain that for you.
EKN: The Manufacturerís Cup Series seems to be the biggest it has ever been. What do you feel has been the key element that continues to produce large fields each weekend?
VG: I hope that it is the team that we have assembled and the fact that we have listened for the last two years to the concerns, questions, and at some points, complaints from the participants and done our best to address them and fix the issues that are not single items. There will always be a problem with something that someone has, and you canít just make changes for one person without affecting others. Our alliances with a lot of the major karting enterprises here in the United States is also important as we try to give them a good place to come showcase their products and try to win the coveted Manufacturers Trophy award for their business.
EKN: With the oval programs for WKA, the tire situation and other issues have been key components to the lower entry numbers we have seen. Certainly the new track at Daytona brought in some rave reviews, but what are some of the other steps that have been taken to help bring back the Ďmagicí to that program?
VG: I think we have a much better working relationship with other tracks that run their own series going into 2010. We just had a couple successful meetings at WKA KartFest with some of the principal promoters in dirt racing and speedway racing. I think that there is a better understanding that we all need to be working towards one goal, which is to keep people at the race track racing their karts and not buying a fishing boat. I think that some of the problem of the past is that people are out looking for them to have the only piece of the pie instead of the biggest piece of the pie. And that never works.
Karting is a full-circle program and what you do that helps your business, such as EKN for example, helps other karting affiliates. Any successful event that has ambulances, good insurance, and a good fundamental set of rules, whether it is a WKA event, or an affiliate of WKA, or just somebody doing something different, is what is good for the sport. As long as we are pulling in the same direction to offer good programs to people with no unsafe facilities or unsafe products being allowed to race on the race track, itís all good. I think there is a better share of belief of that amongst a lot of people going forward.
EKN: The one program that doesnít get very much press is the road racing division. WKA is one of the few organizations in the country that has a strong following still despite the increase in facility costs. What has kept the National Road Racing Series alive and what are some key things that can help the numbers grow?
VG: One of the things that have kept the fire in the road race series is getting Daytona back on the schedule. Despite Daytonaís statements of their need to have WKA at their facility during that time, they need WKA to be there as it means a lot to their economy in the city that week of the year. Businesses in the area have the ability to rally around a major event to use that as a leaping board for the rest of the season. There is not a lot of road racing held here in the United States much before February and certainly not after November so it also has an impact on the karting industry as well.
Weíve also spent this year tediously working on the class structures and while we would love to see 15 classes and 150 entries in each class, those days are long gone with everybody having their own niche or product that they want to market or the competitor wishes to run. So I think weíve made some fairly good steps in the past two years to get the right grouping of classes for products that can be run and make better available to our customers the track time that is available. The most expensive part of road racing is the time off work and getting there in most cases.
EKN: One question that we always hear and see on the forums is the query as to when the WKA and IKF, along with the other organizations out there, will start working together so that rules are either the same or similar across the country. What is your viewpoint on that now being a WKA Officer?
VG: Itís something a lot of people have worked on for a number of years. I worked very diligently when we had the North American Tech Committee years ago to do just that - focused on 2-cycle. As long as you have varying opinions on rules and the need for rules, you are only going to get so close. If we could get within 80-90% on all these rules, and a time table on these rules, I think there would be a lot of movement toward fixing that other 20%, truthfully.
But when youíve got different principals and different regions, itís very hard for people to understand. Take the Rotax program for example. Rotax is not a big part of the WKA program, so I will use it as an example. You have various areas of the United States that are so heavily populated with Rotax owners and racers, that it is unbelievable. Then you look at other districts, and they donít know what a Rotax is. Then you look at the Komet Piston Valve program. Once again, you have certain areas where you wonít find a KPV program at all. Just 8-9 hours away from there, itís one of the strongest programs in that region.
We donít all drive Chevys or Fords. As long as there is variation it will lead to variation of rules. Sometimes a variation is needed to fit the needs of that area of the country, and that will help that area grow, but it isnít conducive for another area of the country. And thatís why you canít come to one exacting set of standards and rules across the country.
EKN: Thank you for your time, Van, and we look forward to continuing working with WKA again in 2010.
VG: Thank you and we appreciate your efforts as well.