Behind the Laptop: The Final Chapter of the 2010s

This month is very significant one for me, for the sport, and for the world. It is December 2019, and we all are embarking on the third decade of the 21st century. Social media has been busy over the last two months reflecting on the past decade (2009-2019), both personally and how extremely different the world is from then to now. As we get ready to turn the page on the final chapter of the 2010s, I wanted to take some time to reflect on where the sport of karting has gone during this past decade.

Younger versions of Howden and Cole circa 2010.

Personally, it’s much more than just the 10 years as it all really began for me in 2004 when I began working for eKartingNews.com. It was November 2004 when I became the full-time Managing Editor for the website. The past 15 years have been an amazing journey, highlighted by a number of moments both on and off the track, and of course here at home in Michigan. I’ve grown from a 20-something newlywed, searching for my place in the world…to becoming a supportive and loving husband and father of two, now nearing the end of my first year in my 40s. As a karter, I have learned so much and taken in so many races, I understand how our EKN Publisher Rob Howden begins to mix up certain races over his 25-year tenure in the motorsports media.

It began with my first SuperNationals in 2004 at Sam Boyd Stadium, staying at the Excalibur, and seeing with my own eyes a transition in what the event was, and now has grown to be since that time. My first international trip was not alongside Rob, but with the Berryhills and the Giebler family event inside the Intrepid tent at the South Garda Karting Winter Cup. While trying to stay warm during the snow flurries and rain showers, just standing trackside at what now is the ‘home’ of international karting opened my eyes beyond the road racing or local sprint track stuff that I competed at during my early years. Being part of the Rotax Grand Finals in 2013 here on USA soil for the first time made me feel proud to be an American. And to see Juan Manuel Correa, Oliver Askew and Joey Wimsett on that podium had all the feelings of being at the Olympics.

There is probably no greater joy then seeing those who reach the pinnacle of motorsport returning to the grassroots level. It was seven-time Formula One world champion Michael Schumacher in 2009 at the SuperNationals that stood out among them all. Add in the late Dan Wheldon, AJ Allmendinger, Jamie McMurray, Will Power, Robert Wickens and more. It’s a true pleasure to watch them smile after sessions in the kart, taking them back to where their love for speed began. In all honesty, it really is more than just the racing memories I take away, but the hundreds of people that I have met and shared moments with away from the race track. The few sights I get to see from the airport to the hotel, and from the hotel to the track. Of course, if you follow my social media or Rob’s, food is a big part of our program at EKN. There have been many conversations over a good dinner, a few beverages, or even those long nights playing cornhole.

Howden interviewing Michael Schumacher at the SKUSA SuperNationals 10 years ago

Karting has seen its share of changes here in the United States since 2010. That year marked a new era nationally, with the launch of the Superkarts! USA Pro Tour. Prior to that, the Stars of Karting program – which was based around the FIA-CIK format of ICC (Intercontinental C shifter), ICA (Intercontinental A direct drive) and JICA (Junior ICA single-speed) categories – reigned supreme until it fizzled toward the end of the 2000s. Another promotion company took over and was knocked out after two years. SKUSA based its new program around the Stock Honda shifterkart package and the multiple-engine TaG format. That has stuck through its first decade, with now the transition from the Stock Honda powerplant to the new IAME SSE engine, and SKUSA’s TaG side moving to all categories under the IAME umbrella. I think we learned through the progression of the Stock Honda package, it will take time to see numbers return in the shifterkart ranks. Thankfully, the first year was one of growth for the IAME SSE.

Rotax competition across the USA was growing with the carrot of competing at the prestigious Rotax Grand Finals, and saw two major organizations as the key players in 2009 – SSC East and SSC West. The peak was in 2013 when then Rotax distributor MAXSpeed hosted the ‘Olympics of Karting’ at the NOLA Motorsports Park in New Orleans. Everyone wanted to be on Team USA for that one. Positioned right before the SuperNationals, it was a wild run of two major events back-to-back. The Rotax package lost its momentum with changes to the engine and infamous ‘upgrades’ that came out too frequently. The Rotax Grand Finals are still a bucket list race and one of the premier events in the world. J3 Competition has taken over the guidance of the Rotax program here in the USA, and they are focused on building at the regional and club level, where the engine was focused on when it was first introduced in the early 2000s.

Joey Wimsett, Juan Manuel Correa and Oliver Askew celebrate their podium finishes at the 2013 Rotax Grand Finals

Vortex has always had a market here in the United States, and was part of Superkarts! USA program on the TaG side, including the spec engine for the Cadet division. That agreement was split at the end of 2014 as SKUSA went to all IAME engines in their TaG categories. While Rotax was in the decline, ROK Cup USA stepped in and took over that market share with a strong base in Florida. The program has sparked up club and regional series and has made huge steps forward over the last two seasons. The Florida Winter Tour and Challenge of the Americas have become their premier events to begin each season. The second edition of the ROK the RIO event was among the largest races of the season in 2019. Now a partnership with the World Karting Association has been formed for the 2020 season and the momentum is swinging in their favor heading into the new decade.

One of the biggest changes over the last decade has been with the World Karting Association’s Manufacturers Cup Series. Ten years ago, the series was still producing solid numbers, offering three Cadet classes a day, two Junior and multiple divisions for Senior level drivers. Unfortunately, aside from Daytona KartWeek each year, numbers have diminished. Their appears to be no Senior level drivers at all, while the majority of the numbers are made up of Cadet and Kid Kart entries. What they lack, as does the International Kart Federation, is a solid base at the club level as those programs appear to be building with the support of a sanctioning body.

That’s where the Briggs & Stratton 206 has stepped in and helped to rebuild the base of our sport. The affordable, fun, reliable, and ‘Made in the USA’ product has been the true star of the past decade. Since our first introduction to the powerplant in 2012, we at EKN have been focused on our #OperationGrassroots program to help bring new people into the sport, and welcome back those who left. Promoters around the country and clubs from coast-to-coast have been able to bounce back, thanks to the Briggs 206 engine, which has helped to produce healthy numbers at events built around a common set of rules. Nearly 300 drivers from around North America came together at the Cup Karts North America Grand Nationals 3 in October, and thousands participated in the Briggs & Stratton Weekly Racing Series. Each year of the driver rankings saw numbers increase at every age level.

Cole on the grid for the first Briggs 206 class at RIGP in 2012

Most recently on the 2-cycle side of things, the changing of the guard took place in the 100cc competition. The Yamaha KT100 engine was THE grassroots engine from Cadet to Masters when the calendar turned over to 2010. During the last decade, the changing of exhausts year to year and the amount of maintenance between races frustrated racers and pushed them away. Racers saw the Briggs 206 as a better option. IAME stepped up and produced the new KA100 engine for the Australian market, and it has taken to the USA by storm triggered by the implementation of United States Pro Kart Series. Throw in the VLR 100cc from Vortex, and grassroots racing is back as the focus heading into 2020.

And that really is where we, as a karting community, need to continue to focus on as we move into a new decade. Thanks to the engine packages we have before us, the path to bring in new karters is much more straightforward. The Briggs 206 and the 100cc TaG engines can be the motors we have at the club, regional and national levels for the next 20 years! Add in the amazing grassroots events such as Quincy Grand Prix, USAC Karting’s Battle at the Brickyard, the Rock Island Grand Prix and all the assorted regional programs and there is a platform to help transition drivers from the club level to the next step of their racing adventure. Growth and stability in club and regional racing will help ensure the future growth of our national and international programs for the next decade.

Of course, you can not ignore one of the biggest impacts in karting today, the pushback bumper. Just ask Brandon Lemke, Austin Garrison, and many others that have seen a victory or podium taken away because of the pushback bumper and the system of rules surrounding it. Long story short, it has certainly helped at the start of events, eliminating drivers the back pushing their way through the field and knocking others off, out of the race. Just like anything, there are positives and negatives. It is something we will examine year after year.

Not sure where the next 10 years will take us, but the last 10 have been a wild ride (Photo: On Track Promotions – otp.ca)

Ten years from now, there is no way to predict where the sport will be. As the sport has changed, so has our approach at eKartingNews.com on how to cover the sport. 2009 was the true launch of our Trackside Live program, streaming out the audio to those who could not attend. Thanks to Race-Monitor and Race Hero, not event goes on without live timing. Technology is always changing, and that is our mission heading into the 2020s with EKN. We want to continue to bring you the coverage you want and deserve in this sport, while at the same time promoting our many industry partners and the sport itself to the masses. EKN will continue to be the hub of this sport, and I know 10 years from now, I’ll be in the thick of it.

I hope you all had a Merry Christmas and here’s to an exciting 2020 ahead of us.

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