Behind the Laptop: Make OK-N the New Pro Division
First impressions of the new engine platform established by FIA Karting
OK-N category made its debut at Challenge of the Americas 2023 opener in Tucson, AZ (Photo: Challenge of the Americas)
The Challenge of the Americas made history, hosting the first-ever race for the new global engine platform established by the FIA Karting – the OK-N. It has been less than a year from the day the international sanctioning body for kart racing announced this new platform to the class and engine hitting the track for the first time in competition. The eyes of the world were on a facility in Tucson, Arizona during the February 3-5 weekend as the first official races for the category took place at the Musselman Honda Circuit. A total of nine drivers were part of his historic outing, with Nash Motorsportz drivers Jesus Vasquez Jr. and Blake Nash becoming the inaugural class winners.
For the 2023 season, there are two major series offering the OK-N category. The Challenge is taking the first shot with its winter program, which runs from February to April. The next will be the Stars Championship Series, which kicks off its 2023 program in May at the GoPro Motorplex. They will host four races, wrapping up in September at the Motorsports Country Club of Cincinnati.
As we discussed in the Paddock Insider from the opening COTA event, the roughly 35 horsepower powerplant showed speed in Tucson. By the end of the weekend, the pace of the quickest OK-N entry in the final laps of the main event were only three tenths off that of the quickest ROK Shifter driver in their feature race.
Recently, EKN host a roundtable regarding the OK-N engine package in our recent Face2Face episode on YouTube.
As EKN’s Rob Howden has summarized, it is the single-speed version of KZ. This is not the single-engine make program that USA karters have become accustomed to and have asked for over the last decade. Instead, the OK-N allows, as of now, six different manufacturers who have engines homologated to compete within the class. Essentially, it is an open engine category similar to what we saw in the early days of TaG competition here in the USA.
While the FIA has the goal of offering this category around the globe, making it a more affordable form of racing when compared to the top-level OK platform, it still is above what the current single-speed engine choices are already established here in the USA. When looking at the dollar value, the OK-N is roughly $1,000 more than a race-ready package for IAME, ROK and Rotax.
This, and the other factors surrounding the category, has led me to believe the OK-N class could be the true ‘Pro’ division we’ve been looking for here in the USA. And it’s easier to start now as the category is still getting established and the manufacturers are still in the process of making their engines available.
Why a Pro category? To begin, it’s the pace of the OK-N. I was truly surprised by how fast it was on the stopwatch when compared to the ROK Shifter division. It was a full 1.5 seconds quicker than the ROK GP class from the 2020 edition of the Challenge in Tucson. This means we have a place for the top drivers in the single-speed division to step up to something quicker and unique. Essentially, I’m talking about the top one or two drivers from each race team or chassis manufacturer, competing against one another in the quickest single-speed category in the USA; think Ryan Norberg, Marijn Kremers, Hayden Jones, Alessandro de Tullio, Pauly Massimino, and Cameron Weinberg, etc.
And, with that, I’d like to bring back my thoughts about utilizing the Formula 1 format into karting. Maybe it was binge watching ‘Drive to Survive’ this weekend that helped rekindle the spark my idea as well.
During the early portion of the COVID pandemic, I brainstormed the idea to insert the Formula 1 format into the SuperNationals for the Pro Shifter category. At that time, we were coming off the SuperNats in 2019 that had 40 combined entries, with only 15 in the Pro 1 division and 23 in KZ – numbers that included double-duty drivers.
United States OK-N Championship
Looking ahead, this something we could apply in 2024 with the OK-N category and make it a true national championship that is recognized by the FIA and ACCUS (ASN for USA). The FIA is looking to host a 2024 FIA Karting World Cup – OK-N with support from all of the ASN organizations across the globe. The Challenge of the Americas and Stars Karting Championship have the first rights to be the recognized series in the USA after stepping up in 2023 to become the first official organizations to offer the class.
Therefore, they could be the co-host promoters for an eight-event championship for 2024, with each series hosting four events. Another scenario would be to use two of their events each to develop a four-race championship program.
Other options include other established organizations and championships to host the OK-N category for one time during their 2024 schedule. Allow COTA and Stars to be the feeder program, and then build a four-race calendar for a special one-off class that could be part of the Superkarts! USA, United States Pro Kart Series, ROK Cup USA or even USAC events already established.
Or maybe, just maybe, we establish a true national organization to oversee the United States OK-N Championship, which would begin the process of a national licensing system for the USA and help build an umbrella for the sport in which we can have a cohesiveness in karting from coast-to-coast. Obviously, that would be my long-term goal, and something that would need the right people and the correct path to accomplish.
Either way, I believe something could be created or established for the 2024 season that FIA and ACCUS can recognize, along with support as well.
Drivers / Teams:
To help establish the class and the championship as an elite level, I propose that the field would be limited to just 20 drivers representing just 10 teams in total. Each team would have to be a separate chassis brand, with engine classification for each entry confirmed at the start of the season utilizing any of the six homologated manufacturers.
To start, we’d include those teams already committed to the Challenge OK-N program to have the first rights to confirm or deny a spot in the ‘United States OK-N Championship’ – Nash Motorsportz (EOS), The Karting Collective (Sodikart), MPG Motorsports (Kart Republic), Alex Keyes Racing (Charles Leclerc), West Coast Motorsports (Birel ART), CB Motorsports (Redspeed) and Italcorse America (Italcorse). Three spots thus far would be offered to the next teams available through the Stars Championship Series or filled up by those at the Challenge who do not elect to participate. As we learn more about those participating in the upcoming summer program, the US OK-N Championship would narrow it down to 10 confirmed teams.
Those 10 positions, or franchises, within the US OK-N Championship, could be bought or transferred over to another team. Example, Alex Keyes Racing or West Coast Motorsports may transfer their franchise over to PSL Karting, or rebrand it as Alex Keyes Racing with PSL Karting, or West Coast Motorsports / PSL Karting. Something similar we see with Formula 1 official team names. Maybe CB Motorsports sells their franchise to Rolison Performance Group, or another OTK-branded operation. This would be a similar function to what we are seeing in NASCAR with their charter system of 36 cars. Here, we have 10 franchise teams vested into the series.
- 10 teams, 2 drivers per team – both on the same chassis brand
- Each entry must declare engine manufacturer at start of season
As we see in true racing events, and at the Formula 1 level, there would be only one main event per weekend. Friday would provide a limited schedule of three practice sessions in total for the OK-N class (FP1, FP2, FP3). Saturday would be a warm-up session and sometime later in the day an open-pit qualifying session. For me, an open hot-pit qualifying session including two sets of new tires and one used set would provide the drama and excitement over a 15-minute session. Those two new sets would be what each entry has for the remainder of the racing, which would include a Prefinal and Final. Depending on each series schedule and timeline, Prefinal could be held Saturday with warm-up and Final on Sunday.
- Friday: FP1, FP2, PF3
- Saturday: Warm-up, Qualifying (15 minutes hot pit), Prefinal
- Sunday: Warm-up, Final
Part of the United States OK-N Championship is providing an established purse for both race weekend and at the end of the year for the championship. In addition to the weekend entry fee, each team is required to pay a set amount that will help establish the cash purse for the season. This would be part of the franchise of the US OK-N Championship. That fee goes directly into the prize package and helps to build the foundation for that year’s prizes.
With 10 possible chassis manufacturers or brands, teams will be able to use support from their direct manufacturer. In addition to that, incentives can be developed by those manufacturers as well to pay or reward wins, podiums, pole awards, Prefinal wins and championships.
The incentives and money put toward the total prize package include the six engine manufacturers as well. Each manufacturer can set up their own incentives to be pay out on top of the standard cash prize per weekend or for the championship. Teams or the series can directly work with the engine manufacturers to help fund the prize package on the year with equal portion from each.
The third component is the tire brand. The Vega XH3 Option tire is the current spec tire for OK-N in WSK competition. It would be wise to continue with the standardized structure of the global OK-N category to continue to follow the same set of rules here in the USA as they did anywhere else in the world. Of course, tire sponsorship is one opportunity the US OK-N Championship can utilize for the cash purse for each weekend and year-end championship. I’m still not certain as to what tires will be utilized at other OK-N programs around the globe. Nothing from the FIA stated a spec tire that I am aware of.
A fourth is finding funding from outside the sport. In my early days of working with EKN, it was a major emphasis for the organizations to work with companies outside of the sport to provide prize package funding in return for established branding and marketing. In the past, Mini Cooper, clothing brands, Mazda, and other established companies put in their support for the sport. I still feel this is an untouched area by many of the organizations, or either a dead-end road is met by those attempting. However, that is where ACCUS can help. All of the connections this organization has with the many motorsport organizations and companies not only in the USA, but globally.
Of course, a breakdown of weekend and year-end cash purses would be based around the final figure raised by the teams, manufacturers and outside sponsorship. I’m interested to see what teams and drivers would like the bar to be set at for each, as right now we are accustomed to seeing $5,000 paid out to a winner on a weekend and, of course, five-figures when it comes to the SKUSA SuperNationals.
OK-N Junior Program in 2025
From there, if the 2024 season is a success, then there is possible room for expansion to welcome the OK-N Junior category. That, of course, would be up to the organizations and teams, and of course based on where the FIA is in terms of offering the category and at what level the manufacturers are with production of the engine platform.
It has been some time that we have seen something new and unique to our sport. Really, it has been about 11 years since we saw the Briggs 206 introduced that really changed the way we approach the sport here in the United States. That, of course, has led to a resurgence of participation at the grassroots level. Since COVID, the numbers at the national level have reached record heights. One way to shake things up is establishing this new pro series and to help further elevate those few stars we do have in the sport here in the USA.