25-Year Anniversary: 1998 FMK / FIA Formula C World Karting Championships
Lone shifterkart world championship held on USA soil was historic weekend in Charlotte
This weekend is the 25th anniversary of the 1998 FMK / FIA North American Karting Championships. The event was hosted by the World Karting Association at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, North Carolina. The ‘NAKC’ events were like no other, bringing together karters of all different disciplines to compete at one facility on the same weekend, including the world championships for shifterkarts.
The WKA hosted the popular Briggs & Stratton 300 under the lights, running on the frontstretch Legends oval of the Charlotte Motor Speedway, providing some night-time entertainment. A total of 150 drivers attempted to qualify for the 40 feature positions in the event, with the winner taking home $2,500. More than 300 entries took part in the North American Dirt Track Championships which were held on the karting-specific oval just outside the backstretch of CMS. The WKA National Enduro Series was also contested over two days on the original ROVAL course, featuring 437 entries in 31 road racing classes. The fifth annual George Kugler Memorial Cup combined with the North American Sprint Track Championships and saw 263 racers from 14 countries in the paddock.
Part of the action on the sprint track inside the Charlotte Motor Speedway was the FMK/FIA Formula C World Karting Championship. This was only the second time an FIA Karting world championship was contested on USA soil. The first came in 1986 when the 103rd Street Sports Complex in Jacksonville, Florida hosted many of the best drivers from around the world. This was the one and only time the world championship for shifterkart racing was held in the United States.
At the time, Randy Kugler was the President of the World Karting Association, and the major figurehead behind bringing international racing to the United States and the Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“Beginning in the mid 90s Charlotte Motor Speedway became the highest profile karting venue in the USA. It was attractive to the CIK/FIA because of the magic and prominence of the Speedway. Our relationship with the speedway was strong, allowing us to bring such a prestigious event to Charlotte. Track President/Promoter Humpy Wheeler welcomed the international element with open arms. As part of the North American Karting Championships the Formula C World Championship was the highlight of the 1998 US karting calendar.”
“With the mystique of the NASCAR garages being filled with all the high level teams to the popularity of the Charlotte circuit, this event brought in karting fans from all over North America to watch the competition. Many karters would attend the North American Karting Championships as spectators. With road race, sprint, dirt, and the Briggs & Stratton 300 there was something for everyone. 1998 was truly special with the edition of a World Championship event. To this day I have never seen anyone come close to duplicating what we accomplished with North American Karting Championships. For sure 1998 was extra special.”
A field of 52 drivers from nine different countries contested the event, including 13 from the USA and nine from Canada. 1992 champion Danilo Rossi (CRG-TM-Dunlop) from Italy was quickest in the qualifying session, posting a 39.425-second lap. Ironically, it was the same lap time for Canadian Kyle Marcelli eight years later at the same track in the ICC category for the Stars of Karting event in 2006. The top Canadian was Michael Valiante (Italkart-TM-Vega) in seventh, two spots better than three-time defending champion Gianluca Beggio (Italy-Birel-TM-Bridgestone). The top USA driver in qualifying was Alan Rudolph (Birel-TM-Bridgestone) – today the owner of the Alan Rudolph Racing Academy and Speedsportz Racing Park.
The class was broken up into groups for heat races, with Ennio Gandolfi (Italy-BRM-TM-Bridgestone) winning all three of his heat races. Nico Biasuzzi (Italy-PCR-TM-Bridgestone) won two while Vitantonio Liuzzi (Italy-CRG-SGM-Bridgestone) was the other heat race winner. Gandolfi and Biasuzzi were the top two after the heat races with Beggio moving up to third in the rankings. Valiante fell to 12th overall after the heat races while Darren Elliot (CRG-CRS-Bridgestone) led the way for the USA in 22nd. A Last Chance Qualifier was run to fill out the 34 drivers moving forward. Among those earning a transfer spot was Curtis Cooksey (Birel-TM-Vega), placing fourth to start 32nd in the Prefinal.
In the Prefinal, Beggio was able to work his way to the front of the field for the win ahead of Biasuzzi. At the start, Biasuzzi was able to launch ahead of Beggio for the lead. A few laps later, Beggio worked past for the lead and from there drove away to his fourth world championship. Beggio would later add a fifth in 2000 in Germany. 1994 world champion Alessandro Manetti (Italy-CRG-TM-Bridgestone) worked his way up throughout the weekend from 15th in qualifying to end up in the runner-up spot, just ahead of Biasuzzi to complete a top-five sweep for Italy.
Leading the way for North America was Valiante. After qualifying seventh, he went on to finish ninth, fifth, and sixth in his heat races to start the Prefinal in 12th. Valiante grabbed six positions in the race to start the Final from outside row three and fought strong during the main event to end up sixth – the best non-European finisher of the race.
“I had raced in Europe before so I knew the level would be very high. All of the Super A drivers, who were the best in the world, entered Formula C, so it was the best race to see where you stacked up against the best in the world. I had raced Formula A and Formula C that entire year in North America so physically I knew I was in good enough shape. The last race of the WKA Constructors Cup was in Charlotte where the World Championship would be, so I knew the track well. Being a privateer and just launching the Italkart brand, my goal was a top-10. I was able to qualify in the top-six and was close enough to challenge for pole, which I felt was a big accomplishment. In the heats, they grouped us so close together and every start Liuzzi could not get off the line, so I was always having to fight back after losing positions. In the final, I was fast enough for a podium, so all in all it was a great experience.”
The top driver from the United States was Alan Rudolph, finishing 17th. Rudolph ended up one spot behind Elliot in 23rd following the heat races. An 11th and eighth had him going strong until placing 20th for his final heat dropped him down the order. He advanced up nine positions in the Prefinal to start from row seven in the Final. Rudolph ended up placing 17th as the top USA finisher.
“This was my first time in a FIA World Championship race, not to mention in Formula C. These engines were bad ass to say the least. Not only the amazing power but you could change the gearing internally in the gearbox to maximize each corner. Good thing TM legend Franco Drudi was there for engine support. I think the biggest difference in FIA competition is the sheer aggression of the racing, grip level from the special tires, and the factory support. This is why it’s hard for someone racing in the states to really compete at the international level. In the end it was a great experience.”
“My expectations were high. It was in America for the first time and I wanted to podium. The reality of that quickly changed once I realized I didn’t have the factory support needed. Unless you are a factory driver, you will never get the best engines and perhaps the latest updates on the chassis. I went from wanting to podium to maybe a top-10, to let’s just make it in the main. In the end I was the top finishing American. Many of my fellow American’s didn’t even make the show, that’s how hard this race was.”
“The thing I remember the most is more personal than the actual event. My dear friend Lou Cariffe introduced me to the legend Bob Bondurant of the Bondurant School of High Performance Driving. This changed the trajectory of the rest of my life. Bob had just opened the Bondurant Superkart School and was looking for someone to run it. This was a perfect fit for both of us. Meeting Bob led me to my wife Jessica, led me to travel the world with Bob and do amazing things all the while still being able to race. Then, in the end of the Bondurant days it led me to build Speedsportz. So the reality is that single race week changed the rest of my life in many ways I could have never imagined thanks to Lou and Bob. So yes, it was a very memorable event for many reasons.”
As mentioned earlier, Curtis Cooksey was among the drivers from USA competing in the world championship. Cooksey is the co-owner of Acceleration Kart Racing – one of the sports leading online stores. He has competed at multiple Rotax Grand Finals events and remains the best finisher in DD2 Masters with a runner-up result in 2008 at La Conca, Italy.
“It was awesome to race the Formula C World Karting Championship! It was my first time racing the Charolotte track, first time driving a Formula C, first time racing 5-inch tires, and we made the mistake of putting a brand-new chassis together at the track. I didn’t know what to expect since I had never seen a FIA World Championship race. I knew Darren Elliot was racing so I think my goal was just to beat him, but that didn’t happen. I was happy to make the main, but my results weren’t very good.”
“One of the strangest things to me was when we had to return our tires to the manufacturer. I used the Vega tires, which in retrospect was a mistake, but apparently the tires were only rented for the event. I guess they did that to make it harder for other manufacturers to copy the technology. When we would ask the Italians about something that we weren’t familiar with they would say “it is especial”. I got so sick of hearing that and realized that if I wanted to compete at a race like this again, I would need to learn some Italian. It did leave me with a feeling that not everyone had an equal opportunity, especially the Americans. Running that race was a once in a lifetime opportunity for me and it was very enlightening. To see how the top drivers got up to speed and set up their karts helped me so much.”
A familiar name to those racing today is Anthony Simone – the father of young Rocco Simone. The Canadian was among the best at the time in his country and made sure to make it to Charlotte to compete in the world championship. It began on the outside looking in, qualifying 35th aboard his Birel-TM-Vega package. They found the race pace, recording results of 15th, ninth, and 10th in the heats to end up 20th for the start of the Prefinal. Anthony slipped however down to 25th before gaining those spots back in the Final for a top-20 result.
“It was an incredible event and looking back now the talent level in the field was world class, many racers going on to have great careers and even world championships. Never racing in a world championship previous to this event, our goal was to simply make the final. Goal accomplished and exceeded our expectations. Seeing the best in the world in North America was a first for all of us and to race against so many talented racers was a dream come true for me at the time. I had just started racing cars but made sure I entered in this one and only time an international race was held on North American soil.”
Here is a link to our Results section of the site, featuring the results for the FMK / FIA categories courtesy of The Karting Website and Pete Muller. Also included in the results is a link to a PDF of the World Karting, the official magazine from the World Karting Association and Shifter Kart Illustrated, published by EKN’s own Rob Howden.