Kartin' USA: the multiple faces of karting in North America

Columns: Special
The USA presents a karting scene much more fragmented than it might appear when viewed from Europe with our parameters. Upon closer inspection, American karting is a vast galaxy with various independent systems orbiting within it. Let's discover what they are. (fm)

Here, they like to say, "Karting can be a foundation but also a destination," which roughly translates to the idea that karting can be both a starting point and a destination. A starting point for those who want to begin a career as a professional driver, or a weekend sport for those who love racing in its simplest form. Notably, according to industry insiders, karting here is 99% a destination, an independent sport from professional automotive racing. This inevitably creates a completely different profile compared to what we know in Europe, especially in Italy.

Competitions organized by private series promoters
The three most important promoters are SKUSA (based in California), USPKS, and STARS, both of which operate in the Midwest and extend their calendar slightly further south, into Texas and North Carolina. To understand American karting well, one must understand the geography of the country before generically saying "the Americans". This is a place as large as all of Europe, so it is clear that the way something develops—in this case, karting—takes into account the local background, its past history, as well as the characteristics and climate of the area. California and the Midwest are the historical karting locations, where it all began in the 1950s and 60s. These states have a historical memory of the sport more than others, with legendary facilities and where karting is a family tradition for many. It is not uncommon to see grandparents, parents, and grandchildren on the same track together at numerous competitive and non-competitive events. Returning to competitions: in discussing private promoters, it should be emphasized that the 'power' of a federal governing body (equivalent to our National Federations) is not central but rather marginal if not nonexistent overall. This has allowed various promoters to develop their own racing platforms. Among these, SKUSA (known for the Supernats in Las Vegas, familiar to many of you), established in the mid-90s and based in California, organizes the largest events even outside the region. It is closely linked to Iame, so it mainly features single-make races with CIK-FIA homologated chassis: one of the most successful classes is the KA100 (at the expense of the X30), where various categories divided by age and weight compete using the old 100 engines revitalized by effective rebranding. SKUSA—making due distinctions—perhaps most resembles our WSK, a series with a high team presence, a medium-high level of preparation, and consequently significant costs, not accessible to everyone. USPKS (United States Pro Kart Series) and STARS, founded more recently (after 2015), boast a structure and organization roughly similar to SKUSA, with the difference that races are organized in other regions. Here, too, it is essentially Iame-based categories with the novelty that STARS is the only series in the USA where you can race with the OK-N, currently seeing an average of 20 drivers for OK-N and 15 for OK-N J. The absence of a true federal governing body has favored the spread of single-make engines in various series, especially since the triennial CIK-FIA homologation is considered a real enemy of both simple rules and cost containment, and rightly so, objectively speaking. In this scenario, Rotax and Rok are also doing well, especially Rotax, which is starting to gain a good following and achieve good numbers thanks to the prospect of drivers earning a ticket for the RMCGF, allowing them to participate in a competition outside the USA, considered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity here. In the case of these single-make events, rounds are often combined into a single weekend to reduce the number of trips. Geographically, Rotax is more present in the Midwest and Florida, while Rok is more prevalent on the Californian side.

The real karting base we lack: "the grassroots"
Coming to the bulk of the karting movement, the weekend events with 400 registered drivers and an age range from 14 to 70 (and beyond), we need to delve into the world of 4-stroke engines. These categories, thanks to the Briggs & Stratton LO206 engine, have flourished over the last decade and are said by many to be "the engine that saved karting in America." Here, there is no limit to imagination. Beyond the "official" series (such as the IGNITE series, similar to our championship organized by Crg, where all the drivers race on a Margay chassis) or those racing with a LO206 and CIK-FIA homologated chassis (even expired ones), configured as normal sprint kart races, there are countless amateur or semi-amateur uses for these engines. Not least among these are the 'laydown' karts, driven lying down and racing even on IndyCar ovals. The numbers for 4-stroke engines in the USA are impressive, but more importantly, this formula has brought many newcomers to the tracks. If there is a significant difference between Europe (especially Italy) and the USA, it is in the willingness to preserve a 'popular' driver movement, keeping tracks alive—all tracks, not just those hosting WSK and FIA races—small shops, and all the industry that karting can generate. This, in our continent and especially in Italy, has heavily skewed towards a professional form of karting, erasing its popularity among ordinary people who might otherwise afford it if they knew it existed. Regarding the promoters of these categories, the most active is certainly Cup Karts North America (better known as CKNA), which organizes a very extensive series across the territory, even extending beyond the Canadian border. In these races, only 4-stroke Briggs & Stratton engines and medium-hard Vega tires are used to ensure the tires can be used for multiple events. This series also originated in the Midwest to meet the vast demand for "family-friendly" races, affordable—with an LO206 engine you can race for a lifetime without worries—and with a bureaucratically streamlined organization. Over the years, CKNA's geography has expanded to almost the entire nation, with specific divisions in the Northeast and South of the USA, giving drivers who want to travel and thus experience racing even more fully, the opportunity to do so. In these categories, which are difficult for us to conceive—so let's keep karting a niche for millionaires—the prevailing philosophy is to experience a sporting event regardless. The kart itself becomes the tool for doing so, but at the same time, the vast majority are not obsessed with "being the best," leading to races featuring very old karts, expired homologations, and drivers of advanced age (the Over 50 class is called Legends and is very popular) or not in top form, all in complete normalcy.

Finally, it is disappointing for those convinced that Briggs & Stratton engines are tampered with as if there were no tomorrow: there are no teams tuning the engines, the technical inspectors and scrutineers are skilled (because this engine is very popular here), but it is the mindset of the participants that is different: no one is interested in dishonestly having an engine modified to go faster on the straight. The priorities in grassroots karting are less centered on victory and more on the event itself. In the realm of amateurs, there is also a significant portion of drivers who bring 'laydown' karts to the track – a distinctive feature of the USA. These special vehicles have a different structure, setup, and most notably, driving position, as indicated by the name of the discipline, compared to a common go-kart. Due to their configuration, these vehicles can easily exceed 100 mph (160 km/h) and are mainly seen on car racetracks. This competitive environment includes many other “open” categories and is known as Road Racing, organized by the WKA (World Karting Association). Among the circuits where they race are traditional American tracks such as Mid Ohio and Daytona.

Few rules but stable: more drivers
Summing up the American karting scene, we must recognize its greater ability to let the movement develop freely from the bottom up, especially through very, very liberal regulations—something we can't even imagine here. When numbers grow, according to this philosophy, there is always a way to introduce some rules here and there, a process that seems to work when compared to those where categories and regulations (federal and branded) are established before drivers even buy a complete gokart, only to realize that something was forgotten. Such a vision finally allows many drivers/families to buy a vehicle to race for many years and that the "owned" kart is still the most common choice among grassroots movements in the interest of spare parts shops, tracks, and all operators in the sector. In other parts of the world, the formula of relying on a team seems to be the only option, which, as we know, discourages many 'ordinary' people from turning to karting when they are looking for a healthy and fun sport to practice for themselves or their children.

Created by: fmarangon2 - 27/06/24

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