While I haven’t been around this stuff nearly as long as some people here (started racing in 2006), I’ve been around long enough to see several changings of the guard, and (far too many) people come and go. I feel like it boils down to two key issues (there are many, of course, but two big ones); cost and obscurity.
Cost is obviously the #1, and will likely continue to be. Like it or not, this is a hobby for at least 90% of the racers on the grid. Some may aspire to be professional drivers, some make a living off the sport (track & shop owners), but chances are the guy or girl next to you on the grid has a job/school to go back to on monday, and they’re just doing it for their weekend fun. Seeing as its a hobby, that person is also likely funding things with their disposable income.
Now, before you shout out “BUT MOTORSPORTS ARE EXPENSIVE AND IF YOU CANT AFFORD TO COMPETE YOU SHOULDNT PLAY”….I know. I thought karting was supposed to be a sort of ‘entry level’ grassroots motorsport, but when you’re looking at a yearly budget that could fund a Formula Ford, 1/4 Midget or similar, it looks a bit silly. Don’t get me wrong, high level karting is awesome and it absolutely has its place, but theres no reason it cant be affordable (relatively) to the weekend warrior.
I know this sport is an addiction to speed for most, and whats better than speed? More speed! The only problem is that speed costs money (how fast are you willing to spend?). Maybe we need to accept the fact that the fastest, newest thing around isn’t always the answer. Its a bit frustrating that ‘entry level’ in CO has boiled down to a Rotax, which is ~$3,600 for the engine alone. The current crop of TaG engines (Rotax included) are quite quick, and a bit too much to handle for most new guys. Theres absolutely no reason that we shouldn’t have a clone/briggs and a Spec-PRD class, both of which you can buy a new engine for less than half that of a Rotax. A class like that would be just the ticket for bringing people into the sport without insane sticker shock.
The other big cost in karting is fuel and tires. The initial investment doesn’t have to be huge (i started with a $2500 used kart), but the fuel and tire bills will quickly add up. A harder compound tire that can last (competitively) for at least a couple of races is whats needed. I love grip as much as the next guy, but for a club level racer there is no need for MG Yellow levels of grip. Whenever I run into a curious outsider, one of the first questions is always “how much do tires cost?” When you give them the answer, you can almost watch as any potential interest goes away. Grippy tires have a place in karting – if you’re running the SKUSA PKC, you should be running the same tires as the national circuit – and thats fine, but if we’re talking club-level karting where were trying to bring new people into the sport, we must have a cost effective choice. Otherwise, the new people quickly realize that they’re facing a tire budget that they weren’t prepared for and leave the sport. Fuel, to a much larger degree, is something we don’t really have control over.
Obscurity is the #2 in my eyes. For whatever reason, karts have always had a bit of an identity crisis. Most people off the street think a go kart is what you can find at Boondocks, not a purpose built racing machine. Either that, or its a toy for kids. Whatever karting has to do to overcome this is beyond my expertise, but the biggest thing is selling karts to the public, AKA marketing. The indoor tracks are great, and they’re the perfect vehicle for this. Greg, I think you guys have the right idea at Unser to have a program that can ‘promote’ people from rentals to race karts. I’d be willing the bet that the overwhelming majority of people are first exposed to real race karts through a corporate event or just an arrive-and-drive at an indoor track. A lot of them have fun, some of them probably want more, and very few of them probably know that there’s something ‘beyond’ rentals. There are plenty of curious gear heads out there, but we need some way to let them know that we exist!
As Russ pointed out, the learning curve for this stuff is damn near vertical, and that’s a big issue. There are barely any friendly resources online for a new guy, and the best thing out there right now is forums. Forums are great resources, but its honestly a bit old school if you’re a new guy who needs to ask questions and has no idea what to ask! It seems like only the persistent (or the deep pockets) survive in this sport, and the old approach of ‘ask someone at the track’ isn’t good enough anymore when some people don’t have the time or ability to do that. Yes, learning at the track is a vital part of the sport, but its not the only way, you should have an easy way to know before you go.
For what its worth, these problems aren’t limited to Colorado, but karting as a whole. Just spend a few weeks on EKN and you’ll see that.