NASCAR and Formula One racing are expensive sports, with top cars getting bundles of cash invested into tuning the vehicle into a bullet on wheels. But it all still boils down to the talent of the person in the driver's seat.
The next generation that might one day be burning up asphalt in Daytona or Monaco will be on display this weekend at the Rotax Grand Nationals at the Oklahoma Motorsports Complex. They will be racing the closest thing to a racecar that kids can legally get their hands on: a go-kart.
"It rarely gets publicized, but 90 percent of professional drivers at the NASCAR and Formula One level got their start behind the wheel of a go-kart," said Ray Verhelst, event manager of the race and managing director of International Motorsports Marketing. "Danica Patrick practiced in her grandfather's driveway. The Bush Brothers started in karting and own a karting facility in Vegas. The Andretti family owns a kart track at their house. It's a stepping stone of the process, and those that are proficient in karting tend to move up to other programs."
The Grand National is an amateur competition for open-wheel go-karts, with divisions for kids through adults. The winners in the top classes in junior and adult will be chosen to move on to the Rotax world championships.
"This series is the equivalent of the Olympics for kart racing," Verhelst said. "The world championships are usually in an exotic location. In December, it will be in the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt; last year, it was in Southern Italy."
Verhelst said that go-karts don't come with the same weight differential systems of race cars, so a racer has to know how to shift his own weight to get around sharp corners. He also estimated that the top classes will reach 120 miles per hour.
McCloud's Jesse Woodward, 11, will be in the mini-max division and said his kart will get up to around 67 mph.
"It can get scary, especially when there is a big crash," Woodward said. "I'm afraid that I'm going to get in it, but I like the feeling of racing " not a lot of kids get to do that."
When Woodward squares off with 12-year-old Blake Berryhill in the mini-max division, Berryhill will have home-court advantage, since his family owns the Oklahoma Motorsports Complex. Racing since he was 4, he's one of the most seasoned vets in his class.
"Karting is a lot like Formula One " just no pit stops, no pit crews," Berryhill said. "It's all about the driver. They need to be in good shape and be able to stand the heat. A good driver knows and follows his lines; he makes smart passes. A bad driver just dives in when he passes and doesn't come out of it clean."
It may sound dangerous reaching such speeds in a kart that is little more than a few pieces of scrap metal and an engine, but Verhelst said that it's one of the safest forms of motor racing.
"We do not have the major collisions they have in NASCAR. And the racers realize wheel-to-wheel is not a good thing to do " you will end up off the course," he said. "They are also an inch off the ground, so the center of gravity is really low. That is the only boring aspect of go-karts: We don't have all the crash-and-burns in some of the other race-car areas."
Verhelst said the races benefit from being only about 30 minutes each and on a smaller course, so it is possible to track one particular kart throughout.
"It is a lot of fun to watch because, while sitting in the stands, you can see the whole course," he said. "So when you are following someone, whether you know them personally or just like the color of their kart, you can watch them run the entire race."
Woodward is planning on going pro when he gets older, and is working hard now to use go-karts as a way to start attracting attention.
"We'll go down to the track and practice, and my dad helps me with my turns. Before the race, we'll sit in the trailer and discuss the track," he said. "I think it will help me by getting me recognized by some of the big people " sponsors, magazines and stuff."
U.S. Rotax Grand National takes place Tuesday-Saturday, Sept. 15-19 at Oklahoma Motorsports Complex, 3501 S. Interstate Drive in Norman. "Charles Martin