U.S. race kart industry: Growing fast but fragmented
October 20, 2003
Filed under Features
A nearly 50-year-old industry, karting has undergone dramatic changes during the past few years, and is morphing from a simple pastime into a serious motorsport. Sure, all-terrain karts are proving popular in many regions, but it is the race kart that is responsible for much of the publicity the largely consumer driven industry recently has received.
“Karting isn’t new, but its never really been exposed to the general public,” Joe Ramos of SSC Racing, Palm Springs, Calif., told Powersports Business. “It’s been 100% enthusiast driven and has never looked to promote itself outside of its own little world. The result is that a lot of people don’t know what is going on in the industry.”
Ramos estimates there are about 200,000 karters driving competitively in the U.S., and says the industry’s growth rate has probably been in the high single digits during the past decade. Enthusiasts ages five to over 65 can take part, and an estimated 15% of competitors are women.
Oval racing, often a first step to a career in NASCAR, has a stronghold in the southeast, whereas other parts of the country are experiencing big turnouts at sprint tracks and even full-sized road courses. Karts range from a two-cycle 50cc unit retailing for $1,600 to twin-engine “laydown” models that go for the price of a new car and can reach speeds of over 160mph. Oh, yeah, and a great majority of them run on five-inch wheels with the driver sitting only about 1.5 inches above the ground.
“There are a lot of good things going on in the industry right now; a lot of positive growth showing in the last few years,” Ramos said. “In fact, we anticipate the growth rate to increase because of what we’re seeing in three primary categories: participation in the junior category (8-15 years old) is up and mirroring participation in mini-motocross; young people 17 and older are filling grids to fulfill dreams and passions of becoming a racecar driver; and the 30 to 60-year-old group is showing phenomenal growth and represents a whole new market that has not been there before.”
“It doesn’t require you to be tall or short, super strong or have great flexibility, it just requires you to put in the practice time,” said Mark Dismore, Jr. of Comet Kart Sales, Greenfield, Ind., an importer, manufacturer and retailer. “Like the motocross industry, I’ve noticed that there are a lot of people who used to race karts who are returning to the sport, bringing their kids with them.”
CompCor Distribution, Scottsdale, Ariz., is the importer of Italian-made Tony Kart product. CompCor’s Steve Patrick explained the existing classes of competition: “It depends on what part of the country you’re in, but karters can start racing a 50cc baby kart when they are five years old. When they’re nine, they move into Cadet class, which has an 80cc single-speed engine; and when they’re 12 they can move up to the Junior Sportsman, which uses 100cc engines, or Junior Shifter, with 80cc shifters.”
Shifter karts – 80cc to 125cc karts with sequential transmissions – usually don’t come into play until a rider is about 12 years old, and the 125cc karts often require operators to be 16, although long-time racers on the national circuit have received exemptions to move into 125cc machines at an earlier age.
But, while karting looks from all outward appearances to be an emerging sport offering plenty of opportunity, problems do exist.
“Fragmentation is karting’s biggest enemy,” Dismore told Powersports Business, explaining that there is not enough continuity between clubs running races in certain regions, which can tend to confuse newcomers
Patrick seems to agree. “The difficulties stem from the series, the rules and the sanctioning bodies,” he said. “In the West, the International Karting Federation (IKF) is big; in the East, it’s the World Karting Association (WKA); and at the national level we have Shifter Karts USA (SKUSA) and the Champ Car Stars of Tomorrow.”
“The IKF and the WKA technically have the same types of events, only with different rules,” explains Ramos. “Then you have the same thing on the higher level with SuperKarts USA (SKUSA) and the Stars program.
“Around the world, karting is governed by an international organization that is a subdivision of the FIA called the CIK. It sets rules and classes from Italy to Japan to Argentina. But, when you come to the U.S. it’s a mess.
“Not only are there the several sanctioning bodies but, since it’s a participant sport, promoters of these karting events make their money through the participation of drivers. Consequently, they will provide a class for anybody who shows up. So there’s also been fragmentation in that respect.”