Digging Daytona - Back at the Beach
It had been a handful of years since I’d made the trek to Daytona for WKA Kartweek, jumping onto a plane bound for Florida while still digesting my second helping of Christmas dinner. After attending a string of the events in the late 2000s, I succumbed to the pressure of logging in some family holiday time in 2010 and maintained this status over the last few years, truly enjoying the chance to stop and breath each year. To be honest, the Christmas break is really the only opportunity I provide myself for any type of extended separation from my laptop, and even then, I check-in every day. Armed with that knowledge, and motivated by our renewed partnership with the World Karting Association, I found myself at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on December 26 with my girlfriend, both of us primed to fight through what is traditionally one of the worst travel days of the year. Much to our surprise, we breezed through check-in, thankfully leveraged our elite airline status to bypass the security line, and we were sitting down eating Beecher’s Mac and Cheese from their airport location less than 20 minutes after being dropped off at SeaTac. This travel trip was off to a great start.
As the kick-off to each new season, Daytona Kartweek is a unique is our sport, with three of karting’s disciplines all taking place within a stone’s throw of each other as one of the world’s most legendary venues. The concept of how much time needs to be invested into organizing this race is mind-boggling. I’ve always had much respect for the WKA and the people who manage each separate race of KartWeek, and especially those who work to bring all three together. The Manufacturers Cup component of the event, and the WKA as a whole, has enjoyed massive turnouts over the years and has always been the high point in terms of numbers, as Daytona is a big draw, as is the weather. But the Manufacturers Cup had lost momentum in recent years. The decision makers struggled to design a series that was needed for the current state of the sport. The series was losing its way and its momentum, and competition arrived to offer a new option. Through it all, the WKA staff was working hard to rebound from some tough financial times, and to their credit, they were successful in getting the organization back in the black and primed for growth for the future. That said, when it came to working closely with the karting media, the connection wasn’t there. We offered to publish any race reports that the WKA would send our way, but in truth, we simply lacked a positive working connection with the past ‘management’. It was rough at times, to say the least. With that said, I was extremely enthused to hear of the return of Buddy Long to the organization. This is a feeling that I believe is enjoyed by many. Buddy and I quickly re-connected upon his return and our shared goals of building the foundation of the sport paved the way for EKN to once again work together with the WKA to bring a renewed level of awareness and exposure to the Manufacturers Cup. The lines of communication were open again, and I found myself in 85-degree heat and 100% humidity, covering the Man Cup race from the Timing and Scoring trailer, just loving the action on the track.
It was awesome seeing a class line-up featuring Briggs, Yamaha and IAME categories in Daytona. It was a true cross-section of a good percentage of karting in this country and the racing was, as expected, close and hard-fought. Sure, there were a few hiccups throughout the event, but they were handled quickly. The WKA has always been a little ambitious with the laps they try to run with 10 classes on the docket, especially when it comes to the last week of the year in Florida. The sun heads for the horizon pretty early in the day, and more than one extended stoppage can results in laps being cut in the heats or mains. This was the case on both days of competition, but the racing wasn’t affected as the fights for the race wins were waged from green to checkered. 12 laps or 16 laps in the mains, it wouldn’t have mattered. Many races were simply chess matches to see who could hold the lead. The number of last lap battles kept us all on the edge of our seats.
Overall, I thought the racing was good albeit a little rough, but that’s the common theme these days, and the topic of yet another Morning Coffee. The fields were large and deep (who isn’t fired up by 47 karts in Pro IAME Senior and 40 in LO206 Senior) and the WKA staff knocked it out race after race. I know I was kept on my toes updating our EKN Trackside Live coverage, trying to get the results onto Facebook, Twitter and our official forum discussion thread before the next race went green. I wasn’t very successful. As soon as one race cleared, the next rolled on track. With a tight schedule, it’s the only way to get things done, and the WKA staff was on the ball.
There was a lot of great stuff to see in the paddock at Daytona, and here just a couple things that come to mind:
It’s always great to see a strong effort being put in by Margay Racing. As the leading US manufacturer in the sport, they’ve haven’t played the ‘big tent’ game of late, but the addition of the LO206 classes fueled interest from their local track at Gateway and Margay brought a bunch of new people to the Man Cup, including pilots from as far away as California and Canada. They had 20+ drivers under the tent, and it felt like the old days. The new Ignite K3 chassis performed well in the LO206 Senior class, the quickest of the CIK-spec karts and a podium finisher, and big wins by Spike Kohlbecker (Yamaha Junior) and Hunter Fox (LO206 Junior) capped an impressive week for one of the sport’s core brands.
The Man Cup event has an impressive line-up of domestic manufacturers, which I think bodes well for the series and makes it an important one in my eyes. iKart was there with drivers running two of their chassis models in Pro IAME Senior and Mini Swift, and once again, they showed that they can run upfront. As detailed, Margay had a strong contingent and a couple of wins. The addition of the LO206 classes brought the support and participation from American chassis like the Ionic Edge, Coyote, Comet Eagle, Razor, MGM and Bandit. The Comet Eagle swept the LO206 Senior main events with Corey Towles, giving it bragging rights until the next event.
I love seeing second-generation drivers arrive on the scene, especially when their parents haven’t totally hung up the helmet yet. Chuck Gafrarar has enjoyed a long and successful career in karting and motorsports, and is a well-respected fabricator in NASCAR country, but he’s also one of the top Masters-class karters in the country. Chuck’s son Caleb has been karting for two years and has stepped into the Mini Swift class, putting in a great effort to run in the top-10 all week at his first Man Cup National. Chuck has been focusing on Caleb’s racing for the last year, but he jumped into an LO206-powered Parolin in the Senior class to have some fun himself. This was a true family effort as three generations were in the pit area, with Chuck Sr. manning the wrenches alongside his son and grandson. Caleb’s mom Jacqueline and grandmother Clarann were part of the team too, highlighting karting’s position as an incredible family sport. We’ll definitely be watching young Caleb throughout the season.
Franklin Motorsports has a stout line-up of drivers for the Man Cup series, and for whatever else they run this year. The team’s line-up in the Pro IAME Senior class was impressive, as Brandon Lemke has made the official jump to Senior racing this year. He was the powerhouse all weekend, topping qualifying on both days, but he just couldn’t seem to bag the win in Daytona. Victories will come…and there will be lots of them. Kyle Kalish was also quick, setting the fast lap of more than one occasion as a top-10 contender. In the Junior ranks, Alex Bertagnoli is a beast out there, posting four podium results, and Robert Noaker III looks poised to take a run at both titles on the Sportsman level. The team has great young drivers in development as well. Merlin Nation is strong this year, as Franklin’s squad looks to take it to the brands that enjoy larger and more widespread participation.
I love seeing Mike Birdsell in the paddock, wrenching away on karts and working with young drivers. Mike’s racing resume is ridiculously extensive and is jam-packed with wins over a 40+-year span. It would take too long right now to list his accomplishments, so I’ll save that for the profile article I’m working on. Mike was in Daytona working with Eli Trull and his Fullerton chassis in the Yamaha Sportsman and Mini Swift classes. The pairing of our sport’s legends with emerging young drivers is so rewarding to witness. The passing of knowledge and passion is such an important part of our sport’s future.
Finally, I have to talk about the young man who we had the privilege of working with throughout the EKN Live streaming audio play-by-play of the weekend. I announce over 20 races a year all over the country, and rolling into Daytona as the live broadcast producer, I was intrigued with who I’d find ready to handle the race call duties on behalf of the WKA. Well, 17-year-old Xander Clements was more than I could have ever hoped for. A product of Woodstock, Georgia who spends time at Barnesville and Atlanta Motorsports Park, Xander is ridiculously good for such a young age. I’m proud of what he brought to the event for the WKA and to our EKN Live broadcast. His knowledge is deep, and as a racer himself, he understands the nuances of the technical and racecraft sides of the sport, which he wove expertly into his race call. Xander has a great voice and a passion for the sport, which comes through in his work.
And to top it all off, Clements is an intelligent, polite and focused young man, who’s already in college and dedicated to Accounting and Business Management studies. Hopefully, he’ll pair his education with more trackside announcing with the WKA, as he brought a ton to the overall presentation of the event. I hope to have him join me on future EKN Live broadcasts in the future.
In the end, all I can say is that I’m thrilled that EKN is back working with the WKA with the goal of providing exposure for the organization and a spotlight for their racers who are out there giving it their all. Re-connecting with the Manufacturers Cup completes our editorial package for the WKA. We’ve always provided editorial support of their road racing community, and the door is always open for input and submissions from the road race enthusiasts, whether it’s the WKA, IKF or KART. Our renewed efforts to shine a brighter light on grassroots racing brought the WKA Gold Cup into our editorial radar last year and we aim to take that to a new level as well. All in all, it was an exciting start to the 2016 racing season.