— Submitted by Ken Schilling, S4 Driver —
“David vs Goliath”, a trail of tears?
Hello family, friends, business associates and fellow kart racers.
All I can say is, WOW!!!
I say “David vs Goliath” tongue-in-cheek because I showed up at the SuperNats in my Honda Odyssey minivan full to the ceiling with karting ?stuff? towing my teeny-tiny trailer into the pits where there are huge tractor trailer rigs with multi-kart teams, tuners, mechanics, driver coaches, data collection evaluators, hospitality areas with tables, food & drinks, etc… One of the many things I enjoy about karting is that with the rules for the Stock Honda engine class that I race in is that it mostly takes away the “I spend more money than you” factor and boils it down to driver and chassis tuning talent (and some luck sure doesn’t hurt…). The money factor does factor in where some of the drivers can afford to hire a full time mechanic and/or an ?arrive & drive? program compared to myself where I pretty much do everything? except alignments (Doug Sorensen owner of Extreme Karting does those for me. I’m also on a four year old chassis, where many drivers consider a two year old chassis ancient!!!
The SuperNats is a once a year event bringing together the finest karters from around the world to race each other to see who’s the best in their class from all different racing organizations and sanctioning bodies. As a karter, you hear about these drivers by word of mouth and read about them in the various karting magazines and online, but now you get to put a face to the name (not just a helmet paint job) and race head to head to see who is truly the best and hopefully make some new friends in the process. While yes it’s extremely competitive, there is a great sense of camaraderie and love for the sport shared by all who participate.
As a karter for the last eight years, this being my third SuperNats as a driver and previous to that two years as a SuperNats corner worker, this was almost a solid week of karting nirvana. Almost 500 drivers from 25 countries, professional drivers from different car racing series, etc… Even in these challenging economic times this year set an entry record breaking last year?s previous record by almost 70 drivers!!!
Last year SKUSA was extremely fortunate to have three current Formula 1 drivers race at the SuperNats including seven time Formula 1 champion Michael Schumacher. This year the Formula 1 schedule didn?t end until after the SuperNats so unfortunately no Formula 1 drivers were in attendance. Keep in mind that the majority of professional auto racers get their start in karts and the majority of Formula 1 drivers race karts in the off season to stay sharp.
This year, as well as the last two years, the SuperNats was held on a temporary track in the back parking lot of the Rio Hotel & Suites in Las Vegas, NV the week before Thanksgiving. This location is fantastic affording plenty of room for the track and pits and is just a short walk from the hotel and usually picture perfect weather with sunny mid 60 to low 70 deg temps (more on this later?). The SKUSA gang arrives the previous week (!!!) to start setting up the track, pits, timing & scoring, etc… This is a culmination of almost 12 months of work to put this event together; in fact they’ve already begun preparations for next year.
First, let me explain the class that I race in, S4. S4 is a Stock Honda shifter kart class for 30+ yr old drivers and 405+ lbs minimum overall weight that uses a Honda CR125 two stroke engine off of a motocross motorcycle that has very tight rules where you can do very little to the engine. About the only things that you can do are; reeds & carburetors (you can change the jetting for varying atmospheric conditions), adjust the timing a little bit, exhaust pipes &
silencers. Other than that it’s “no touchy!!!? This helps to keep costs down by increasing reliability as well as eliminating any engine modifications keeping the class a “drivers” class and not how deep your pockets are. The engine puts out ~35-37 hp, revs to ~12,600+ rpm with about a 3,000 usable rpm range to keep it “on the pipe”, has a six speed sequential manual gearbox and you can change the overall gearing by changing the engine output shaft sprocket and/or rear axle sprocket. The chassis has four wheel disc brakes; one on each front wheel and one on the rear axle (there is no differential). The only time we use the clutch is for getting the kart moving from a standing start or to quickly grab in case of a spin so the engine doesn’t stall. It?s also sometimes used in very slow 1st gear corners especially at the beginning of a race where the karts are very close together and slower than the usual race pace. We shift with a lever just to the right of the steering wheel, pull to upshift and push to downshift. We don’t use the clutch for shifting; just a little lift off the throttle will do the trick. The kart is capable of 0 to 60 mph in ~3.5 seconds, over 100 mph top speed which I’ve done personally (I’ve been told ~115 mph in a draft on a long enough straight), can pull ~3 G’s in the corners and stop on a dime and give you nine cents change!!! Many compare them to a Formula 1 car just on a smaller scale. All of this is happening with your butt ~1″ off the ground so you have an extremely high sensation of speed. With the high G loads, most drivers wear rib vests to help prevent a fairly common karting injury, broken ribs and/or rib cartilage injury. Rib injuries can be sustained without even being in a crash and just during normal racing conditions (side G loads & bumps). I wear a carbon fiber reinforced rib vest in conjunction with a specially designed carbon fiber seat which really locks me in place. Oh, and by the way, there are no seat belts. In fact, you don’t want them because in a worst case scenario of a kart flip you want to be ejected from the kart, not have it land on top of you.
Second, let me explain the chassis. Kart chassis are completely different than cars in that they have no active suspension such as springs, shocks, etc… The only suspension to speak of is the chassis itself, tires and the driver’s butt (hee-hee). The chassis is made up of tubular steel that is designed to flex and twist. While they may look extremely simple, there are many adjustments that can be made to suit different track conditions and driver preferences; front & rear track width and ride height, front end castor/camber/toe, different axle stiffness’s, different front & rear wheel hub lengths, aluminum vs magnesium wheels, install/remove seat struts, different seats, seat materials & stiffness (fiberglass vs carbon fiber), install/remove front/rear torsion bars, change seat position, tire pressures, etc…
thousands of different combinations to suit the track and weather conditions, driving style, etc… OK, so you get the idea that it’s not as simple as it looks!!!
Third, let me explain the tires and how we need to manage them. For the SuperNats we are issued two new sets of race tires that we have to manage for qualifying, three heat races and the main. The tires are marked & numbered for each individual driver. You can use as many new or used tires as you wish during the practice sessions.
Fourth, let me explain the fuel/oil. SKUSA has a “fuel farm” which is just before you enter the grid area to go onto the track. There are two reasons for this. First, for fire marshal safety regulations that limit any extra fuel in the pit area other than what’s in the kart fuel tank. Second, it helps control the fuel/oil to minimize any chances of “hanky panky” with fuel additives. You must bring your fuel voucher card to the fuel farm to retrieve your fuel jug, fill your kart then return your fuel jug to get your voucher back.
Fifth & last, let me explain the track. While kart races are usually held on purpose built kart tracks, the SuperNats is held on a temporary track in the middle of a parking lot. This eliminates the possibility of anyone renting the track prior to the event for practice and having an unfair advantage. It also stresses the tuning & driving capabilities of the driver (and mechanic if the driver has one) starting out on a slippery track and adjusting to the track changes as rubber is laid down and the grip level increases (sometimes very dramatically) as well as changing track conditions going from day to night. This slipperiness really stresses throttle control and putting the kart on the knife edge of traction as much as possible. In the videos you’ll notice what might look like light throttle application but I’m right on the edge of wheel spin.
SKUSA, the sanctioning body of the SuperNats and the nationally growing ProKart Challenge (PKC) regional race series in which I’ve raced the last number of years, runs the SuperNats schedule with morning and afternoon groups (I was in the afternoon group). With this schedule it was great being able to take my time eating breakfast and have plenty of time to do any work needed on the kart or just walk around the pits talking with fellow drivers and generally just taking in the experience before our first track session of the day. In the past, the schedule was just having all of the classes run in order throughout the day which made for long waits, especially if there was any on track incident(s).
In the weeks prior to the event, in my spare time, I took many hours prepping the kart by tearing it down to the bare frame, rebuilding it, replacing fasteners, re-routing hoses & wires and also rebuilding the top end of the engine. Karts look really simple but trust me, they can take a lot of time to prepare!!! I think I should buy stock in ?zip ties? as I go through them constantly?
Tuesday (arrival & check in):
The big teams with their huge tractor trailer rigs began moving in the Sunday prior to the race with smaller teams the next day or so. I’m used to arriving at a race and seeing about 75-100 drivers pitted in everything from karts in the bed of small pickup trucks to large enclosed trailers behind 30′+ diesel pusher motor homes. When I show up at the SuperNats I’m amazed looking at the paddock with million dollar big rigs, a $2.5M Bugatti Veyron(!!!), huge hospitality tents, multiple sponsor and vendor tents, etc… it’s incredible!!! Even though with this being my third time as a driver and fifth overall at the SuperNats, I was still awestruck when I arrived. After a four hour drive from SoCal I arrived Tuesday afternoon, made my way through the pits and dropped off my trailer and other “stuff” at the Extreme Karting “compound” (hee-hee). Extreme Karting owned & operated by Doug Sorensen, is my local kart shop of choice and distributor of the GP chassis that I use. We comprise a team of three drivers (Peter Abba/S1, Matias Podboj/S5 & myself/S4) and we take up two 10 x 40 pit spots. My little trailer is extremely easy to get around and I was able to store it in my pit area for easy access.
Van & trailer:
My humble pit spot & trailer
After setting up my pit I made my way to the registration desk where Tom & Patti Kutscher, the owners of SKUSA, are greeting everyone. Tom & Patti have me help behind the scenes by allowing me to be SKUSA’s “Data Administrator” which is a fancy title for someone who types a lot… In my spare time I process all of the SKUSA memberships, SuperNats/Pro Tour/PKC/NKC race entries, championship points spreadsheets, etc… I am extremely fortunate & grateful for this because if I couldn’t help, I couldn’t afford to race. I check in for the race, get my race tires & fuel from the tire & fuel farms respectively.
I also check in SwedeTech who is my engine builder. Reine Persson, the owner, asks me to bring him my engine. SwedeTech brought their own trailer from Northern California and three(!) people to support all of their customers. I removed my engine from the kart and walked it 100′ down the aisle to their trailer. While I watched and peppered them with ignorant questions, they installed their brand new fuel delivery system, new EZ-Clip quick change countershaft gear and completely went over the engine making sure that it’s ready to go!!! Throughout the course of the event they are continually offering tuning advice, parts availability and “hands on” assistance. GREAT SERVICE!!!
The last two years there were 40 S4 drivers but this year there were 68!!! (including 15 drivers from Mexico!!!) Due to this large number of drivers there were two S4 groups (P1 & P2) with two subgroups in each (A, B, C & D), 34 each for practice, as 40 is normally the max allowed on the track at one time (more on this later?). SKUSA randomly split the 68 drivers into two groups and I happened to end up in P1 (there is no difference between P1 & P2 at this time / more on this later?). Each group had four practice sessions on both Wednesday & Thursday. Shortly before the race SKUSA posted the track map online and it looked identical to last year’s track?!… Hmmm, last year they did the same thing but the track turned out to be completely different. I wonder if that?s going to be the case this year too?
Turned out that the track was almost identical to last year?s so my showing up with last year?s gearing was a good thing to start with.
My first session on track was just to get used to the track and see if my gearing was close. I placed myself at the very back of the grid for all of the practice sessions and a number of the other “fast guys” did the same (there were two women in our class). As a testament to the MG tires, I’m on last years SuperNats main tires (1 yr old) for the first three practice sessions on Wednesday. Last year there were a lot of on track incidents, both single kart and karts getting together, during the practice sessions so my strategy was to just lay back, find open track and get up to speed without “racing” anyone. In the first session my initial impressions were that the tires were pretty slippery (being in storage for one year made them kinda hard?) and my gearing was really close but I would know more as the sessions went by especially as the track was still a bit slippery and would grip up as rubber got laid down. The second session I was faster, the tires having ?come in? and got to know the nuances of the track, braking & shifting points, etc…
The third session I was quicker yet (4th in my group / 9th overall).
Keep in mind that I was still on last year?s SuperNats main tires.
As strange as it may sound, you have to compensate the grip level of the chassis for new tires as you can end up having too much grip
(?overstuck?) which actually slows you down. During all of this I made a number of chassis adjustments and felt confident that I was going in the right direction. Now the fourth session was very important as it would dictate the new P1 & P2 groups for the rest of the event with P1 being the faster of the two. For the fourth session I used a new set of practice tires. I made a few adjustments and was 4th quick in my group and 10th overall which solidified myself in the P1 group for the rest of the event. This was very encouraging as last year I was 5th quick out of 40 drivers at the end of Wed practice and gave me some additional confidence going into our second day of practice.
That evening I went out to dinner with Doug Sorensen, discussed the day’s results and strategized for Thursday.
Thursday’s practice sessions went smoothly as the only major thing I changed was my gearing and so far I hadn’t touched a barrier or another kart. I was solidly in the top 15 (12th, 10th & 13th overall respectively) through the first three practice sessions using the tires from the 3rd Wed practice session.
The fourth practice session was very important (similar to Wednesday?s 4th practice session) as the results would set the P1 & P2 groups for qualifying with P1 being the faster group. This is very important as you want to be in a group that has drivers that are ~ the same speed as you as it will be less of an issue in qualifying being held up by a slower driver. I used Thursday?s 3rd session?s tires and was greeted at the scales by the race announcer Rob Howden who excitedly told me that I was 3rd quick overall!!! WOW!!! AWESOME!!! I was more than a little surprised but very pleased that I was so quick. Hmmm? I was a few tenths quicker on both Wed & Thurs on ?scrub? tires vs new tires? Hmmmm?. (more on this later?). Rob knows that I’m part of the SKUSA staff and that I had a disappointing main race last year where I started 7th (2009 SuperNats 4th row on your left, white driving suit with yellow & green helmet), got spun around on the first lap/first corner but worked my way back to 14th (Spun Photo). I was very excited at the results and looked forward to Friday’s qualifying!!!
That evening I again went out to dinner with Doug Sorensen, discussed the day’s results and strategized for Friday qualifying.
Friday Qualifying (Group P1 / a trail of tears?) / unfortunately I have no Friday videos due to technical difficulties?
Unlike racing with PKC where you qualify and you can move up for each of the two heats (you start heat 2 where you finished in heat 1 and you start the main where you finished in heat 2), at the SuperNats you start each of the three heats where you qualify regardless of your heat results. This makes qualifying hugely critical!!!
The driver is allowed up to two mechanics on the grid for qualifying, heat races and the main. The mechanic(s) can also stand along the fence while their driver is on track to give them hand signals to show the gap to the kart(s) behind. This is very helpful as it keeps you from having to look behind you and helps you decide on your strategy of either being able to attack the driver in front of you or having to defend from the driver(s) behind (or both!!!). Sometimes as a driver you can hear the engine of the kart behind you and/or take a peek behind you as you go around a tight turn. During a race I normally don’t look behind me very often because I don’t want to let the driver behind me think that I’m rattled by them being there. During practice I tend to look around me more frequently trying to find clear track space.
To show you how much tougher/deeper S4 has become in the last few years: in 2008 the top 19 drivers were within 1 second of each other, in 2009 there were 29, this year there were 34!!! Also, on basically an identical track as 2009 the pole time was ~1-1/2 sec faster!!! Wow, fully half of the whole 68 kart field, within 1 second on a 42 sec lap!!! In 2008, my first as a driver, I qualified 18th out of 40 and in 2009 I qualified 12th out of 40. So with my results so far I was hoping that I could qualify in the top ten.
Remember how I was a few tenths quicker, which could end up being more than a handful of grid spots, on scrubbed tires vs new?… Well, after much discussion, debate, etc?with Doug, I decided to ?roll the dice? and qualify on scrubs. So, I used the Friday warm-up to scrub my qualifying tires. This was a huge gamble as most everyone uses one set of their two tire set allotment for Q, H1, H2 & H3 then uses their third set for the main. I had plans on using this tire management strategy but just add the qualifying on scrubs. I made a few chassis adjustments but unlike the practice sessions of parking myself at the back of the grid? I went right to the front and was ~6th in line to go on track. When I showed up to the pre-grid I quickly eyed everyone else?s kart and found that I was the only one on scrubs? Either I was going to be a genius or a goat!!! So, after sitting on the grid warming up the engine for a few minutes we?re released onto the track for our 12 minute qualifying session. My strategy is to use the first two laps as a warm, lay down a couple of fast laps, cool off the tires for a lap or two then do a couple more hot laps. I?m mixed in with some of the fastest drivers and feel really comfortable that I wouldn?t be held up by slower traffic, at least at first, due to having 34 drivers jockeying for open track space. The grid is on the front stretch but start/finish is on the back straight ~1/2 lap from pit out. I rolled onto the track and immediately begin to warm up the tires as quickly as possible. I passed start/finish for the first time in 6th gear, dove through the 2nd gear 180 deg right hander turn 1 then blasted up to 5th gear towards the 1st gear 180 left hand hairpin turn two. Medium hard on the brakes, click down to 1st gear, roll
through the corner, smoothly back on the throttle for the? Oh no!!!? I’m slowly spinning counterclockwise due to being too hard on the throttle on the way out of the corner? I quickly floor the throttle to keep the engine from stalling and pull in the clutch? I’m able to keep the engine running? and miss hitting the barrier? Whew, that was close!!! But now I?m perpendicular to and facing the barriers with only a couple of feet of clearance between me and the barriers.
Hmmm? I don?t want to roll backwards into oncoming traffic and risk getting hit so I quickly decide to pop the clutch and lightly spin the kart to the right. Things went well right up until the point when? my left front tire hit the barriers which broke a rod end and bent the steering shaft and tie rods. My qualifying session is over before it started? I?m absolutely crushed & gutted? I quickly push the kart out of harm?s way to keep the track clear but keep my helmet on to give myself time to compose myself. I had such high hopes: my times were very competitive, I’ve raced, practiced, spent interminable hours prepping my kart, etc? for this qualifying session to set up what I was hoping for a run at the top ten here at the SuperNats. But now I?m done? Now I will have to start every heat from the very back and with the field so tight in lap times it?s going to be almost impossible now to make the main which is only 40 of the 68 drivers.
After the qualifying session was over and my kart and I trailered to the scale line, I was given the highest compliment of my karting life.
Jeff Littrell, who has won three SuperNats S4 championships and is a regular PKC racer and perennial fast guy, walked up to me and said the he was really scared of me during qualifying? and felt really bad for me. Thank you Jeff for the complement!!!
Friday Heat 1 (12 laps / Group C vs D / 5:50pm):
First, let me explain that the accumulation of points from the three heats dictates the grid for the 40 kart main (I?m in Group C for the three heats). Our first heat started early in the evening at 5:50pm with the sun already behind the Rio Hotel. With the time change and the hotel position, the sun sets right behind the hotel at ~4:00pm.
The track got dark quickly and changed a lot due to the lower ambient temperature so I made some chassis changes to compensate. I usually race with a dark smoke face shield but with the darkness I switched to my clear face shield. SKUSA rented a number of portable light stands with generators to provide enough illumination for night racing. The SuperNats is the only time I get to race at night. It?s surreal as you feel as if you?re almost in a tunnel and the speed and depth perception changes dramatically. Right after I put on my helmet the assistant race director called a quick drivers meeting at the front of the grid. He reminded us that we had three heats and to just take it a little easy so we can all make it through safely. We made our way back to our karts with many of us wishing each other luck. Of course, once the face shield goes down some of our wisdom leaves? (hee-hee).
I was dead last so it was easy to find my grid spot… We had 1-1/2 laps as a warm-up, did a couple of practice starts and pulled into our spots on the starting grid. After a few moments the grid was set, the lights came on, revs came up and “green, green, green!!!” off we went in a cloud of two stroke engine smoke. The starts can be challenging to get just right with the combination of engine revs and clutch slip.
The first couple of laps of any race are especially tricky; the tires aren’t fully up to temp and are a little bit slippery, there is an “accordion effect” as the karts are very close together, especially coming into a braking zone, drivers are jockeying for position swerving left & right trying to find a gap… Also, starting at the back, I?m more than a second a lap quicker than most of the drivers around me but? not only myself, but the other drivers are racing with a certain amount of desperation trying to make up positions & points to try and make the 40 kart main event.
Within the first five laps I made up 9 spots and worked my way up to 25th. Coming to start/finish I?m right on the bumper of the driver ahead of me, I had a great draft, coming to turn one I duck inside of the driver, am more than ½ way past him but he ?pinches? me into the barrier at the corner apex. This seriously bent my right tie rod & steering shaft ending my race? Argh!!! Doug is great by having all of the spare parts I needed, helped me to repair my steed and did the alignment.
Saturday Heat 2 (12 laps / Group A vs C / 3:05pm):
I switched the tires from the left side of the kart to the right as this helps with tire management and evens out tire wear and I?ve kept my clear face shield on as it?s almost dark due to heavy cloud cover.
About one hour before our heat some weather rolls in bringing cold temps, wind & spotty rain. Doug & I decide to wait out the weather to see if we need to change to rain tires. Luckily I have a very good karting friend, Bill Cox, who has lent me his karting rain gear the last two years (which I?ve never had to use / in fact I don?t think it?s ever rained at the SuperNats). Doug & I pack up the kart and kart stand with all the stuff we?ll need to make the switch. While we?re waiting on the pre-grid it begins raining harder and the race director calls the remainder of the day a ?rain race? meaning that we can choose to run as many rain tires as we like or use slicks. Doug & I both decide that it?s too wet to run slicks but not wet enough for a full wet setup so we quickly change the kart to a ?half way? wet setup. Keep in mind that there are many things that can be changed for a rain setup, not just changing to rain tires; long front hubs & wide front track, narrow rear hubs & track, remove seat struts, raise ride height, etc? are the major changes with many others possible. I?ve never raced in the rain(!!!) In fact, I sat out a PKC race earlier this year due to rain. So, needless to say I?m a little apprehensive.
I got a good start and immediately jumped to the outside for turn one.
I definitely didn?t want to be on the inside as I figured there would be a lot of carnage and I was right? I made up 11 spots to 23rd in one lap!!! The driver right next to me was on slicks, as he didn?t have rain tires, and waived be by after turn one. Drivers are spinning out everywhere? this is crazy? but fun at the same time!!! Half way through lap two I?m right behind a driver who slowly spins right in front of me, I try to take evasive action but end up spinning as well, we lightly touched each other and I stalled my kart ending my race.
You may notice in the video that I stay way to the outside of the turns as this is where the most grip is. The normal dry racing line has rubber build up which is slick as ice when it gets wet.
Doug is again ready with all of the spare parts to repair my kart and did the alignment? OK, I?ve now had both sides of my front end damaged & replaced so I?m hoping that?s the end of my racing bad luck.
Saturday Heat 3 (12 laps / Group B vs C / 5:35pm): sorry but no video?
My only goal is complete all 12 laps and make up as many spots as possible!!! I accomplish these goals and finish 23rd. Yeah!!!
Sunday LCQ (8 laps / 9:15am)
Before the LCQ we have a morning warm-up at 8:30am. All I was going to do was just make sure that nothing fell off the kart, or break, and not crash because there would be no time to fix it!!! OK, I’ve qualified to race in the Last Chance Qualifier (LCQ). This is the last chance to try and make it into the main. The top 34 out of 40 spots in the main have already been determined by points accumulation through the 3 heats. So that means that there are 34 drivers that are going to fight it out for the remaining 6 spots!!! Oh boy, and you thought the heats were crazy? wait until you try starting the LCQ from the back row!!! Even though I pretty much knew that it would take a miracle for me to make the main I still put on my second set of new race tires to give myself the best chance. My main goal was to just finish all eight laps, pass as many drivers as possible and have fun!!! Mission accomplished. I did have the 3rd quickest time, shy of only the 1st & 2nd place drivers.
More Video LCQ SuperNationals
I would like to thank all those who helped me. While the actual racing on track is an individual sport, there are many people along the way that help to get you there (in no particular order):
SKUSA / Tom & Patti Kutscher – Allowing me to help behind the scenes and race!!!
Extreme Karting / Doug Sorenson – Great kart shop and fantastic service!!!
SwedeTech Racing Engines (Reine, Jason & Vince) – The best quality, service & support you could ever ask for!!!
Bill Cox – Lent me all of his karting rain gear (wheels, tires, hubs & rain suit)
Mike Goebel – Lent me his GoPro video camera
A clean kart is a happy kart, a happy kart is a fast kart!!!