July 11, 2012
Auto racing has a rich history of competition on public motorways. Once upon a time, the legendary LeMans endurance race was conducted entirely on public roads. Historic road races were held on the streets of Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin long before Road America was built. Competing on open roadways was the rule, not the exception.
Road racing was incredibly popular and created one of the sport’s golden eras for generations of fans. Unfortunately, all good things come to an end and by the late 1950’s government interference had essentially destroyed the purest and earliest form of authentic “road” racing.
But I have good news for those who would like to experience a small taste of what early 20th century race fans enjoyed on public motorways. The machines are smaller and the races have moved downtown, but the essence of pure road racing is otherwise very well preserved in the go-kart races that are still held today in towns throughout the Midwest.
In my brief and unspectacular karting career, I was fortunate to participate in several such events in the early 90’s. They were truly a barrel of fun and unlike any other event in motorsports. My best race came at Indiana’s Connersville “Little Detroit” Grand Prix in July 1993, where I finished 5th (I told you it was unspectacular).
This particular event was notable for its incredibly long straightaway that ran over 3 city blocks along Central Avenue. Even the 4 cycle machines would hit about 80 mph on the home stretch and with a little imagination you could pick up the tiniest wisp of a draft. That straightaway was the best part of the track and the biggest straight for karting that I’d ever seen. It was a blast.
The Connersville Grand Prix ran for 14 consecutive years before its cancellation. When I learned that the Grand Prix, extinct since 2001, was being resurrected this year, I had to go back. What was saw was a smaller event on a smaller track with a smaller crowd that still retained the wonderful atmosphere of the street races I remembered from 20 years ago.
The heat wave that smothered the Midwest for the past two weeks undoubtedly hurt attendance, but perhaps a thousand people still lined the downtown streets despite 100-degree temperatures.
There were fewer entries. Instead of 200 kart teams, there were perhaps 90 on hand for the 15th running of the Grand Prix. Not surprising for the first event following an 11-year absence. The fact that the race exists at all is a tribute to the hard work of the local Jaycees and the Southern Indiana Karting Association sanctioning body (SIRA), who executed the event with amazing precision and skill. They had obviously done this before.
The biggest difference was the track itself, which had been considerably shortened due to the refusal of some private businesses to permit racing on their property. The glorious, long straightaway that was once the signature of the “Little Detroit” Grand Prix had been cut in half. The best trap speed was 64 mph, considerably slower than in the 1990’s.
But the fun factor was off the charts. The atmosphere was relaxed. I bought a foot-long corn dog for three bucks, set up my lawn chair in the shade cast by the downtown buildings on the east side of Central Avenue, and chatted with the friendly flagman at the start/finish line between races.
Fans could walk across the street for ice cream, milk shakes and icees at nearby vendor stands that lined the track. The local radio station carried live coverage of the event and a public address system filled in the blanks for everyone else.
For the uninitiated, the atmosphere experienced at a local county fair is perhaps the best comparison.
The Southern Indiana Karting Association has come up with a brilliant plan. Their entire race series is based on street events. Each of their 11 annual races is held on the city streets of a different town. And they’re not the only ones.
Other karting series’ hold similar events around the country, especially throughout the Midwest and Great Lakes areas. It’s a fantastic experience for the drivers to tour the state, make new fans, and take their traveling road show to a new town every weekend.
Street races also draw many spectators who would otherwise never consider watching a motor race. But when the event is held in their hometown just a few blocks from their house… well, why not?
As I sat there along Central Avenue watching the karts zip by, I couldn’t help but think of the open road races held in the US and Europe in the first half of the 20th century. These karting events are the direct descendents of those legendary road races, and the people organizing and competing in them are carrying the banner first held by Barney Oldfield, Ralph DePalma and Dario Resta.
The fans lining the racecourse, the vendor booths, and the makeshift barricades set up for the race would all seem strikingly familiar to race fans of another era.
The smaller size of the machines has allowed the races to move from the countryside into downtown areas – areas where the early racecourses might pass through, but only as a small part of the overall track. But otherwise, these street racing events are precisely what the old-fashioned open road race organizers had in mind when they created this sport over 100 years ago.
Anyone who can’t find a way to have fun at a go-kart street race in Small Town America just doesn’t know how to have fun at all. It’s worth the effort to attend one of these events.
When you go, print out a picture of an early open road auto race, take it with you, and look for the similarities.
Let me know what you think.
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