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October 19, 2021

The Ultimate Guide to Kart Racing + Marketing within the Sport as told by a Design Agency that Decided to Race Karts.

by Samuel Pawlak

Last summer, 2021, I started karting professionally for the first time. The following is deep dive into the world of pro kart racing, the experience, the costs, marketing, structure, and tips for people considering karting for the first time. In short, this covers basically everything you could ever want to know if you're considering entering the sport.

I also recap the marketing effort “Ikoniqa Racing”, which had a goal raising enough money via sponsors / partners to break even or turn a profit for the team. Spoiler up front, we only got about 25% of the way there. So a pretty miserable result marketing wise, but I also break down why that’s the case, as well as what marketing set ups do actually work best for karting. It was quite the learning experience.

Part 1: For those looking to enter the sport for the first time, here’s what you need to know.

Getting All the Right Gear / Soft Goods

Let’s start with the easy part, your racing gear. First and foremost, you’ll need to acquire all of the proper kart racing gear. You’ll want to get yourself a kart suit that fits well, gloves, and racing shoes. You’re probably well aware of companies like Alpinestars, Sparco, OMP, or Simpson. All of these racing gear suppliers also sell karting specific gear in a variety of colors and styles. I’m personally a fan of Alpinestars and have found their gear to be more than suitable / durable. Under your suit, most people just where a t-shirt and gym shorts. I would recommend something with moisture wicking properties as you’ll be sweating a lot out on track. I took it to the extreme and wore a skin-tight Alpinestars KX top. I come from the world of road bike racing, and I already knew how much water I lose in a given ride (more than most) so I opted for something that would move water away from my skin as efficiently as possible, and the KX top definitely did the job.

Helmet & Rib Protectors

Choosing your helmet will require a little more research and trying out. Do NOT cheap out on the helmet, and do NOT buy a used one. Always buy a brand new helmet from the manufacture or from a reputable dealer. The reason being is that a used helmet could have internal cracks in the fiberglass, be expired (yes, helmets do expire), or may not even meet regulations. I personally use an Aria SK-6, but other popular brands include Stilo, Bell, and Simpson, all of whom make kart specific helmets. You can also use motorcycle helmets in some series as well.

When choosing a helmet, it’s best to try it on first at a race shop in multiple sizes to determine the best fit. Helmets typically come in 5 sizes, and you’ll want the size that’s just a little snug but not uncomfortable. Over repeated use, the inside padding of the helmet will conform to the shape of your face/head and become more comfortable over time.

Next up, you’ll also want a rib protector. I used a Bengio protector and absolutely loved it, but these are all personal preference. Like with a helmet, try a few on and see what feels most comfortable. That being said, you won’t truly know how comfortable it is until you hit the track, but most name brand rib protectors feel pretty solid.

Buying Your Kart

Here’s where things get a little tricky, but I’ll lay this part out as clearly as I can. I came into karting not understanding how the class structure in karting worked, nor what the differences between karts was. It’s actually quite simple in hindsight, but from the outside looking in, it can be super intimidating. For the purpose of this blog, I’ll be avoiding the nuances of things like picking different frame tubing sizes and the implications this has.

Step 1: Don’t buy a kart first. Understand What You Want First.

Before you buy a kart, you need to see what championships, series, or club racing series exist around you (assuming you don’t plan on flying to races all the time). All series will list on their websites or social media pages what type of kart classes they run. Those classes and their requirements will determine what kart you’ll want to purchase.

Popular classes to consider / look for as a first time racer are as follows

LO-206: Lower speed momentum based karts. If you want to approach karting in the safest and most gradual way possible, look no further.

100CC / 125CC – Though 100cc and 125cc are two separate classes, the speed differential isn’t tremendous. The main difference is that 100cc karts don’t have radiators as they are air cooled, vs 125cc karts with have the prominent radiators opposite the engines. My journey started in 125cc. More on that later. Classes you should 100% avoid as a new racing driver are shifter classes.

The one unifying factor across a specific kart racing class in a championship is the brand/model of engine everyone uses. And here’s where I was super confused when researching karting. I thought “100cc” or “125cc” was the engine spec and the manufacturer of the engine didn’t matter. It does matter, a lot. This goes for all major karting championships in the US (with a few exceptions). This means in order to run in your chosen class, you must purchase the exact engine they require everyone run.

What differs between teams are the chassis they run. So, for example, I ran in a class that was exclusively for racers who ran the ROK GP engine. However, there were multiple different chassis manufactures represented from Tony Kart, to Birel Art.

To equate this to auto racing, the closet class set up that comes to mind is the European Lemans Series LMP2 class, wherein we have the likes of Ligier, Dallara, and Oreca chassis competing, but all of them are required to run a Gibson V8 engine. The same basic structure applies in karting. The advantage of this format is that if you want to run a different class, you don’t have to necessarily buy a new kart, you simply have to swap to a different engine that meets the requirements of your class.

Step 2: Okay now you can buy the kart

So you’ve consulted with your closest kart racing series, and have a good idea of what class you want to run in, but where do you buy a kart from? I honestly thought this was going to be super easy, but coming across a used kart online is actually not as easy as it sounds. The best way I found to get a kart is via the racing series directly, or by asking if any teams have karts for sale, as they don’t always list them publicly. Regardless of who you buy it from, what you need to keep in mind is that the kart chassis you run determines who’s capable of servicing it (unless you plan on servicing / working on your own kart). For example, if you buy a Tony Kart chassis, only a team that runs Tony Kart chassis will be able to service it at the track, be an option for you to tent with, or at the very least act as a place where you can buy parts if/when you need them (you will).

Really confusing side note worth mentioning – this likely goes for many chassis manufactures, but we’ll use OTK as an example as they’re the worst offenders: Tony Kart, Kosmic, EOS, RedSpeed, and Exprit are all the exact same kart, but in different colors/graphics. OTK is the parent company to all of them. As mentioned, this is just one example, but manufactures do this sometime as a way to provide a more diverse color selection of frames to teams. So don’t be confused if you see what appear to be all different kart makes with one team.

 

Step 3: What to look for in a used kart

I also suggest buying a used kart instead of a new kart. If you’re buying used, just make sure to check the underside of the chassis for excessive scraping / flat spots on the metal tubing itself. A little bit is to be expected if they weren’t running any frame protectors, but excessive flat areas or cracked tubing is generally worth avoiding. This matters because a chassis flexes during cornering and over bumps. The more flex (or give) it has, the slower you’ll generally go. You want a stiff chassis that will communicate everything the tires feel.

At the Track: Self Service VS Tent VS Arrive and Drive

The last major choice you have to make before racing is how you want your efforts to function at the track. There are endless combinations of services available, but I’ve broken down the three most popular styles.

Self Service Option: Let’s say you bought and own your own kart. If you’re transporting your own kart to the track, setting up your own workspace, and servicing the kart yourself, you can buy basically any chassis you’d like. However, I would highly suggest buying a chassis that a medium to large size team already runs in your chosen series. This way, if for whatever reason you require new parts, you can buy them off a team at the track, as they will have a large supply of them on hand. Transporting and servicing your own kart is of course the most cost effective option.

Tent Program: A tent program (also known as “pitting with – insert team name”) can be as basic or as involved as you need it to be. At the minimum, pitting with a team lets you bring your own kart and work on it yourself under the tent of a team. This usually costs anywhere from $100 - $300 a day (just to be under their tent). The benefit of doing this is you get to talk with other drivers who are running the same equipment, ask general set up questions of their mechanics and drivers, and have access to all the parts you could ever need.

On the opposite end of the tent program spectrum, you can do the karting equalivant of an arrive and drive program, where you’ll be assigned your own mechanic, who works on your kart for you and wheels you out to the grid. You can also opt for the team to transport your kart to and from races as well, such that you simply need to show up with your racing gear and nothing more. Hell, you can even go so far as to not even own the kart, and simply use one of the team’s existing karts. How much service you’d like from the team is totally up to you (and your budget).

If you’re a first-time kart racing, I highly recommend joining a team’s tent program as it’s the fastest way to learn all the ins and outs of karting. I utilized a tent program for the 2021 season, and used a select few team services that suited my needs. I owned my own kart, worked on it myself, but let the team transport and store it for me as I live in a downtown metro area and don’t have much storage space for a kart. This let me learn how to work on karts in an environment where I could easily ask questions to mechanics, while also saving me from having to buy a trailer to transport the kart. When you factor in hotels, food, and race registration costs, the total cost for a weekend was about $1,800 for me with this set up (Thursday – Sunday).  

Sponsorship & Marketing (Kind of our thing, but in this case not so much)

Our entire reason for karting to help educate racers who are climbing the ranks by attempting to run the karting effort mainly off of sponsorship we obtain, and then openly documenting / blogging on exactly how we secured and implemented said sponsorship such that others may be able replicate and learn from our success.

As far as trying to break even on costs, we didn’t come anywhere close. Our season running budget (outside of the purchase of a kart and gear) was about $8,000. We recouped about $2,500. But with failure comes a ton of learning. Here is everything we learned and how you can apply it.

It’s worth noting that we did actually secure two small sponsors. 34 Motorsports, our local kart racing safety equipment shop, and Yellow Images, a popular digital mock-ups company. You can read more about each deal in their respective links. As great as these deals were, they weren’t exactly funding our effort. We’ll actually be releasing some more info on this in the weeks/months to come as it pertains to out-reach.

Learning 1: The sponsorship programs we’re familiar with that work well in professional motorsports (i.e. pro auto-racing series), really don’t scale well for karting, especially if the championship you race in isn’t promoted. Your number one channel of communication will likely be your own social media accounts and website. This means you need to do all the leg work, as there’s likely nothing a series or team will offer you or your sponsors. It just doesn’t make economic sense on the karting level unless you’re racing in a very large national event (and even then, sponsorship is not that common). Going into karting, we didn’t realize this.

Learning 2: The best way to save money in karting is by putting together very basic packages like we did with are sponsors 34 Motorsports. They saved us a lot in karting equipment costs in exchange for direct promotion within the series we raced in. Simple exchanges like this can ultimately save you a good amount while also building connections and trust within in the industry.

Learning 3: If you want to actually kart “for free”, you can do what I personally tried for a SKUSA weekend at New Castle Raceway. I spent an entire race weekend with a kart team not as a driver, but as a paid team member / mechanic. I performed all the basic set up functions, basic kart mechanical work, and even some more advanced tasks like engine swaps once I felt confident enough. Working for a team for a weekend teaches you way more about how a kart works and how to set it up (even more so than being a driver in some respects). And believe it or not, one full race weekend with a team nearly subsidized my own race weekend the following week.

Learning 4: Creating image and video content at the track is way harder than you think. When you’re the driver, the last thing on your mind is doing any type of marketing work. All you’re focused on is making the kart faster or analyzing your laps. To then shift your mindset and start filming, or taking pictures, or posting to social media is mentally very taxing. If your karting content is super valuable to you or your sponsors, I recommend getting a dedicated person to handle this aspect. Otherwise, do your content production post race, or at the hotel (if you’ve got the energy….you won’t)

Learning 5: A real sponsor that subsidizes your karting efforts will not do so because they’re looking to utilize karting as a platform (in 99% of all cases). They’ll do so because they’re actually getting a legitimate and unrelated service from you or your business, and being included in the kart team is just a nice little bonus with no outcomes or goals attached. Again, this might not be the case for really large karting events, but if you’re just getting into karting, you’re probably not racing in a national level series. And if you are…you don’t need sponsors.

Learning 6: Though not a channel to any up-front form of payment, the karting community is super friendly, and the networking opportunities are endless. If you’re already surrounded by hundreds of likeminded racers and teams, take advantage of the opportunity to build your network. If you plan on racing in much larger series (automotive or otherwise), lots of teams are well connected all the way up the motorsports food chain.

Alright, by now, you should be able to piece together some rough plans, pick out a championship, and maybe find a team to tent with. Now we’ll cover what it’s like to drive.    

Driving Tips and Impressions for Season One

If you’ve never raced anything before and you decide to compete in a 100cc kart class or faster, you will almost certainly be taken aback by just how brutal and fast they are when you first hit the track. For some people, it may honestly discourage you from even considering racing, as it did with me. It was really that difficult, but in hindsight, I would have massively regretted quitting after day 1 given my progression over the full season. I took me four full days of seat time before I began to feel confident in my abilities to set consistent flyers. You can also read my first blog on what karting was like for more details.

Novice Tip 1: Your out-lap is for building heat in the tires, and running at around 75-80% of your full pace. It’s not for trying to go as fast as you can. This was the first (and last) mistake I made in my first practice session.

Novice Tip 2: Study Go-Pro footage. It’s really hard to judge your pace in the moment, but seeing a reply after the fact is a great tool for improving. Not only that, but comparing your footage to faster drivers helps even more. You can clearly see the difference in footage between a good driver, and a great driver. Good drivers know the lines, but their consistency lap by lap may fluctuate. Great drivers are nearly perfect every lap, always on the limit.

Novice Tip 3: Make sure your kart has a Micron computer mounted and running. They’re not typically required, but everyone has them. They monitor engine temps, RPM, speed, lap times, etc. I didn’t run with one in my first full season, and I regret that decision as it’s important to know critical data like engine temps. Engine temps are really important. Not knowing engine temps can also be really expensive. Microns are also cheaper than engine rebuilds.

Novice Tip 4: So long as your kart isn’t damaged or obviously out of shape, the changes you make to improve the set up will pale in comparison to the improvements you make in your driving style. A really solid setup change might gain you a quarter second, but an improvement in your driving when starting out will bag you multiple seconds easily. Case in point, I was running nearly last in my entire first weekend of karting. By the third race weekend, I was vying for a podium. I didn’t change a damn thing on the kart they entire time. And even if I did, I doubt I’d have the seat time / experience to feel it. So don’t sweat the small set up details when starting out and just drive the kart for everything it’s worth.

Summary

If you’re a first time racer looking to get into karting, I hope this recap of my experience helped paint a picture of what to expect and how to get started. As an agency owner, I certainly learned for more than I expected, both in terms of marketing within karting, and what it’s truly like to be in the shoes of a client (or racing boots I suppose). Though the purpose of running a short but well attended 3 race championship was to give the business real perspective, test marketing ideas, and help create education style content like this, that’s not to say we’ll be selling all of our equipment and hanging up the helmet now that the season’s over. “Ikoniqa Racing”, as the marketing effort was titled, won’t persist into 2022 (nor will our black and teal #9 machine), but if time permits, I certainly hope to continue racing, learning even more about the sport, and maybe even convince a few people to give it shot while I’m at it.