Opinion: The State of American Karting in Europe – Part 1

More Americans than ever are competing in Europe; but is this traditional first step to Formula 1 necessary?

Nicholas d'Orlando
American Nicholas d'Orlando competes in Europe at the 2017 European Championship event in Finland. Photo: Alex Vernardis / The RaceBox

More Americans are coming to the traditional first step of F1 – European karting competitions.  At a recent CIK-FIA race in Germany, only the host country, France, Spain, and Italy had more entries than the Americans in the junior category.  The Americans even outnumbered the Brits according to the CIK entry data.  I believe the number of junior kids coming over from America to learn the Euro karting way will be high over the next few few years, and then who knows if the cycle will continue.  The question is, is kart racing in Europe the best way for Americans?  Perhaps a more home-grown American path to F1 will emerge in the future. 

I have learned a lot racing my kid in Europe the last few months.  I have made some mistakes with him and understand the landscape a lot better now.  I left him, twelve at the time, on an island in Europe for three months with no coaching, and not personally overseeing his progress, then I flipped him from one chassis and team to another complicating his learning.  He also spends time racing slippery Legends cars in the States which he will continue to enjoy even as it sacrifices his edge in high-grip Euro karting.  We like having his feet in both racing worlds.  He will continue to do races in Europe this year and next, but the Americans have their own good thing going on back in the states.  

Let me start by making a few statements.       

The young American talent pool for auto racing may be the best talent pool in the world right now and it is a few years deep all the way into mini-karts, and other sundry stateside racing formats.  

The main premise of this article is that Americans should be judged by standards other than European kart racing alone – a different body of work should be measured. 

I believe that the few, best American karting talents today are just as good as the few best European karting talents, it is just hard to tell sometimes when they meet to race in Europe.

Think how many talented Americans are lost out of the F1 pool from a young age by pursuing other American auto racing paths, such as NASCAR and more. 

We will start by talking about American karting in Europe then with Part II we will talk about an American making it to F1.  Currently, karting in Europe is perceived as the necessary first step on a path to F1, but is it the right, and only path, for Americans?  I say, I don’t think it has to be, even as my own son is concentrating his kart racing over there now and next year.  I think a better path can emerge.    

First, we need to understand that American auto racing is seriously fragmented compared to Europe.  There are so many paths for American kids – Indy Car, NASCAR, dirt trucks and cars, NHRA, sports cars, rally cross, X-Games racing events, and so much more.  Sure, Europe has some of these competing paths but they don’t have big-time NASCAR and surging IndyCar.  F1 dwarfs everything in Europe.  F1 doesn’t dwarf much of anything in the states, yet.  

Before the racing snobs think that the top racers in those non-F1 categories are inferiorly talented to F1 drivers I say you better think again.  In my opinion, with nothing substantial to back it up, Kyle Busch of NASCAR, for instance, might be a more talented racing driver than Lewis Hamilton. Who knows? Kyle Busch was never destined to race in F1, but if he was, America might have the best talent in F1 right now, and there are other young talents nibbling on Busch’s heals in NASCAR that could have been F1 stars as well if their fathers had put them on different paths as youngsters.       

As previously mentioned, I split-up my kid’s time in 2017 in his introductory year in junior karting to race Legends cars which is the first step to NASCAR.  He found a lot of success, but we found that Legends car racing is more challenging than racing and winning in karting.  I think the same level-of-difficulty might transfer when you compare NASCAR to open-wheel cars. Who knows? At the very least it is very different, and not any easier.  My point is that there is a huge talent pool of young racers in American racing all kinds of different motorsports.

If you put Americans against Euro racers on the motors they are used to racing, they look good and compete best head-to-head.

Second, the OKJ motor platform now popular at many of the big races in Europe is nowhere to be found in the states.  American kids are now growing up on IAME junior motors with a little Rok and Rotax mixed in.  The predominate motors used in the states have superior mid-range to the OKJ and respond differently to the driver.  It seems like a small deal and it is, but on some weekends at European karting races a tenth of a second is the difference between pole and 20th.  Then, it is a big deal.  Familiarity is important.  OKJ is not a motor that should be used to judge American talent.  Americans don’t have much time in Europe to make impressions.  About the time the American kids figure it all out if might be too late.

Americans can show up and win based on their skills if all the Euro-crazy testing is removed.  

Third, European karting racers test more than their American counterparts.  I am not talking a small amount either.  There are Americans that spend all their free time travelling and pre-testing at tracks that hold important race venues, but they are few and far between.  Also, the geographical footprint is much more compact in Europe than the States.  Many Europeans know that in their world it is a requirement to test and then to test some more in order to be at the front of an 80-entry junior field in Europe. Some European teams test more than others – some a lot more and you see it in their results.  In the end, I feel that all this testing masks true show-up-at-the-track-and-race talent.  This reason is why I am such a big fan of well-done temporary venues such as SKUSA Supernationals in Las Vegas.  There is no testing.  

It takes a while for the Americans to adjust to the nuances of driving with a lot of grip.

Fourth, the racing grip levels, tire compounds, and tire side-wall stiffness in the states are extremely different than Europe in most popular series.  This is the single biggest challenge to judging American talent.  I remember one really grippy race in the states in six years of racing my kid – it was a SKUSA Pro-Tour race in Dallas immediately after the track owners had laid down a lot of new “Rhino“ grip.  I have talked to high-performing Euro racers who were at that race and they agree it was highly gripped-up, but nothing like, say, LaConca anytime of the year. Many tracks in Europe grip up.  It is the tires, but it is also the higher number of racers at events.  It is the perfect-storm for grip and Americans don’t spend a lot of time on tracks with this much grip.     

Put the American kids on more familiar surfaces and they will be more impressive.

Fifth, somewhat related to testing is track familiarity, the American kids do not know the tracks in Europe.  We live in Texas, but if you take my kid to race in Sonoma or Phoenix he is going to know those tracks better than a Euro kid coming over to race.  The racers in Florida can race Homestead, Orlando, or GoPro Motorplex with their eyes closed.  Others know New Castle in Indiana or the LAKC track like the back of their hand.  Conversely, the kids who race in Europe know the circuits because, in some cases, they have raced them for years.  And if European racers haven’t raced at those tracks then they cruise over a few weeks before a big race and test.  It makes a huge difference.

The qualifying format in Europe is a lot for an American kid to adjust to and if one doesn’t qualify well, they are not going to win in Europe.

Sixth, I think that most of the qualifying in Europe is a huge distraction for new American kids and takes time to get experiential confidence.  The promotor or sanctioning body in Europe can give the racer eight minutes to qualify, then, usually, the teams decide that four minutes of that time is all they need for their drivers.  They hold the drivers on the grid.  So as a racer you go out to scrub your tires for the first lap and spend the final three laps with 30 other karts trying to get a decent lap.  I understand new tire degradation, tire temperature, and I get the logic of it all, but at the end of the day this is just a lot of people following a lot of other people.  I saw a local kid recently at a track in Germany defy the standard and he went out quickly by himself for a few laps and ended up setting the fastest time in his group, using the entire eight-minute session. I’m surprised a few others don’t do this more often but the teams prefer a high-stress three lap run. 

I could go on and talk about hardships of travelling back and forth or living in Europe, education, choosing the right race relationships from across the pond, the importance of experiential confidence and more including some controversial stuff.

The karting talent pool in Europe is deeper because the racers race more, there are more of them and they come from all over the world.  Yet, year-to-year now America does have a few just as talented drivers as the world’s best, it may just be harder to tell if you look at European karting alone – which is what is happening currently.

Do you remember the old ABC Sports series called “International Race of Champions?” The old IROC series tried to match racing’s best from around the world in equal sports car equipment.  Point is, it wasn’t always fair for every driver who came from a wide spectrum of auto racing to these basic IROC sports cars.  It was and is hard to create a level-playing field in order to judge world-wide talent.   

Similarly, it is impossible to get a direct, fair comparison of karting racers from different geographies by judging European kart racing alone.

I will say it again because I believe it, the best example of a completely fair race in the entire world is the annual SKUSA Supernationals race in Las Vegas.  

Here is a different idea – CIK-FIA should host an Americas series, or even just an annual temporary circuit-based race, in the USA that attracts, mostly, both North and South American racers.  A lot of North and South Americans now have to make the long trek to the old country to race a CIK-FIA event.  This could be a better way and grow international sanctioned karting in the States.  I believe it would also start to show that CIK is not so Euro-biased.

Part II will examine the hardships to an American making it in F1, and why our USA kids chose IndyCar and NASCAR paths instead of an F1 path.  Young American talents coming up do in fact fit the need for the F1 teams very well and F1 is going to be a bigger deal in the USA in the next 10 years. The die is being cast right now with major decisions by heavy-hitters including F1’s owners. The F1 teams must re-look at their karting ladders in order to attract Americans instead of predominately Euro-based racers.  If not, F1 will continue to lose American talent to alternative American racing paths.


Other articles in this series:

Part II: The Hardships of An American Making it to F1