Go-karts provide a stepping stone for future racers
By Nicholas Dettmann
Alex Prunty knows there are still children out there eager to learn about auto racing and go-kart racing. The challenge is finding them.
This year, the three-time track champion at Slinger Super Speedway is a mentor in the Memorial Go-Kart Program at the track. The program was started in honor of Parker Klumb, who died Sept. 27, 2007, after he was hit by a car while riding his bike.
It was Klumb’s desire to build a go-kart and race it with his friends.
“We had a kid that had never raced anything before and you could see at the start of the day that he really wasn’t that excited about it,” Prunty said. “He just thought it was a go-kart.”
A go-kart like you see at an amusement park.
That kid was wrong.
“After we did some hot laps, the smile was there,” Prunty said. “He looked like me after my first run in a Super Late.
“He said, ‘Wow. This is really fun.’ Of course his dad says he’s screwed. And here we go; we’ve got another kid involved in racing. … He’s excited about it.”
Unfortunately for those who have lived and breathed racing, the chances of those thrills repeating are quickly shrinking.
According to www.xtraactionsports.com, there are less than 15 go-kart tracks in Wisconsin. Among those in southeastern, eastern and northeastern Wisconsin include Slinger, Beaver Dam, Dousman, Elkhart Lake and Clintonville.
“It makes you wonder how many more kids can you get involved,” Prunty said.
These days, that question is difficult to answer.
A still uneasy economy makes parents weary of starting their son or daughter in go-kart racing. It’s too expensive. It’s too time-consuming. Nobody knows how to do it.
It’s a challenge, especially as go-kart tracks and “big boy” tracks continue to falter at a greater rate than tracks being built.
Prunty said he’s taken his race car to several public relations events and has been amazed at the response by the kids.
“The kids would come up and they’ve never seen a race car before,” Prunty said. “Their parents have never taken them to a race track. I don’t know if it’s a generational-type of thing.
“Me growing up (in racing), it’s kind of like second nature. People don’t take their kids to race tracks. That’s got to change if we’re going to survive.”
Go-karts at least provide a reasonable avenue.
“We’ve got to give the kids something cheap that can’t stress the parents out financially,” Prunty said. “That’s half the reason I didn’t start racing was my parents couldn’t afford it and look at the background that I have.”
At most go-kart tracks, children as young as 5 years old can start racing. Several other places offer go-kart opportunities for adults as well.
Ed Bertram, owner of GSR Kartway in Clintonville, said the interest with participants and cars has been stable for the last several years.
That hasn’t held true everywhere.
“Some people build (tracks or karts) and find out it’s not as much fun as they thought and they close up,” said Bertram, who has owned GSR Kartway since it opened in 1997. “They come and they go.”
At Slinger, fundraising helps offset costs, while children are mentored by drivers. The children are hands-on, right next to the driver. They learn everything there is to know about racing. They also learn social skills and teamwork. Plus at Slinger, scholarship opportunities are available.
“It’s the most inexpensive thing you can do and you can race until you’re 16,” Prunty said.
“It’s fun seeing people grow,” he added. “It kind of reminds me of what my dad sees with me, working our way up. You have to start somewhere.”
Gwen Prunty, the daughter of three-time Slinger track champion Dennis Prunty, was a participant in the program.
“Growing up in a racing family, you’ve got to start somewhere,” she said.
In addition to social skills and team building opportunities, it’s also another avenue for children to connect with their family. In this case for Gwen, who also plays volleyball and basketball, it was her father.
“It was another subject to talk about,” she said.
Gwen has since moved on from Slinger and races go-karts at Road America in Elkhart Lake. She hopes someday to get into a race car. However, she is still seen at Slinger helping her dad on his Super Late Model, including changing tires.
“If we didn’t have racing, I don’t know where I would be in life or where our relationship would be at,” Gwen said.
Those hesitant to put kids into go-karts are that way because there are other finances – mortgage, car payments, college tuition, etc. But, as Slinger co-promoter Todd Thelen pointed out, go-kart tracks and programs are an opportunity to develop skills, which could lead to jobs.
“The tools … the skills that these kids learn to work on something … most schools don’t have shop classes anymore,” Thelen said. “I don’t care if you’re racing a kart here or at Dousman or Road America or Beaver Dam. These kids are learning hands-on skills … high schools, they want to be prep schools (for college). Everybody’s got to go to college. Nobody does things with their hands anymore.”
Thelen added more than $20,000 has been raised in scholarships since Slinger introduced its program.
Go-kart tracks also act as feeder programs for regional tracks. For example, Ty Majeski, arguably the hottest short-track racer in the country, used to race go-karts and he remains involved in go-kart driver development.
The drivers that hard-core and long-time fans have grown up loving won’t be around forever. That’s why people like Alex Prunty, Bertram and others are doing what they can to make sure those seats are filled when they become vacant.
“It’s the first stepping stone to go racing,” Bertram said. “They’ve got to start some place.”
Follow Nicholas on Twitter: @dettmann_wbdn