One of the appealing qualities of watching the Tour of California or even local professional baseball is the easy and natural relationship of those sports to our own lives.
Everyone has been on a bicycle. Everyone, at some time, has played catch or swung a bat. And those experiences, however slim for some, still allows all who watch to share a vicarious connection to the athletes.
And that’s exactly what makes this week’s Modesto Grand Prix such an unknown quantity. Unless you’ve actually been behind the wheel of an open-air vehicle that can exceed 100 mph and rides four inches off the pavement, there’s no way to comprehend the skill set necessary to compete on the Superkarts! USA circuit.
With that as a given, here are some questions and answers that may help fans understand and appreciate the event that will take over Downtown Modesto from Friday through Sunday.
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1 What is the Modesto Grand Prix?
The SKUSA SummerNationals is one of the three biggest events administered by Superkarts! USA each year. Up to 300 drivers will compete in eight different classes, based on experience, success and the size and power of the the kart, and whether operating the kart requires shifting. Winners in the top classes will take home a purse of about $2,000, and season-long points champions can win around $20,000.
2 Who are these racers?
According to SKUSA owner Tom Kutscher, there is no “average” racer. They range in ages from 8 to 60. Most are racing for the fun, but many use kart racing as a stepping stone to full-time professional racing, such as NASCAR, IndyCar and Formula 1.
3 The SKUSA circuit refers to a “Pro Series,” but are these racers full-time karters?
No, according to Kutscher, but many are full-timers in the broad spectrum of racing, earning their livings through karting and other types of racing, as well as through tutoring racers, building and maintaining cars and karts and testing cars and karts.
4 What kind of investment do these racers have in their karts?
Karts can be an investment of as much as $20,000, according to SKUSA, and that doesn’t include the fees to compete in each race.
5 How much will these racing teams spend on fees in Modesto?
According to Kutscher, each team will spend between $600-700 on entry fees, plus the tires, fuel and lubricant that must be purchased on site.
6 Can teams save money by purchasing tires, fuel and oil elsewhere?
No. SKUSA sets the precise specifications for tires, fuel and lubricants, and requires race teams to purchase those items from SKUSA and its afilliated vendors, some of which are operated by Kutscher.
7 Isn’t that a monopoly?
“It’s not a monopoly,” said Kutscher. “You spec tires, fuel and oil to keep everybody on the same level. When you open it up to three or four different tires, it becomes a rich man’s sport. This keeps everybody honest. We have a registration fee that includes fuel, oil and tires, and we’re able to discount them because they’re bought in bulk. But the biggest reason we do it is that it put everybody on the same page.”
8 But wouldn’t the race teams prefer the opportunity to save money by buying spec items elsewhere?
Not necessarily, according the Cody Hodgson, a kart regional champion from Escalon who will be racing this weekend. “I understand how that might look sketchy, but most series are doing things that way,” Hodgson said. “When we were racing other things, you had to run certain fuels or on certain tires, but you had to go out and find them yourselves. You might find cheaper deals somewhere, but there were weekends where we weren’t sure we’d be able to come up with the tires to run. When you show up at an event run by Tom, you know the tires, fuel and oil will be there waiting for you. It makes everything a lot more convenient.”
9 What will spectators see in Modesto?
Here’s Hodgson describing the action: “When people think of go-kart racing, they think of that cart in the back yard. I know people don’t realize that these basically are little Indy cars that will be going around Modesto at 100 miles an hour. Indy cars have a ton more power, but the power-to-weight ratio between karts and Indy cars is just about the same.”
10 How is kart racing different from other forms of auto racing?
“The experience of driving a go-kart kicks all other racing in the butt,” said Hodgson, who also has driven NASCAR and Sprint circuits. “I tell people that all the time, but everything is so much quicker and happens so much faster in a go-kart. In a stock car, yeah you’re doing 180 mph, but you’re in a much bigger area so if doesn’t feel as fast. In a go-kart you’re four inches off the ground and have 45 horsepower strapped to your back to move only 380 pounds. The acceleration is unbelievable - quicker than any car.”
11 Where will be the best spectator vantage point on the Modesto circuit?
The start-finish line is in front of the Gallo Center for the Arts, but according to Kutscher, the best way to watch the race will be to move around, to watch how the racers accelerate coming out of a corner, to see how they navigate the crowns of Modesto’s streets, to watch the breaking and cornering that can subject drivers to g-forces of up to 2.8.
12 Where do I park?
Modesto Area Express will be operating free shuttles from two locations on Saturday and Sunday. One is the Modesto Junior College football stadium lot at Stoddard and Tully, and the other is the Health Services of Stanislaus County and Pediatric Center at 830 Scenic Avenue. Buses will shuttle spectators both ways every 10 minutes between 11:30 a.m.- 11:45 p.m.