Back in late March and early April, when the coronavirus pandemic was afflicting even those who abided by the general rules of social distancing, using face masks and being ultra fastidious regarding hygiene standards, there was plenty speculation that some series – including major ones – would have to scrub their whole 2020 schedules.
Given that worrying prospect, one initially felt sad for the rookies in such championships, kids who had sweated for years to either excel in lower formulas or to write compelling cases on their bank loan application forms – or both – to make it to the top and who were now were left sitting on their hands or in their sims. These included young folk of considerable promise such as Oliver Askew and Rinus VeeKay in IndyCar, Nicholas Latifi in Formula 1, and Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick and Cole Custer in NASCAR Cup.
In fact, of course, a severe reduction in races would be felt far more acutely by veterans, just a few tours from the checkered flag waving over their careers. In NTT IndyCar Series terms, think Tony Kanaan, Takuma Sato, Scott Dixon, Will Power, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Sebastien Bourdais, while in NASCAR this is due to be the legendary Jimmie Johnson’s final full season.
For now, the hastily drawn-up contingency plans appear to have ameliorated the situation for most of these vets. Kanaan, now cast as an oval-only specialist, had already declared that 2020 would be his last season of multiple races – from 2021, he’d be Indy 500 only – so the 2004 IndyCar champ and 2013 Indy 500 winner will be more grateful than most at the series’ continuing attempts to keep 15 races on the schedule and he’s even seen his duties increase! The original five ovals remain on the revised schedule but Iowa will now run two races. By way of doleful contrast is the outlook for one of the drivers with whom he’ll share the #14 AJ Foyt Racing-Chevrolet: Bourdais has seen his original roster of four events – St. Petersburg, Barber Motorsports Park, Long Beach and Portland – reduced to one definite (Portland) and one TBD (a possibly rescheduled St. Pete at season’s end).
There have been further frustrations for veteran drivers, too, and in Power’s case it has been one of business. Five years ago he’d have told you that he had no interest in team ownership, but this year he was planning to invest time and money at the lower end of the racing spectrum, by setting up a kart-building and preparation company, as well as a team, called Will Power Kart. His plans have, like the rest of motorsport, been in a holding pattern since mid-March due to the pandemic, but once the country starts opening up, he aims to swiftly move forward.
In his first real venture into entrepreneurship, Power’s motives are pure.
“We want to start building a path into racing for kids who have the talent but don’t have the money,” the 2014 IndyCar champion and 2018 Indy 500 winner tells Motorsport.com. “Karting’s really good training for drivers aiming to go all the way to the top, whether that’s Formula 1 or IndyCar or IMSA or DTM or Supercars… All of the top guys in those categories raced karts because there’s no better or cheaper form of motorsport available to train you for progressing into cars. It’s such a great racing, and I think most of us would agree it’s pretty much essential.
“What I really like about it is that it’s also still really useful to go karting once you’ve reached the top. It gives you good car fitness, because you have no power steering and they have a lot of grip and your body takes a good pounding. You can do it for fun, or you can do it to stay race-sharp. In a kart, you have to be so neat and tidy and precise with your lines or you scrub off speed, so it’s really good for your driving – and your mental technique. You have to concentrate at every corner but at the same time think further ahead to the next corner and the next.
“So if it can still be useful for an experienced driver, obviously it’s super-valuable for kids in the early stages of their career. There’s so much they’ll learn there that they’ll be able to apply throughout their careers.”
The Will Power Kart idea was born last November, at the Superkarts Supernats in Las Vegas, when Power’s former crew chief Billy Vincent attended to run the Penske’s ace’s kart.
Power recalls: “Billy got so excited, and eventually said, ‘Why don’t we create a kart – Will Power Kart – and have a team?’ And we started talking and we decided, yeah, we need to start helping kids coming into the sport.
“That developed into the idea of also helping these young kids go from karts into cars. Billy has a good relationship with [Indy Pro 2000 and USF2000 team owner] Augie Pabst, and Augie seemed keen, as well as Eric Jones of Kartsport North America, and that was key. So we decided to start building a program that if people win regionally in our karts, then they can move into KartSport to run nationally, and if they win there, then they can get a free test in USF2000 with Pabst Racing. Long-term, we want to eventually get it to where the best drivers can do a full season of USF2000 with Pabst, which is obviously a quality team.
“Right now we’re selling Will Power Kart all around the country and Billy along with his brother Brett are going to be running the team up in Indianapolis. Unfortunately coronavirus has put everyone on standby.”
Vincent, like Power, has long espoused the virtues of karting.
“It’s just so pure isn’t it?” he says. “It’s pure racing. There’s no messing about trimming wickers and that sort of stuff. It’s just about getting the thing rolling as best you can and then the driver racing the heck out of it. If we’re doing that for kids, basically helping them learn driving technique and racing technique, then I think we’re bringing something positive.
“We’re going to have some karts running with KartSport North America, in SKUSA [SuperKarts USA] on a national scale, and then me and my brother are MPG Motorsports [My Parents’ Garage] side of it, backing drivers in and around the Indianapolis area. We haven’t turned the website live because right now no one knows when racing and production is going to restart. We were going to be in the SKUSA event at NOLA the same weekend as St. Pete [IndyCar race] but it got cancelled along with everything else.
“Through KartSport’s relationship with Kart Republic in Italy we were able to get connected with them – they’re the best – but obviously everything there has been locked down because Italy got so badly hit by coronavirus. So this first season is going to be a case of doing what we can do. But we’re starting out as a team, and we’re also trying to sell the brand, preparing karts. This isn’t the ideal time to be calling people to say, ‘Hey, do you want to help sponsor this?’ but I think eventually we’ll have something pretty neat going.”
Given the stasis across the industry, right now the logistics of this project haven’t been figured out. Both Power and Vincent intend to be attending some of the races where WPK is in action, but naturally kart racing will restart around the same time as the rest of motorsport in this country, and the company’s founders have to attend to their day jobs in IndyCar. But there is (usually) a long off-season in IndyCar…
“Yeah, once this season is over – and obviously it’s going to be a bit later this year – the idea is that Will is going to be driving one of the karts in some of the SKUSA races,” says Vincent, “but he also has a dream of getting other IndyCar drivers, Supercars drivers and NASCAR drivers involved in the X30 Masters class in the Supernats in Vegas, and turn it into something of an all-star class. That would get the karting world a lot more exposure while having an absolute blast.
“We’d help supply the equipment but the drivers could get their own engineers involved. Like Josef Newgarden – his crew chief Travis Law is superkart-savvy, and I bet if we got Scott Dixon to do it, his chief mechanic Blair Julian would love to run him.
“Right now, that side of it is all thinking out loud – you know, hopes and dreams about where it can ultimately go. For now, we’ll be happy just to be supplying karts, running karts and hopefully giving some young drivers of real potential a bit of a boost early in their career.”
That, says Power, is his prime motivation in all this.
“In Vegas last November, I didn’t qualify well,” he recalls. “We made a mistake so it wasn’t handling right, so I was six-tenths [of a second] off pole – and that was enough to leave me outside the top 30! Man, talk about great competition: we think it’s cool in IndyCar when the top 20 is covered by just one second.
“But anyway, because of budgets, most racing series are heading towards total spec racing or at least spec in crucial areas and very tight rules. That throws a lot of emphasis on the driving. Well if you’re in a kart series where six tenths covers 30 drivers, that’s really quickly going to teach you the importance of discipline and precision. A kid coming into the sport at kart level will have it drilled into him or her right from the start that it’s crucial to get all the last little details of driving absolutely right in order to find fractions of a second. And once you learn that and it becomes second nature, it’s going to be helpful at each level of car racing.”
The whole car team ownership question – “Maybe eventually, but I’m starting small and seeing how it goes” – is more a discussion for a few seasons hence. Power believes he has “five or six more years” as an IndyCar driver within him and while that side of his career continues, it’s doubtful that he would welcome the race weekend distraction of, say, having a team in which he has a stake parked just across the paddock, in one of the Road To Indy categories. It’s not that Will can’t multi-task: it’s that he enters every competition wholeheartedly and wouldn’t ever give less than 100 percent to either his driving or a potential team ownership role.
That said, he’s already been mulling over one of the classic team owner predicaments…
“I love being at the kart track and spotting someone with a lot of talent,” he says. “But watching as a potential team owner is quite a bit different from watching when you’re a fan or a rival. Through my career, I’ve been so focused on improving myself that I’ve never really sat back and properly examined someone else to look for their strengths and weaknesses. I mean, obviously I’ve noticed other guys’ good and bad points – this one is good on ovals, this one is good in the wet, this one is better in races than qualifying, and so on – but that’s just things you spot along the way while you’re competing against them. I’ve never deeply analyzed a driver before – especially not with the end-goal of hiring them!
“But as a team owner, that’s one of your main jobs, right? Obviously I want to put someone really good in my karts, but I’d have to make some difficult decisions. Like, do I go for the kid who’s instantly fast but crashes a lot and needs calming down, or another kid who’s a bit slower but takes care of the equipment and gets better each time out? I don’t know, man. It’s tricky. But it’s also going to be fun.”
It sounds as if Power fully intends to make his role as hands-on as possible, and that Will Power Kart is not just about trying to help young karters who have the talent but not the money; the ace who has racked up 37 IndyCar wins and 57 pole positions also seems determined to provide a mentoring service in the crucial formative stages of his drivers’ racing careers.
Power agrees, stating: “Honestly, my main motivation is that I enjoy helping young people. I’ve been completely focused on racing – as in, trying to make a career of it – since 2000, and the last 15 or 16 years I’ve been at a high level of the sport, developing my skills, so I think I’m in a position to give decent advice. I want to be able to pass that knowledge on, so kids can utilize everything I’ve learned.
“I mean, I’m still learning now – it’s true that the whole process of gathering knowledge never stops – so I’m thinking it’s really giving kids a headstart if, right from the beginning of their careers, we can give them a certain level of understanding, even before they start building their own experience on top of that.
“I think that will be valuable, so that’s what Will Power Kart is going to be about.”
Yet another reason that Power, Vincent, Augie Pabst – and the rest of us – are looking forward to the resumption of racing activities across the nation.
Those interested in being part of Will Power Kart should email email@example.com