BATESVILLE, Miss. — Story By Race Chaser Online Senior Editor Tom Baker — Tom Baker/Jam Promotions photos —
Race Chaser Online Senior Editor Tom Baker has been the voice of the O’Reilly Auto Parts National Indoor Kart Championship for the past 15 years. We begin this week’s coverage of the 25th annual event (the largest indoor kart race in the world) with an insider piece detailing some of the history and flavor of one of the most unique events in grassroots Motorsports.
The world’s largest indoor go-kart race is celebrating it’s 25th birthday this weekend.
The O’Reilly Auto Parts National Indoor Kart Championship (NIKC) began in a building
on the Memphis (Tenn.) Fairgrounds that would be affectionately nicknamed “The Thunderdome”, under the direction of former kart racer Lanier James and a staff of people passionate about putting on a race that would be a special event for those involved.
James spent some time racing go-karts himself in his younger days, and later on his son Shane became a championship kart racer who went on to own and operate a full-service kart shop for several years, building motors and selling everything anyone would need to go racing.
The early races at the Thunderdome gave the local racers the chance to have fun and compete against some of their regional brethren, and the number of racers increased each year as word spread and the event continued to grow.
By 2001, the NIKC had outgrown the Thunderdome, and James found a willing new partner at the Paul Battle Arena and Expo Center in Tunica, Mississippi. It was in that building surrounded by the casinos and the energy of the Tunica area at that time that the event morphed into something far beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.
The number of entries kept increasing until it reached over 1500, encompassing over a dozen different racing classes per day and including racers from as far away as Canada.
O’Reilly Auto Parts came on board during the early Tunica years as presenting and title sponsor when my announcing partner Bobby Waltrip and Lanier James put together a promotional video and a proposal and took it to the company’s headquarters. There, a deal was struck for the race to become the first of its kind in karting with outside corporate support.
Racers can now go to any O’Reilly Auto Parts store in the USA and purchase their pit passes at a discounted price for the event, as the company has given those a “part number”. This allows for tracking of how many racers visit the stores and gives the event a unique way to pre-sell pit passes.
The event is always a pass-through for future “big-car” racing talent. Nationally known drivers including Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., Kevin and Sammy Swindell, Kraig Kinser, A.J. Foyt IV, Ben Rhodes and Trevor Bayne have all tackled the world’s largest indoor kart race with varying degrees of success as they cut their racing teeth in karts before moving on to bigger and better things in the sport.
Several years ago the event moved a bit further South to Batesville, Mississippi, with the action taking place at the Batesville Civic Center. It has lived there ever since.
The wraparound style seating at Batesville lets spectators watch from a variety of angles. Last year, the center built 20 brand new RV Parking areas just for the racers who come in and want to stay in their campers.
The action from the NIKC has been seen on ESPN2, Speedvision TV (now known as Fox Sports 1), Versus (now known as NBCSN) and other networks. It is streamed live via the Internet to thousands of people worldwide each Thanksgiving weekend, an endeavor that allows for unprecedented viewership of what a two-day karting championship event is really like.
If you want to watch, here is the link to do so — http://ustre.am/QM6L .
I have been thankful to be the voice of the NIKC since the first race in Tunica in 2001, doing the announcing alone the first year and then sharing that honor with the aforementioned Bobby Waltrip (who also raced in the event when it was at the Thunderdome) from 2002 until 2013.
“Bob-Wal” passed away in the spring of 2014 and we will always remember him as the key man behind the O’Reilly partnership and a true ambassador not just for our event but for karting in general. I miss spending time here with him and I will always dedicate my part in the event to him for as long as Lanier allows me to remain involved.
Lanier and his partners at JAM Promotions started the race, and a lot of very capable and passionate people have staffed it and worked it for the past 25 years. A lot of folks would be surprised to know just what it takes to put on a race of this magnitude every year in terms of both dollars and time spent laboring over all the various tasks for months prior to the event.
It’s a mammoth undertaking, to say the least.
Lanier has incorporated things into this event that other promoters could learn from. He hands out a”goodie bag” at registration to every entrant, filled with a rule book, information and a variety of gifts and souvenirs as a thank you for coming and participating.
He unveils the infamous flatbed “trailer of prizes” each day at the driver’s meeting stocked with thousands of dollars worth of merchandise that the racers walk away with through lucky number drawings at the end of the meeting. We’re not just talking about kart parts or tires.
Microwaves, bicycles, TV’s and just about anything else you can think of are subject to being on that trailer.
JD Motorsports, the NASCAR XFINITY Series team that Landon Cassill, Ross Chastain and Harrison Rhodes race for, gives us a couple of VIP NASCAR fan experiences to give away each year at the event, with team owner Johnny Davis and the team playing gracious host for those experiences at the track.
It is important to Lanier and his staff that as many racers as possible go home with something. But it’s not just the racers that Lanier wants to take care of. Several years ago, he hatched the idea of what has now become the infamous NIKC “Frisbee Toss” for the spectators.
Each night prior to the main events, the racers who qualify for the night’s main events are given Frisbees with their class name and kart number on the back. At the end of the pre-race, the nearly 400 racers toss the Frisbees up into the spectator seats and those who happen to get a frisbee with a winning kart number/class combination are awarded a prize.
One of the things I respect most about our event is Lanier’s leadership in safety. Safety tech for the karts is strict and well-defined, and Lanier was the first to utilize the locking “safety barrier” system around the outside of the track area (remember, the race is run in an arena, on a dirt oval track formed on the main floor).
When a kart hits these barriers, often times it just glances off of them and keeps going. They have surely saved a great deal of damage to karts and, most likely, injuries to racers versus hitting the jersey barriers that normally line the outside of a track like this. I personally think they’re more efficient and practical than tires or hay bails.
The NIKC now runs 20 different “classes” of karts per day, so that’s 20 main events per night for fans to watch in person and on the net!
Practice each race day starts at 8 a.m. and is followed by the drivers meeting, and then two rounds of group qualifying. 20 karts start each main event. The fastest ten from each of the two rounds of qualifying make the main. Everyone else loads up or gets ready for their next class.
Here are some other fun facts about the ONIKC…
Many racers run multiple classes throughout the weekend. Koby Borecky is a racer who is…particularly passionate. He is entered in 13 of the 40 classes already this weekend!
Kevin Weldon, now a full-time mechanic for World of Outlaws Sprint Car Champion Donny Schatz on Donny’s dirt late model program, is the only driver to have won every major class at the National Indoor Kart Championship. In his 17 years of competition at the race, he’s won Briggs Junior 1, 2 and 3 and stock light, medium and heavy in addition to Clone light, medium and heavy and champ kart.
The track construction crew, led by Lanier and Shane James, begins work on forming the dirt the weekend prior to the event. It takes several days of work to make it race ready.
The JAM Promotions office is in Memphis, Tenn. It takes multiple truck/trailer combinations to bring in all the equipment needed to put on the show, giving it a distinct “rock concert” type feel early in the week seeing the caravan descend upon the arena grounds.
Lanier has a “food trailer” with staff members who actually prepare meals each day and keep snacks and beverages well stocked for those of us who work the race.
Over 40 staff members work at-track and many of them start months in advance behind the scenes to put the details together.
The bronze “slot machine” replica trophy was created specifically for the NIKC when the event was being held in Tunica (near the casinos!) and is one of the most unique trophies in the sport.
The NIKC held the first ever $20,000 to win race on the event’s 20th Anniversary, and the 20-kart race went green-to-checker as Shay Chavous walked off with the big bucks in a race that lasted less than 15 minutes including victory lane ceremonies.
All of the “Pro” division races pay $1000 to win and “Elite Pro” division classes pay $2500.
Over $65,000 in purses plus all the prizes make the NIKC one of karting’s most prolific events.
The NIKC is the largest event held at the Batesville Civic Center all year, just as it was when it was run in Tunica.
This event features one “NEF” (no entry fee) class per day. Racers can enter one regular class and then run in the NEF class for no extra money. The NEF classes pay a minimum of $300 per day to win.
The live videocast attracts viewers from across the nation and the world. I once chatted during our live broadcast with a viewer from Egypt while we were under yellow during a race!
Videostreaming actually started on Wednesday night with a special talk-show style preview called “Oval Kart Media’, hosted by yours truly and Event Coordinator Scotty Reed, featuring insider commentary from many of the event’s key people.
We will broadcast live much of Thanksgiving Day, interviewing racers of all ages plus sponsors and others who play a role in making this event special. This year rumors say we’ll even have a couple of sprint car racers dropping by our set with his nieces who are racing in our event this year.
You just never know who’s going to be at Batesville!
When it comes to race day, video starts streaming during practice, and then we let you watch the entire driver’s meeting including prize giveaways before we pump up the volume with two crazy qualifying rounds, the pre-race including the Frisbee toss and the 19 main events! We don’t want you to miss out on a single part of our wild and wooly weekend.
I was asked one time what I think the coolest fact about the NIKC is and my response was quick. We race rain or shine! It may get a bit wet or chilly outside at times, but inside it’s dry and always ready for racing.
Lanier, Shane and the staff have given me 15 opportunities to do something I love to do and actually get “rewarded” for it. It’s become “Thanksgiving” for those of us who come together each year for the annual “racing family reunion”.
But don’t take my word for it – check out the live broadcast on Thursday, Friday or Saturday at this link — http://ustre.am/QM6L, or — if you’re a kart racer — come and check it out for yourself at the Batesville Civic Center!
Happy 25th Birthday ONIKC. Here’s hoping for many more. Now, let’s go racing!
If you want to know more about the 25th Annual O’Reilly Auto Parts National Indoor Kart Championship, check them out on Facebook (O’Reilly Indoor National Kart Championship) or on their website at www.ONIKC.com.