Never too old or poor to go karting

Jim Wenger is a news editor for Global Television and lives in Don Mills with his wife Anne and their three sons: university students James and Matthew, and Christopher, who goes to high school.

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Jim Wenger is a news editor for Global Television and lives in Don Mills with his wife Anne and their three sons: university students James and Matthew, and Christopher, who goes to high school.

While a lot of guys his age ? he’s 54, by the way ? play golf or go bowling for physical and social recreation, Wenger likes to do something a little edgier to let off steam: once or twice a week, from about the first of April through to the end of October, he goes kart racing.

It isn’t that he gets out there and thinks he’s the next Paul Tracy or Tony Stewart. He’s not on a career path. And although the karts are capable of going from a top speed of 70 km/h up to 115 km/h, he doesn’t have a death wish, either.

He’s simply out there with a bunch of other people his age and weight who share his passion for motorsport and want to have fun without: a) getting hurt and b) going broke.

And the absolutely wonderful thing about this particular hobby is that, unlike a lot of other auto racing enthusiasts, he doesn’t have to own or purchase any of his own equipment: no car, no tires, no crash helmet, no nothing.

He’s an “arrive-and-drive” racer. He shows up, pays his money, and goes racing.

That’s right. There is nothing more to it than that. There’s no race car to take home and repair. No oil changes or gear changes or other routine maintenance chores that require time away from the family during an evening at home.

You go to the track, sit down in the car, pull on a crash helmet, and floor it.

This weekend and next, just like the U.S.-based Sports Car Club of America national runoffs ? in which all the top non-professional road racers gather in one place for a single, final, take-no-prisoners showdown in all of the dozen or so open- and closed-wheel classes ? about 1,600 “arrive-and-drivers” from all over southern Ontario will be at the Cameron Motorsports Karting Complex on Upper James Street in Hamilton and at the Goodwood Kartways on the 2nd Concession, Stouffville, for the Canadian Rookie Karting Championship finals.

And every one of those 800-or-so entrants at each location will be goin’ for the gold.

I’m going to do a story next week on the Goodwood Kartways’ racing Di Leo brothers ? Daniel (Formula Atlantic) and Marco (Skip Barber National Series).

Meantime, Cameron Motorsports is one of Canadian racing’s most interesting stories.

Started a dozen years ago by Bob Cameron of Toronto (it’s a bit of a long story how it happened, but suffice it to say that he saw an opportunity to get into grass-roots kart racing and has built the business up to what it is today), Cameron Motorsports has trained and developed some of Canada’s top up-and-coming young professional racers (for instance, the 2006 Formula BMW-USA champion, Robert Wickens of Etobicoke, is a CM alumnus).

Five of the six Sunoco Ron Fellows Karting Championship class winners this year went to Cameron Motorsports. Mike Vincec, 15, of Stouffville won two of them and while David Ostella, 14, of Maple only won one, he finished first in every race in his category.

While the elite National Team (Wickens, Vincec, Ostella and others, like Kyle Marcelli, a 16-year-old hot-shoe from Barrie who holds the kart track record at Lowes Motor Speedway in Charlotte, N.C.) brings Cameron Motorsports its prestige, it’s the “arrive-and-drive” program, which is open to all ages and skill sets, that is the bread-and-butter of the business.

For a relatively small amount of money (less than $100), you can purchase a spot in the program at either Cameron’s Hamilton track or at Goodwood. A licence to race will set you back another 10 bucks.

But after that, every time you show up to race, it costs only $50 for a pit pass and that gets you a professionally prepared race kart, track time, insurance coverage for damages, gas, a pit crew, any training you might need and other assorted equipment.

You then race against people in your age and weight groups. If you’re 50 and weigh 220 pounds, you’ll be out there against (mostly) other 50-year-olds who weigh around 220. You will not be racing against someone who’s 10 and comes in at 45 pounds, soaking wet.

Standings are kept. As Rick Dawson, the Cameron company’s marketing and advertising director, explains it: “You can race as often as you want, but only scheduled `league’ races will count in the standings.”

Dawson, incidentally, is operations manager of the Mosport Karting Academy, where Cameron arrive-and-drive programs will also be offered, starting next season.

As mentioned, top speed for most arrive-and-drivers is 70 km/h. But if you’re good enough to perhaps move up a notch or two on the excellence ladder, Cameron Motorsports has a scholarship program in which participants (for a few dollars more) can drive quicker karts (as fast, perhaps, as 115 km/h) and learn to do some of the mechanical work associated with racing.

Which is where Jim Wenger is today. An initial rookie arrive-and-driver eight years ago, he’s progressed.

“The karts are more powerful (30 horsepower, as compared to 6 or 7 hp) and you can drive them faster,” he said. “You’re competing at a higher level; the people you’re racing against are the best of the group.

“But what’s interesting is that you learn to do some of your own mechanical work and they hold seminars on things like setup and how tire choice and tire pressure can affect the handling of the kart, and so on.

“The mechanics are still there to help, but you feel more involved.”

Like many people, Wenger was attracted to motorsport but didn’t have the time, or money, to get involved.

“I initially gave karting a try at the West Edmonton Mall when I was out there for a visit,” Wenger said. “Then I saw an ad for the Cameron Motorsports program, and two or three of us decided to give it a try. I’m the only one who’s kept it up.”

Wenger said that aside from the obvious ? the price of racing and the competition ? there is a side to karting that benefits him enormously: it helps him to be a better driver on public roads.

“It’s like being in an ongoing driver-training program,” he said. “You work hard on driving very precisely when you’re racing karts and this has helped to pull my backside out of the fire on the street a couple of times.”

Meantime, Wenger is looking forward to the finals.

“I finished second in my group last year,” he said. “And I have third place pretty well wrapped up this season. But who knows? Maybe I can improve on that in the final races.”

The Canadian Rookie Karting Championships run 9 a.m. till 3 p.m. tomorrow and next Saturday at Goodwood Kartways, and tomorrow and next Saturday and Sunday at the Cameron karting complex in Hamilton. The public is welcome at both circuits and there is no admission fee.;

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