Fans race (and try to wreck) Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Larson

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KNOXVILLE, Iowa — How many NASCAR fans have said to themselves or friends, “Man, if I only had the chance, I’d love to bang fenders with my favorite driver?”

Or, “Man, I’d love to take (fill in driver’s name) out in a race.”

Well, on Wednesday at Slideways Karting Center in Knoxville, Iowa, nearly 60 lucky fans had the chance to do one of the rarest things in pro sports: to race with their heroes, four of the biggest names in NASCAR.

Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne and Kyle Larson took on the lucky fans in the second annual Kick-It/Weld Racing Go-Kart Spectacular to benefit pediatric cancer.

“This is really going to change the lives for children out there with pediatric cancer, so thank you, thank you, thank you,” Gordon told the crowd of about 2,500 fans that turned out to watch. “When I looked at the parking lot today and saw the line of cars down the road, I knew it was going to be a good day.

“I don’t know of anywhere in the world where you’re going to go to a go-kart track and see Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Larson and myself together – or have as much fun.”

Each of the nearly 60 fans that raced paid at least $300 for the chance to do some rubbin’ and racin’ on the slippery oval, a track that was made even more slick with periodic rain sprinkles throughout the afternoon.

“We’re all passionate about this week, this event and we’re all passionate about Jeff’s efforts,” Stewart said. “We do it because of Jeff and because of the kids that he supports. That’s what racers do. It’s not about being a stock car driver. That’s the breed of drivers we are and the background we come from.”

There even was a special guest in the house, Gordon’s former crew chief and NASCAR team owner and broadcaster, Ray Evernham.

Evernham and the four drivers were all in town for the Daytona 500 of the sprint car world, the Knoxville Nationals, which began later Wednesday evening.

Before one of the heats, Evernham looked like he was trying to improve Gordon’s go-kart, prompting Tony Stewart to quip with a laugh, “No fair, no working on the car. You’re cheating just like you used to.”

“It’s great to see Jeff, Tony, Kasey and Kyle supporting what they’ve got going on out here,” Evernham said. “To me, (sprint car) is really grassroots racing. It’s where a lot of us grew up and it’s really neat to see a lot of people doing it and all the support that they have.”

When I asked Evernham why he wasn’t in the go-kart race, he replied with a laugh, “My problem is I’ve always been a much better mechanic than driver.”

The event raised nearly $25,000 for charity, including Jeff Gordon’s Children’s Foundation.

“Oh my gosh, it was so much fun,” Gordon said. “This place is so much fun to go out there in (simulated) sprint cars and slide ’em around. A little bit of sprinkle making for a lot of fun conditions. And there’s some guys out there with some real skills. We all have big smiles on our face, having a lot of fun.”

“Those of us with Kick-It, for kids cancer, this is a real treat for us to be able to come here, be a part of this event, raise money for a great cause – pediatric cancer – have a go-kart event like this and to have the fans come out and support the way they did this year is amazing. It’s a huge crowd. When you get this kind of a driver lineup out here in Knoxville, the fans are going to come. I hope they enjoyed it, because we certainly did.”

Added Kahne, “It’s neat to see, all the money goes to a great cause, and we get to race a lot of people that are out here having fun like we are. It’s a cool, cool event.”

There were eight heat races leading up to the main event. The winners of each heat advanced to race all four pro drivers, who understood and took it good-naturedly that some of their fellow drivers were looking for bragging rights that they spun out a NASCAR star.

“It’s fun racing with the fans because this is like the biggest thing they’ve ever done, racing with us,” Larson said. “They take it really serious, you can see it on their faces. It makes it fun for us to see how focused they are. And when we beat them, they grip the steering wheel even harder.

“You can see it happen, too. You see them like focus on your rear bumper and just turn toward you. We understand it, though, and it’s funny.”

Not surprisingly, much like the way Sprint Cup drivers typically dominate when they race in the Nationwide Series, the Cup drivers were the stars in Wednesday’s main event.

Gordon won the race, Kahne was a close second, and Anthony Corini, a 20-year-old college student from Rockville, Md., was the top-finishing fan, taking home a trophy and the experience of a lifetime.

“That was pretty fun,” Corini said. “The rain made it real interesting. It was a lot of fun. I’ll never forget it. It was a great moment. There was a lot of money raised for a good cause.

“I did it last year, but I ran around the back in the main. I made it, but I didn’t do as well as I did this year. I finished behind Jeff and Kasey, but not too bad of company, I guess. I think I was flying under the radar.”

Stewart and Larson finished further back in the 12-driver pack.

“I think (sprint car driver) Brad Doty put it best when he said, ‘Think about what this means to people and being able to do this,'” Stewart said. “But at the same time, think about how much it means to us to be able to do it. It’s fun for us. Nobody’s out there trying to wreck you and put you in the wall. Everybody’s racing and having fun. It makes stuff like this a lot of fun.

“Look at everybody that’s out here, and in the rain, no less. That’s the kind of fans you see at sprint car races. Everybody’s having fun and enjoying it.”

As for a certain MotorSportsTalk writer who also competed in the event, well … let’s just say he finished and leave it at that.

And we won’t get into that he got spun twice by a certain NASCAR star whose last name rhymes with “pain,” or about the flat tire – his third in five days – said writer had on the way to Iowa.

But that’s another story for another time.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

IMSA: Sebring Day 2 of two-day test notebook

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Testing across several IMSA sanctioned series continued at Sebring International Raceway on Tuesday as preparations continue for next month’s events during the weekend of the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.

Below are highlights from Day 2 of testing around the 3.74-mile road course.

Eurosport Racing Continues Work with Mazda Prototype Challenge Chassis

Teams in the Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda championship completed their second day of testing on Tuesday. Among them, Eurosport Racing continued their work with the only Mazda Prototype Challenge (MPC) entries in the field, in the hands of drivers Dr. Tim George (in the No. 24 entry) and Jon Brownson (in the No. 34).

“Right now, I’m driving by myself so we’re trying to make the car comfortable enough to last an hour and 45 minutes with just me in the car,” George said of their preparation efforts. “We’re trying to set up the car where it’s quick, yet it and can last, both the car and for me to make sure we don’t tire out, get fatigued and make mistakes.”

The 1 hour 45 minute window that George referenced represents the race times for the 2018 season, up considerably from last year’s sprint format that featured a pair of 45-minute races across a race weekend.

Though that change represents a drastic shift in driving philosophy, it is one that George welcomes.

“The new rules for the endurance races are great, I enjoy it a lot,” said George. “It gives you a chance to think through things differently with strategy. It also gives you a chance if you blow it…in a sprint race if you make a mistake you don’t get a chance to come back.”

Florida Drivers in Continental Tire Challenge Eager for Hometown Race at Sebring

A strong contingent of drivers from Florida are represented in the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge, and next month’s 12 Hours of Sebring weekend will see them compete on home soil.

“I grew up in Tallahassee and I live in Orlando now, so Sebring has been my home track since day one,” said Paul Holton, driver of the No. 76 Compass Racing McLaren GT4, which finished 14th at the season-opening race at Daytona International Speedway. “I’ve spent a lot of time down here and really enjoy the place. It’s a nice, quaint little town not far from Orlando so it’s a quick, easy drive down for me.”

Fellow Floridian Ramin Abdolvahabi, a native of Palm Beach Gardens, Florida and driver of the No. 09 Automatic Racing Aston Martin Vantage, revealed that, even though Sebring is only two hours from his hometown, this week’s test was his first time at the track in two years.

“I haven’t been here for two years, so coming back is like coming home,” he said. “It’s a fantastic track and it’s one of the iconic tracks in the world so being at Sebring – a small town, my hometown, welcoming – it’s fantastic. I went on the track a couple of times yesterday and it’s just like wearing an old shoe, it just fits and it’s fantastic. Hopefully, the race will go well and the weather will hold, so anyone who’s out there, come and see us!”

Frank Raso Trades in Airplanes for Porsches at Sebring

Several IMSA drivers boast “day jobs” outside of their racing gigs. Among them, Frank Raso’s work falls outside of ordinary jobs like doctor or lawyer. Rather, Raso flies airplanes for a living.

“I’m an airline pilot for a major airline,” said Raso, who tested the No. 10 Topp Racing Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car at Sebring. “I’ve been flying for almost 30 years, and it’s allowed me, with all my time off and things like that to do this and fall back into racing again. I messed with it a little bit when I was younger, but it was, of course, expensive, so I got away from it for a while. I decided I wanted to get back into it in kind of my last couple of years before I get too old.”

Raso explained that the skills he practices while flying planes are more than transferable to his driving duties in a Porsche GT3 Cup car.

“Flying an airliner or flying any airplane, we have checklists, but everything is kind of done in order. It’s almost in a robot fashion type of a thing where you do this, you do this, you do this and you have to make sure you hit all your marks and fly the airplane with precision.

“So, when you get in these Cup cars, with no anti-lock brakes, no traction control, and no driver assist items, you have to make sure you hit your marks, when you’re accelerating, when you’re turning in. You have to be alert. It keeps your wits about you. The car can step out at any time. They’re a very difficult car to drive, but they’re a lot of fun.”
The 54-year-old Raso posted a best finish of fourth, on four separate occasions, in a part-time schedule during the 2017 Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA by Yokohama season as a competitor in the Gold Cup class.
Newcomers Get Taste of Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge
A number of new drivers got to sample Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge cars during the two days of testing at Sebring. Among them was amateur racer Scott Welham, who got his first taste of professional racing during the two-day outing at Sebring.
And he had a strong support system backing him up in the Kelly-Moss Road and Race team, the defending Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge champions with driver Jake Eidson.
“Here, you’ve got somebody that actually does coaching, data acquisition, track management – these are all separate people – plant manager, owner, a car-setup guy, you’ve got someone that bills you – which isn’t always a good thing, but you know, you just have that huge, huge support group that enables you to focus on driving,” Welham said of the team’s influence on his development over the two days.
IMSA’s next visit to Sebring will be for the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring on March 17.