In Part 1 of this two-part interview with Chris Kardashian, the new owner and promoter of the Route 66 Sprint Series gave us some insight into his background in the sport and how his purchase of the series came to fruition. He capped the opening half of the interview by introducing his ‘four pillars’, which he intends to develop as the foundation for the series’ success: affordable regional racing, a focus on fun, growing respect, and developing sustainable partnerships with the industry. In this second part of the interview, Chris delves deep into each component of his approach.
EKN: Chris, in Part 1 of our interview, you laid out the ‘four pillars’ that you plan to focus on. Can you go a little deeper into these?
CK: Sure. I have lots to say here. Maybe we should take a dinner break! (laughs). First, I will say it is about listening to our customers. I know that sounds cliché-ish, but it is not. Whenever someone tells me they listened to their customers before making a decision, I immediately question the motives behind the decision. In my case, I really did spend countless hours talking to Route 66 racers, parents, teams, kart shops, tracks, etc., before finalizing this deal with Mark. And I have spent more hours talking to people since Mark and I made our agreement.
As you know, I am extremely transparent in everything I say and do. I will share some of the stories, along with the people I talked to, that helped me develop my vision and business plan. I think each of them may even share with you more detail about our conversations.
Let’s start with my concept of affordable regional racing. This one is tough. How do we make racing affordable in these economically challenging times with high inflation? This won’t be easy, but there are things we will do and are looking at. Here are some examples. We’ll start by eliminating Thursday Practice. Optional practice will start on Friday afternoon and will likely consist of three rounds. If we start late enough on Friday, it should allow majority of racers to head to track on Friday, rather than on Wednesday or Thursday. One of the first people I talked to was Chase Jones of MPG Motorsports. Without going into great detail of our conversation, I will share this. He, his clients, and frankly, even his employees, were not interested in the extended time away from home. The Moms and Dads of the racers were taking vacation or missing work. Kids were missing too much school. Hotel and meal costs were high for families and teams with an additional one or two nights on the road. And candidly, Chase told me many racers would likely not continue to race the series if we could not shorten the event. Eliminating Thursday practice and starting later on Friday will drive significant savings for all parties.
EKN: That’s a true statement. Every additional day on the weekend’s events schedule comes with extra costs, in many different forms. What else will you focus on for cost containment?
CK: Tire restriction. We will limit the number of tires one can bring to any event for both practice and racing. More details on this to come, but the days of bringing four or five sets of tires to a Route 66 event will go away. Between practice on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday morning, along with Happy Hour and then qualifying and racing, some guys would run five sets of tires. With just three rounds of practice on Friday and Saturday morning each and then qualifying and racing, we can reduce the racers costs to compete by limiting the number of tire sets allowed. At $220 per tire set, the saving will be significant and we can put everyone on a level playing field. Fuel costs are high today and likely will continue to increase. We are looking at all options to reduce fuel cost, particularly in two-cycle where fuel is close to $100 per five-gallon jug. Stay tuned on this topic.
EKN: In any racer’s budgets, consumables cannot be avoided. We’re seeing a few organizations beginning to restrict the amount of tires that can be used over a weekend. It’s a quick and direct approach to lower a racer’s event spending.
CK: Yes, it is, but there can also be more. We are also looking at entry fees. Again, stay tuned for more detail, but I’m looking to hold entry costs the same or even reduce by looking at options for discounts on running two classes or for signing up for two or more events. The more the racers plan ahead, the easier it is for the series to budget for costs and revenues. And what if we provided incentives to racers to bring along a friend who has not previously raced in a Route 66 event? I am excited to provide more detail here so stay tuned for some upcoming announcements. Honestly, everything is on the table and being looked at to hold or reduce the financial barriers to racing.
EKN: In the list of your ‘four pillars’, you mention bringing ‘fun’ back to the series. We are always talking about the fact that people need to have fun at the track. For a vast majority of racers, especially those running at the club or regional level, like the Route 66 Sprint Series, this should be the primary goal, right?
CK: Exactly. Clearly this one hit home with everyone I talked to. I remember the first guy I talked to before he even knew I was thinking about buying Route 66. It was Bill Lemke and I asked him what he thought Route 66 needed. His answer was short and sweet: “It needs to be more fun”. Bill talked about things like bringing back the end-of-year banquet. That was not even on my radar until Bill raised it. So the plan for 2023 is to re-introduce the banquet. Obviously, the pandemic had an impact on the ability to bring people together in an indoor setting, but hopefully those days are in the past and we will put a plan together to bring back the banquet. By the way, with Bill’s background in the swimming pool business, I asked him to bring a 5,000-gallon portable swimming pool to each event. Thought that would be fun for the kids (laughs). Not sure we can make that one happen, but we are open to lots of ideas.
With two races in Wisconsin and two in Indiana, we will create a mini challenge or a mini cup (name to be determined by the racers) for Senior classes with a traveling trophy and some cash awards. The overall winner for each state’s two events will be awarded the prizes. I am looking to mix some humor (and fun) into this traveling trophy. As a Minnesota Viking football fan who enjoys watching the Green Bay Packers lose, I suspect we could do something along the lines of naming the Wisconsin Trophy the ‘Aaron Who?’ Trophy. I am looking for input from the racers on ‘FUN’ naming ideas for both the Wisconsin and Indiana trophies. A little dry humor is welcome (as long as I understand it).
And how about spicing up the event format with ‘Knock Out Qualifying’? If enough entries exist for any class, we will go to a second ‘Knock Out’ round of qualifying to determine top five starting positions and will award qualifying points accordingly.
This conversation about ‘Family Fun’ is really intended to offer the racers and families something other than just racing for the weekend entertainment. We are interested in providing some family recreation with some evening games. Maybe bringing back the ‘Cornhole’ competition on Saturday night with some prizes tied to that. If we have to make the hole on the Packers Board a little larger than the Vikings board, we can do that so Packer fans have a chance! (laughs)
EKN: There are some good ideas there, and the simple fact that you have a stated desire to inject more fun into the race weekends is a positive. When you begin discussing ideas for fun events, it opens the door for racers to offer their input. I assume you’re open to hear from all racers in the region, whether they’ve raced in the Route 66 program or if they’re considering it.
CK: I probably need to be careful what I ask for here because I am not sure what I will create, but as I stated earlier, we can say we are interested in hearing from our customers and partners and just say it, or our actions can be true to our words. Remember, I don’t want to fix something that is not broken in the series, but clearly, constructive, well thought out ideas are needed. This past weekend, I think I spent close to eight hours face-to-face with some staff listening to ideas and more of these sessions will be planned. Lastly on this topic, we also all have to recognize that everyone expects rule packages, weekend format, classes, etc., to be finalized so families, teams, and partners can plan for 2023. At some point, I need to draw a line in the sand. The listening will never stop, but some new ideas may be rolled into the program down the road. If folks have some thoughts on how to improve the fun factor or other suggestions, please share them with me.
EKN: The third of your ‘four pillars’ centered on ‘respect’. Considering the challenge faced by all racing series and promoters these days in terms of poor racecraft and a lack of on-track respect, how do you intend to elevate ‘respect’ in the program?
CK: The concept of respect and racecraft is what motivated me to buy Route 66. Another driver/team owner I talked to was Josh Hotz (Josh Hotz Driver Development). When I asked him what he thought could be improved in Route 66, he talked about his clients in his program and how they were frustrated with the amount of rough driving that was taking place, whether they were running in the front, middle, or back of the pack. It is so difficult for any series to see all the action in every race, particularly at the start of the races or in the large classes. So many articles have been written about racecraft or the lack thereof in all series. Using a competitor’s kart as a battering ram or as an aid to ‘making’ the corner is not racecraft. It’s what frustrates drivers and parents the most and what can leave people with a bad taste in their mouth at the end of the weekend. The fact is, no series will ever be successful penalizing drivers to teach respect for their fellow competitors. We must all consciously buy into this culture and philosophy that the respect for other drivers must come from within each driver. We will discuss this every day at every event and we will set expectations accordingly.
EKN: Creating a new culture is easier said than done, so what are your thoughts on this goal?
CK: I have spent a lifetime creating culture change in other aspects of business. I know firsthand that words alone will not change culture, but if our actions match our words, we will succeed in time. My commitment and resolve to this goal won’t waiver. Similar to the need for creating a culture of respect for one another on track, there needs to be an understanding by all competitors that respect includes other things, such as good sportsmanship, or to not engage in the temptation of intentional cheating. How does one live with themselves knowing they won a “go-kart” race cheating? Not only is it disrespectful to oneself, but is disrespectful to others who are racing within the rules of the sport. Seriously, I don’t get it. How do you look at another family, or a little girl or boy in the eye who you just beat by cheating? It won’t be tolerated at Route 66.
Hopefully it is obvious this topic is important to me, but it is not limited to just the drivers. It is inclusive of parents, mechanics, tuners, and everyone else at the event including the staff of Route 66. We all need to lead by example. Demonstrating respect is a teaching opportunity for our children and candidly, I think we can all learn something about respect, regardless of our age. And I am no exception to this. Somethings that may seem trivial or small really are important. Who is picking up all the garbage left behind in our pits after we leave? The race track personnel? Why is that right for them to clean up after our mess? Something as easy as picking up the ends of clipped zip ties in our pits sets the example to all that we are respectful of other people’s property and our environment. We may even be welcomed back to the track in 2024!
For fear of overstaying my welcome in this interview, I will leave you with this: We may find that by living our lives filled with respect for one another on and off the track, we will create a contagious movement that will make the world we live in a better place.
EKN: When people step back from the pure competition side of karting and realize that personal development of their child is in play when they’re racing and interacting within the paddock, participation in the sport takes on a higher meaning. There is so much to learn off the track as well, such as working as part of a team or development business understanding through sponsorships, for example. The sport of karting is built on a strong and vibrant industry. It’s part of our foundation and keeps the wheels rolling. Series need to develop strong ties with the industry, and I know you list ‘sustainable partnerships’ as the last of your ‘four pillars’. How will you approach this crucial aspect of series promotion?
CK: One of the first teams I talked to before my investment in Route 66 was Brandi and Charles of A-MAXX Racing. They are a huge supporter of the Route 66 Sprint Series. Without their investment and commitment to the series, would we have a Route 66 Series? What is their return on their investment in Route 66? Those were the discussions we were having. They wanted to know what my commitment to them would be. One of the most valued lessons I learned from previous business relationships was the need to be willing to stand in the shoes of my customers and partners to understand their perspectives and challenges. How can I expect someone to understand my challenges and needs if I am not genuinely willing to understand theirs. Whether the partner is a race team, a kart supplier, a vendor, or a race track, Route 66 will be committed to the support of our partners.
Route 66 can do our part by encouraging our racers to patronize our partners with their business. We will actively promote our partners and we will facilitate opportunities for their growth with concepts such as ‘Meet and Greet’ events at our races. As mentioned previously, it is not about shift, rather, about organic growth for all. When new racers come to an event, let’s make them feel welcome and give them an opportunity to forge relationship with race teams. Communication is everything. As an example, I have spent endless hours chatting in person and on phone, texting, and emailing with Andy O’Gara of Whiteland Raceway Park (WRP). In those conversations, I learned one of Andy’s businesses can make trophies. Why wouldn’t I want to patronize one of his businesses and have Andy make Trophies for Route 66? He is investing in us. I think we can invest in him. Who knows, maybe another series or two will look to Andy to make trophies. If we are not catering to our partners, then the business model for all of us is not sustainable.
EKN: Chris, it appears that you have a solid mindset moving forward. There’s six months until the opening Route 66 weekend of 2023 at New Castle Motorsports Park on May 19-21. What will you be doing in that span of time to make sure the 2023 season launches with a bang? Do you have plans to connect with all of the kart clubs in the regional to begin close relationships with them?
CK: Obviously, we want the transition of the series from Mark to me to be transparent to the racers. Today, I am mostly focused on learning as much as I can about the logistics of the series and everything that has to take place so that we successfully execute on our plan. Putting the schedule together took a tremendous amount of effort and teamwork between the series and the tracks we are racing at. I would be remiss if I did not give a shout out to Mike Adams of NCMP, Eric Heling of Road America, Andy O’Gara of WRP, and the entire Board of Directors at Badger Kart Club. Think about it. Most of these guys did not know who I was and I am sure hearing my last name was Kardashian did not help the cause (laughs). I am telling you, they all dropped what they were doing to help me. They worked with me on dates and everything else imaginable. Some racers may question why my fourth pillar should matter to them. I assure everyone, it matters. We need these folks more than they need us. They welcomed me and Route 66 with open arms. This is why partnerships matter. This is why trust and respect matters. We are committed to their success because they are committed to ours. Regarding the other clubs, the answer is yes. I have had conversations with a number of them and will continue to have those conversations.
EKN: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us, and really going into detail about your business and promotion philosophy. It’s refreshing to hear, and we expect that your words and ideas will resonate through the community and your fellow promoters.
CK: I think I owe you the thanks. I am humbled by your willingness to sit down with me to have this conversation and to give me the opportunity to share my vision. I also look forward to my future partnership with EKN and for your guidance and feedback.