Who Killed 4-Cycle Racing in Canada?

Posted on March 20, 2013

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Who Killed 4-Cycle Racing in Canada?
Can Briggs and Stratton bring back the magic?

By: Rob Oakman

Darryl Timmers leading the Canada Sr. pack at Hamilton( ekartingnews.ca )

Darryl Timmers leading the Canada Sr. pack at Hamilton
( ekartingnews.ca )

If you were around Karting in the 90’s and 2000’s than you saw something special. No doubt you waited at the edge of the track with everyone else for the start of the best show you were going to see all weekend, the Jr. and Sr. 4-cycle Honda finals. It was like watching NASCAR in your own backyard. And like their big boxy cousins those 4-cycle races were going to be rough, tough and full of action. The classes had the best Racers and teams competing against each other with barely a few tenths of a second covering the entire field, a few tenths that didn’t matter because drafting made them redundant. It took the skill and cunning of a Racer to not just win, but to make it to the end of the race more or less intact. These days though you are lucky to see a hand full of karts show up to run at club or Regional races in a 4-cycle, and the racing, quite frankly, sucks. So what happened?

Honda disappeared because, in short, support. The Grand Puba of Regional Karting had always had difficulty in getting Honda to support Karting at any level. The engines were, after all, running generators, pumps, and lawn equipment all over the globe so Karting was barely a blip on their radar. But, with the Puba’s vision of Karting in Canada as a jewel in its sporting crown, at the end of the 2002 season Honda had to go. But who would take up the challenge and replace the reliable, easily found, and competitive GX160 and GX200 Honda engines? People wanted to know.

Briggs and Stratton had been building engines for Karting for many years in the US and they jumped at the opportunity to break into the Canadian market. Just in time for the 2003 season they stepped forward with the World Formula engine. It was a 4-cycle monster that weighed almost twice as much as a Honda GX200. They offered no power numbers (To this day in fact) but Dyno runs put it around 12Hp. Engine supply was extremely tight and spare parts all but non-existent at first, but promises of a large supply to come kept people interested. And soon came the launch of the Jr. and Sr. World Formula classes for the Sunoco Ron Fellows Karting Championship (SRFKC) regional series. The engines were touted as the next coming and the Grand Puba even promised that the Champion of the Sr. Division would get a full scholarship to run a GT Nissan Sentra in an all Sentra series. People were excited.

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Me in my Championship winning World Formula Sr. Gold Kart entry.
( ekartingnews.ca )

I personally raced in the first season of the Sr. division and I still remember the first time we fired the thing up. I have to admit, it was pretty awesome. On track the power output was impressive. It could easily destroy a Honda on any circuit even with the higher weight and a spec-clutch that chattered like a naked nun’s false teeth on a ski trip at a nudist colony. When we lined up to run the first SRFKC race in 2003 the entire paddock was on the wall to watch us. And we didn’t disappoint. The racing was fierce, the engines roared like pissed off tigers being swallowed by afterburning jet engines, but there was trouble ahead.

As the season rolled on the clutch issue was getting worse and the wonderful noise they made was judge to be too loud, so a new exhaust was fitted. Well, the clutch problem was never addressed and the new exhaust no longer sounded cool. Instead it sounded like an underpowered hairdryer in a hair salon. Worse still, the new exhaust robbed so much power that the Honda engines were almost as quick on long tracks, and faster on some short ones. Teams were having the usual teething pains getting used to a new engine package and with the new adjustable carburetor, but the Briggs people, that promised support, were invisible. Parts were impossible to find and no one seemed to know when, and if, that was ever going to change. By mid-season some of the higher dollar teams had figured out how to cheat rather effectively with the supposedly sealed motors and the fate of the World Formula class was tenuous. The final blow came when the World Formula Champion that first fragile season was denied his chance to run the GT Sentra when the series folded. The car could have been run in several other series, and a new series with a different car – a Honda ironically – was created that could have stood in for the prized ride, but the Grand Puba decided – possibly because the new series was running Hondas – that the prize died with the series, and that a Rotax engine was just as good as a ride in a GT car. People disagreed.

Since the death of the World Formula class though, Briggs and Stratton has stepped up their game with the L206; a sealed clone of the Honda engines at the discount price of $800. Compare this to the $1200 price tag of a cheaply race prepared Honda and you might perk up a bit. The clutch is still a spec piece but the chatter is much less pronounced than the old World Formula clutch. Also, Briggs themselves have been offering cash prizes and rebates for teams and Racers that decide to run their product, all in an effort to support their product and 4-cycle racing in Canada; and for this the Grand Puba is very happy. The L206 has been given a prominent place in the Eastern Canadian Karting Championship (ECKC) Regional series, the replacement for the SRFKC. That’s where the big boys and girls come out to play. Cash for the top 3 finishers and the promise of lots of prizes for the Championship are aimed to peak the interest of club racers that want to run in the big show for a budget. But will the Briggs L206 be a flop like the old engine or will it bring back the glory days of the Honda era? It depends on two very important things happen: Competition and Support for the teams that run it.

Now you may be asking what the hell I’m talking about when I say Competition. Competition is what racing is. Just by there being competitors there is competition, right? If you believe that than I have a lovely giant green Statue in New York I’d like to sell you. No, when I say competition I mean this: It will take one major and highly respected Racer, an engine builder, Chassis builder/importer, and or team to make a concerted effort to dominate the Briggs class in order for other people to become interested. Simple, plain, and obvious. This is how anything becomes popular. It’s what made Rotax popular, shifter in its day, and even DD2.

When Rotax came to North America no one cared. Even when the first Arrive and Drive series came out running solely Rotax engines no one blinked an eye. What made Rotax work in North America was the concerted efforts of specific people in the racing fraternity to put their best people and Racers into the Rotax classes and dominate. Only then did other teams and racers start to take notice and decide that they wanted to show those guys that they were only wining because they were running against a bunch of Wallys, and it was time to knock them down a peg.

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Michale DiMeo and Lon Herder celebrating victory in the 2003 Canadian National Championships.
( ekartingnews.ca )

The same is true for Honda. Honda being inexpensive was a plus and brought in lots of low budget racers, but it wasn’t until engine builders like Lon Herder started to specialize in not just the engines, but in matching chassis that would work with those engines, building a team of elite racers, and dominating the classes, that 4-cycle took over as the top show from shifters and direct-drive 2-cycle classes. The results were truly staggering. The more Lon’s Racers dominated the more Racers and engine builders seemed to come out of the wood work to try and beat them. Over time racing specials started popping up all over the place that catered directly to 4-cycle. Soon 2-cycle racing all but died away, hiding in the fringes until the Rotax era. Though it is true that Honda was on a decline with the increasing popularity of Rotax, the classes were far from dead. Indeed, were it not for the efforts of the Grand Puba, Honda would be alive and well in Canada. But without the support of the “Big Series” Honda couldn’t remain the draw it once was. Support matters.

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Parts availability is crucial to success

The Support aspect goes beyond the basic addition of the class though. With the World Formula engine parts were impossible to get your hands on. The rev limiters were wildly different from engine to engine and Briggs did nothing to fix it; same thing for the clutch. As much as Briggs and the series shouted that they were supporting Canadian Karting there was no real support for the people running the class from Briggs and Stratton. Honda was different. The engines were so ubiquitous that you could find most parts at your local hardware store. There were no engine settings to concern yourself with like in the World Formula engine so set-up was as easy as bolting it on the chassis, putting in your favorite oil, and then chasing the right gear down on track. On line orders were simple and fast and everything was relatively inexpensive. Any problem you had with the engines had been solved by someone else years before so you could figure out how to fix a problem by walking through the pits and asking no more than two or three people. In other words everything was simple to deal with. If Briggs wants the L206 to work they need to keep the promises they have made and be there for the teams and Racers running their product. Parts seem to be easier to find, and the builders and racers I have talked to say the engine has none of the draw backs of the other. So in this respect things are looking up.

So, can the Briggs and Stratton L206 bring back the glory day? No. not on its own. But not because there is anything wrong with the piece. With the World Formula engines the introduction was rushed, there came an endless line of broken promises from Briggs and from the Sanctioning body, unavailability of parts, and the invisibility of the manufacturer to help the Racers transition to the new engine, killed it. Once again we are being promised a lot, but this time the L206  makes good, reliable power about equal to the Honda, they are pretty well matched from the factory, cheating is much more difficult than with the old World Formula engines, and the Briggs and Stratton people seem to be supporting Karting with actual support. Parts are available quite readily, the cost is low, and the engines user friendly. So, I think they have a chance. But before anyone can say for certain that 4-cycle is back, the class needs the final piece of the puzzle. In the end it, beyond promises about race car rides, cash back deals, and a pat on the back from the Grand Puba; what will bring 4-cycle racing back into the spotlight is the same thing that makes anything popular, one team, one builder, one Racer that others look up to, to decide that the series would be fun to dominate. Because, the only thing a racer can’t stand more than a Wally, is a person that never looses.

If you have any questions or comments feel free to send them along below and follow OakmanOnRacing.

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Posted in: Editorial