Underrepresentation of Auto Racing in Connecticut

Living in Connecticut, living in a privileged, rural town like Westport, means that two things are true; lacrosse and soccer are considered the popular sports and racing is almost unheard of. Not the type of racing that requires any type of running; not track or cross country. That type of racing gets some kind of attention around this area, too. This is kart racing; a type of racing that requires you to find an immense amount of courage in yourself, pull on a helmet, strap yourself in, and go as fast as you possibly can at high speeds to get first place. I’m still left wondering why it’s a sport that remains unpopular and uninteresting to so many in my community. Why wouldn’t so many others find interest in such an exhilarating, exciting and fast-paced sport? Of course, I would be a little biased, considering that I’m one of the very few Westporters who have taken up this sport and embraced it as a part of me.

A glimpse of what it feels like to twist through the turns, speed up and downhill at 40 mph, and maneuver the wet pavement of the indoor karting track at Grand Prix New York Racing. *Credit of Jack Phelps

According to US News in their overview of Staples High School in Westport, Connecticut, Staples had around 1,834 students enrolled in the 2013-2014 school year. To my knowledge, there are only 5 students who take part in any form of kart racing, including myself, that attend the school. This means that approximately 0.0027 percent of the Staples student population participates in auto sports. The numbers paint a clear picture of the cold truth; karting is simply irrelevant and overlooked by Staples students as a whole.

The Staples High School student population, representing the underwhelming amount of students that participate in auto racing.

Staples High School student Kate Rutter ’19, is one of many high schoolers that isn’t too familiar with karting or auto racing as a whole. Still, she had an explanation of why she believes it continues to remain uncommon at Staples.

“I think it is because students and adults in Westport do not know a lot about the sport,” Rutter said. “It does not take place in Westport like football or any other sport does at our high school.”

Sophie Betar ’18 is yet another Staples student that doesn’t identify as a person that is affiliated with kart racing. Betar tied the lack of interest of the sport from her peers to larger scale racing, saying,“It’s probably because NASCAR and pro-racing isn't as big here, which is the main reason and influence to get people to race.”

Despite the overwhelming amount of students who don't call racing their passion, Staples has a very small portion of kids who truly know what it feels like to be the unique ones, who know what it feels like to participate in a sport that is missing a spotlight. Jack Phelps ’19, is one of those kids. Making the 45 minute journey to the only two indoor karting tracks in the state of Connecticut to get racing time doesn’t hold him back from pursuing dedication for racing. Phelps has won eight championships in his eight-year racing career, and is looking for a ninth later this month. Regardless of Phelps' extensive knowledge on racing, he had a hard time identifying just why karting seemingly goes unacknowledged at his school.

“No one really knows about it. No one considers it a real sport, despite the fact that so you have so much adrenaline while racing. Because it is not a ball sport and requires a ton of time and money, no one thinks of it as a sport to participate in,” Phelps said.

While Phelps recognizes the fact that karting is so unique and an uncommon sport to participate in at Staples, being seen as a kid with a passion for an unprecedented sport like karting isn’t necessarily desirable in his eyes.

“I wish you could get more recognition for putting in so much work. Instead, when people hear about your career as a racer, they just say, ‘Oh, that’s cool.’”

The underrepresentation of auto racing doesn’t simply stop at the borders of Staples High School and Westport. Auto racing seems to go unnoticed by young adults all throughout Fairfield County, and even extending to other parts of Connecticut.

Joe Goncalves, a freshman from Bethel, Connecticut, races indoor karts regularly at the same tracks as Phelps, and is extremely passionate about the sport. Similar to Phelps, Goncalves takes pride in racing and the excitement that it brings him everytime he steps into a kart. To him, karting under representation stems from the fact that, “there aren’t many pro drivers that come from my area, other than Joey Logano. And pretty much, there are no popular real race tracks or places you can race at.”

In the small, rural town of Middlefield, Connecticut, approximately an hour from Westport, Eli Block devotes himself to karting and craves the high speeds of racing. Starting motocross at the age of two and always wanting to get the chance to race a car, Block claims that he has “loved racing his whole life.” Block, a freshman, described that he is only one out of the 576 students at his high school that race go karts. He explained his theory for being the only racer in his entire school, saying that the the biggest reason for is that “racing is a very expensive sport, and team sports are very popular in the area where I live.”

Eli Block of Middlefield CT, says that in his small, rural town, he is the only one out of 576 high school students who race go karts or participate in any form of auto racing. *Representation figures are not accurate to the actual total number of students*

Branching out from small-town kart racing to big-time race tracks is yet another key to finding more insight on why autoracing is unpopular in places like Connecticut. The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, better known as NASCAR, is an extremely well-known form of auto racing that is enjoyed by millions, specifically in America. But unlike other popular professional sports organizations such as the MLB, the NBA, or NFL, NASCAR’s fan base seems to be condensed into certain regions of the country more so than others.

The south, in particular, is where the majority of NASCAR’s fanbase is located, in which many people are desperate to get themselves, family and friends to a racetrack to experience the high-speed action and cheer on a favorite driver. But in the Northeast, more specifically in Fairfield County, NASCAR isn’t seen as a sport that receives much attention. Instead of talking about excitement concerning a particular driver, NFL and NBA sports teams or players dominate the majority of sports conversations.

NASCAR fan base demographics (provided by NASCAR) show that the hot spot for race fans is in the south more than anywhere else in the country, while the Northeast lacks people interested in the sport.

Ultimately, the lack of interest in such a high-profile sport involving auto racing like NASCAR in Fairfield County seems like an obvious correlation to the lack of interest in kart racing. If kids aren’t as interested in the sport watching professionals do it at a high level, the desire to invest time, money and hard work into the sport would simply be unclear.

“There are fewer grass roots or opportunity when it comes to motorsports. The feeder systems of NASCAR are go karting or midget racing, but there are fewer opportunities for racing go karts in the state of Connecticut. There are only two indoor facilities and two outdoor tracks in Connecticut,” Steve Phelps, the EVP and Chief Global Sales and Marketing Officer for NASCAR, said.

Images from the high speed action of auto racing, from the small-town race tracks to the big-time super speedways of NASCAR.

A kart racer celebrates a win with the checkered flag in hand.

A champion in the big leagues: seven time-champion Jimmie Johnson of NASCAR celebrating his win.

Phelps, who has worked at NASCAR for over 10 years, pointed out that the unequal distribution of where race fans live is apparent to him and his colleagues. He continued saying that it was something that the company has continuously endeavored to fix, mentioning that their goal is to make the sport both “a national and global sport.”

The strive to achieve a more equal distribution of NASCAR fans in places like the Connecticut is easier said than done, in spite of the hard work that has been put into desired progression. Phelps and the rest of the team at NASCAR are well aware of the various obstacles that continue to stand in their way of the opportunities to make their goals possible.

“With no NASCAR top series track located within 100 miles of the borders of Connecticut, it’s difficult to have a large percentage of the fan base here. Attending a live sporting event tends to cement someone's affinity for a sport, yet the opportunity to experience NASCAR at its highest level is 125 miles away at Pocono Raceway. When someone attends their first NASCAR race, they tend to be a fan for life because they get to experience the pure excitement of being part of the action,” Phelps said.

Turning kart racing into a sport that others around you take notice of and appreciate is something that kart racers would love to make possible, although realistically, statics show that it would be an extremely difficult endeavor. “I would love to be recognized for my racing,” Phelps said.

Block added, “I think that racing should grow into a bigger, more popular sport, because it gives you a feeling that no other sport can give you. If it became more popular, that means there would be more people who can relate to the sport, and there would be less criticism of it, too.”

A world where kart racing would be considered just as interesting, exhilarating and entertaining as football or lacrosse would certainly be a different world for high schoolers like Phelps, Goncalves, Block, and myself. Having an entire school behind you to support your racing career seems unimaginable for the very few kids from each high school in Connecticut that all share a passion for racing. Yet, there is still that aspect of racing that remains while it continues to be so uncommon. Finding a kart racer in this area is like finding a needle in a haystack. But once you find one, they stand out, unlike any other average kid who plays a popular sport. Despite the reasons for its great underrepresentation, it remains a mystery to racers like me how a sport that is so thrilling is seen as unpopular in the eyes of so many. While the sport remains underrepresented, kart racers can still know one thing: they will forever remain one of a kind.

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