It’s hard to believe that “Vintage Karting” is old enough to warrant writing up a history, but I’ve been involved for 22 years – when the organized part was starting to gather steam. I wasn’t personally in on the ground floor, but got involved pretty early. I will recount what I know and what my experience has been, and hope that it both gives some perspective and is of interest to those who wonder how this all started—at least in my corner of the universe.
To frame this all, one should know that Bob DiNozzi started his “vintagekarts.com” website back in 1996, when the internet was still a thing for techie nerds and kids, and off the radar of your average person. But it was the first virtual hangout that allowed vintage kart enthusiasts to connect, and it played a big part in building momentum to make things happen in an organized fashion.
Trying to pinpoint the first vintage kart gathering is sort of like trying to pinpoint when the first organized drag race happened. There are a couple accounts of meets claiming to be the first. I certainly know there were a small handful of guys who were collecting vintage karts on their own, long before it was kind of an “official” hobby.
Vince Hughes was one of those guys. I asked about his recollection on the era that pre-dates me. I knew there had been a couple of informal gatherings at Pat’s Acres just outside of Portland, Oregon that a gentleman named Marc Parker organized. But I wasn’t sure how many and exactly when. Vince confirmed that there were two gatherings at Pat’s, and a third that split the venues for the weekend. They started out at McMinnville and then ended up at Pat’s on Sunday. Terry Ives is pretty sure these would have been in 1998/1999 and 2000.
Around the same time on the other side of the country, Carl Billington put on an impromptu vintage kart get together at Sugar Hill, in NH that drew 7-8 karts. Carl always claimed to have the first vintage kart meet ever, but it appears that there might have been a one-time reunion at Pat’s Acres in the very early 90’s that predates the usual players. Vintage Enduro karts had a group out of Woodbridge, VA starting in the late 1990s as well.
Of course, there were the “Geritol gang” lunches down in Southern California that had been going on for a number of years before the advent of vintage karting, but those were for friends who were involved in the karting industry in the early days, and the old racers who were part of their circle of friends. The lunches were not open to the public until the last few years they had them, when it was held in conjunction with the Vintage Karting Association (VKA) meet at Adam’s in Riverside. I tend to see all of these as factors that set the stage for vintage karting to become organized.
A brief diversion to capture my involvement, and I’ll move this story right along. Thanks to outdated library books from the early 1960’s when I was a kid in the 1970’s, the karts that captured my imagination were all those early ones. Selling my baseball card collection netted me the money to buy a McCulloch R-1 project in the spring of 1980 when I was 12 years old. It was the first thing I ever rebuilt, and I terrorized the neighborhood and schoolyard with it for quite a while until my experiments with trying to burn the Cox Glow Fuel from my tether car (“Wow! Methanol and Nitromethane! Just like my drag racing heroes!”) Draining the gas and dumping straight glow fuel into the tank resulted in a blown engine. With no money to rectify the situation, I hung a “for sale” sign on it and moved onto other things.
Fast forward to 1999, I was a new Dad and didn’t have the funds or time to play with full-size gearhead things. I was at a vintage sports car race at Sears Point, and on the roads in front of the shop area I saw a guy blasting around on a twin engine kart for a couple minutes (turns out that a couple years later I was able to figure out it was Tom Smith!) That got the wheels turning in my brain, and I started recalling my own karting experiences. On the way home I determined that I would try to find an old kart to restore. Weeks of perusing the Penny Saver and garage sales yielded nothing. I finally hung a “wanted” sign on the bulletin board at Emmick and got a phone call from a guy named Rob Jones. He didn’t have one for sale, but was also into vintage karts and had a 1968 Hornet. We became fast friends.
To tie all of this together, Rob knew Marc, Carl, Vince and a handful of other folks who were trying to get a club going. At the time they were calling it the VKRA – “Vintage Kart Racing Association.” Because I was broke in the way that only a new family going from two incomes to one can be, and before the advent of unlimited long distance, I didn’t participate in these discussions. Rob would keep me abreast of goings on and eventually they took the “R” out and became the VKA in order to promote the restoration and preservation instead of focusing on racing.
In the meantime, Rob and I spent Y2K being kicked out of every track in Northern California. I still couldn’t find my own vintage kart. The couple I came across were out of my price range, but it was fun to hang out with Rob, who had by then bought a Rupp Chaparral that I had to pass on. So he’d let me take his Hornet out for the couple laps we’d get before a club official would tell us to leave. They either thought we were running fun karts, or they cited that we didn’t have any of the required nerf bars or bodywork to pass inspection. Funny how they always mentioned this after they’d collected our non-refundable practice fees!
Rob took matters into his own hands and we showed up at the IKF meeting in the Fall of 2000 to plead the case of vintage karting. He explained to the track owners that we weren’t looking to race, only to have a place to run the karts we had restored. Out of the whole room, one track operator—Jerry Ahrens—said, “Hey, I used to race karts back then. I’ll give you guys a shot.” We finally had a home in Northern California! We went to a couple of practice days and had a lot of fun. That got us to thinking “What if?” and we started thinking about organizing a meet. We cleared a date with Jerry, and then set out to figure out how to put together a meet.
The first “Vintage Kart Reunion” was held at Prairie City Kart track on May 6th, 2001 in Rancho Cordova. We had promoted it on all the modern karting message boards, through the VKA, Bob DiNozzi’s site, and even locally with a booth at the Sacramento Autorama in February, and listings in the car club section of the Sacramento Bee newspaper. We had no idea what to expect.
Come the day of the meet, we were stunned to find out that folks had travelled from all over California and even Arizona to be there! I forget the head count, but it was much more than we had expected. In hindsight I would say 30 vintage karters showed up for that first meet. The success of that meet brought another one that fall, and a number of them from then on.
A job change and a divorce saw Rob fall away from vintage karting for a few years from about 2003-on. But we kept in touch when we could, and I continued to promote events in Northern California with the help of Jerry Ahrens. Jerry ceased operating the Prairie City track in 2005, so the Vintage Kart Reunion moved to the nearby Blue Max Kart Club track in Davis, Ca. in 2006 and 2007, which was the last major meet I was involved in promoting. Jerry did one more on his own in 2008.
I branched off and started organizing more informal “play days” in late 2007, and continue to do a couple of those a year. Rob Jones lost a brief battle to cancer in 2009, and sadly the diagnosis came about the same time he was starting to become involved in vintage karting once again.
During this early 2000s time period, the VKA gained traction and were holding meets. In the beginning, the meet in Quincy, IL was one of the premier events, then the event at Adams in Riverside, CA. But VKA meets started popping up in various regions of the country. Some of those meets are still being held today, some have gone by the wayside.
Early on, Bob Kurkowski and Rob Voska had a different idea from what the VKA was doing and they established their own meet in Fremont, OH titled “the Big One” catering to only rear engine karts with American Reed engines. Run under their R.E.A.R. (Rear Engine American Racers) banner, this meet is still going strong every Labor Day weekend. You might think with the limitations on the entries, it might be too small of a niche. But it has always been well-attended.
With many things, differing philosophies create differing opportunities. When the VKA started veering towards open competition and also extending the cut off to include newer karts, a group of folks who had been part of the creation of the VKA broke off with the idea of getting a group together with the original spirit and intent that the VKA had in its inception—hence the creation of the Vintage Kart Club of America in 2010.
Many great folks have come and gone through the hobby, and some folks who were there when this all got started are still involved in vintage karting. Some moved onto other hobbies and pursuits as people do sometimes, and some vintage karting friends have passed on, but the memories of hanging out at the track with these vintage karting friends will live on.
I hope this synopsis of an aspect of the history will get you caught up to speed, especially if you are new to the hobby. Vintage karting is starting to become old enough to have its own rich history. I’ve been pleased to have been a part of it all this time, and I hope you enjoy the hobby as much as I do as you help create the next chapter in its story. Dean