HARRISBURG, N.C. (Dec. 15, 2000) -- During the CART FedEx Championship Series off-season, many drivers backtrack to their beginnings -- in a kart.
"I have a kart at my house in Miami, so in the off-season I will be driving it to keep in shape for next season," CART driver Tony Kanaan said. "The best way to train is to drive my real race car, but since I can't do that every week, karting is the next best thing."
Kanaan began racing karts at the age of eight and collected six karting championship titles over the next eight years. Numerous years in open-wheel competition and a several championships later, Kanaan graduated to CART and was honored with the Jim Trueman Rookie-of-the-Year award in 1998. Now in his third year in the series, he earned his first pole at the Toyota Grand Prix in Long Beach, Calif., April 18, 1999 and captured his first win at the U.S. 500 at Michigan International Speedway July 25, 1999.
Kanaan is one of many CART stars who have been sighted at the Stefan Johansson Karting Center in Indianapolis -- an indoor training ground for countless professional drivers.
"Many drivers come to our center to hone their skills or for rehabilitation on a weekly basis between the CART races," said Mark Vandersall, operations manager of Stefan Johansson Karting Center. "When Al Unser Jr. competed in CART, his doctor required him to log at least 50 laps on our track to determine whether or not he could get back into the driver's seat after an injury in 1998."
Kanaan and Unser Jr. have more than the Stefan Johansson Karting Center in common. A month after sustaining serious injuries in an accident last June, Kanaan tested his healing body by logging more than 600 laps in a go-kart in order to be able to finish the 2000 season.
"The most important thing that karting teaches you is car control," Kanaan said. "Karts are faster than anything you drive because the tracks are small and the movements are so tight and fast. You have to be really quick, so it really develops your reflexes.
"Karting is the most important category in your racing career, because it's where you begin," Kanaan continued. "If you are good in school and do well, you are going to be ahead of the game when you move on. I think every driver should begin in karts."
Former World Karting Association (WKA) star and CART driver Michael Andretti agrees. Andretti began racing go-karts in 1972 and after working his way up the racing ladder made his Champ Car debut in 1983. At 37, he has accumulated more wins (40), poles and laps than any active Champ Car driver and he is quickly approaching his father Mario's record of most CART wins -- 52 -- which is second only to the 67 wins held by A.J. Foyt.
"Karting is the first step in getting involved in racing," Andretti said. "It is a very important step which not only includes learning about racing, but also teaches other important elements such as competition, teamwork and controlling a race car.
"My son Marco is involved in karting and we feel that it is a very important learning experience which will help him get to the professional level."
Bryan Herta, American Champ Car talent and co-owner of the Las Vegas Karting Center, began racing go-karts at the age of 12.
"I really believe that the basic skills you use in driving a Champ Car are learned in karting," said Herta, a three-time WKA champion. "The best thing is that it makes racing accessible to kids. There's no other racing that you can do under the age of 18. It's a great way to get in at an early age." The World Karting Association is a member-owned corporation founded in 1971 to regulate and promote the family sport of competitive kart racing and provide a safe and fair environment for the fulfillment of racing dreams.