From Karts to Cars -- Anatomy of a Successful Transition Sterling, Virginia (August 22, 2007) -- At some point in time, all serious karters (and their supporting parents) are faced with a question; how to advance their career as a...
From Karts to Cars -- Anatomy of a Successful Transition
Sterling, Virginia (August 22, 2007) -- At some point in time, all serious karters (and their supporting parents) are faced with a question; how to advance their career as a professional driver by making the move into cars. The decision to move up is a big one, and it may seem like there are more wrong choices than right ones. The biggest questions inevitably become: what is the right age to move up, what series I should choose, where do I turn to for good advice and help along the way.
We talked to Liam Kenney, who may well be the youngest driver in the 2007 Formula TR Pro Series 2000 Championship and found the 15-year-old rookie, driver of the #95 Liam Kenney Motorsports entry, hasn't let his age hinder him on his quest to make it as a professional racing driver.
Currently sitting third in the Driver Standings, with three wins and nine podium finishes in 14 starts, the Virginia-racer believes his decision to switch from karting to car racing early in his career has paid dividends as he challenges for a championship in just his second season of open-wheel competition.
Kenney graduated from karting at the age of 14 to compete in the 2006 Formula TR Pro Series 1600 Championship and quickly turned heads with regular podium finishes and a race win before season's-end. As with many young karters, Liam, together with his father, John Kenney, was faced with the issue of when to step up to cars and with results in karting not turning out quite as expected it would be a crucial move in terms of ensuring his talents could shine at the next level.
Fortunately for the Kenney's it wasn't a decision they had to make alone and after a chance meeting a couple of years earlier at a Stars of Karting National Final, they turned to Speed Secrets, a leader in the field of coaching services for racing drivers, and Liam's career path quickly gained momentum.
At times, young drivers feel they have to finish atop the points standings in karting before they will be considered "ready" to move into cars. The fact is that most young drivers aren't noticed while competing in karts and the earlier they move to cars to start their careers in earnest, the better.
For Liam, the decision to switch from karting to cars was solidified after having sampled one of the Formula Renault 1600 cars. The teenager acknowledges that the transition can be made possible without having to have a stellar karting record.
"Speed Secrets really helped us out with this one," Liam reflected. "They have a really strong program for drivers moving up into car racing and that helped with the decision to leave karting at such a young age. I learned a lot having tested with them and we decided to compete full-time in the 2006 Formula TR Pro Series 1600 Championship."
"Liam first came into contact with the guys from Speed Secrets at an event in Orlando," adds John Kenney. "We discovered there were lots of appealing aspects of working with Speed Secrets but Liam was just 12 at the time so we filed the information away for when we knew we'd be looking to step up into car racing. A couple of years later we hooked up again and really began talking about the next move with them out of frustration at results in karting. We wanted to let Liam sample the kind of car he wanted to race and having continued our dialogue with Speed Secrets for another couple of months, Liam then attended one of their tests."
John Kenney echoes Liam's sentiments with regards to the program and the compatibility of the Formula TR Pro Series. "We had talked to and looked at the likes of the Skip Barber Series, considering their schools and regional competitions," he explained. "Having decided to work with Speed Secrets we wanted to take full advantage of their program and we consider the Formula Renault car as a more effective learning tool. The test in the car really sold it to Liam so we headed into the Formula TR Pro Series and the results speak for themselves."
While testing is one thing and racing another, Liam, benefiting from a specialized coaching program, has ultimately enjoyed a smooth transition from karting to cars. "Obviously things are a lot more technical in car racing and you've got to be able to communicate with your engineer and mechanics," Kenney stated. "You need to provide a lot more input regarding what's done to the car's set-up so it's really important to be able to communicate clearly. That's been the biggest thing for me over my time in karting -- the other being you get more recognition once you step up into a professional series and start racing."
Liam's coach's role in his development as a driver goes beyond simple advice on the next step and it's a relationship that has reaped benefits both on and off track. The close relationship has enabled a driver like Liam to unlock his potential in car racing, potential that was untapped during his time in karting but is now emerging. Both John and Liam are quick to credit Speed Secrets' personal approach to coaching and their focus on the mental development of drivers.
"What separates them from other companies out there is the fact that you get paired up with a coach that's really compatible with who you are and you develop a good relationship with that person as you work together on your program," said Liam. "I also think their approach to the mental aspect of racing sets them apart from other driving schools and coaches. A lot of driving schools just teach you the on-track stuff in terms of driving a race car whereas Speed Secrets focuses on your mental approach as well as everything else.
He continued, "I think my mental strength is one of the biggest advantages I have over a competitor on-track. You really have to keep pushing yourself beyond what you think is possible and that's what my coach does really well; and it helps me to focus and prepare mentally for each race. We'll also work on things like strategy and set-up while identifying the areas where I need the most help as a driver, perhaps places where I'm in a bit too much of a comfort zone. We really fine-tune a lot of different things -- we push the limits of what I think is possible."
Liam's development has failed to go unnoticed by John Kenney and he's witnessed the change in his son's approach to his racing since teaming up with Speed Secrets.
"The guys at Speed Secrets treat Liam as a young professional racing driver and in turn everyone else at the track does as well. He's not some kid told to get in the car and drive, his feedback is valued and his coach has helped him mature and focus not only on the skill-set that's necessary to drive the car but more importantly on the mental preparation required as well. I didn't see these things offered by anyone else so there's no question my expectations have been exceeded by Speed Secrets and Liam's results, despite his age and experience, are there for everyone to see."
When faced with the question of going it alone from karting to car racing without the help of a coach, Liam observed, "Sure, maybe it's possible for a young driver to make the transition without a coach but you are going to need somebody there to help you along the way."
He concluded, "The support system you put around you can play a huge part in your success as a racing driver and I'm already of the frame of mind that regardless as to where I race I'll want to use a coach until the day I retire -- you never stop learning. The advantage with Speed Secrets is that you get to develop a solid working relationship as well as a friendship with your coach and when you do something well you really know you've achieved something because the racing at this level is so competitive."
As this article is being written, Liam and John Kenney are hard at work piecing together the next step in Liam's career. In less than two seasons, Liam has progressed from running deep in the field in karting to challenging for a title in a professional open-wheel racing series. He has created an environment in which his natural talent has been allowed to flourish.
Along the way, he has learned how to communicate with his coach and his engineer, picked up a lot of race craft and polished his skills in meetings with business people and sponsors. People who didn't take him seriously in karts now watch him closely. Liam is about to take another step up the ladder and he won't be doing it alone. He has his driving coach who has worked with him since he moved into cars and he has the attention of those who will help fund his career's next steps. Transition complete!