QUINCY — IndyCar legend Al Unser Jr. watched Saturday’s Grand Prix of Karting and had no problem relating to the competitors working their way around the challenging South Park course.
Unser, who was racing karts long before he won two Indianapolis 500s, said the mindset is the same — no matter what size of wheel the driver is sitting behind. “You persevere, you never give up, you work at it 24/7,” said Unser, who is in Quincy this weekend as the special guest of Grand Prix director and former world karting champ Terry Traeder.
The Grand Prix concludes its two-day run Sunday with 11 races. Action begins at noon. Admission is free.
The 59-year-old Unser grew up racing karts in New Mexico and now resides in Avon, Ind., which sits about 14 miles west of the motorsports capital of the world — Indianapolis.
Ironically, Unser said those competitive juices that drive a racer during his career also tell him when it’s time to step away. Unser’s last full-time season was 2003. His career was punctuated by a pair of IndyCar championships and more than 30 victories.
That career also included two broken ankles, some concussions and a separated shoulder.
“I never had any serious injuries, I was truly blessed,” Unser said.
And he knew when it was time to park those 200-plus mph rides.
“I was ready,” Unser said.
And he’s never looked back.
That doesn’t mean Unser’s interest in racing has lessened. He simply finds himself enjoying a weekend at South Park (almost) as much as he used to enjoy a weekend at the Brickyard.
Arguably the busiest family this weekend at the Grand Prix is the Jeff Scott clan. Jeff, 49, daughter Avery, 19, and son Riley, 17, have a combined seven karts entered in a wide variety of races.
Jeff’s dad, Bob Scott, is also a key figure this weekend, serving as the four-cycle tech director.
Jeff is looking to bounce back from a painful 2019 Grand Prix. He sustained a variety of injuries in a crash that year at South Park, including four fractured ribs that kept him out of racing for a year. He admits he was anxious to return to the South Park course.
“Just to finish in the top here is quite an accomplishment,” he said. “Sure, you need skill, but you need some luck, too. There is a lot of nationally ranked competition here.”
Scott’s return Saturday, however, was marred by another crash, a smash-up during qualifying that “destroyed” one of the family’s karts and injured his left shoulder. He vows he’ll still be racing Sunday.
Saturday’s four eight-lap springs around the twisting, 1.3-mile course saw no local winners, although area drivers took a pair of seconds.
Runner-up finishes were provided by Phil Smith of Quincy in the Shifter class and Riley Scott of Quincy in the FK-100 division.
Riley Scott has 3 career wins in the Grand Prix, which ties him for 23rd on the all-time victory list.
Sprint winners were Matt Krechel (Briggs Heavy) of Pacific, Mo., Ethan Arndt (FK-100) of Salado, Texas, Jeff Dolian (Margay Ignite) of Plano, Texas, and Devin Smith-Harden (Shifter) of Nashville, Ill.
The closest race was Krechel’s Briggs Heavy win. He edged Dolian by .016 of a second. Krechel and Dolain were part of a wild five-kart battle for the lead.
”I just tried to make my kart wider,” Krechel said. “Not blocking, just wider.”
The most lopsided victory was Smith-Harden’s win in the Shifter class. He finished 21.8 seconds ahead of the rest of the field.
The largest field of the day was a 37-kart lineup in the Margay Ignite division.
Sunday’s lineup features four pro races, which will divide up a $10,000 purse.
The largest race of the weekend will be Sunday’s 43-kart Ignite Masters, scheduled for 4 p.m.
By the numbers
This year’s Grand Prix shows 362 entries from 19 states, a record since the event was resurrected in 2018. There were 319 entries in 2019 and 301 in 2018. There was no racing in 2020 due to the pandemic.
The Grand Prix dates to 1970 and ran continuously through 2001 before being halted to declining interest.
The all-time entry mark was 625 in 1994.
Holly Cain, executive director of the Quincy Convention and Visitors Bureau, said Saturday she estimates the Grand Prix will have $300,000 economical impact on the city.
Another special guest this weekend at South Park is rising motorsports star Evan Stamer of Glen Carbon, Ill.
The 19-year-old Stamer, who raced karts in Quincy in 2018-19, is now on the fast track to reaching the Indianapolis 500 — his target date is 2024 — as part of the Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires. The Road to Indy is regarded as one of the most successful driver development programs in the world, providing a unique, scholarship-funded path to reach the NTT IndyCar Series and Indianapolis 500.
”For me, my dream is race in the Indy 500, and this is a way to do that,” said Stamer, who is also a big fan of Formula 1 racing, but admits that high-priced European-based series is a bit unrealistic for a small-town kid from the midwest.
Sanctioned by IndyCar, the Road to Indy provides drivers, teams and sponsors an opportunity to gain valuable experience on and off the track while following a clear-cut path of progression through three development series: Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship, the Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires.
”Evan has a great opportunity,” Terry Traeder said. “He wants to learn, and is a really good kid.”
Stamer has been a motorsports junkie since age 4 when he started on a dirt bike. Injuries eventually led him to the four-wheel portion of the motorsports world.
”I took a leap of faith with karting,” he said.
That was an excellent decision. His karting success began to open up doors for him, including a tie-in with acclaimed Margay Racing St. Louis, Mo. Margay is the leading U.S. manufacturer of racing karts and accessories.
Stamer, whose racing idols are F1 champ Lewis Hamilton and supercross/motocross legend Travis Pastrana, enjoys all aspects of racing. He realizes any on-track success is a result of off-track study, preparation and acquiring as much knowledge as possible.
”It’s rewarding,” he said.
Traeder calls the cast of Grand Prix officials a “dream team.”
”We’ve assembled the best crew in karting,” Traeder said. “Having a staff like this one is one of the reasons this event is working its way to being the No. 1 event of its kind in the nation.”
Headlining the dream team are announcers Randy Kugler of Columbus, Ohio, internationally recognized flagman Jason Burgess of Indianapolis, Ind., race director Rick Fulks of Jacksonville, Ill., and consultant Keith Freber of St. Louis.
Also filling key roles will be local contributors such as announcer Bob Gough of Quincy, assistant race director Chris Miller, safety coordinators J.T. Miles and Jeff Miles, four-cycle tech director Bob Scott, two-cycle tech director Jack Hoegerl, and 125cc tech director Phil Smith.
Members of the Quincy Notre Dame football team are earning money for the Raiders program through a variety of weekend services at the Grand Prix.
QND players are helping park cars, helping transport fans and assisting in track set-up and tear down.