American shifts into racing, Italian style
May 3, 2004
NAPLES, Italy — At the starting line, ready to slam the pedal to the floor, is the lone foreigner.
He knows there’s likely to be a wreck. Maybe a fight. Or both.
This is professional Go Kart racing, Italian style.
“Racing here is so much more intense,” says American racer Paul Kloepping. “They (Italians) are a little bit more rammy.”
Just halfway into the opening lap, his point is illustrated. A driver rams Kloepping’s kart off the track. He has to push-start it to get back in the race.
Kloepping, 25, has been in about 60 Go Kart races since age 14. His father and brother raced motocross bikes.
“My father wanted to do something with me that was more economical,” smiled the Lena, Ill., native.
He couldn’t race from 1998 to 2002, because there are few tracks in Japan, where he served as a Navy ship serviceman.
Then in 2002, while no longer in the Navy, he moved along with his wife, Kristi, a Navy air operations secretary, to Naples. Kloepping couldn’t have gotten luckier: the city is a Go Kart mecca. He races twice a month at the more than 10 tracks within an hour’s drive. Naples hosted last year’s World Karting Championships.
Kloepping often is the sole American at tracks here. He speaks some Italian, and chatted easily with his mechanics at a Campania regional race recently in Casaluce, near the Naples Gricignano Support Site, where he works as assistant to the Teen Center director.
Before each race, he and his mechanic, Pepe Pagliuco, ensure the kart is good to go. They look at how the rubber is laid out on the track — whether it’s going to be slick or tight — and adjust the wheels accordingly. They fire up the 125 cc motor to make sure everything is running fine.
Kloepping pulls on a flash hood and helmet and sometimes a neck brace, mandatory in the States but not in Italy. Under his red-and-white suit, a vest protects his ribs from the lateral Gs he pulls on the corners. Driving shoes allow him to feel the pedals better while shifting through the six gears.
Competitors huddle around the race director, who goes through the drill: No bumping, and make it a clean start. Races last up to 20 minutes, depending on the laps and track length.
“In the States you just feel a lot more confident going in, you feel like you’re going to come out all right,” Kloepping said. “I always get nervous before I go. Once I get in the kart, everything goes away.”
This isn’t your local Go Kart track, where 5-horsepower karts poke along at 30 mph. Pro 45-horsepower Go Karts top out at 125 mph. Karters have been seriously injured and even killed.
“It goes zero to 60 [mph] in 3.5 seconds,” he said. “They have the same ratio as an Indy car for how much power they put out.”
As the race starts, the smell of burnt rubber is in the air. Shortly afterward Kloepping’s kart gets smacked and he has to restart it so he can finish the race.
Then the fun begins. Despite the rough start, Kloepping is told he qualifies for the final race.
Then he’s told he’s disqualified because he tapped another driver’s kart during the race. He and his mechanic put up a fight, and it appears he will get to race. But the argument drags on.
“You don’t argue in the States, they’ll just throw you out,” he said. “But Italians will sit there and talk about the same thing forever. They get into it all the time.”
In one race, he said two men who collided jumped out of the karts, helmets still on, and started boxing.
In the end, Kloepping is disqualified. He isn’t happy — despite getting a hug from the apologetic driver who rammed him.
“I spent 200 euros to come out here for half a lap,” he says.
He spends about 10,000 euros a year on fees, mechanics, repairs and gear. He just plunked down $10,000 for a new Merlin Go Kart. A weekend of racing costs 120 euros in tires alone. If it weren’t for the 1,100 euros entry fee, he said he’d compete in the European Go Kart Championships May 16 in nearby Sarno.
For cheaper fun, Kloepping takes Teen Center kids to race regular Go Karts.
“He always hangs out with us,” said seventh-grader John Freeman. “He’s a good guy — he’s got both kid and adult in him.”
Next month, the Kloeppings move to the States, where Paul will race in the Stars of Karting in July. Top drivers win $20,000-$25,000 to put toward Formula car racing careers, a dream of his.
He hopes to pass on to his daughter the same passion for racing he got from his dad. But while his wife says her husband’s racing is “awesome,” 2-year-old Michaella isn’t destined for zipping around corners at breakneck speeds.
“I’m totally against it. She’s going to have a pony and do ballet, she’s gonna be a girl,” wife Kristi laughed.
— Those interested in Go Karting can contact Kloepping at the Teen Center or go to www.federkarting.it