Junior Open Wheel Talent

News and Views on Drivers Chasing Open-Wheel Stardom

At What Age Should a Driver Make the Transition from Karts to Cars?

by Ryan Stringfield
Posted December 16, 2009 at 4:17 pm Karting, open wheel racing news

At what age should a driver make the transition from karts to cars?  Is there a correct answer?  Probably not, but we will take a closer look at some real-life examples below.

There might not be a magical answer that’s set-in-stone, but that’s not to say that people don’t have strong opinions on this particular topic.  Last week, I wrote a piece that looks at the decreasing age of drivers who are attempting to move from karts to cars.  Since that time, my inbox has been hit pretty hard by those who disagree with me.  Which is great because I value the thoughts and input of my readers.  What fun would the world be if we all agreed on everything?

As you can probably tell, from my past articles, I’m a fairly big karting advocate.  While drivers can find success without karting experience, it’s safe to say that karting is a proven training ground for an aspiring race car driver.  The readers who had issue with my post last week seemed to overlook my main point:

The more seat time the better… whether it be in cars or karts.  It’s always great to see drivers diversifying their skills.

Rather than debate this topic, I decided to take a look at some actual statistics.  This gets pretty long, so please make the jump to see the actual stats.

The folks over at eFormulaCarNews.com have put together a nice “driver ranking formula” that calculates the top North American junior formula drivers.  The idea behind the ranking is to take all opinion out and simply base the ranking system on numbers/stats.  The ideology is similar to the Pairwise Ranking or RPI ranking for you hockey/sports fans.

I decided to take a look at the karting and car experience of the current top-ten drivers from the final 2009 EFCN Driver Ranking.  I also took note of the drivers’ ages when they made the transition from karts-to-cars.

Stats
**standard disclaimer** Some of these stats weren’t easy to find and may vary by a year based on a drivers date of birth (example:  July birthday) and the accuracy of the information displayed on their website.  I also used the driver’s age during their first full year of car racing rather than the year they ran a few regional events or a partial season.

J.R. Hildebrand
Started Karting:  Age 14
Moved into Cars: Age 16

Adam Christodoulou
Started Karting:  Age 8
Moved into Cars:  Age 18

Sebastien Saavedra
Started Karting:  Age 10
Moved into Cars:  Age 16

Jonathan Summerton
Started Karting:  Age 14
Moved into Cars:  Age 16

James Davison
Started Karting:  Unknown
Moved into Cars:  Age 18

Peter Dempsey
Started Karting:  Age 7
Moved into Cars:  Age 18

James Hinchcliffe
Started Karting:  Age 9
Moved into Cars:  Age 16

Conor Daly
Started Karting:  Age 10
Moved into Cars:  Age 15

John Edwards
Started Karting:  Age 11
Moved into Cars:  Age 13

Wade Cunningham
Started Karting:  Age 10
Moved into Cars:  Age 20

It’s important to note that most of these drivers still continue to drive karts and diversify their skills rather than focusing exclusively on car racing.  Based on the list above, here are a few more stats for you.

Average Time Developing in Karts: 6 years
Average Age When Moving into Cars: 16.6 years

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How about a few more examples?  Raphael Matos was arguably the most dominant driver in the junior formula ranks in recent years and went on to win the 2009 IndyCar Rookie of the Year title.

Raphael Matos
Started Karting:  Age 14
Moved into Cars:  Age 21

What about the 2009 IndyCar Champion (Dario Franchitti)?  Or the 2009 Formula One World Champion (Jenson Button)?  Or Michael Schumacher?

Dario Franchitti
Started Karting:  Age 10
Moved into Cars:  Age 18

Jenson Button
Started Karting:  Age 10
Moved into Cars:  Age 18

Michael Schumacher
Started Karting:  Age 4
Moved into Cars:  Age 19
_______________________

So what does this all mean?

The stats above just illustrate that there really is no correct answer to the question “What age should a driver make the transition from karts to cars?“.  It’s hard to compare individuals because everyone is in a different situation (some drivers start earlier than others, some have more money, some, simply, develop quicker than others).  There are plenty of drivers who have moved to cars before they turned 15 and had successful careers but that’s not the norm, although, it seems, it will be shortly if things continue the way they have been.  And if this trend of moving youngsters into cars at at such a young age continues, how will that affect the future of motorsports and driver development?  How will it affect karting?  Will talented drivers be put on the back burner simply because of their elder age?  Should youth outweigh talent and natural ability?  How young is too young?

John Edwards, who is listed above, became the youngest driver to win an open wheel car race (at age 12) in 2004.  He went on to win the RedBull Driver Search in cars later that year.  Yet, those who were in charge of the RedBull Program decided to put him back in karts for a short time before moving him into the Formula Renault single-seater category.  They diversified his experiences and his skill set.  He is remarkably successful and started at a very young age.

What’s your opinion?  Is there a proper age to move developing drivers from karts to cars? Feel free to chime in and add your opinion by using the comment section.

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5 Comments

  1. Chris Miller on December 16, 2009 7:47 pm

    I think that it depends what car they are moving into. Skip Barber or a school car, 14 or 15 is likely fine. Atlantic….18 at least. Tell me someone younger who has had great success in Indy Lights or atlantic. On the contrary I can think of many people whose careers were hurt by moving to fast. Even john edwards didnt have success the first time he tried atlantic.

  2. Racing Yoda on December 17, 2009 8:01 am

    Karting provides a great foundation for a young driver. The basics are learned, and the experience helps the young driver get comfortable racing wheel to wheel.
    The next steps are critical. Moving up through the current U.S. ladder system (Skip Barber to Star Mazda to Atlantic, etc.) seems to have proven to provide the right sequence and pace of learning to drivers like Jonathan Edwards, Joel Miller, Conor Daly, Josef Newgarden and Connor Dephillippi.
    Modern open wheel racing is very demanding, and just being fast is not enough. The foundation is built upon in layers. Line and driving technique is complemented by learning vehicle dynamics and basic set up. Then comes the understanding the engineering of the car.
    All the while ‘race craft” is being acquired.
    Skipping steps or moving up too early is like going from elementary school to grad school without attending high school and college.
    The key seems to be getting the most learning out of each level before moving on. The essential elements for success seem ultimately to be desire and intelligence.

  3. The Speedgeek on December 17, 2009 10:13 am

    I’d say that I largely agree with most of the sentiment expressed here. The sorts of drivers who can move up to an Atlantic ride, or even a Star Mazda ride at 16 or 17 and have much success before their money runs out or before they spend 3-4 years in a single series and then are deemed “past it” are just so few and far between. Are there exceptions? Sure, but not many.

    The other unfortunate thing about “kids” moving up into the “senior” junior formula is that it’ll eventually mean that anybody who gets into a car after they’ve turned 21 will be considered ancient. Maybe it’s the old man in me, but I think that’s too bad. There’ll be plenty of folks out there that find that they have desire and the talent to drive around about the time they turn 18 or 19, but by then it’ll be too late for them to get anywhere unless they have the rare sort of talent that allows them to demolish entire grids basically right away. There should be a place for those sorts of drivers, though I suppose a lot of people would say that that place is called “sports cars”…

  4. ingo strackerjan on December 18, 2009 4:27 am

    It seems at first glimpse that the Stat’s proved what you and others are saying – karting is the way to go. However, I beg to differ only as I believe that any racing experience is as good if not better than only karting. Put somebody into/onto anything with 2 or 4 wheels, get him/her racing and do this for 6 or whatever years and you have the same results. Kartiing these days is not cheaper than running FF, F4, 50/100/125ccm bikes – so the old way of “doing it cheap and go karting” is also a myth these days!
    All what I am saying here is that one should be careful to say drivers should stay longer in karting as there is no reason for it!
    “Any seat time is good” – not really! Quality prevails even today! Therefore we prefer drivers with a little quality seat time over these drivers just thinking that 100 days testing will bring them close to whatever dream they have.

  5. Ryan (JOWT) on December 18, 2009 10:22 am

    Thank you— everyone— for the comments. You bring up some very valid points. I appreciate the participation and feedback.

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