Fly By The Seat Of Your Pants At Kartplex!
If you haven’t yet had a chance to staycation in Oliver BC you must put Kartplex on your 2021 bucket list. Especially, if you and your kids are car racing fans and want to test your skills on a state-of-the-art go-kart track designed by Canadian professional race car driver, Jaques Villeneuve.
This track has the most sophisticated electronic and comprehensive safety control system of any outdoor kart track in the world. Plus, it’s located on the same spacious 26 acres as Area 27 Motorsports Park, a world-class Grand Prix style race track where Formula 1 and stock cars race. There’s nothing else like it in BC!
Kartplex and Area 27 are literally a car lover’s treasure chest hidden in the hills of Canada’s Wine Captial.
Recently, I had the opportunity to Zoom chat with Craig Finer, who began go-kart racing 28 years ago as an adult and who is the man behind Kartplex.
After my conversation with Craig, 2021 can’t come fast enough!
What inspired you to create Kartplex?
The short version is we were doing something similar, but very different, at the Penticton Speedway. I had a small fleet of rental karts that ran a couple of days per week.
While I was there, Bill Drossos, Founder of Area 27, rented some go-karts. He had fun and asked, “Hey, you want to put a karting centre at a new state of the art facility in Oliver with Jacques Villeneuve?”
I really couldn’t believe it at the time but the more I learned about it, the more I realized it was real. Then met Jacques and started having these conversations with him.
Jacques and Bill just so happened to go to the Richard Spenard Racing School in the ’80s together.
Bill is just a dude from Penticton working in ski shops and working in guys’ garages living in his mom’s basement at the time and he connected with this Formula One world champion with this hotelier/real estate magnate guy from Toronto and put a group of people together.
You could see that eventually, this was going to happen. There were enough people around here with motorsports enthusiasm that the Area 27 project was going to happen.
It took another three years to get the kart track built. We had a contract two years in a row that never got fulfilled and I was starting to think maybe it wasn’t going to happen but eventually it all came together.
How long have you been go-karting? What’s your experience?
I’ve been karting for 28 years now. I started as a grown-up but then got fully into it.
I briefly ran the business development for SKUSA (Superkarts USA), the National Professional Shifter Kart Series in the US. I ran a big team of pros that toured the United States, several of whom were drivers that I coached and managed until they became automobile racers.
I was fully steeped in motorsports. I got into it through this grassroots program. I still think (karting) is the greatest, fun sport for kids and families.
Do you also race cars?
I (used to run) the Stock Car Racing School at the Penticton Speedway. We had a little karting centre and then we had a fleet of late model stock cars (race cars). We did bucket list experiences. It was modeled after the Richard Petty or the Dale Earnhardt experience.
We’d get eight or ten business guys who dreamed of driving race cars. They’d come out and go through a progressive program to work their way up.
I’ve worked in automobile racing. I started racing when I was 29-years-old in a go-kart. I’m not like most of these guys who got their go-kart when they were six and got serious about it.
To be honest with you, I have raced cars, driven cars on racetracks, managed racing teams, and coached racing drivers at every level. I have no interest in automobiles. I have one. I’ve got a car for the track that sits in the parking lot.
I’m my own best advertising because I love go-karts. If it can’t keep up with a go-kart, I’m not interested.
And the budget factor is so different. We’ve seen a lot of conversions. A lot of guys will take Lamborghinis, Ferraris, and Porsches out of the racetrack and then come and drive a shifter kart and go, “Woah!”.
When did you open Kartplex?
We broke ground in 2019 and opened in August of 2019. We ran the tail end of 2019 through 2020.
We’re continuing to develop it (Kartplex). The track is there and we have temporary facilities. We’re going to put in a permanent facility hopefully this (coming) year.
How certain were you that it would be successful?
It’s been quite a thing! My attitude was always “if you build it, they will come”.
We needed literally 150 people with tens of thousands of dollars to get the whole thing built. It was a large expensive project, but it all moved forward.
I said, “You know this is crazy. I know if you guys put this facility here, it will be busy, it’ll be packed,” because there’s a lot of unrequited motorsports enthusiasm in the Pacific Northwest. Not just in the lower mainland but we have customers from California, Washington, Oregon, Winnipeg, New York, and Chicago.
Were there any doubters?
The facility itself has got so much traction with motorsports that it’s a gift to us because right when we opened, the first story was, “demographically you’re in trouble because million-plus dollar go-kart centres don’t work in populations with less than a million people.”
I told a bunch of my buddies from Boston and Atlanta what I was doing. They were like, “Yeah, no, that’s not going to work”.
I said, “I think it is going to work. The difference between you and me is that you’re next to Boston but I’m in a parking lot of 400 rich motorsports enthusiasts with children. You have a million average everydayers driving by your facility. I have 500 of the perfect clients sitting in my parking lot at all times.“
What does Kartplex offer?
Our basic story is “everything go-karts.”
If it has to do with a go-kart we do it. We sell them, service them, and we race them.
We will put your go-kart on a trailer to take you to Vegas for the SuperNats, the big national event that happens in North America each year.
It starts at the very bottom rung with our rental program. (It costs) $25, plus a $ 15-day pass, and anybody can race or practice at a very high level. It just goes up from there so if you really get bitten by the bug and you want to hang out, do club racing, and get coached, we can handle that.
If you are that guy that’s who’s dad is going to pay to have you driven around the country in a trailer and race against other serious crazy maniac racers, we can accommodate that too and so the answer is, yeah, everything go-karts.
What has the public response to Kartplex been so far?
With just grassroots marketing, we’ve already seen real traction with not just the Area 27 crowd but with all of our Kelowna, Vancouver, and Calgary clients.
People who have just learned about this karting centre seem to be into it and making their way here.
It’s amazing to me. I was confident because I love the sport and I know what it’s like when you sit in a go-kart, but it’s amazing to me that there’s so much traction in a southern Okanagan tourism area like this. We were having to figure out how to manage the pressure.
Are go-karts safe?
Karts are tons of fun, but, in our case, we have gone out of our way to make it safe so people don’t have to worry about excessive risk. Even though the thrill from the seat of the pants is tremendous, the speeds are lower than cars and the danger is also much less. Our sophisticated electronic safety systems also give people confidence that we are always keeping risk to a minimum.
How fast do Kartplex go-karts go?
The karts that we rent out to the public go up to 75 kilometres an hour.
We have karts available for purchase, lease, and demo that will go up to about 160 – 170 kilometres an hour.
Is driving experience needed to race? Do you need a license?
No, anybody can race. You don’t even need a driver’s license.
Our senior size go-karts are suitable for 14 to 107-year-olds. We have junior go-karts suitable for 8 to 13-year-olds depending on the physical size of the driver.
If you’re less than 13-years-old, we require that you take a 45-minute safety course with one of our instructors.
They do braking and steering drills. We don’t want to just throw kids out on the track in 60 – 70 kilometer an hour machines. Some of them behave great but some of them get in over their heads and cause trouble.
With our little Rookie Racer Program, we have an excellent history of bringing them up to speed, gradually helping them understand there are very strict rules and (teaching them) how to be fast and not be maniac putting yourself and other people in danger.
The course that we require for sub-13-year-olds is $80.00. That includes 20 minutes of track time. Once they graduate, they can rent a go-kart anytime they want just like their big siblings and parents can. That’s $25 a ride or $69 bucks for three rides plus their daily pit pass if they’re not a member.
What’s the youngest age that can ride?
Eight years old if you are renting my equipment.
We have go-karts to sell that are suitable for three to eight-year-olds called ‘Bambino’s’ or ‘Baby Cars’.
We cannot rent out a kart (to someone less than 8-years-old) because of our insurance limitations, but we will sell a car to someone who is less than eight years old as long as mom or dad buy or lease it.
Can people bring their own go-karts to the track and race them?
Yes, absolutely! We have a large group of kart owners. We have divided our hours up into practice, which is available for people who own carts, and rental or arrive-and-drive time, which is set aside for people who show up with their sneakers to rent our karts.
We are the Canadian distributor for TBKART which is an Italian brand of go-karts.
We’re unofficially in the final stages of developing a brand of go-karts for Jacques Villeneuve so they’ll be called JVKARTS. We will be the worldwide distributor for that brand. We will sell them, service them, stock them, and then train, test, and coach on those things as well.
Does Kartplex train kids to race go-karts and go through the ranks?
The best drivers here are on the go-kart track, the kids that are serious, that are going to go somewhere, that have real legitimate talent.
I have partners and people that are ready to take clients if we have a serious kid that’s developed his way through karting and is ready to try Formula cars.
I have partnerships, friendships, and relationships with people in the automobile racing industry so we can facilitate that kid but we also tell people right from the beginning that really this is just about fun. It’s a life-long thing.
It’s like the NHL. You can shoot real hard for it but you’ve got to be realistic. One-quarter of one-tenth of one toenail of one human from this region will ever be a professional racing driver. The rest of us just want to have fun with the sport. That’s very much our approach.
I think we have credibility with regards to driver development all the way through automobiles. We definitely have credibility with driver development for go-kart racing but we think of it as a participation-based sport.
We have a Karting Academy. We have a couple of certified instructors that have raced at a very high level. I’m the lead instructor. We do everything from guys who just want to book 45 minutes with a coach to improve their lap times (which we always guarantee) and then we have a full Academy Program.
We are going to run Kids Camps in 2021 two mornings per week. We already have a bunch of kids that are on our formal race team. We have three kids and four or five ‘grownup’ kids and older kids that are part of our program. They get coaching and data feedback. They’ve even learned how to do some engineering and tune their go-karts to make them quicker, read the tires, and adapt to the racetrack conditions, stuff like that.
We have a full Driver Development Program and we can take you from your first time sitting in a go-kart to a very high level of expertise with motorsports.
How long is the track?
The longest configuration is 1.315 kilometres and we can shorten it all the way down to 400 meters.
We have a (400 metre tri-oval) baby track where we do courses. It’s very contained and right at the front of the facility so our instructor can be within ‘chuck a tennis ball’ distance of the drivers at all times.
We have a medium configuration that’s about .9 of a kilometre with 12 turns, and then we have two longer configurations.
The long track and the long-plus track include another chicane to shorten up the long straight for our rental cars because we try to keep speed somewhat limited for the rental clients as compared with the race clients.
You have a total of six choices if you consider we also run forwards and backward.
At the end of this year, we finally got our timing system sorted out to the point where we could run all of our safety electronics and timing electronics in both directions.
We ran the reverse direction for the end of the season, so you have three configurations that can run in two directions so a total of six different racetracks.
How was the track designed for safety?
The track’s safety design was done by me along with our (two) safety partners. One of them is called Safer Barrier Systems which are all those blue and gray plastic protection barriers that you see all around the track. The other one is called RaceFacer and RaceSafety.
We have the most sophisticated electronic safety system in the world at this facility. We’re the only ones in North America with this system.
We have the most comprehensive safety control systems on any outdoor kart track in the world at this moment. There are three others in Europe and one in Australia that are using the same system but, honestly, we’re the beta testers.
We’re using more advanced and comprehensive features on this system which by the way hails from Bulgaria so we were on the phone with Bulgarians constantly in the middle of the night tuning this thing in.
The barrier system is designed to be there to collect the karts and dissipate energy if they do go off the racetrack. The electronic system is designed to make sure that if somebody goes off the race track it doesn’t turn into a pile-up. You can’t always stop the first crasher but you can usually stop it from becoming a pileup or incident.
We also have four Marshalls out on the track at all times, physical humans who have flags and little vehicles, and the means by which to get to any accident and help somebody get back on the track.
My opinion is that we couldn’t operate these fast karts on this fast track safely without something like it. I certainly wouldn’t do it seeing how it’s impacted our ability to keep our kart centre people safe. I think it’s really critical.
Can Kartplex take over control of the go-karts?
On an outdoor track, karts are not restricted, they don’t have any controls. Indoor tracks, it’s typical that the operator can slow the karts down in the event of an emergency.
Our karts have artificial intelligence engines. Each kart has a brain onboard. They actually make decisions on their own. The karts will slow themselves down if they think they’re approaching trouble or getting into trouble themselves.
Our operator has override control so we can slow down an individual kart or a whole fleet of carts. We can get the karts to drive in sync around the track and maintain the gap. (We can) slow them down to a safe speed and resume the same race after the safety hazards been addressed.
We don’t wave conventional flags. Our signaling to the drivers is like Formula One, LED lighting blocks. Those are automated so if a kart crashes in corner one, the light approaching corner one will turn yellow or red depending on the condition. All the karts approaching corner one will be slowed down to their pit box speed. As soon as they pass the offending go-karter incident, they are allowed to resume speed whereas if this was totally manual like it is indoor, you’re counting on a human to notice that everything is okay.
We can slow down your kart by choice as well. If it looks like you’re not obeying the rules or putting (people) at risk, we can penalize you and the kart will slow down. It’s very effective.
Do you and the family ever go for a family fun day?
Yes! Just ask Rose what she got for Christmas. Rose is probably the only 40-something lady in the area that got a go-kart.
Is Kartplex open all year round?
(This year) we closed more or less at the end of October. We ran two days in November and then we started the cleanup process so were closed as of now. My crew will show back up in February will do a soft opening in March. Our official opening is in April.
My plan next year is not to close. We are going to create a small ice racing facility. This will be a very limited appeal and it’s not going to be for everybody. It’s not going to be open to the drop in public, but I’ve already had enough hardcore guys and their kids that want to keep racing so we’re going to put some studded snow tires on the karts.
They will run the small version of the track at slow miles an hour and practice drifting and stuff like that.
We’re going to do a limited ice racing series in the winter.
As soon as my facility is completed, I’m also going to put in a simulator farm. We will have a series of sophisticated kart racing simulators that will have an electronic model of our racetrack and several other racetracks around the world that we will practice and train on.
We will make winter training available to our serious clients on the simulator program. We will eventually make the simulator program recreational as well so that if you show up and have 20 minutes to wait for your go-kart ride you can jump in a simulator and practice the track.
Over the winter, I hope that we can have simulator leagues.
I hope this is the last winter that we shut down completely. I’m hopeful for 2021-22 that we can be open in the winter.
How do the races work? How do you keep track of who wins?
It’s all automated.
Public Drop-in Racing
When you come out and race, you’re racing everybody on the track and everybody from the whole day, week, and month for lap times.
The system tracks how quickly you drive every lap. At the end of the session, you can see on our big TV screen that’s hung in the tent who’s fastest, who is first, second, third. It gives a gold, silver, and bronze medal for the fastest laps.
League and Club Racing
When we do our league racing, instead of winning based on who got the fastest lap time, you race based on who comes across the finish line first. To do that you have to do a green flag start and you have to align the karts at the beginning. It’s not practical for drop-in racing because you’d be making people wait all the time.
For our league races and our club races you go out and you qualify which means your times are recorded and they figure out who’s quickest. Then they put you out in that grade. Whoever comes across the finish line first wins that race. Then you start a third race based on the order in the previous race. Whoever wins that, wins the final.
In our racing leagues and club racing, it’s based on the order of arrival at the finish line. In our drop-in racing it’s based on who drives fastest, so who got the quickest lap time, which always tells you who’s the best driver. I’d rather run for lap time myself.
Can friends race each other?
We do allow wheel-to-wheel racing. If you and your friend decide to race head to head, you’re allowed to do that. It’s no problem as long as you stick within the rules and you are not knocking each other off the racetrack.
Can racers keep track of their racing record?
We have a social media website called RaceFacer. It’s part of our safety control system. If you accept the email invite at the end of your day visiting, you can log on and see all your best lap times from the year and month on all the track configurations.
You can friend people and see what their lap times are. You can challenge them to races. We can post challenges on that social media engine to create excitement around getting back on the racetrack and improving your driving.
We have many ways for people to track their performance. It’s automatically sent home with you in an email so you can see your times.
What kind of COVID protocols have you put in place?
Each element goes through a 30-minute sanitization process after it’s been used. It has to go on the UV cooker which is supposed to be 99.99% effective even against stuff you can’t physically get to.
Our crew goes ahead with isopropyl alcohol and mechanically cleans the helmet and then puts it on the UV light cooker. The cooker is supposed to get into all the little nooks and crannies and fabric that you can’t get to with alcohol and brushes.
We (also) give everybody a fresh cotton balaclava to wear on the site.
We have a fresh fleet of new helmets and are ordering more. Our kart’s steering wheels are wiped down after every use.
I’m obsessive-compulsive about cleanliness and maintenance so we clean and polish our karts every morning. We do regular lubrication and maintenance and stuff like that.
We sit on 26 acres and have wonderful opportunities for social distancing. We’ve been pretty strict about keeping people in their family bubbles or social bubbles.
Nothing (COVID) has traced back to us this summer so hopefully, we can keep a clean operation and in that regard.
So far we have not had any trouble so our plan is to keep that up.
How did COVID 19 affect your season?
We were very scared. In the beginning, we thought. “That’s it. We got it all together, got it open, put gas in the karts, and now we’re just going to sit here for a year and die on the vine.”
It didn’t really work out that way. It taught us how to manage traffic. We had to limit the number of people on the property and it turned out to be a great thing because we got rid of the lineups. Instead of having three hundred people in the parking lot waiting for ten rides, we would just bring him in and then bring them out. We had less than fifty people in the parking lot but we were booked to capacity almost the entire summer.
Get In Touch
To learn more and book your future ride, visit Kartplex online.