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Robert Wickens at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in 2012. (Cody Schindel)

Robert Wickens at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in 2012.

(Cody Schindel)

Motorsports

This is how race car drivers learn their trade Add to ...

If you are an aspiring young Canadian racing driver, odds are you’ll be in Stouffville, Ont., this weekend hoping to make an impression and maybe become this country’s next James Hinchcliffe or Robert Wickens.

That’s because the 15th ASN Canada FIA Canadian Karting Championships is already underway at Goodwood Kartways in Stouffville, Ont. Qualifying heats begin Friday and the finals going Sunday.

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While only a few of the thousands of kids who compete in karting ever make it through to the professional ranks, a racing driver who didn’t learn most of his skills behind the wheel in the physical, fast and furious formula is rare.

Just ask now Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters (DTM) driver Wickens, who cut his racing teeth in karts in 1997 as a seven-year-old.

“My time in karting made me the driver I am today,” said the Mercedes racer who took his maiden DTM win last week at the famed Nurburgring.

“I learned all the fundamentals of racing through karting. It also really kept me focused in school and out of trouble throughout my teen years. I was so dedicated to my racing that I would always think to myself ’will this affect my racing?’ before I would do pretty much anything.”

Karting teaches young drivers all the basics, such as driving lines, the feeling when the front of the kart loses grip, called understeer, and the opposite called oversteer. Wickens insisted that it also offers effective lessons in handling the crazy opening laps of races, knowing when to be aggressive and when to be patient, and dealing with pressure situations.

It’s also a family affair, with many kids spending countless hours with parents and siblings at the track.

In Wickens’ case, it was his older brother Trevor who served as his mechanic through his entire karting career, which ended in 2005.

“I had an amazing childhood going from track to track and race to race all over North America, spending time with my family,” Wickens said.

“My brother Trevor and I have such a special relationship, something that I haven’t really seen in many other siblings. I feel like our relationship would probably be different if we did not do karting together.”

While Robert headed off to Europe six years ago to pursue his Formula One dreams, Trevor continued in karts, starting his Hamilton-based Maranello North America team and helping other youngsters find their feet in racing.

And working with someone who had the talent to win championships in cars and be an F1 reserve driver helped the elder Wickens spot and polish talent.

“Working with Robert gave me the bulk of the theories and the knowledge that I use today,” he said.

“To me there are two types of driver: The naturally talented one who can just hop in and go, and the intelligent one who sits down and analyzes everything and maximizes his performance based on data and everything else – Robert has the best of both worlds,” he said.

Wickens’ Maranello North America outfit has five drivers on track for the nationals: Stuart Clark in DD2 masters, Brendon Bain and Fred Woodley in DD2, Rotax Senior driver Michael Kundakcioglu, and Rotax Junior competitor Adam Martin.

But even if a kid comes out on top this weekend, assuming that it’s a ticket to success in higher formulae would be a mistake. While talent is a huge factor, there are many more things that can make or break a career.

Unfortunately, the stark reality for most karters is that they likely won’t go far without huge wads of cash in their wallets.

Things have gotten so costly that even a massively talented racer such as Wickens, who came from a family of modest means, would likely not have been able to afford to kart had he been born 10 years later and started in 2007 instead of 1997.

Today, some of the more well-heeled drivers often run several sets of tires per race weekend and go through many motors over the course of a season.

As a comparison, Wickens didn’t get a extra sets of tires to run in practice until he was in his final year of karts, and his brother spent countless hours tearing apart and rebuilding engines to keep him racing.

The high cost of racing is also why one series that many will likely consider when they graduate from karts is the Toyo Tires F1600, which controls costs through its title sponsor’s products and a new Honda motor program. Drivers can start in the series as young as 15 at a cost that compares favourably with a top-flight karting season.

“Financially it is a lateral move with all of the benefits of learning the big tracks and building your brand as a driver in a recognized formula,” said series promoter Jason Sharpe.

“F1600 is recognized globally as the perfect transition for a young driver moving from karts and into cars – it teaches the nuances of mechanical grip as there are no wings or other aerodynamic aids.”

The F1600 series will race this weekend at Calabogie Motorsports Park near Ottawa where points leader Zach Robichon hopes to extend his lead in the title chase at his home track. With six races left, the Ottawa native has an 86-point lead, but with drivers getting 100 markers for a win, his position atop the standings is far from secure. The series wraps up its season at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in Bowmanville, Ont. on Sept. 29.

Robichon is a former karter who moved on to cars after winning the Hinchtown.com Canadian Karting Award in September, 2011, which gave him a paid scholarship at the Bridgestone Racing Academy also at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park.

Coincidentally, Canadian Tire is the title sponsor of the Canadian Karting Championships for the third consecutive year and the retailer will also back Team Canada in the Rotax Max Challenge Grand Finals, held in New Orleans, in November, which attracts drivers from 60 countries.

It is the first time the Rotax event will be held in North America, something that has the elder Wickens brother excited. Rather than having to travel to Europe and race an unfamiliar track against drivers who have likely practised on it for days, this year’s Team Canada will have that luxury.

But first the drivers must get through the nationals, which often feature tough fights and tooth-and-nail battles.

DTM racer Wickens said one of his best memories of karting came in the 2003 version of the event, when he was competing in the 80cc Junior category.

“Daniel Morad [of Markham, Ont.,] and I had a race long battle for the lead and on the final lap it was an all out battle – I’ve been told we overtook each other over 10 times just on the final lap, and it wasn’t until the exit of the last corner where I was able to pass him back to take the win,” he said.

“It was an amazing race with a driver that was always really tough but really fair. We never made contact with each other the whole race. Maybe I like that one because I came out on top – I’m sure it wouldn’t be my favourite if I didn’t get the win.”

For more from Jeff Pappone, go to facebook.com/jeffpappone

Twitter: @jpappone

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