BATESVILLE, MS – Thanksgiving is often associated with family, food and football, and not necessarily in that order. Unless, of course, you’re one of a few thousand people infected with the racing bug. There are numerous “Turkey Day” events that take place in the world of motorsports each year, but none are more unique than the one that happens in the throws of the Mississippi delta each year – the O’Reilly Auto Parts National Indoor Kart Championship.
For those who are competing in this year’s 29th annual ONIKC, Thanksgiving means parking, registration, setting up your pit area, and preparing for the first of two race days on Friday and the 8am practice session that gets it all started. Almost 800 entries are already known, and this year’s event looks to be the largest in several years.
Event founder Lanier James of JAM Promotions, his son Shane, and event promoter Scotty Reed have been working along with the administrative staff since early September to put this year’s event together, and as this story is written on Wednesday of race week, the dirt has been brought into the Batesville Civic Center, formed into the track surface and final preparations are underway. While work on the track surface is going on, a temporary scoring booth that doubles as the announcer’s area is being constructed on the arena’s top floor along with an area for event souvenir sales, a registration room and command central for the audio/video team in charge of the livestream that takes place both days of the event.
Outside, large covered areas for the staging grid, and the FM Transmitter that helps race teams hear their classes being called to race, and the line of teams waiting to get in on Thanksgiving day morning will begin to form. This is no small-time event setup. It takes the tireless efforts of dedicated staff working in synchronicity to orchestrate one of the most intense events in karting, and the largest event the Batesville Civic Center holds each year.
Reed works with presenting sponsor O’Reilly Auto Parts throughout the year to travel to various NASCAR and NHRA events with a tent, a couple of official event karts and information and spend the weekend shaking hands, talking about the event and generating interest. This event still stands tall as the only event of its kind in karting with an outside-the-industry sponsor. The deal with O’Reilly Auto Parts was made by event founder Lanier James and the late Bobby Waltrip 15 years ago, and it remains a win-win. The racers have to go to their nearest O’Reilly Auto Parts store to purchase their pit pass for the event, which means the odds are strong that while they are in the store they’ll stock up on necessities, which makes the folks from O’Reilly smile.
More than just a race, this event is about family. When Lanier James started the event 29 years ago in a building on the Memphis Fairgrounds that came to be known as the “Thunderdome”, he and son Shane had both already raced karts and Shane eventually got into building motors and opened a kart shop in Memphis as well. In the first 20 years or so of the event, a strong local contingent of kart racers and their familes gave it stability and “invaders” from across the nation and Canada joined in and made it an event worthy of television.
The race moved to the shiny new Paul Battle Arena in Tunica, Mississippi in 2001, and it was there that video crews filmed the event for broadcast on various TV networks, including ESPN 2, Speed Channel and others, before it settled into the yearly free livestream that you can watch today. In the mid-2000’s, the race saw over 1000 entries yearly with over 1500 being the record, which still stands to this day.
In more recent years, the local karting scene in Memphis has dwindled but the fervor for adding one of the unique slot machine trophies to the mantle has not. The ONIKC remains the largest indoor kart race in the world, and the longest running event of its kind. It has set the bar for others to follow in the areas of racer safety, racer rewards and media coverage.
James and his team have even managed to turn the normally mundane atmosphere of the daily drivers meeting into a special event. Racers are given a different prize ticket for each day’s meeting, and those tickets make them eligible to win one of the prizes off the now famous flatbed prize trailer containing several thousand dollars in merchandise. Racers whose tickets are drawn come down to track level and pick out their own prize, which could be anything from kart chassis, bodies or tires to microwaves, bicycles, and even oversized stuffed teddy bears for the youngest throttle-jockeys in the crowd.
NASCAR Xfinity Series race team JD Motorsports has donated a pair of VIP race experiences to the prize list each year for the past several years, and that has served as the grand prize each day. The winner and his family are awarded an all-expense paid trip to an Xfinity series race to hang with JD Motorsports and their drivers, and get to see a NASCAR race from the inside out.
The tie with a NASCAR race is a natural one for this event, as it has seen several of NASCAR’s stars compete there while climbing the motorsports ladder. Kevin Swindell, Trevor Bayne, Ricky Stenhouse, Ben Rhodes and others have seen action at the NIKC early in their careers, as have AJ Foyt IV, Kreig Kinser and even sprint car legend Sammy Swindell. Each is a high-pace, high-stakes 20-lap shootout with no time to catch your breath and relax. You have 20 laps or 15 minutes to get to the front or it’s all over until next time. Kevin Swindell won multiple races and probably stands out as the best of this list of past and current major league racers in terms of event success, but all enjoyed their time and the challenge of taming a track that changes in feel from the first race day to the second in order to further increase the degree of difficulty of dominating both days.
Pre-race at the NIKC features introductions of the fast time award winners in each division, a walk-on to the infield for all qualified drivers and the frisbee toss, which gives spectators a chance to win a prize if the lucky number on the back of the frisbee they catch is called during the night. Event promoter Reed says these are things that help make the ONIKC special for racers and teams.
“Lanier has made it a priority over the years to focus on giveback to the racers and spectators,” Reed said. “He has always wanted to not just have an event that racers want to come and run, but he’s wanted it to be an event that lets as many racers go home with something as possible. Maybe you didn’t have a great weekend on the track but you won a bicycle and a set of tires at the driver’s meeting so at least you went home feeling like you had a good time and maybe got something out of it that made it a fun time. That’s what he is all about. Every racer also gets a gift bag when they register. It’s Lanier’s way of saying thank you for coming to run with us. If you’re going to give up your Thanksgiving weekend to come to Batesville, we want to do all we can to make it a good time as well as a challenging and intense race experience.”
Speaking as the voice of the event for the past 19 years, I can add that for those of us who give up our Thanksgiving weekend to come and work the event, the intensity and the experience are just as rewarding. When I started announcing the event in 2001, I think we were running 10 or 12 classes per day. Now it’s 22 classes per day and everyone who works the event has to be on their game in order for the show to run well and hiccups to be minimized. I am humbled that Lanier and Shane have had faith in me to add some energy and excitement to the show for all these years, and I enjoy it every bit as much now as I ever have. We have a tremendous team of people that puts on this show, and it’s become almost a family reunion of sorts in which normal people activities like card games and horsehoes are replaced by activities of a far more serious nature.
Still…we have fun. And we hope the racers have fun as well. If you want to catch the livestream, visit www.ONIKC.com or follow the event’s Facebook page or we’ll have it on our Race Chaser Media social pages as well throughout the weekend. It all starts on Friday at 8am Central with day one’s practice sessions, and the stream stays live all day long so you won’t miss a thing including the drivers meetings, qualifying and race action.
Happy Thanksgiving to you and your families. Let’s go racing!