Indoor go-karting track draws aspiring racers, thrill-seekers
Posted by Tom on 11/03/2014
His gaze stony and his arms locked, Luigi approached a turn.

Vroom. The engine revved. He turned the wheel and hit the brakes. Squeal. His tires drifted.

The go-kart whipped around the curve, narrowly avoiding the track’s boundaries. Then Luigi floored it again. “It’s an adrenaline rush,” he said.

Keffer Fotheringham, who calls himself Luigi, has raced every day at Grand Prix Karting since the indoor facility opened a month ago on Alum Creek Drive near I-70 and Rt. 33.

Grand Prix’s owner believes that his facility can be configured into the longest track in the country by combining its two quarter-mile tracks. It’s one of only two large indoor go-karting tracks in Ohio.

Grand Prix is the brainchild of Aaron Saez. The business owner has raced almost anything you can with wheels. Saez became involved with go-karts in his early 20s, transitioning away from motorcycles. At one point, he owned a motorcycle shop. Now, he’s heavily involved with the National Auto Sport Association and said he has wanted to open Grand Prix for 20 years.

“It’s an event center that’s focused around karting,” Saez said. “(It takes) all your skill, all your concentration, for a fixed amount of time, and it’s against the clock. It feels like real racing.”

Now, operating six days a week, Grand Prix fills a gap in central Ohio for families and friends looking for fun, and for racing enthusiasts looking to hone their skills, Saez said.

And the new business might be just the first of several.

A year and a half ago, Saez and Bill Schottenstein, a Columbus-area developer, began discussing how to make the go-karting idea work.

The 120,000 square feet that Grand Prix now occupies was initially used by a textbook manufacturer. Schottenstein said he has owned the site since then.

Saez initially wanted to build at the site of the former Cooper Stadium, where the Sports Pavilion & Automotive Research Complex is being developed by Schottenstein’s Arshot Investment Corp. But the timeline for that development didn’t mesh with Saez’s hopes of opening a track sooner.

Saez and Schottenstein discussed that, if Saez uses the Alum Creek Drive facility for Grand Prix, he could have the opportunity to open a second Grand Prix location at the SPARC facility when it’s completed.

“Part of the reason (Grand Prix) went in the (Alum Creek Drive) facility was the option for the (Cooper Stadium) site,” Schottenstein said. “We did say we would give them the opportunity, if they took” the Alum Creek Drive site.

With a single financial backer, whom Saez declined to identify, he has turned the former Alum Creek Drive warehouse into a second home for many with a need for speed.

Racers zoom around the track at the top speed of 35 mph. The lounge feels like a high-end automotive shop. Drivers say you have to feel the thrill of the track to understand this is not run-of-the-mill go-karting. It’s a gateway to auto racing.

Typical races take place on Grand Prix’s two quarter-mile tracks, with lap times averaging 35 to 40 seconds. The fastest trip around the entire track — when the two have been combined into a half-mile — has been one minute.

The cost, which starts at $5 for a daily membership plus $20 per eight-minute race, is reasonable, said Brandon Mills, a manager at Grand Prix.

“This has the potential to be intense racing versus riding in a go-kart,” Mills said.

The adult karts are modified from professional racing machines, with 9-horsepower engines. The racing area smells of gasoline and burning rubber. The sound of roaring engines echoes. Television screens show lap times with driver nicknames. As many spectators as drivers line the viewing area.

Driving a kart is tiring and intense. Riders wear helmets and routinely slam into the track’s tire walls. Most cannot go beyond three races before a break, Mills said.

“I’ll be (coming) here forever,” said Fotheringham, 20, of Grove City. Beads of sweat dripped from his face as he described how to best navigate a turn or block an oncoming racer. His favorite thing is “passing people.”

He bought a monthly unlimited pass and has raced upwards of 150 times since Grand Prix opened.

On Monday, Jim Gracely brought fellow employees of the nuclear-power industry to the track for a team-building meet-and-greet experience. Gracely, a software product developer for Curtiss-Wright Corp. in Pennsylvania, said he organized the event at Grand Prix to try something different.

His company paid for the event, with industry employees from all over the country driving karts before their Nuclear Energy Institute conference in Columbus.

“It was the first time I’d ever done this,” he said.

Gracely reviewed his lap time — he came in fifth — calling the experience “more than I expected."

Developing Grand Prix on Columbus’ South Side, where Saez grew up, is a point of pride for him. It has nearly 100 employees, full-time mechanics and event-planning workers.

And Saez wants to expand, even beyond the potential track at the SPARC facility. At the current location, plans call for a children’s track, sports bar and miniature golf course. He’s also considering building tracks in Cleveland or Pittsburgh.

“This is an experience. This is affordable,” Saez said. “It’s an introductory way to racing."

By Will Drabold The Columbus Dispatch