Before Lake Speed joined NASCAR’s top ranks as a Winston Cup series driver he was a world champion.
He remains the only American to win the World Karting Championship, a prestigious annual event held in Europe that draws an international group of drivers in what is considered the Super Bowl of karting. Unlike any other race, the World Karting Championship is vital to the international industry that supplies chassis, engines, tires and other karting components, not to mention the race has kick-started the professional careers of drivers competing in Formula One, Indy Car and other series.
Speed has returned to his racing roots and will be competing this week in a national vintage karting event at Sugar River Raceway in Brodhead. Speed will be racing a kart with an engine called a B-Bomb, a powerful, full-blown race engine capable of extraordinary speeds depending on the track layout.
Speed joined the list of world champions in 1978 in a Birel chassis, a top chassis still being raced around the world today. The win capped a nearly 10-year kart career for Speed in which he accumulated seven national championships before heading to Europe.
The World Championship karting winner list includes former Formula One drivers Riccardo Patrese, Jan Magnussen and Jarno Trulli. One name not on that list is Ayrton Senna, a three-time Formula One champion who is considered by many to be the greatest open wheel racer ever.
Senna made a wild run at the 1978 World Karting Championship, but he spun out trying to overtake Speed. That’s right—Speed defeated Senna for a world championship. Senna finished second twice—in 1979 and 1980—but he never won the big one.
Speed ran against the best kart drivers in the world, including Terry Fullerton and six-time world champion Mike Wilson from England.
In 1991, Senna shocked motor racing journalists when he said Fullerton and Wilson were the best drivers he ever competed against, including all the Formula One drivers. This was in direct contrast to most other F1 drivers of that era who either neglected to mention their earlier karting days altogether or played down their karting as a building block to the rise to Formula One.
Perhaps Senna should have included Speed on the list of the best drivers he competed against, because it was Speed who denied Senna the best opportunity to claim a World Karting championship.
Speed said that at the time of the championship race, Senna was just another factory driver.
“I had no idea who Senna was, or would become, he was just another factory driver from Brazil,” Speed said. “I was more concerned about the Italian factory drivers, plus several other top European drivers that I had raced with the last five years before and knew they were capable of winning.
“Some name drivers that were in the 1978 World Championship were Terry Fullerton, Mike Wilson, Corrado Fabe, Lars Forsman, who finished third, and Tony Zorserel who finished second—all factory supported drivers.”
Many competitors in the world championship races went on to fame in cars.
“Senna was one of a handful of drivers that I raced against that went on to Formula One from karts in less than 24 months from racing against me in the World Championships,” Speed said. “I have been blessed to have raced against a lot of drivers that are considered to be some of the best in the world in their time and type of racing—both in Karts and NASCAR.
“On a given day all of them could win in their arenas,” he said. “I was blessed to have won both in the highest level of karts and NASCAR. I thank God for allowing me to have two amazing racing careers.”
This is Speed’s first trip to Sugar River Raceway, the oldest continuous-running kart race track in the country.
“I’m looking forward to racing on one of the historic kart tracks that helped make karting what it is today,” Speed said. “I missed the nationals there in 1965, and I always wanted to see and run on that track.”
This week’s event includes practice sessions today and fierce racing on Friday and Saturday. To meet Speed, it might be best to attend today’s practice sessions, according to Sugar River Raceway owner and competition director Marshall Fairman.
“It’s really an honor for all of us at the track to welcome Lake Speed. He is America’s only world champion, and I know race fans will enjoy meeting him and watching his race,” Fairman said. “Thursday is a bit more laid back and would be the best day to meet Lake. The weather forecast looks good all three days, so come out and enjoy great racing with one of the best kart drivers ever.”
To watch on-track action there is no charge. Pit passes are $10 each day.