It’s Race Week in Charlotte - between last weekend's NASCAR All-Star Race and this Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Drivers had the night off Tuesday - so what were they doing? Racing, of course, at a go-kart track in Mooresville.
It's a rainy night at the GoPro Motorplex - tough conditions for any driver, even a professional. So there are lots of wrecks. NASCAR stars Darrell Wallace Junior, Ricky Stenhouse and Regan Smith laugh as they watch another driver spin out on the rain-slicked track.
They're here for the Little 600, a kart race with racing stars that has turned into a Race Week tradition over the past four years. Wallace is the defending champion.
"It's just come out here, blow off some steam, have some fun with fellow competitors that we'll see on the track Saturday, and, uh, knowing that if we wreck each other here, it's not going to carry over to the Speedway," Wallace says, after finishing second in the final.
About two-dozen drivers are here, from NASCAR stars like Joey Logano to young drivers in NASCAR's Next Generation program. It’s fun, yes, but even in go-carts, rivalries remain, says Stenhouse:
"It's always fun just to come out and hang out with fellow drivers and race go-karts around," he says.
So there's not much pressure, right?
"There's a lot of pressure, we talk a lot of trash and have a lot of pride out here," Stenhouse says.
That's just how track owner Justin Marks – who drives in NASCAR’s second-level circuit - envisioned the Little 600. He built the multimillion-dollar track five years ago along with fellow driver Michael McDowell. The 11-turn layout was modeled after a famous karting track in Parma, Italy, says Marks.
"It was important to us from the get-go to have a special event around Speed Weeks here in May, when all the fans were in town, and sponsors were in town, to have something to bring the drivers and these race fans together," he said.
It's also helpful in promoting the business. Marks says many fans who come for the Little 600 will come back later in the week to drive karts themselves. GoPro Motorplex is open every day, rain or shine.
It is a fan's dream - a chance collect autographs from drivers dressed in jeans and T-shirts, without lots of PR handlers around.
The Little 600 is actually a series of preliminary heats leading to finals in several divisions. Future Stars – for young drivers not old enough to get a driver's license. NASCAR Spotters – for the guys who guide drivers via radio during a race. And the pros.
Karts are only about four-feet long, but they’ll do 55 mph on the straightaway. So the racing can get fierce.
As several hundred fans watched on this rainy night, Kannapolis native and NASCAR driver Corey LaJoie ran away with the 15-lap final. No cash award for this victory – just a big trophy – and most importantly - bragging rights.
See full results of the 2017 Little 600 at GoProMotorplex.com
The Speed Street Festival begins Thursday in uptown Charlotte. Details: http://600festival.com/
Info about the Coca-Cola 600 is at http://www.charlottemotorspeedway.com/
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct that the Coca-Cola 600 is this Sunday, May 28.