By Jason Holland - Published In Inside Karting, November 2002
Taking time out to meet ASN Canada FIA National Karting Steward and Sunoco Ron Fellows Karting Championship Series Steward Norman Jennings during OKRA Grand Nationals in August two things quickly became apparent: he's been there, done that with regard to North American karting - both racing and officiating, and he knows the ASN rule book better than anyone, having spent a cold Canadian winter building it!
Details will follow, but getting to know the man who calls the shots for you in karting, either directly or indirectly, is best done chronologically as it clearly demonstrates he is greatly qualified to be Canadian karting's top dog when it comes to the rules. Raised in Oakville and now residing in Toronto, we chatted under the grid umbrella during Sunday lunch, one of the rare times he could turn is radio to 'off'...
"My original exposure to motor sport was my dad and I going to see a Grand Prix at Mosport," he began. "Then, through a friend of mine, I heard of someone who had a kart for sale and before you know it I had the kart, it was in the garage, and the year after I started racing." Jennings had the bug.
The year was 1978 and the full-time karting continued for the next 13, to about the time today's juniors were being born. "North Halton Kart Club was my original kart club but I raced at all the tracks in Ontario and some in the U.S.," he said. "I raced in the OKRA series, there were some Pro series back in those days including the PKA (Professional Karting Association) and there was the WKA. One year we actually ran 25 races, and that was two-cycle racing, but typically a season was about 15 races."
Modesty aside, he wasn't just 'in the race' either, he was near the top of the game. The first time the World Championship came to North America in Jacksonville, Florida, they ran a Yamaha support class and Jennings was one of only two Canadians to qualify to compete. Over the years he went wheel-to-wheel with some household names in Canadian racing.
"When I first started Scott Goodyear was one of the big names, and Ludwig Heimrath Jr., they were both racing. A little later when we first went to Goodwood Paul Tracy was just starting out - just a little 14-year-old freckled kid. In those days he raced in the senior class and did pretty well." Trips south of the border introduced other future stars. In the PKA, which was a four-race series, there were people like Scott Pruett and Mark Dismore coming through the ranks. Great times and great stories, that all wound to a close after 13 seasons. After 'retiring' in '90, he switched places with his mechanic Marilou Whaling who became the driver and wrenched for a couple of years but still had the itch to drive on occasion. That first year out of the seat at the Grand Nationals in 1991 at Goodwood and with the kart otherwise empty for the Sunday schedule Jennings suited up again. "I qualified fourth and in the end I won the third heat," he said recalling the old format. "Then after that I sort of raced one-offs each year. My last race was the OKRA Nationals in 1995 at Shannonville. I did that one race and when it was over I said 'okay, that's it.' I remembered why I liked it and I remembered why I'd had enough."
Enter Roy Brydon, then ASN karting director who was looking to build the structure of karting in Canada going on the world model where karts lead to cars. "It started in about '97 when ASN had been in karting for about two or three years," Jennings remembers. "As part of that there had never been a National Steward so Roy contacted me and asked if I'd be interested in taking the job. I came to a couple of events as an observer and decided to take the job." That decision leads to today.
"I joined ASN and over the years just became more and more involved," he said. "The first races I did were the OKRA Regional races, then the next year the National Series and I've moved on from there and actually done a few North American Championships." Jennings speaks with obvious pride in the organization to which he belongs. "In '99 we put on the North American Championship and between the organizers SRA and ASN as the sanctioning body we won the award for the best organized World Championship Karting event so it was a feather in Canada's cap." Many think that event led to Canada getting the first round of the World Championship in 2001 where the Steward was - Norman Jennings.
One of the largest assignments Jennings has tackled to date has been creating and revising regulations. In the beginning there was a karting rule book but it was missing some key elements . "There were a lot of rules in the car racing book that we didn't have in the kart racing book about sportsmanship and conduct of drivers so I took on the job of taking the car racing book and extracting what applied to karting out of that and taking the kart rule book and we kind of folded it all together to come up with the regulations we've got now."
Over the last three years ASN has fine tuned the book annually and the regulations have been adopted throughout the country. "That's one thing I work really hard on every year," noted Jennings. "When the regulations come up I get feedback from across the country and every year we get fewer and fewer revisions as it gets really refined. Now when we run big events we've got really, good solid regulations and people can get used to them."
Incorporating sportsmanship and codes of conduct for drivers into karting regulations is something Jennings feels of prime importance and he thinks the Sunoco Ron Fellows Championship, which puts such aspects ahead of winning, is another great step. "I think it's really a positive step forward for karting," he said. "Karting has always been a really great sport and with the support of Ron Fellows and Sunoco now, even in the first year as we ease into it, it's taken the level of the drivers and the organizers up a level. Now it's really a professional series and we expect competitors in the SRFKC classes to behave in a professional manner on and off the track." The best part of the job? "The best part about it is after I had all those years in the seat driving it's good to make a contribution back to the sport," he said instantly. "My goal is to make the racing as fair as possible and give everyone an equal chance. Our motto is always 'safety and fairness.'"
And the worst part is the other end of the spectrum, "It can be pretty stressful because a lot happens at an event," he said. "In my role as steward I'm responsible to make sure not only that the drivers play fair but the officials play fair as well. If anyone has a complaint, then I'm the person to talk to and if there's a dispute I have to resolve it. There's got to be an end of the line somewhere and I am the end of the line."
The end of the line here is that Norman Jennings is the right man for the job. If he rules for you, if he rules against you, he is ruling based on vast experience and the letters of the book, with safety first and foremost. The way it should be.