Harrison County

Competitive go-kart racing brings international crowds to Biloxi. Adrenaline rush is ‘indescribable.’

It’s a full house for the first anniversary of Finishline Performance Karting on U.S. 90 in Biloxi as the track hosts its first national level event, the Battle at the Beach.

The track opened May 25, 2018, on what was the Slippery Sam’s waterpark site before Hurricane Katrina. Joey Spear, spokesman for Greater Gulf Development, envisioned large racing events that will bring people to Biloxi several times a year.

“ROK Cup International is a huge event for us to secure,” Spear said. When multiple locations around the world are trying to become a stop in the series, he said, “It’s pretty amazing for them to pick us here at Finishline.”

ROK Festival has turned the neighboring field into a race village this week with trailers, tents and crews. Custom race karts zip around the track at a much faster clip than customers go in the non-modified karts.

“These karts are running an inch off the ground in excess of 90 miles per hour on the straights,” Spear said. “The adrenaline rush you see on these racers’ faces is indescribable.”

Who’s on track

The races will be going all weekend. Saturday’s racing is from 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. The finals are Sunday, with events from 8 a.m.-3:30 p.m., and the public is invited to see the action.

In practice Friday morning, the drivers were handling the curves with skill that made it hard to believe some of them are in grade school.

Kai Johnson started driving when he was 3 years and 9 months. He is 6 now and going into first grade and talks about time down to one-thousandth of a second.

Nikita Johnson, Kai’s brother, is a two-time national champion. He just turned 11.

Kids and adults compete in micro, mini, junior, senior, masters and shifter classes, said their father, Obie Johnson, whose father with the same name graduated from Gulfport High School.

“We race probably 45 weekends a year,” Johnson said, many times within a few hours of their home in St. Petersburg, Florida, but their AKT Racing Team also travels to Las Vegas and abroad.

International experience

“They get to see the world,” Johnson said of his family. “We raced in Italy 5 months a year for the last 5 years,” he said, where a field of 85 kids may come from 45 countries.

He’s an engineer and owns a satellite communications business. “I work anywhere,” he said, including in their RV parked under the trees across from the beach in Biloxi.

“Look at the economic impact for Biloxi,” he said. “People are flying in, driving in.” Several of the drivers and their mechanics are from Brazil, Argentina, the Dominican Republic and other countries, he said.

The sport is expensive, he said, with just the chassis for just the young kids’ karts costing $5,000 to $6,000, plus the expense of travel, tires, fuel and a trailer to get them to the track.

But he said he and his wife believe racing is rewarding for their sons.

“They learn a lot from traveling,” he said. Nikita has been homeschooled for the last three years and finished fifth grade several weeks early and with straight As, he said.

The sport teaches them lessons they can’t get from a book. “They learn to win. They learn to lose. They learn to take criticism,” he said.

“It teaches them how to be the best at everything they do,” he said, and if they go on to drive professionally, “That’s a bonus,” he said.

Mary Perez is the business and casino reporter for the Sun Herald and also writes about Biloxi, jobs and the new restaurants and development coming to the Coast. She is a fourth-generation journalist.