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September 2, 2014

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Ron Kantowski:

Schumacher adds star power to go-kart finals’ horsepower

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Steve Marcus

Las Vegan Matt Jaskol, right, pushes his kart toward an inspection area after a practice round this week at the SuperKarts USA SuperNationals at the Rio.

Click to enlarge photo

Seven-time Formula One World Driving Champion Michael Schumacher talks with a team member.

IF YOU GO

  • What: SuperKarts USA SuperNationals XIII
  • When: 7:30 a.m. today and 7 a.m. Sunday; opening ceremonies at 10 a.m. Sunday, SuperPro main event at 3:20 p.m. Sunday
  • Where: Rio parking lot
  • Tickets: $15; superkartsusa.com

SCHUMACHER BY THE NUMBERS

  • 3 — Formula One teams (Jordan, Benetton, Ferrari)
  • 7 — Championships (1994, 1995, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004)
  • 91 — Wins
  • 250 — Races
  • 1991 — First race, Belgian Grand Prix, Spa
  • 1992 — First win, Belgian Grand Prix
  • 2006 — Last win, Chinese Grand Prix, Shanghai
  • 2006 — Last race, Brazilian Grand Prix, Sao Paulo

When I heard from an old racing pal that Michael Schumacher would be racing go-karts on the parking lot at the Rio this weekend, I told him I wasn’t interested, because I was covering Tiger Woods’ putt-putt match against Phil Mickelson. Then it was over to the Laughing Jackalope where U2 was playing a benefit for a school chum who had lost it all by hitting a hard 16. And after that, Pele said he’d give me a chance to get even on the foosball table.

This is how preposterous my old pal sounded.

But it’s true. Michael Schumacher, the seven-time Formula One World Driving Champion, who holds Formula One records for most championships, most race victories, most fastest laps, most pole positions, most points scored, most races won in a single season and most times approached for his autograph on the French Riviera, is racing a go-kart — albeit a really souped-up go-kart — in the Rio parking lot this weekend.

“He’s working on his kart as we speak,” said Las Vegan Matt Jaskol, one of those racing go-karts against The Great Michael Schumacher in the Rio parking lot.

Maybe it wasn’t exactly “Dr. Watson, I presume” on the list of things one thinks he will never hear. But it was in that ballpark.

For somebody in the business of driving very fast, this has to be one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that warrants numerous text messages to one’s friends and multiple pinches to one’s self.

“Even if you don’t do what I do, even if you’re just a fan (it’s huge),” Jaskol said. “Just to set foot on the same track as him. But this isn’t a charity race or some celebrity race. This is a real race, an all-out battle. We’ll easily be doing 90 mph at the end of the straightaway. To be on the same track as him under those type of conditions is a real honor.”

Schumacher, 40, is said to be the sport’s first billionaire. He was making in the neighborhood — Bill Gates’ neighborhood — of $80 million annually, much of it in endorsements, when he retired from Formula One following the 2006 season. Sunday’s SuperPro race at the 13th SuperKarts USA SuperNationals pays $10,000 to the winner.

I don’t think this is about the money.

It might be about regaining the keen hand-eye coordination required to drive a racing vehicle at high speeds in cramped confines, as there are rumors linking Schumacher to a Formula One comeback with a new team backed by Mercedes.

It might be about returning to one’s roots — Schumacher started racing go-karts at age 6 and won several European karting championships — although this might be the most extreme case of that since Alex Haley wrote about Kunta Kinte being kidnapped in Gambia during the 18th century.

It might be about renewing a friendship — Randy Kwasniewski, president and CEO of the Hard Rock Hotel, was spotted breaking bread with Schumacher on Wednesday night.

It also might be because driving go-karts between hay bales in a hotel parking lot is just a heck of a lot of fun. See if you can get away with that in Monaco.

Jaskol, 25 and looking to jump-start a pro racing career that has stalled for lack of sponsorship dollars during a soft economy, really doesn’t care about the rhyme or reason that brought Schumacher to Las Vegas to pound asphalt. When a racing deity appears in your presence, you don’t question it, you just go with it. And perhaps take him deep into the corner, if you can. Er, dare.

“I might give him a little nudge — just to say I did it,” Jaskol said when asked what he would do if he found his wheels side by side with Schumacher’s on Sunday afternoon.

“But here’s the thing — he probably won’t even be the guy to beat.”

If Schumacher’s presence isn’t enough to get your fireproof coveralls in a bunch, two current Formula One drivers, Sebastien Buemi of Switzerland and Nelson Piquet Jr., son of the former world champion Nelson Piquet of Brazil, also are entered. They probably won’t be the guys to beat either, Jaskol says.

The guy to beat is Jonathan Thonon of Belgium, who is seeking his third consecutive national championship in the featured SuperPro class. If you see this guy at Malibu Grand Prix and he offers to race you for $20, my advice would be to politely decline.

Still, Thonon could parallel park a Country Squire in a space where a Volkswagen wouldn’t fit and he’s still not going to impress those who came to see The Great Michael Schumacher drive around in circles.

Jaskol said when it was announced Schumacher might be coming, he uttered the one-word synonym for “nonsense.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he said, “Michael Schumacher’s coming. I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Then he saw it. Michael Schumacher himself, working on Michael Schumacher’s go-kart himself.

This could happen only in Las Vegas. Well, maybe it could have happened at Spa in Belgium or Monza in Italy or Silverstone in England, where they have these great racing circuits that have withstood the test of time and Nigel Mansell. But that it is happening here, in Jaskol’s hometown, in a parking lot of a casino, for the sake of Stirling Moss ...

Well, it was like Pat Sajak himself knocking on Ed Grimley’s door.

Matt Jaskol must feel like pulling his pants up real high and dancing around the paddock with a triangle.

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