When he was a senior at Center Grove, Duane Sjoquist caught the racing bug after he started running sprint karts at Whiteland Raceway Park.

Once he graduated and moved on to Purdue, though, his love for driving quickly grew. As Sjoquist prepares to compete in the Purdue Grand Prix for the third time, he’s more excited than ever.

“They don’t call the Grand Prix the greatest spectacle in college racing for no reason,” he said. “It is absolutely amazing to come up here and watch teams engineer these karts to where they can survive 160 laps, versus a typical sprint, which is 30.”

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Sjoquist is one of two Purdue juniors from Johnson County looking to claim the checkered flag at this year’s race, which will take place on April 22. Kyle Mathena, a 2014 Whiteland graduate, will also be getting behind the wheel.

Both Mathena and Sjoquist are Grand Prix veterans, though neither has managed to qualify for the main race before. Sjoquist placed 42nd in qualifying as a freshman and 41st last year, while Mathena was 42nd a year ago. Both made it into sprint qualifying heats, but neither was able to advance to the big show.

Sjoquist is far more optimistic. His fraternity, FarmHouse, enters two karts in the race, and after driving the ‘B’ team kart as an underclassman (which actually had previously been Sjoquist’s sprint kart from high school), he’s moving into the house’s main ride this spring.

“The kart setups are a little different,” Sjoquist explained. “The ‘B’ team, that kart tends to be a little quicker, but at the same time, you sacrifice a lot of reliability with it.

“We can focus less on fixing things and breakdowns and more on chassis adjustments and really getting the speed out of the kart that we need.”

Unlike Sjoquist, Mathena didn’t have any racing experience before coming to Purdue. He was encouraged to join his fraternity’s crew by former driver Matt Gaughan, a fellow Whiteland alum, and after Gaughan graduated, Mathena picked up the mantel.

Though having less racing experience than most of his fellow competitors makes things a bit more challenging, Mathena said he’s grown accustomed to the Grand Prix track over the last couple of years.

“I kind of say it’s almost like riding a bike,” he said. “Once you learn the track a little bit, you kind of know how to hit the turns and everything like that.”

Both local racers are hopeful that they’ll be able to make their way into the field during today’s qualifying session — and with Jimmy Simpson, winner of the last four Grand Prix races, finally having graduated, they feel as though the checkered flag is anyone’s for the taking.

That wasn’t necessarily the case before.

“(Simpson) was the fastest guy out there, and everybody knew it,” Sjoquist said.

No matter how the race goes this year, Mathena knows he’s going to look back on his Grand Prix experience fondly.

“The coolest part of all of it is going through and looking at all of the history of the race how big of a deal this is,” he said, “and just knowing that in the future, if I ever have kids that come to Purdue or something and be part of the Grand Prix race, they’ll be able to go back in the records and see that I was a driver for a couple of years.”

Sjoquist, meanwhile, plans to keep racing after he graduates from Purdue. He’s not sure if he’ll go out and get a kart right away — his future employer may have a say in that — but “within the next 10 years,” he said, “I’m definitely going to have another kart, and I’m definitely going to start racing again; there’s no doubt about it in my mind.”

Competing at Purdue has only made him enjoy it that much more.

“This is cheap, fun racing,” Sjoquist said, “and I think that’s one of the reasons why I like it so much.”

And they're off!

Purdue Grand Prix Qualifying

Today, 9:30 p.m.

60th Purdue Grand Prix

April 22, 2:30 p.m.

Author photo
Ryan O'Leary is sports editor for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at roleary@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2715.