Banke shop powers shifter cart contenders

In a 2,000-square-foot shop on Challenger Way, George Banke turns out racing engines that power dozens of racers weekends from zero to 60 in under four seconds.

No, not nitro-sucking supercharged V-8s that power rails and funny cars down drag strips.

Banke Racing Works takes one-banger Honda, Suzuki and Kawasaki mills intended for motocross cycles, modifies them to boost their horsepower by more than 30 percent and passes them along to racers who spend their weekends screaming along at up to 120 mph in high-tech, four-wheeled karts, with their butts just inches off the pavement.

They're called shifter carts and about the only things they have in common with lawnmower-motored gocarts are four wheels and a driver.

"Shifter carts are built on sophisticated tunable chassis, have four-wheel disc brakes, are usually equipped with complete telemetry to monitor performance and run water-cooler engines," Banke explained.

"They're closer to an Indy or Formula One car than anything else out there."

Indeed, the 200-pound shifter carts - so named because they incorporate a six-speed transmission while most race carts run a single gear ratio off a centrifugal clutch - are used as practice racers by a number of pro circuit auto racers.

"If they run a shifter off the course, they're out a $10,000 investment. The same mistake in practice run in an Indy car literally could cost a team's $10 million investment in a race," Banke said.

Indy car racer Tony Jones of Incline Village bought a shifter kart with a Banke engine a couple years ago while Banke was still in Fort Worth, Texas. Banke and wife Betty came to Tahoe to help set up the tiny racer.

"We stayed at his place and expected to go up to the track in Lemmon Valley the next morning to tune the kart," Banke said. "But Davy said, 'Let's go skiing in the morning. We can hit the track in the afternoon.'

"That's how we spent the trip and I was thinking there was something wrong here - what was wrong was that we weren't living here."

Banke said he made six or seven trips over the next 18 months setting up the business for the move.

Banke Racing Works opened for business at 2701 Conestoga, Suite 114, last August. George and Betty settled into an Incline Village home. And yes, Betty said, they did a lot of skiing last winter.

They also found themselves with a lot of new customers, western state racers who began hearing about Banke engines.

"When we decided to move to Nevada, it wasn't with the thought of moving into a new market. There's two other major engine builders in California and we were plenty busy with the Midwest market," Banke said. "Once we got here, though, the word spread and now we've got orders from California, Oregon, Washington and here in Nevada without any marketing on our part."

Well, not the conventional advertising type of marketing, anyway. In the highly competitive world of motor sports, where victory is measured in microseconds, racers check out any equipment that gives their rivals an edge.

"There's a saying in this business and I can tell you it's true - Win on Sunday, sell on Monday," Banke said.

So when A.J. Noud, a 23-year-old driver from Loveland, Colo., took the checkered flag at November's SuperNationals in Las Vegas in a Banke-powered shifter, the order phone out on Challenger Way got busier. When a Banke engine pulled Alan Rudolph to a race-one win at the ProMoto tour's first 2000 race in Phoenix, demand grew for Banke-optimized one-bangers.

"There's nothing magic about what we're doing. At any time, any of the major engine builders can find a tuning trick that shaves a little time, extracts a little more torque, and they'll have the market for a while. Right now, we've got that edge," Banke said.

Banke starts with factory-fresh engines, tears them down and applies time-proven modifications like increasing compression by milling heads to optimizing the volume and shape of the combustion chamber. The level of attention paid detail, experience gained through hundreds of tests run on Banke's own dynamometer and lots of feedback from drivers all contribute to the modifications that put the extra horsepower in the engines.

He said the 125-cc factory engines produce about 32 horsepower running on a methanol-based fuel. When they leave Banke Racing Works, they are good for about 10-12 more horsepower.

"One thing we do different from other builders is make our best engine for everybody. Some builders have an A engine that goes to their sponsored or favorite teams and everybody else gets the B engine," he said.

"We always make the best engine we can for everyone. Once we learn something that will make it faster, everyone can buy it," he said.

Banke's been racing almost anything that moves since he was a kid, but he became involved with karts when he was in Spain with the Air Force in the mid-'60s. His tall frame was too big for the little karts, but he enjoyed the challenge of tuning a winning engine.

Over the years, his passion for competition has crossed disciplines several times. Displayed on the shop walls are several racing bicycles emblazed Banke that he custom built for his daughter, Natalie, now 23, when she raced on the junior circuit. In the office hang three of Natalie's gold medals.

"I built a lot of custom frames for racers. I was making steel frames that weighed under three pounds, before they started using titanium tubing," he said. He pulls out a stripped Banke bike frame, full of odd angles and weighing less than a phone book, that Natalie used to race.

Banke also built racing sailboats from bare hulls. He said the boats were mostly 24- and 30-footers in what is called the J class. His involvement in the sailing field resulted in Banke writing the rule book for the J Class Unlimited in which the boats could be designed with very few restricting, almost the water-based equivalent of funny car drag racers.

Banke and Barbara are already looking for a larger home for the business, especially because he expects a sudden increase in demand for his engines. It seems that a major supplier of racing engines for the motocross market has announced it can only supply 60 percent of what customers already have ordered.

One cycle racer already put a Banke engine on his bike and took the honors at the Arlington Nationals, which caught the attention of the other racers, Banke said.

"It's a natural for us. We already have the technology, the knowledge of the engines," he said.


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