Racers speed to the finish on opening day Sept. 24 at K1 Speed in Bluffton. PHOTOS BY KEVIN AYLMER

Paul and Nikki McBride and Paul’s father, Dennis, have owned Lowcountry businesses together for 20 years. Fun rarely factors in to the day-to-day of Paul’s other businesses. His new one more than makes up for the others on the fun front.

“This is something I truly enjoy. People are coming in, they’re smiling, looking to have fun and pump up their adrenaline,” said the co-owner of the new K1 Speed indoor racing center in Belfair Towne Village. “This is something my Dad and I always wanted to do. We love cars, we love racing, love speed. So this is exciting to make it happen.”

The multi-million-dollar facility opened officially Sept. 24, set to give race fans a one-of-a-kind racing experience.

The opening has been rumored for months and was confirmed when the McBrides posted a billboard along U.S. 278 in May advertising a late-summer opening. The buzz has been building and the excitement of the popular franchise’s arrival in Bluffton has caused a stir among racing enthusiasts from across the region.

A post offering a sneak peek at the facility was the most interacted post in the history of the 15,000-member What’s Happening in Bluffton Facebook group, sparking 500 comments, 1,000 likes and more than 1,500 shares.

The Bluffton location is the 56th location in a brand that spans the U.S., China, Mexico and England. This is one of the smallest physical locations in the chain and has changed the way the company thinks of new builds.

“They are usually looking for a 50,000- to 60,000-square-foot industrial space. This is smaller and inline retail,” McBride said of the 35,000-square-foot former home of Stein Mart. “I think we’ve changed the mold a bit here and we’re proud of that, a smaller space but you’re still getting 960 linear feet of driving.”

Faced with less space on the ground, the family built upward. The Bluffton track is just the second location in the chain and first new build to utilize multi-level racing.

“The other location, it’s more of an up-and-down bridge, very small rise and quick dip,” McBride said. “Here, we’ve laid out 300 feet of racing track on the second level, where you can maintain speed and really get a rush coming down.”

This is not the gas-guzzling, smoke-emitting go karts you’ve driven on outdoor tracks. These are 100-percent emission-free electric carts. K1 Speed has been an innovator in indoor racing, providing racing junkies with an experience as close to professional speedway racing as you can get. And the Bluffton location is an incubator for new innovation.

“We are just the second location in the U.S. to get the European-style Superleggero electric carts. It’s counterintuitive to what you might be used to because the carts hit the top speeds so fast,” McBride said. “You’re getting maximum torque immediately, no lag between hitting the gas pedal and taking off. It’s an incredible experience.”

When the McBrides began talking about this move two years ago with K1, state and local laws did not allow for kart racing – the statutes were written decades ago when outdoor karts were the only option. McBride worked with town officials to make the difference clear.

“The town could not have been more supportive in making this a reality, in updating the statutes and working with us,” he said.

Mayor Lisa Sulka was an early convert, saying in an April 2021 interview that this is a win for the town and an idea that had her full support.

She was one of the first to get an open-to-the-public test drive during a pre-opening event.

“Wow, what a rush. This is a game changer for the town, for the region,” Sulka said. “To have this level of excitement, it’s just the entertainment that families have been looking for.”

To be clear, the price tag ($23.95 per 12-lap race, $54.95 for a three-race pack) will take some getting used to for those used to a $8-to-$15 outdoor go-kart ride. The electric carts race at speeds up to 45 miles per hour. There are junior and adult carts, as well as single- and double-seater rides. Staff can adjust cart speeds with a touch of a button to accommodate any racing skill level.

“Everything is tracked. Every opponent you beat is tracked and you earn cumulative points for every lap you lead. You’ll be able to constantly know all your stats,” McBride said.

Social media posters were already trying to bring the uninitiated up to speed just minutes after the opening was announced.

“I just drove five hours to Atlanta last weekend to pay $35 a ride to get this experience, so comparatively, this is a bargain,” said one commenter.

K1 Speed will offer one-off races with online reservations, along with junior and teen racing leads and a monthly adult Grand Prix event, where racers will qualify for pole positions for the final race. McBride said private leagues among friends are also available, as well as bookings for corporate events and private parties.

Racers will have the option to purchase a ViewPoint camera that attaches to their racing helmet and records their race like a GoPro.

The Bluffton K1 also has a variety of arcade games (with more on the way in the coming weeks), from air hockey to a VR arcade that offers gamers a chance to win monthly local cash prizes of up to $2,000. And for spectators and famished speedsters, the Paddock Lounge offers a variety of burgers, appetizers, pizza and finger food. Beer and wine are also offered for those not racing or drivers who have finished racing for the day.

Paul’s wife, Nikki, has partnered in each of the family businesses, including the most recent Carolina Car Wash on Buckwalter Parkway (the family sold the business to Island Car Wash earlier this year). She admits the carts were a tough sell at first, but once she got to see the buildout and the carts in action, she was hooked.

“This is a next-level experience for kids of all ages here. It’s just unexplainable. You have to experience it for yourself,” she said. “We’re so excited to get this open. Our staff has been amazing, the buildout team has gone above and beyond. It’s been a long journey, but we’ve heard it over and over again from our early visitors that we’re fulfilling dreams with this kind of competitive racing.”

For full pricing, hours or to book a private event, visit k1speed.com.

Tim Wood is a veteran journalist based in Bluffton. timwood@blufftonsun.com.