EKN Trackside: Rotax Challenge of the Americas – Tucson Saturday Report
Opening round welcomes plenty of new winners to the series
The first round of the 2014 Rotax Challenge of the Americas was a day of firsts. The Musselman Honda Circuit welcomed over 130 drivers to begin the six round championship series, greeted by perfect racing weather in Tucson, Arizona after a cold and windy day on Friday. Each of the seven drivers to claim the top spot of the podium for round one experienced their first, whether it was a first victory at the track, first in the class, or a first victory in the series, it was a historic day as the chase toward the titles began.
Rolison Performance Group Junior Max
With the top two drivers leaving to the Senior Max category, the championship in 2014 was up for grabs. The first driver to make his mark was Rolison Performance Group’s Austin Versteeg with victory in round one. Junior Max rookie Sting Ray Robb was quick out of the gate on Friday, as he recorded the fast lap in the final practice. He carried that over into Saturday’s qualifying session as he moved up into the top spot quickly, showing the way in the second of the two groups taking a 15-minute session. The BBR Karting/Black Racing Engines Tony Kart driver was able to hold off the field for the top spot with a 52.044-lap, unable to break into the 51-second mark. Austin Versteeg (Kosmic) was second quickest, just four hundredths off the time set by Robb. Phillippe Denes (ART GP) was third with Christian Brooks (Tony Kart) and Jeff Fulham (Kosmic) rounding out the fast five.
It was a clean start for the 17-lap Junior Max prefinal with Robb leading the field to the green flag. He would lead the opening lap of his first Junior wheel-to-wheel action, before losing the spot to outside polesitter Versteeg. Robb came right back the following lap after Versteeg opened the door, taking over the lead with the top two pulling away from the rest of the top eight. It would come down to the end as Robb stayed glued to the bumper of Versteeg until the final lap. Versteeg went inside, and Robb went outside. A little bit of contact was made, and Versteeg came away with the lead and the win. Robb settled for second with Denes holding third ahead of Brooks. Kyle Wick (Kosmic) advanced up from 10th on the grid to end the race fifth, dropping Fulham to sixth.
Versteeg was able to get away from the field as the 25-lap main event kicked off. Robb was shuffled back to nearly outside the top-10, with Brooks and Denes slotted into the top-three. Versteeg was out to over a one-second advantage, with a group of drivers fighting for fourth early on before Fulham pulled away and left them to fight for fifth. By lap five, Robb had found himself in that battle and in to the fifth spot to lead the group of drivers, trying to run down a 2.5-second gap to Fulham. Robb, with a clear track in front of him, began laying down some qualifying laps to close up on Fulham, catching the Canadian by lap 14 and securing the fourth spot at the end of the lap. With 11 to go, there still was enough time to cut into the gap held by Brooks in third, just two seconds again. It was four laps to go when the two seconds became zero, with Robb on the bumper of Brooks. Two attempts on Brooks for the position, and the elder Junior driver fought off Robb and continued to do so until lap 24 in turn four. Robb took over the position and put himself on a provisional podium position. Out front, Versteeg ran consistent laps to secure his first Challenge of the Americas Junior Max victory. Denes drove to second with Robb third. Brooks ended up fourth with Fulham capping off the top-five. Technical inspections however adjusted the podium, with Robb removed from the results for utilizing the wrong carburetor. That put Brooks onto the podium, and Junior rookie Horatio Fitz-Simon (Tony Kart) into fifth.
Black Flag Racing Micro Max
Record numbers for the Micro Max class equated into some awesome racing throughout the day for the youngest group in the Rotax Max Challenge. The first driver into the 59-mark was Jak Crawford (Birel), with five minutes remaining. Austin Torgerson (KBG) was the next to reach that point, back of Crawford by just over a tenth of a second. As the time ran down, no one was able to better the time set by Crawford, as he secured the pole position over Torgerson. Paden Hall (CRG) jumped up on the final circuit to the third position, dropping Diego LaRoque (Birel) to fourth and Cole Keith Cotham (CRG) to fifth. Following tech however, Crawford was removed for an improper setting on the carburetor, moving everyone up a position to put Torgerson on the pole position and dropping Crawford to the tail of the field.
The nearly 20 Micro Max drivers put on a great show to open up their racing for the 2014 season, mixing up the positions early. Ethan Arndt (Tony Kart) came up from sixth on the grid to lead after the opening circuits, establishing a solid lead as the field continued to shuffle. Crawford took advantage and was on the charge, breaking into the top-five by the halfway point. He locked up with LaRoque and Jacob Yesnick (Birel) to close up on Arndt. Lap seven, they had caught Arndt but contact was made as they entered turn one. That resulted in Cotham taking advantage and moving up to first, followed by Torgerson. The former top-four dropped outside the top five, including LaRoque all the way back to 18th. When the checkered flag waved, it was Sebastian Davis (Tony Kart) with the win, edging out Torgerson. Arndt worked back to third with Hall fourth and Yesnick fifth.
The top four of Davis, Arndt, Crawford and Cotham broke away from the field in the early laps of the 14-lap main event. Arndt, like he did in the prefinal, positioned himself at the front of the field. That was until Crawford took over the top spot for the first time on the day. He and Arndt worked together to pull away from the other two, leaving three laps left to fight it out for the lead. After swapping around the final circuit, Crawford would muscle down the long straight to secure the top spot and hold on to cross the finish line for the victory. Arndt settled for second with Davis completing the podium. Cotham ran fourth with Torgerson getting away in the fifth position. Cotham however would be removed from the results for a float height issue in the carb, putting Torgerson fourth and Jonathan Portz (Kosmic) fifth.
Nash Motorsportz Masters Max
2013 champion Donald Durbin Jr. used consistency to earn the title a year ago, and he backed it up with his first series victory to begin his title defense on a solid note. A host of drivers were within a tenth of a second to begin the 15-minute qualifying session. Series newcomer Kurt Fisher (CRG) came out with the top spot after the halfway point, and that’s when drivers began hitting the pit lane. Returning Masters driver John Crow (Tony Kart) was one of the those drivers able to improve after making adjustments, but came up short and was forced to pull off the track with a loose rear bumper. Fisher’s 52.575 would stand to the checkered flag for the pole position. Brian Phillipsen (Tony Kart) was second in the order, only two-hundredths of a second off the pole position. Crow was not far off in third with defending series champion Durbin (Birel) and Justin Peck (Tony Kart) completing the fast five.
The start was clean but wild to begin the Masters Max battle as Fisher led the field to the green flag, but it would be reigning champ Durbin coming away with the lead as the field crossed the line for the first time. Fisher fell to second with Ken Maxfield (Arrow) coming through as well, up from sixth to third. Durbin got an advantage early while Fisher, Maxfield and Phillipsen slotted in behind. Crow was dropped back to seventh on the opening lap and steadily worked his way into the top-five and in to the group racing for second. The group was shuffled up with Crow still moving forward and Fisher retiring on lap eight when he lost his chain. That put Crow to second, about 1.5 seconds behind Durbin with Maxfield feeling heat from Phillipsen. They would end the race that way, with Durbin crossing the line just over one second ahead of Crow. Larry Hayashigawa (Tony Kart) completed the top-five with Peck retiring on lap 15.
The title defense began strong for Durbin during round one, looking to continue it to the top step of the podium. Durbin opened up the main event with the lead as Maxfield, Hayashigawa and Crow slotted in behind to make up the lead quartet, while Bruce McKean (Kosmic) was the early fifth place driver. After a third of the way in to the race, Durbin held an eighth of a second lead, posting the fast lap of the race on lap seven. Maxfield continued to hold onto the draft with Hayashigawa getting pressured from Crow. Lap nine, Crow was able to complete a pass through turn four and five, holding a provisional podium spot and clear track in front of him to Maxfield with 16 laps remaining. With eight laps remaining, Crow began looking for a way around Maxfield for the second position and was able to a few laps later. Driving away to the victory however would be Durbin, scoring his first series victory after scoring the title last year with zero wins. Crow and Maxfield finished off the podium with Hayashigawa and Phillipsen completing the top-five.
Holeshot Drive Systems Senior Max
As we see with every visit to the Musselman Honda Circuit, the Senior Max category came down to the wire with Phil DeLaO sliding through for his first victory in Tucson. Qualifying kicked off the first official session of the season, with Mason Marotta (Tony Kart) holding the provisional pole position from the opening group. His time however was eclipsed quickly by Senior rookie Jim McKinney, driving an Overdrive Motorsprots Tony Kart. 2012 series champion DeLaO was able to better his time a lap later, posting a 51.033-lap to hold the provisional pole. Halfway through the session, drivers began to hit pit lane to make the adjustments to find more speed to move up the order. Not many did, aside from Friday’s fast driver Jake Craig (Tony Kart), jumping up to just seventh. McKinney ended up second with Roger Ralston Jr. putting two KartSport North America Arrow’s in to the top three. eKartingNews.com TaG Driver Rankings #1 driver Louie Pagano (Sodi Kart) improved his position from Friday practice, advancing up to fourth in the final qualifying order with defending series champion Phillip Arscott (Kosmic) in fifth.
The 31-driver Senior Max field hit the track for their 17-lap Prefinal, with DeLaO leading the entire way. From the green flag, the former champ set the pace and would not be challenged, pulling out to a 2.1-second advantage at the checkered flag. Ralston jumped to second at the start, and was able to hold on at the stripe. Behind them was a shuffle early and late. Arscott was up to third on the opening lap, but dropped to fifth with the rookie McKinney fighting through for the third spot. Pagano ran fourth until finally taking over the position on lap three. He would run down Ralston, but ran out of time to make a move at the end. McKinney ran a close third with Jake Craig (Tony Kart) posting fast laps to move into fifth, dropping Arscott to sixth.
DeLaO led the field to the green flag for the 25-lap main event, but it would be Dallas Karting Complex pilot Pagano showing the way as they completed the opening circuit. Both Pagano and Craig worked past the former champ to hold the top spots over DeLaO with Matt Johnson (ART GP) up from eighth to fourth and Arscott fifth. Ralston, starting outside the front row, was slow at the green and was shuffled out in turn one, dropping to tenth on the opening lap. The top three were able to get away from the field with Arscott up to fourth, inching his way back to the leaders. By the halfway point, he was there and that’s when the shuffling began. DeLaO returned to the point, only to have Craig put himself into the lead five laps later. He and Pagano swapped the top spot a few times, with DeLaO waiting for an opportunity. With two to go, he would get pressure from Arscott, as they swapped the third position, allowing the top two to earn some distance. With Pagano at the point on the final circuit, he went into defensive mode. Craig tried at turn five, but had the door shut. He came back again down the long straight, moving just inside of Pagano as they hit the braking point. The two went deep into the corner, and drifted wide. This allowed both DeLaO and Arscott to slid past and steal the top two positions to the checkered flag. DeLaO would score his first win in Tucson for the series, as Arscott scored a solid points day. Craig beat Pagano to the strip for the final podium spot, as Marotta drove to fifth after starting seventh.
Energy Corse America DD2/CRG-USA DD2 Masters
The qualifying session, with both classes on track at the same time, had a bit of excitement throughout the 15-minute run. PSL Karting driver Gavin Reichelt and CRG-USA pilot Alan Rudolph were quick out of the gate, posting fast time in each class aboard their CRG chassis. Drivers continued to work on getting quicker throughout the session, with a tight group settled in from third to sixth, separated by 13 thousandths of a second at one time. That was until Harrison Mills (CRG) and Christian Schureman (CRG) picked up the pace in the final circuits. Schureman jumped to second with Mills third, dropping Andy Lee (CRG) and Alec Udell (Sodi Kart) – who tied for quick lap – back to fourth and fifth in DD2. Rudolph was quicker by four tenths over Brent Harper (Kosmic) with Ben Johnston (CRG) and Mike Urban (CRG) completing the order.
It was a great three-driver battle for the win in the prefinal, but it came down to a technical issue to decide the final order. Reichelt and Schureman fought it out at the beginning of the race, but were joined by Sabre Cook (CRG) after the halfway mark. From there, the three went back and forth with the lead until Cook was able to secure the spot with two laps to go. At the same time, the sidepod came flying off her CRG machine. Given the meatball and white flag at the same time, Cook crossed the line as the provisional leader but was scored last for losing the pod. That gave the win to Schureman with Reichelt second. Mills, Udell, and John Buzza (CRG) completed the top-five. Rudolph went wire-to-wire in Masters, with Harper still gaining speed after another session on track in second. Johnston and Urban followed.
All seven drivers were together for the opening laps of the final, with Schureman and Reichelt out front. Once again, Cook was on the move, this time starting last and into the fourth spot by lap four, running the fast lap of the race. Mills ran third and was right on the bumper of the top two with Cook trailing. From there, the fireworks began as they all fought for position. Cook seemed to be the strongest, working her way to the lead as they began lap nine. As they raced on, Cook and Schureman stayed locked up with Reichelt running right with them. Mills however would lose the draft, and drop back by more than two seconds with 10 laps remaining. At that time, Schureman moved past Cook with Reichelt moving past in turn four the following lap. Cook fought back and retook the second spot from the New York driver, trying to focus back on the ground they lost to the leader. They would close in just a few laps, with Cook quickly back to the point and Reichelt to second. Each took a turn at the point until three laps remaining with Reichelt back to the lead with Schureman second. Cook began moving forward again, around Schureman in turn four on lap 23 and hold that way to the start of the final lap. Reichelt drove defensive around the entire circuit, with Cook trying every little bit to get to the side of his CRG. Down to the final corners, it was enough to cross the line as Reichelt secured his first Challenge victory in his series debut. Cook would settle for second, with Schureman a close third. Mills finished fourth with Udell completing the top five. Rudolph cruised to the Masters victory, mixing it up with the regular DD2 drivers in the final laps to finish sixth overall. Harper ran a solid second with Johnston earning his first Challenge podium in his series debut, while Urban ran fourth.
BBR Karting Mini Max
This year’s Mini Max category is strong, packed with young pilots who are really starting to come into their own. The field is the largest Mini Max line-up in the history of the Challenge, and it is filled with drivers who have spent the past few years honing their skills running in the series. One of these competitors is Jacob Blue Hudson (Energy), and he put in a superb performance on Saturday, sweeping the day.
Qualifying was led, for the most past, by Trenton Sparks, (FA), as his 56.498-second lap stood for a majority of the session. It wasn’t until the very end of the 15-minute run that Hudson made his move, laying down the exact same time as Sparks to steal away the pole, thanks to a quicker second fastest time. Trey Brown (Tony Kart) was third in the timed run, out-gunning young Micro Max graduate Marco Kacic (CRG) for the inside of row two for the prefinal. It took Payton Durrant (Birel) most of the session to work his way up the chart, but he would end up fifth when the checkers flew, just over three tenths behind Hudson.
The prefinal was all Hudson, as he ran away with the win by over two seconds, leaving his challengers to fight it out amongst themselves for starting positions in the final. Sparks, Durrant and Brown ran nose-to-tail for most the event, swapping their positions back and forth as they decided who was going to lead the chase. Kacic got shuffled back early, but scraped his way back to the top-five, putting in the fast lap of the race in the process, running a strong 56.778. Of note, Dylan Tavella (Tony Kart) battled back from problems in qualifying to advance from 17th to ninth in the 13-lapper, setting up the remainder of his recovery in the final.
From the very drop of the green flag in the main event, Hudson made it known that this was his race as he took control, quickly pulling away to a three-second advantage. The fight behind him was a great one, Sparks, Brown, Tavella and Durrant set about dicing it out for the final positions on the podium. Tavella and Brown would eventually decide it amongst themselves, after Durrant slipped back in the order. Tavella and Brown swapped the runner-up spot on the final lap, with Tavella eventually take second, over four seconds behind the dominant Hudson. Sparks finished up with an impressive fourth, while Connor Wick (Kosmic) completed the top-five after turning the fast lap of the race. Durrant rebounded back to sixth after dropping to eighth following his off-track excursion.