EKN Trackside: Rotax Challenge of the Americas – Sonoma – Saturday Report
Craig awarded Senior win as others solidify championship chase heading into final round
The opening day of the 2014 Rotax Challenge of the Americas finale at Sonoma Raceway provided a little bit of everything, and a whole lot of excitement. After rain dampened Friday practice and prompted many to simply skip the afternoon sessions, Saturday dawned cool and sunny, eventually warming up to very comfortable temperatures. As the first of two full days of competition, Saturday’s events provided the title contenders with the first opportunity to add to their point totals and some drivers stepped up while others struggled. Christian Brooks (Junior) and Jak Crawford (Micro Max) scored big wins to all but cement their positions, while Dylan Tavella won in Mini Max to tighten up the championship chase. Andy Lee scored an exciting win in DD2, although Gavin Reichelt’s runner-up finish has put a lock on his crown. The wildest finish occurred in the last race of the day, as Senior Max came down to the final lap before Jake Craig eventually stepped to the top of the podium, thanks to a DQ for blocking and a surprise issue in tech for the championship leader. The Senior title fight was blown wide open as a result, setting up for an thrilling conclusion on Sunday.
Black Flag Racing Micro Max
The first group on the course was the Micro Max category, and the lightweight drivers were sliding all around the still green course after the track had finally cleared of all the precipitation. The lap times were quicker as the session reached the end of the eight minutes with Josh Pierson (Tony Kart) getting a good draft to lock up the pole position, his first on the season. Point leader Jak Crawford (Birel) was second, with Max Wright (Energy), provisional pole sitter Ethan Arndt (Tony Kart) and Sebastian Davis (Tony Kart) rounding out the fast five.
It was a busy 10 laps for the Micro drivers as they opened up the Prefinal round of action. Pierson was able to lead every circuit, with a little bit of a challenge midway. Both Crawford and Arndt dropped out of the top-five in the opening corner, allowing Wright to hold the second spot. Crawford was moving forward, until spinning at turn four on lap three and dropping to the tail of the field. Diego LaRoque (CRG) was on the charge early, moving up from sixth to the second spot by lap four. Running down Pierson, LaRoque drove off at turn four, losing positions and a chance at the race win. Pierson went on to the win with the fight for second coming down to the stripe. Arndt drove back into the spot, but was chased by Davis. Running a defensive line, Arndt’s pace slowed and that allowed Davis to take an outside run down the front straight, edging out the Texan for the spot. Dustin Salaverria (Birel) went from eighth to fourth, as Tait Blum followed him through for fifth.
The 14-lap was another race showcasing the talent of Crawford, coming from 12th on the grid to his fifth victory of the series. Pierson led the field to the green flag and showed the way for a number of laps with Arndt on his bumper. As the race progressed, the driver on the move was Crawford, working his way into the top-five by the halfway point, and closing in on the leaders. With two laps to go, the gap was just over one second and Crawford eliminated the distance with one move. Running the fastest laps of the race, he snuck up on Blum and Arndt, making the move from fourth to second. Pierson kept a solid gap on the final lap, but the final third of the circuit Crawford closed in. Pierson and Crawford set up a drag race, with Crawford slotting outside. At the line, Crawford scored the victory by 69 thousandths of a second over Pierson. Blum was able to come through in third but was removed for a throttle issue and Arndt was fourth until he had an improper airbox. That promoted Davis up to the third step of the podium, LaRoque in fourth and Salaverria fifth. With his advancement from 12th, Crawford was awarded the #GoRotax Hard Charger Award of a free set of Mojo tires, courtesy of MAXSpeed Group.
Rolison Performance Group Junior Max
At 34 drivers, Junior Max was the only group split up into two groups on the weekend for qualifying. Series promoter Andy Seesemann elected to move the Pre-Qualifying practice to Saturday morning to set the groups for the category. Many of the top drivers in the championship made it into the second and quicker group, but local drivers showed the way in the practice session. When it came to new Mojo tires and a faster track, championship contender Austin Versteeg (Kosmic) showed the way with the quick time in the session. The Rolison Performance Group driver edged out his teammate Kyle Wick (Kosmic) by 31 thousandths, earning five points toward the point standings. Callum Smith (Energy) – celebrating his birthday yesterday – was third and within a tenth of a second. Sting Ray Robb (Tony Kart) and Chase Farley (Energy) capped off the fast five for the session. Point leader Christian Brooks (Tony Kart) was seventh in the order.
The 17-lap Prefinal was a shootout between the RPG duo of Versteeg and Wick. They locked up to pull away from the field early on, and began exchanging the lead on lap four. Despite their efforts to lead on several occasions, they ran the quickest laps of the race to maintain their advantage. On the final lap, Wick used his better path through the tic-tac-toe section, sliding inside of Versteeg for the lead thru the sweeper. Wick pulled a few kart lengths on the exit, and kept the lead until the checkered flag. Wick would have the win taken away due to a starting lane violation, dropping him to third in the order and giving the win to Versteeg with Brooks able to advance up to second. Robb held the third spot until a bobble on lap 15 dropped him back to fifth. That allowed rookie Chase Farley (Energy), making his series debut, to finish fourth until he was penalized for avoidable contact, losing three spots. That put Robb to fourth with Noah Grey (Kosmic) in fifth with Jeff Fulham (Kosmic), starting 17th, in sixth.
Versteeg led the field to the green flag for the 25-lap main event, needing a win to keep himself in the championship chase. The two RPG drivers locked up until Brooks split them up on lap 10, and then moved to the lead the following circuit. Versteeg kept locked on the bumper of Brooks, that was until a slight bobble on the exit of turn one on lap 17 dropped him back to fourth behind Wick and Robb. Brooks would keep a charging Wick back in the final circuits for his third feature victory of the series, helping his championship chase efforts. Robb fended off Versteeg for the final step of the podium, who recorded the fast lap of the race to earn five extra points. Fulham completed the top-five, capping off another great day after a rough start. The #GoRotax Hard Charger Award of a free set of Mojo tires, courtesy of MAXSpeed Group, went to Callum Smith for improving 17 positions to 14th in 25 laps.
Nash Motorsportz Masters Max
Sporting 15 drivers, the Masters group took to the track with locals leading the way. Andre Eriksen (CRG) was the provisional polesitter during much of the session, but late in the going the championship leader Donald Durbin (Birel) put together a solid lap to steal the spot. The Cambrian Go-Kart driver posted a 55.113-second lap to edge out the fellow NorCal pilot by 99 thousandths. Title contenders Ken Maxfield (Arrow) and Brian Phillipsen (Tony Kart) were third and fourth, with James Dix (Birel) adding another NorCal into the fast five.
Durbin, looking to lock up the championship one day early, led all 17 laps for the Prefinal win, and leading comfortably. Erikson and Maxfield kept close, until they fought for position around lap five. This allowed Durbin to pull away in his Birel, pulling out to a three second advantage. Maxfield tried to run down the point leader, but just couldn’t gain any ground around the tough Sonoma circuit, settling for second. A great battle for third ensued during the middle portion of the race, including Erikson, Scott Ripslinger (Energy) and Phillipsen. Ripslinger, using home track knowledge, secured the position over Dix and Phillipsen.
From the drop of the green flag, it was a one driver show out front as Durbin locked up his third victory of the series. With consistent lap times, the point leader inched away from the field to a near seven-second advantage. The win all but locked up the championship, needing to stay out of trouble in the final round on Sunday. The fight was for second, including a host of drivers. Ripsligner jumped up to the spot to drop Maxfield back to third. They would swap position, along with Phillipsen and Dix involved in the fight. The order was shuffled when Maxfield spun his Arrow on the exit of turn seven, dropping down the order and handing the second spot to Phillipsen. The fight continued on, with Ripsligner able to climb up to the position and hold on to the checkered flag. Hard charger of the race went to Tyler Brooks (Tony Kart), who started eighth and fought his way to the third step of the podium. Phillipsen slipped back to fourth with Maxfield recovering to fifth.
Energy Corse America DD2/CRG-USA DD2 Masters
DD2 Masters point leader Alan Rudolph (CRG) sat out Round Five action, as he was needed back home for a work function that he could not miss. The defending champion used today as the drop race, going perfect through the opening four rounds, and is flying back to Sonoma to finish the series with Round Six. Mike Urban (CRG) is the lone driver in the category, and scored the victory unchallenged.
DD2 point leader Gavin Reichelt (CRG) found the speed needed at the end of the eight-minute session to earn fourth pole position of the series and five crucial points in the championship chase. His 51.484-second lap was nearly two tenths quicker than Sabré Cook (CRG). Christian Bird (CRG) and Andy Lee (CRG) filled out the rest of the field, as all looked forward to wheel-to-wheel action.
Seven-teen laps of fighting between three drivers took part in the DD2 Prefinal, as we have seen all series. Reichelt and Cook continued to go back and forth the entire time, with Lee hanging right there waiting for his opportunity. Cook was able to prevail with the win, as Reichelt took second after Lee slowed at the white flag, but continued on to the third spot with Bird in fourth.
Dramatic…that has been the word to describe the races in the DD2 category and the Final was no different. Cook and Lee hooked up early on to lead the way for a CRG-USA 1-2. Reichelt and Bird stayed close, knowing it was going to be a long 25-lap battle. That was until lap six when Cook pulled off at turn four with no power to her machine, and out of the race. This left Lee with the lead as Reichelt set his sites early. A mistake by Lee allowed Reichelt to take over the lead, but a great drive back put Lee on his bumper. In turn seven, a slip up by Lee allowed Reichelt to increase his lead, but Lee fought back to close the advantage. Looking for a way around, Lee pushed to the edge a little too much and again lost ground to the point leader with four laps remaining. Lee took his pace to another level, laying down fast laps of the race to close in on Reichelt one final time. Reichelt went into defensive mode as they started the final lap, and Lee took advantage of the cross-over move to slid past the championship leader heading into tic-tac-toe. With a solid final circuit, Lee held on for his first series victory. Reichelt was second, with Bird completing the podium.
BBR Karting Mini Max
The Mini Max category welcomed another first time top qualifier with Mexican driver Sebastian Alvarez posting the fast time in the eight-minute run. As the only driver to post a time below the 57-second mark, Alvarez nipped Conner Wick (Kosmic) by 23 thousandths of a second. Canadian Griffin Dowler (Tony Kart) was third, followed by Filip Niemkiewicz (AM Kart) and Trey Brown (Tony Kart). Championship leader Jacob Blue Hudson (Energy) was 11th, while contender Dylan Tavella (Tony Kart) was eighth.
It was a three-driver breakaway in the Prefinal as Alvarez was chased by Wick and Payton Durrant (Birel), who got a great start from sixth. Wick stayed locked on the bumper of Alvarez, until they reached the end of the race. The two diced for the top spot on the final circuit, with Wick able to control the position at the checkered flag. Alvarez settled for second, with Durrant trailing in third but was removed in the results for fluid on clutch. Tavella worked his way up to the fourth spot, earning valuable points, with Brown fifth. Hudson could only move up to ninth position in the 13-lap race, losing five points in his lead over Tavella.
The 18-lap Final was a textbook performance by Mini Max rookie Tavella, securing the victory with a last lap pass. Starting on the third, Tavella jumped out to the lead on the opening circuit before slotting into second behind Alvarez. Polesitter Wick was out before the completion of the opening circuit, off the course in turn six. Tavella locked on the bumper of Alvarez and pushed the two away from Canadian Marco Kacic (CRG). Nothing changed out front until the final circuit when Tavella began to negotiate his way to the lead. It wasn’t until they reached the front straight when Tavella came up alongside Alvarez from the outside. The two drag raced to the finish line, with Tavella crossing 29 thousandths of a second ahead for his second victory of the series. Kacic held on to a solid third, putting three different countries on the podium. Tomas Mejia (Top Kart) put in a great drive from 10th to fourth, with Brown completing the top-five. After his disqualification in the Prefinal, Durrant advanced 10 spots to sixth, earning the #GoRotax Hard Charger Award of a free set of Mojo tires, courtesy of MAXSpeed Group. Point leader Hudson crossed the line fourth, but was removed from the results for a carb issue. Thus, Tavella is in the point lead going into the final round.
Holeshot Drive Systems Senior Max
Many of the competitors here at the Challenge took part in the Red Line Oil Karting Championship Series event at Sonoma, including race winner Louie Pagano. The Dallas Karting Complex/Sodi Kart USA driver was quickest in the qualifying session, clearing the field by two tenths with a 52.087-second lap. Two-time Challenge race winner Jake Craig (Tony Kart) was second in the order, followed by rookie Blaine Rocha (Kosmic). Point leader Phillip Arscott (Kosmic) was fourth, with veteran Matt Johnson (FA Kart) completing the fast five.
Pagano took advantage of the pole position, and drove away to a solid win in the Prefinal. The 17-lap race got underway with contact between Rocha and Craig, putting both at the tail of the field. Craig pulled off before completing the opening lap with damage to his machine, while Rocha fought back to ninth. Up front, Johnson slotted in behind Pagano, but would be caught by the charging Arscott. After he dropped to fifth, the former US champion drove his way up to second by lap seven. With times similar to Pagano, the over one-second advantage was enough for Pagano to hold onto. DD2 2013 Rotax Grand Finals runner-up Joey Wimsett (CRG) started sixth, but followed his fellow Oregon driver up the order and into the third spot. Senior rookie Luke Selliken (Kosmic), another driver from Oregon, followed suit as he worked past Johnson for position to drop the veteran back to fifth.
The end of the day was a major turning point in the chase for the Rotax Grand Finals ticket, awarded to the champion in Senior Max. Pagano led the field to the green flag, with Wimsett sliding into second after the opening corner to put Arscott in third. The veteran drivers pulled away from the field, setting up for what looked like a three driver battle. Of the three, Arscott had the quickest pace, moving to second by lap five, and then began challenging Pagano for the lead. During that time, Craig was making his way forward with the fast laps of the race, reaching the top-five.
Arscott moved into the lead for the first time on lap 13, with an aggressive move at turn four. Pagano came back a few corners later, returning the favor at turn one as they began lap 14. Pagano drifted wide on the exit and that pushed Arscott off into the grass. He nearly lost control in the wet grass but managed to hang on and remain in second. This allowed the second group to close in, including Wimsett, Rocha, Craig and others. As they navigated the tic-tac-toe section, Wimsett lost his chain and was out of the run for his first podium. Rocha moved to third, but was short-lived as Craig took over the position before the lap was completed.
The result was Pagano holding a solid lead over Arscott and Craig. That was until they began cutting into the advantage, and Pagano running up on lap traffic at the wrong time, losing six tenths in just one circuit on lap 19. This brought in Arscott right to Pagano’s bumper and he tried once again to take lead at turn one with four laps remaining, but slid wide which allowed Craig to move into the second spot. Arscott fought his way back just a few laps later, taking over second from Craig and setting his sights on Pagano. Back by seven tenths with two laps remaining, Arscott was there for a final lap battle. Inching forward, they exited turn six with Arscott looking by. They exited turn seven side by side, with Arscott holding the inside line. Pagano came down on Arscott, and the two made heavy contact. They reached the final corner with Pagano giving Arscott some love, moving him wide at the exit. This gave Craig room to creep up on Pagano, and the two drag-raced to the line. At the stripe, Pagano was first by 14 thousandths of a second, with Arscott crossing third.
Officials penalized Pagano for the aggressive contact made on the final circuit, dropping him two positions. This awarded Craig his third victory of the series, along with the #GoRotax Hard Charger Award of a free set of Mojo tires, courtesy of MAXSpeed Group. Arscott was moved to second, that was until technical inspection. He elected to have the engine torn down today, rather than Sunday, and unfortunately, his engine was found to have improper alignment with his balance driver gears. That awarded him a disqualification that will be unable to drop in the championship chase. His removal put Pagano second on the podium, and rookie Selliken third for his first podium trip. Rocha was classified fourth, with Johnson ending up fifth.