From the Tower: 2014 Superkarts! USA Pro Tour SummerNationals
Challenging weekend as SKUSA goes to the streets of Modesto
We spend our entire racedays up in the tower, watching every on-track session while producing our EKN Trackside Live program, so not much time is spent roaming the paddock for the stories. This new ‘From the Tower’ column is our chance to delve deeper into some of the accounts that develop over a race weekend, those that may or may not have been included in the daily race reports. – DC
It was a weekend of firsts for the Superkarts! USA Pro Tour during the fifth annual SummerNationals. The inaugural Modesto Grand Prix in northern California on August 1-3 hosted a record number of drivers, eclipsing the mark set at the SpringNationals earlier this year. The three-day event provided yet another unique atmosphere, taking to the city streets for the first time as a championship event, racing under the lights, in front of thousands of spectators.
Weekend of Ups and Downs
Everyone who left the City of Modesto following the SummerNationals departed with some type of opinion on the weekend. Whether it was the concept of having a street race be part of the Pro Tour, safety concerns regarding the track, and how the drivers performed under the circumstances. The positives, watching from the tower, included the finished product in regards to the races for the wins both days, which kept things exciting and fun to watch. There is nothing that compares to karts zooming around in the dark of night, racing to each new spotlight that illuminated the 8/10-mile course. It brings you back to sitting in the grandstands as a kid at the local oval track, cheering on your favorite car number or driver. The atmosphere around the start/finish line was amazing, as spectators took in the action while enjoying the many vendors and businesses that were lined up along the frontstraight. Local businesses welcomed the event with open arms, sporting racing gear and pictures in their windows, some even producing special shirts for the weekend. The two pedestrian bridges and the VIP tents helped provide the Long Beach Grand Prix ‘feel’ from which the City of Modesto was shooting.
Level of Competition
Currently, the Superkarts! USA Pro Tour is the highest level of karting in the United States, alongside the United States Rotax Max Challenge with the Rotax Grand Nationals, the Florida Winter Tour and the Rotax Challenge of the Americas. The intensity and skill level seen at these events throughout the year is strong, however, in recent years, the respect level between racers has decreased.
In the early days of the sport, it was open wheel racing at its best. If you wanted to pass someone, you had to do it by out-driving and out-braking your competitor into the corner. Today, with the sidepods guard your left and right, and front and rear plastic bumpers providing the full surround effect, many are using too much of the ‘cushion’ to push other drivers off the track without any penalty to their machines. Side-by-side contact is great and it’s what we enjoy watching, as we’ve seen a number of tire doughnuts during some fantastic finishes. What’s becoming far too common is drivers using their plastic nose to plow their way through other drivers and gain position, without any true passing maneuvers or speed.
It comes down to two factors. Drivers are either too amped up because of the prestige of the event, or coaching is diminishing, or worse, changing to actually promote this style of driving. We have seen it time and time again, drivers are cool and collected off the track, but get the helmet on and mistakes happen. However, what is becoming a more common trait is drivers simply not understanding the true art of driving. Young drivers are taking the bad habits they built up in the Cadet and Junior levels, and bringing them into the headline categories.
Should the Modesto Grand Prix been a Pro Tour event? Looking back at it now, I think not and looking into the future, I hope not.
Street racing is something not unfamiliar with motorsports. Monza, LeMans, Long Beach…these are all famous and ‘bucket list’ facilities for any motorsports competitor. Karting was created on the streets and parking lots in southern California, expanding to purpose-built facilities and road racing courses. Street racing has remained popular in the United States for karting, sticking to regional or local events aside from a few major events, such as the Rock Island Grand Prix. That thrill and excitement of doubling the speed limit on city streets still exists.
Aside from the Streets of Lancaster Grand Prix, this is the only other time Superkarts! USA attempted to go to the city streets for a competition event. Through the limited testing they had on the Modesto streets, CEO Tom Kutscher designed the track with the notes they collected. The idea was to try and design a track that would slow the speed down in certain areas of the course. Once in Modesto a week before the race began, the construction process began.
The most crucial item while designing the course was the apex and exit. In a number of corners, SKUSA missed the proper or safe location. The apex of the corners were sitting too far into the middle of intersection. This created the exit of the corner at a lower point to the crown of the city streets, making it feel like a falling away corner. The result created a higher percentage of error for the driver on the exit, increasing the opportunity of the rear of the kart to step away and out of control. This also presented a hazard problem with no ‘cushion’ or exit room for dead karts to exit the course. Something we have grown accustomed to with the RIGP is the pride and knowledge of the workers to remove dead karts off the track. That said, the Modesto GP volunteers did a phenomenal job, putting in many hours over the three days.
Part of the issues in a number of the accidents over the weekend came in turns one, three, six and eight, as the exit of the corner were not covered with TechPros or Scribner barriers, but instead the big bright orange ‘Jersey’ barriers. Those barriers were not the type found at the SuperNationals, with the flat sides that allowed karts to just bounce off them like a larger TechPro. These, which were brought in by the City of Modesto, had a lower flat bottom and then curved in the middle. Sadly, they acted like a side ramp, which helped to tip the karts over.
The first major problem of the course, however, was the chicane section on the exit of turn five. Inserted into the course to try and slow the karts down with higher curbs then we had seen before at the SuperNationals, it quickly became a test for drivers to see how fast they could get through the section of the course. On most kart tracks, there is plenty of run-off room if you make a mistake. In Modesto, it was a barrier waiting, collecting karts and drivers. After practice on Friday, one of the curbs was removed to take away the danger it presented throughout the day.
On the exit of turn eight, a sweeping Esses section was placed before the long frontstraight, which is what provided some exciting passing opportunities heading into turn one. Drivers came out of the exit of turn eight, continuing to turn to set up for the left-right combination that lead to the start/finish line. Looking back at the layout, this type of Esses would have been perfect to place on the exit of turn five. The only issue with the design was the use of the tall orange barriers through the inside of the Esses, which made the exit completely blind to the drivers. This caused the major wreck during the S2 Semi-Pro category in the main event, as the track was nearly blocked, and drivers had no idea which way to go, nor did any of them slow down when shown the yellow flag.
Like all first-time events, there are always things to improve on. Looking from the outside, the track overall was still safe to race on. If I had a TaG Master kart to race, I would have been suited up and ready to go.
Driving to the Limit
When taking to a race track that is a street race, you have to know your limits. One of the biggest factors going into the Modesto Grand Prix, many of the racers were attending or competing on their first street circuit. Add into the mix the race counting toward the SKUSA Pro Tour championship, the pressure – be it self-induced or from parents or even from team owners – was too much to come to grips.
EKN Editor-in-Chief / Publisher Rob Howden read his crystal ball, and somehow knew that racers would attack this course like another race track, publishing his Morning Coffee column prior to practice on Friday. Drivers were overdriving the course from the first practice session, and it went even further as the practice day went on. The racing on Saturday was much worse, with drivers pushing others through the corners, not giving up on the exit, and just causing numerous incidents that should have never happened. What it boiled down to was drivers not respecting the track, respecting the yellow flag, or respecting the other drivers.
Four drivers were able to double up in the win column at the inaugural Modesto Grand Prix. UK driver Jordon Lennox made it four straight wins in the S1 Pro Stock Moto division, giving the PSL Karting/CRG driver a firm grip on the championship lead going into the SuperNationals. Aside from Kiwi Daniel Bray, the S1 division has been a battle among the top drivers in North America. With the arrival of Lennox, five-time world karting champion Davide Fore and Sodi Kart factory driver Anthony Abbasse, Americans have been left fighting for just a spot on the podium this year. Both Ocala Gran Prix driver Oliver Askew and Nick Neri have been just as fast, if not faster, but Lennox has come through at the end to take all four checkered flags this year. There is no doubt that the battle will continue and go to the next level in Las Vegas.
OGP driver Austin Garrison had a stellar two weeks. After earning the US Rotax Grand Nationals Junior Max title in Utah, the Florida driver scored his first every SKUSA Pro Tour victory in S2 Semi-Pro Stock Moto on Saturday, backing it up on Sunday with another big win. The 15-year old, who will celebrate his 16th birthday this month, is taking in the advice from his fellow OGP drivers and that of the Speed family – Mike and Alex – who dominated the early 2000s together in SKUSA shifterkart competition.
The international invasion is happening in the S4 category as well. Last year’s SuperNationals winner Matt Hamilton came all the way from New Zealand to steal the victory, and won again at the SpringNationals. Italian Gian Cavaciuti was among the contenders in Dallas, but stamped his presence in Modesto with two dominating performances. The GP factory driver was a former regular in the SuperPro category at the early SuperNationals, and much like we have seen with drivers like Elliott and Musser, he still has the passion and talent to run up front.
Each Pro Tour weekend has seen one driver control the TaG Junior field in the main events. In Dallas, it was Christian Brooks. Modesto was all David Malukas. The Top Kart USA driver, running his third straight weekend after the US Rotax Grand Nationals and the USPKS event in Pittsburgh, seemed to find the streets comfortable for his style. Whether it was the lessons learned by going through the many traffic jams in the Chicago area or heading to the airport to attend the multiple race weekends, the 12-year old performed like a seasoned veteran in his first street race. The dominant performance helped put him back into the championship chase, which will mostly come down to the wire on SuperSunday in Las Vegas.
For complete coverage of the event, including videos of the course and daily race reports, visit the EKN Event Page.