#TBT OnTrack: Margay Brava 4.11 – Rock Island Grand Prix

EKN Editor-in-Chief returns with American legend to score career-best finish at the Rock

Margay's Greg Dingess and EKN's Rob Howden getting the Rock Island Grand Prix 2014 Briggs LO206 Masters ride ready (Photo: EKN)

In the wake of exciting news regarding the changes planned this year’s edition of the Rock Island Grand Prix, and as we discuss our plans for EKN Live coverage of the great annual event, I’m brought back to last September and what was one of my most enjoyable trips to the Quad Cities. As a little ‘Throwback Thursday’ editorial, I’d like to chronicle my second opportunity to work with Margay Racing at the Rock.

2015 Rock Island Grand Prix logoThe Rock Island Grand Prix has always held a special place in my heart.  I’ve been fortunate to act as the official event announcer for the last 15 years and this post has given me the opportunity to enjoy the incredibly close racing that has come to characterize the annual event.  The nature of the two long straightaways from turn six to turn two allows the draft to come into significant play, and this often ensures that a tight pack of drivers remain in the fight for the win, or top-five finishes. As the play-by-play guy, I love the track design as it has provided race after race of last lap excitement, and it’s thrilled me each year.  In addition to my duties on the mic, I’ve also participated in the event personally on five different occasions over the years, donning my helmet in 2004 to finish with a career best result of sixth in TaG Master, losing fifth to a last lap pass.  This happened again this year during my fifth start, but this time, I lost second and ended up fourth.  It was a still an incredible weekend, and as I’ve told everyone who’s lost a position in such a situation, it was a learning experience as well.

In 2013, David Cole (EKN Managing Editor) and I jumped on the chance to race at the Rock in the emerging Briggs LO206 category, and we had a blast.  The LO206 engine program continues to spread throughout the United States and Canada, thanks to its sealed spec equation that comes in at under $600 and does not require costly engine prep.  It’s truly a program where you can pull the engine out of the shipping box, make a minor tweak to the float level in the carb, and go racing at the front end of the pack.  After enjoyable events in 2013, David and I both knew that we wanted to come back again in 2014 and with the expansion of the 206 program to three classes (Medium, Heavy and Masters), I elected to focus on my age-specific category, LO206 Masters.  At 45 years of age, I figured that I’ve earned the option to run in the 30+ category.

Howden aboard the Margay back in 2004 in TaG Masters, finishing sixth (Photo: SKI)

Howden aboard the Margay back in 2004 in TaG Masters, finishing sixth (Photo: SKI)

My program for this year’s event came together a little late, but Margay’s Greg Dingess was all over the effort as soon as we confirmed it.  I ran with Keith Freber and Margay in TaG Master in 2004, so a return engagement ten years later sounded like a great idea. Greg went to work putting together a new Margay Brava 4.11, which we would mate with the same LO206 engine that I pulled out of the box in 2013 when I ran with DB Motorsports.  The beauty of the engine is that it’s essentially race-ready right out of the shipping box, although most racers will tell you that it needs some minor carb tuning to the float to allow the carb to perform at its best at the angle at which we mount it.  I met Greg in the RIGP paddock after flying into the Quad-Cities International Airport and jumped into the kart to check out the seat position before the skies opened up.  There was rain forecast for the different periods during the weekend, so we were ready to bolt on the wet weather Bridgestones if they were needed. It didn’t happen, but we were ready.  I love the rain, so I was a little disappointed, in truth.

On Saturday morning, I arrived at the track early to start bolting on my motor, but Greg was already on it, getting everything dialed in.  After the drivers meeting, the run through the practice rotation began and once I got out for my initial laps, I remembered how much I enjoy driving Margays.  It’s hard to explain, but some karts are just more comfortable to me, and I’ve enjoyed a long friendship with Freber, which dates back to essentially being ‘dared’ to jump into the seat of a KT100 kart at the Quincy in the Park street race.  I raced a first-generation Brava 1 in 1997 as part of an article series that I wrote for National Kart News.  When I drove for Margay at the Rock in 2004, with Freber on the wrenches, I was again provided with that sense of ‘fit’ with the kart.  We just mesh.

The same Briggs & Stratton LO206 engine right out of the box from 2013

The same Briggs & Stratton LO206 engine right out of the box from 2013

I find the opening practice sessions on any street circuit to be interesting, meaning the approach taken by some of my fellow competitors.  I find it odd to see drivers hanging it out, over the edge, on a dirty track, pushing the limits of themselves and the track.  When I see someone wreck or pile it into the barriers during the opening practice session, I just shake my head.  Personally, I’ve always approached Rock Island the same way, cautiously, during the first practice.  The track changes a little from year to year, as a result of both effects of the annual winter season, regular usage of the roads and the slight inconsistency of the barrier placement on the inside and outside of the corners.  The apexes are never exactly the same, I find. The regular bumps get bigger and some new ones always appear for the first time.  The Friday evening track walk gives the racers their first chance to check the layout, but it isn’t until you actually get out there at speed that you’ll begin to get a feel of the track.

As the event announcer, I’ve got another job to do at the race, so I can’t enter three or four classes to get maximum track time like my fellow competitors, so as a result, it normally takes me both practice sessions to get myself back up to full speed.  A fast lap in the Briggs LO206 classes requires a flat-out approach all the way around the track, but I personally lift in turn one.  I haven’t yet taken it flat out, so maybe that needs to be on the list for this September.  Then again, maybe not, as I’m not real keen on joining the list of dudes with a T1 wreck on their resume.  I’m always on a brand new chassis that I’ve never driven before, testing it for an OnTrack article in SKI or on EKN, so I’m learning the kart as well as the track.

Dingess was able to prepare the Margay chassis to exactly the needs for Howden throughout the two days

Dingess was able to prepare the Margay chassis to exactly the needs for Howden throughout the two days

Personally, I start focusing on one corner at the time, normally beginning with the final turn on the track, turn six, which leads onto the front straight.  I back it up from there…flatting turn two and three, then the right-hand turn four.  For me, it’s about linking them all together. As I get comfortable, I’m flat all the way around (except T1), turning good lap times, and then and only then do we think about making chassis adjustments as necessary.   I’m of the mind that until I’m pushing myself past at least 80% of my personal abilities, there’s no sense adjusting the chassis unless it’s really off.  In this case, Greg put a solid baseline on my Brava 4.11, so it was balanced right out of the trailer, with just a slight exit understeer.  I felt great at the end of the first run, so we made a little adjustment to begin the chase.

As I expected coming into the weekend, I once again fell in love with the Margay 4.11.  I felt extremely confident in the kart, more so than my own abilities, that’s for sure.  In talking with Greg, we began with a very neutral set-up to give us room to work.  The front-end geometry was neutral – using the 4.11’s Sniper SA1 linear caster/camber adjustment – in order to leverage the Brava’s built-in numbers.  We had the front torsion bar in the ‘soft’ position, with the blade flat.  The kart featured a 50mm rear axle, which Greg cut down by an inch each side to give us a 51.5” track width with medium hubs pushed all the way in.  This would provide us with 3.5” of rear track adjustment should the grip get too much for the rear of the chassis.  With only two days of racing, Rock Island doesn’t normally grip up too much, and we wouldn’t make any rear width when all was said and done.

In the first of two practice sessions, on a green and dirty track, the kart pushed a little on the exit once I was flat on the loud pedal, so we widened the front a little to remedy this condition.  We dropped a tooth on the gear as well as my LO206 was bouncing off the rev limiter too early.  The adjustment was positive, and I was carrying more speed out of the corners and down the straight for Practice 2 thanks to smoother exit and more gear. My entry was now much quicker and the chassis was now a little loose on entry.  Man, I love chasing the set-up and I picking up speed.  This time, we dialed out a little caster to lessen front grip activation on entry, as I pointed the Brava 4.11 to the apex.  As the rubber went down, these adjustments provided the balance I wanted to roll increased corner speed.  And as expected, with the chassis set-up going in the right direction, we dropped another tooth on the gear heading to qualifying as I became more comfortable, keeping the throttle down to maximize top speed.  Everything was going well for the afternoon qualifying run.

The Briggs LO206 Masters field on grid for the start of the Main Event (Photo: Mark Enderlein)

The Briggs LO206 Masters field on grid for the start of the Main Event (Photo: Mark Enderlein)

When it comes to qualifying, to be honest, I need to get into the groove during any timed session.  I only get to race a handful of times every year, so I normally need a few laps to get things dialed in with my mind.  I hit the track for our LO206 Masters qualifying session and attempted to stick with Tony Neilson, the veteran RIGP race winner who was running in the Masters class for the first time.  I knew that Tony would be my primary competitor for the race win, and I wanted to get a chance to follow him around a little.  My ‘getting up to speed slowly’ approach ended this thought, as Neilson was on the gas 100% from the get-go and I could only watch him pull slowly away, negating my chance to leverage the draft.  The session was still a success, as the chassis set-up that Greg had dialed in was spot-on and I was able to lay down at 39.468-second lap that put me second in our 13-kart line-up.  I was almost two tenths quicker than third, but also nine tenths of a second off of the pole time that Tony rolled out.

I had called the PA play-by-play for qualifying sessions before and after my personal run, so we capped the day with a great dinner and a little fun with the Travolta’s, hanging at the Daiquiri Factory with friends.  The grids were set for Sunday’s main events, so it was time to enjoy the other great aspects of the weekend. The atmosphere that surrounds the GP is one of the keys that make it one of the coolest races in North America.  Live entertainment, mixed with great restaurants and bars, all within walking distance of the host hotel, is a success formula.  If you’ve never participated in the Rock Island Grand Prix, you owe it to yourself to cross it off the bucket list.

The race day dawned cool and cloudy, but with no rain.  We tried something a little ‘out there’ in terms of set-up for the morning warm-up, an unorthodox approach suggested by a veteran RIGP team, but it wasn’t as comfortable as what Greg and I had developed, so we went back to the baseline.  Our only adjustment after the warm-up was to remove the front bar to settle down the kart’s transition from turn-in to exit.

After qualifying second with a chassis set-up that still needed a little adjustment, I knew that the Lemans-style standing start would be interesting.  As expected from our qualifying speeds, Neilson and I were both geared a little taller than our competition and we got eaten up when the green flag flew.  After starting P1 and P2, the karts around us smoked us off the line and we fell back to fifth and sixth, but quickly settled in and began to work our way back through the pack, using our higher top speed capabilities.  I was locked onto Tony for a time, but a wreck in T1 brought out the red flag. Once we went back to green, we were back to first and second in short order.  Disappointingly, I wasn’t able to stick right with Tony during the opening laps after the stoppage, and I was again forced to watch him stretch away.  My race would become a fight for second, as the draft was strong and I had both Greg Jasperson and Jeff Scott in my slipstream and on my rear bumper.

Despite my hopes of dropping them and pulling away, both Greg and Jeff are great drivers and, like me, they were using the final laps to plan their moves.  Back in 2004, I got passed in turn one on the final lap, and I couldn’t shake that image, so I defended during my last run into that corner.  As I moved slightly to the right to set up for the turn-in, Greg threw his kart into the corner with an aggressive and caught me off-guard, and I checked up. It was a solid move, one that impressed me immediately.  I was pissed, but impressed.  I think it was the announcer in me. I could hear myself calling it.

“Jasperson to the insiiiide….BOOK IT!”

Howden slotted into second behind eventual winner Tony Neilson (Photo: Mark Enderlein)

Howden slotted into second behind eventual winner Tony Neilson (Photo: Mark Enderlein)

Greg’s move allowed Jeff to follow him through on the exit and all I could do was watch them power down to turn two.  I closed up in the draft and thought about trying Jeff in the right-hander (T4), but I wasn’t quite close enough.  It would have been too risky.  I would have made it, but Jeff would not have. I simply didn’t have the momentum to challenge cleanly, and I crossed the line in fourth, disappointed but still happy.  Maybe one day I’ll figure out how to hold my spot on the last lap.

So…it was my best result in five Rock Island Grand Prix starts, my first top-five and my fourth top-10.  I set the fastest time of the race by a scant 0.001 seconds, thanks to Greg and his turbo push in the draft.  It was a great race all-around.  The Masters guys are always a blast to race with.  I went wheel-to-wheel with Greg and Jeff as I worked my way back to second, we gave each other room, and they got me back on the final lap.  Great racing, and high-fives at the scales.  In truth, I hate them.  😉

I’ve had great success with Margay at the Rock, and I’d jump behind the wheel of their new Brava 4.15 at any time.  They’re running an arrive-and-drive program with their new spec Ignite program at the race this year, so that might be a cool option for me, although I think I’d like another shot at the Masters’ Rock.  Whatever I drive, I just can’t wait to get back on the track, and on the mic, this coming Labor Day.

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