From the Tower: 2015 RoboPong 200
12th annual event continues to provide intensity, heartache, and excitement to reach 200 laps
This past weekend, the New Castle Motorsports Park hosted the 12th annual RoboPong 200 event. Competitors gathered at the central Indiana facility to compete in a 200-lap TaG endurance event around the 1-mile circuit. A mix of national, regional and club level karters took on the challenge, including a handful of IndyCar drivers who were in town for the 3rd annual Dan Wheldon Memorial ProAm Karting Challenge. This was my ninth straight year and the drama that unfolds over the course of 200 laps can not be matched with anything else. This year was nothing short as a number of factors played out to determine the top team.
Year after year, the KartSport North America operation puts itself in contention for a win at the RoboPong event. 2011 KSNA/GoPro finished second and third to Mark Dismore Sr. and Josef Newgarden. In 2012, the team won with Sam Beasley and Jacob Donald behind the wheel. Two KSNA/AMR entries finished second and third for a second time in 2013 while Eric Jones and Derek Dignan sat on the pole position in 2014 before finishing sixth.
This year was a move to the Praga chassis after driving the Arrow every year. The second line available from the Mooresville, North Carolina operation, working directly with Praga North America, is becoming a popular option. KSNA spear-headed the Arrow invasion, and has continues to promote the brand throughout North America along with the Deadly Kart by multi-time Aussie champion David Sera. KSNA and Praga North America has worked together all season, with the success coming recently at the USPKS finale as Andrick Zeen won both main events aboard the Tacho. Piloting the Dragon EVO chassis earlier in the season, it was discovered the Tacho worked better with the track conditions and the tires here in the United States. The success continued with Donald and Jones piloting a Tacho, as they set a blistering pace to claim the 200-lap victory by nearly 50 seconds. The kart remained as is from the factory, aside from utilizing an older homologated version of the IPK brake system.
First Year Under IAME X30 Power
Twenty-one of the 31 teams in this year’s event utilized the new IAME X30 engine. The IAME Parilla Leopard has won 10 of the 11 previous events, with Rotax winning in 2010. A handful of teams contested the 2014 event on the X30, including top qualifiers KartSport North America / AMR with Jones and Dignan who suffered from brake issues. This year’s event was the first true test as to how the engine would perform over 200 laps at 100% performance. The first stop was critical and decided just who would be in contention. Not the time in pit lane, but the distance certain teams would be able to stretch out the first fuel run. Team Manchild (Brandon Lemke/TJ Koyen) could only go 44 laps before the tank was nearly empty and were forced to pit. Both iKart ‘Ironman’ entries of Jesus Rios Jr. and IndyCar driver Sage Karam pitted before the lap 50 mark.
Others were able to stretch it past the lap 50 mark, including the top qualifier Checkered Motorsports / PCR USA (Andrew and Robert Bujdoso). Their second stint was cut short on lap 98 with Robert pulling off with no gas left in the tank. They ran out again on lap 179 trying to stretch out their third fuel run. Of the top five, four teams were able to make it on three pit stops, stretching their fuel to at least 50 laps every time. Overall, the engine performed well with no major engine failures reported. The question now lies in the hands of the engine builders, figuring out how or why certain teams were able to go 50 laps or more on a fuel stint, and to determine just how much more reliable they are compared to the Leopard.
Win or Lose It in the Pits
When it comes to endurance racing, a team can win it, or lose it, in pit lane. It begins with preparation before the race, spending the hours going over every part of the kart to help prevent failures and insure all the bolts and nuts are tight. With the late schedule thanks to rain storms Saturday, the work went longer then expected Saturday night with lights on under the easy-ups and team tents in the paddock. It continued Sunday morning, as the teams received a 45-minute warm-up to fine tune their set-ups and insure everything was ready for 200 laps.
During the race, it was the pit stops that made or break your event. Last year’s performance by the Checkered Motorsports/Adrenaline Fix Karting operation put the Bujdoso brothers in contention until a mechanical took them out of the lead with 20 laps remaining. All the teams in contention took notice, and ensured they had all preparations ready for the pit stops to get in and out quickly. Breaking down the top-five finishers, the battle on pit lane was won by the CometKartSales.com. When teams make a pit stop, they pull off just prior to the final corner, run along the front straight, and duck into the paddock area where teams await their drivers. Reviewing that lap time includes the time spent driving to the pit stall, the pit stop, and the out lap. IndyCar drivers Josef Newgarden and Scott Dixon covered less time, a full 10 seconds quicker over the three pit stops to the winners KartSport North America / AMR. The Comet crew had the best four tire stop and out lap, a full seven seconds quicker on its final stop then the KartSport team.
The difference was in the pace that the KartSport team were able to cover on track. The average lap time minus the three for pit stops, KartSport was roughly three tenths a lap quicker. Of the top-five, Team Manchild with Lemke and Koyen had a quicker average lap time (1:05.769), however, were not able to get the fuel mileage like the remaining top-five teams.
|Team||Total||Diff||Pit 1||Pit 2||Pit 3||Pit 4|
|KartSport North America / AMR||6:45.312||2:14.839||2:17.912||2:12.561|
|Franklin Motorsports / Merlin||7:25.306||39.994||2:40.617||2:15.296||2:29.393|
Give Me a Brake
Each RoboPong, the battle to make the brakes last a full 200 laps plays into who is left to battle for the win. This year was no different. The two ‘Ironman’ efforts by Jesus Rio Jr. and IndyCar’s Sage Karam were cut short when both their iKart machines ran out of brakes. Mazda Road to Indy drivers Spencer Pigot and Neil Alberico battled back after a stuck brake pad to finish ninth, four laps down. The Holden/Rogero entry lost brakes when the master cylinder malfunctioned. Rogero put in a great performance, hanging on for the final 20 laps with no brakes to nurse her Tony Kart to a fourth place result. On the positive side, the top-five were a mix of brake systems. IPK on the winning Praga, Arrow caliper on the CometKartSales.com machine, standard Merlin system on the Lemke/Koyen while Kalish/Sieracki elected for Kelgate caliper on their Merlin.
Testing the Mind and the Body
Two-hundred laps is a test for machine, and driver. The machine takes the majority of the beating, however, the development of product in terms of chassis, components, engines and tires, 200 laps is doable. For most teams, it was two drivers splitting the laps, totaling around 100 circuits for each driver. For many events on the season, that’s more laps than drivers receive in two days of racing, let along in a 3.5-hour span. Mentally and physically, it is a tough task to face.
You can tell the PitFit training done by IndyCar drivers Newgarden and Dixon keep them in optimal shape. Neither looked tired or even broke a sweat when they reached the podium for their runner-up finish. Co-winner Jake Donald, and fifth place finisher Kyle Kalish did 150 laps on their own, and you could tell by their body language right after the event it tested them physically and mentally.
Numbers Falling Short
This year’s RoboPong field was among the lowest in its 12-year history. A record high of 94 teams were entered in 2007, and since it has steadily declined. This year’s total was low, primarily due to the busy schedule of 2015. When the event was created in the early 2000’s, racing was primarily done between April and September, leaving the end of the year open to an event such as this. Today, we find teams and drivers racing all 12 months, with little to no time off. There were a number of karting events going on during the same weekend, which takes away the opportunity of teams and competitors from outside the Great Lakes area coming to New Castle for a chance to be part of history. Clubs around the area are also still competing, with their final rounds of the championships still on the horizon, leaving little time and money to chance a 200-lap race on their equipment.
The addition of the Dan Wheldon Memorial ProAm Karting Challenge has pushed up the event into the September month, to work closely with the IndyCar finale weekend. Thanks to their schedule ending earlier and earlier, the event has moved up. The other side of that, is to stay away from the colder weather sometimes experienced in the month of October. Either way, if you haven’t watched or competed in the RoboPong 200 event, it is a must. After my nine years attending, I leave wanting to be part of it over and over again. There is nothing like it anywhere in North American karting.