From the Tower: Challenge of the Americas 2016 – Sonoma
Ninth season of the Challenge closes with another successful season and new champions
We spend our entire raceday 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. The ‘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. For complete coverage of the Challenge of the Americas Sonoma weekend, visit the EKN Event Page – DC
Hollywood Ready for Primetime
The last two seasons have been tough at the Challenge for Christian Brooks, filled with ups and downs. The 2014 season was his final year in the Junior division after claiming the 2012 Mini Max title. With three victories, the championship came down to a battle with now-IMSA driver Austin Versteeg. The Utah driver won the final round, and Brooks came just three points short of the crown. A year later in his rookie Senior season, Christian earned his first victory in Phoenix to position himself for a run at the championship. Former Junior title winner Luke Selliken was able to beat him on track and on paper in the final round to sneak by with a four point advantage in the title chase.
2016 brought in a change in colors, staying with the Nash Motorsportz operation but moving over to the CRG brand. With full support from CRG Nordam and the factory in Italy, it was championship or bust for Brooks. A disappointing start with a disqualification for a emulsion tube violation in Round One set them back on the opening weekend, but he and the team rallied the following day to score the first victory in the series for CRG since 2011 in Senior Max. Brooks added another victory in a stellar drive from the last to first, and placed runner-up the following day to once again put himself in the championship hunt heading to Sonoma.
The Senior Max category provided exciting racing all weekend long at Simraceway, with much of it coming from Brooks. He qualified second and ended up second in the thrilling Prefinal, only to break away after early fighting to secure the top spot and his third victory of the season. Sunday began with drama surrounding Brooks once again, as they reported to the grid for qualifying just a few seconds too late, and were not allowed to take to the track. With fresh Mojo tires, Brooks started shotgun in the 15-driver field and knifed his way to P2 after 17 laps. Needing just to finish to claim the title, the focus was about victory for Brooks. He was shuffled back early but muscled back to the front, running down Nathan Adds for the lead and the victory.
At just 15, Brooks is prime example of the type of talent karting can produce. He has hurdled over a number of obstacles throughout his career. No matter what you put him in, he has been successful in every type of kart and engine package he has driven. Now looking at Red Bull Global RallyCross this season, I see plenty of good things in the future for ‘Hollywood’.
Breakout Party for Aluminos
Parity was a rarity in Rotax competition in years past, including the Challenge of the Americas. We have seen OTK components dominate the grid and the podium in the Senior and Junior divisions for the past few seasons. The Masters Max category however has continued to be about the driver and the machine working together as one, and not just the type of kart it is. This year, four different brands took victory in the six rounds of competition. Birel ART and SodiKart earned the first four, while Billy Cleavelin’s bounce-back victory Saturday in Sonoma gave Rolison Performance Group and Kosmic its first since Scott Falcone doubled up a year ago at Simraceway. For local driver Carlos Calderon, his victory put the Aluminos chassis in the Challenge record books.
A former Senior Max competitor, Calderon suffered a broken arm in Phoenix 2014 after it was sandwiched between the tire and sidepod while crossing the finish line. The injuries healed well and he returned to racing a few months after. His racing remains limited, wrenching for drivers under the Aluminos tent at major events when not keeping busy with his family and work at Apple headquarters.
Making his Masters Max debut at the Challenge, Carlos was quickest all day Friday. It appeared to be his to lose on Saturday, which it was when the axle broke in half in Saturday’s Prefinal. Clawing his way forward in the Final, Calderon was just about to attack eventual race winner Cleavelin to challenge for the win when the chain popped off over tic-tac-toe. Sunday brought a new day, but this time it wasn’t the kart that went crazy, it was him. Contact in turn one took both he and champion Mike Jones off course and to the back. The Aluminos driver refocused for the main event, and slowly inched his way back toward the front. Around the top two, he pulled away for the win. It was a great victory for the karting diehard, and for the Aluminos brand that has been successful in shifter, TaG and now Rotax competition.
SodiNation Rises to Two Championships
Many of the powerhouse teams have established history, be it with the current or former chassis brand they utilize today. Thanks to their performances at the Challenge, SodiNation is on the rise. The Dallas Karting Complex race team has worked diligently over the last few seasons to put all the right pieces together for a championship-winning operation. Logging in lap after lap aboard the Sodi Kart, working directly with the factory in France, and finding the right combination of drivers and mechanics, DKC can celebrate its two first major championships of 2016.
Jake French entered the inaugural Shifter Senior title chase among the favorites, and put his stamp on it with a sweep of the weekend in Tucson. A third victory for the Sodi Kart driver in Phoenix kept the title lead in hand. He fought off championship rival Kolton Griffin on Saturday with his third sweep of the series to clinch the championship, his first with the Dallas Karting Complex since joining them at the beginning of 2015.
In Masters Max, Mike Jones was the top driver in the championship as the most consistent over the course of the six rounds. Jones overcame electronic issues in Round One to finish fifth, following it with a runner-up result the next day. The Sodi Kart driver and three-time Team USA member stepped up in Phoenix, coming away with victory both days including a sweep of Round Four. A solid day in Round Five clinched the championship and a fourth trip to the Rotax Grand Finals for the Texas veteran. Nathan Adds is a third component of the championship caliber team, performing well in the Senior Max division to finish the year just three points off the championship podium.
The trio lead a solid Dallas Karting Complex / Sodi Kart team heading into the summer season, with plans to compete at the US Open and SKUSA Pro Tour in shifter, Rotax and X30 competition with a number of drivers in different age levels.
A New Star is Born: Brueckner Earns First Team USA Bid
The list of former champions at the Challenge of the Americas is one of an all-star roster. A number of national champions, both United States and Canadian, along with drivers already making their mark in open wheel and sportscar competition. Last year’s champion Sting Ray Robb is taking his shot at Skip Barber racing as well as some European karting. Finishing second to Robb in 2015 was Texan Nick Brueckner.
Entering 2016, the odds-on favorite was Brueckner and he didn’t disappoint by sweeping the first four rounds at Tucson and Phoenix. With the provisional championship in hand, the Orsolon Racing / Tony Kart driver earned his fifth straight victory on Saturday in Sonoma, missing out on the perfect record as Hannah Greenemeier stole the fast time in qualifying. After winning the Prefinal on Sunday, Brueckner elected to sit out the race , having gone through technical inspection the previous day. For the combined program of Florida Winter Tour and the Challenge, Brueckner finished the winter series with six wins, one title and third-place championship.
It was not without a fight at the Challenge, as the new crop of Junior drivers put in their effort to dethrone Brueckner in the closing weekend. Greenemeier finished as top rookie and vice-champion, quickly putting her as the lead contender next year. Canadian Matthew Taskinen was consistent throughout his first full season campaign, finishing on the podium in the first five events with six-straight top-five finishes. Carter Herrera stole the show in Round Six, coming away with a victory clinched with a last lap pass over Greenemeier and Taskinen. It is fair to say the 2017 Challenge championship chase is going to produce more future stars of the sport.
Torgerson Brothers Double Up
The east coast has the d’Orlando brothers, and the west coast has the Torgerson brothers. For the first time in Challenge series history, two brothers celebrated a championship in the same season. Austin Torgerson used consistency to claim the title in the Mini Max division while three wins helped to guide Ashton Torgerson to the Micro Max championship, both racing under the Ruthless Karting banner.
Austin finished just off the championship podium last year in his first season of Mini Max competition at the Challenge, and put himself toward the top of the standings with two third-place finishes in Tucson. A 1-2 finish in Phoenix helped close the gap to point leader Marco Kacic heading into Sonoma. A fifth place run in Round Five kept the chase intact, while the runner-up finish on Championship Sunday secured the title by 32 points over Kacic.
Ashton opened up the season with three straight sweeps, positioning himself as the driver to beat. Carson Morgan put up the fight, winning Round Four in Phoenix and Round Five in Sonoma. Torgerson stopped any more gains by Morgan with the fast time in qualifying and coming away with the win in the Prefinal Sunday at Simraceway. A runner-up in the main event locked up the title, his first in the category. Thanks to the age breakdown for the Rotax Max Challenge, Ashton was able to do double duty with the assistance of Blake Choquer of BBR Karting, racing the Mini Max category beginning in Phoenix. Ashton placed inside the top-five both days at PKRA, and land on the podium in third both days in Sonoma, including a Prefinal win on Saturday.
COTA Family Continues Hard Work and Fun Times
You will not find a better group of staff members then at the Challenge. Promoter Andy Seesemann has had nine great seasons putting together the Challenge, with the 2016 another successful edition. For much of that time, the staff has been the same from weekend to weekend. It all begins with a smile and friendly greeting from Lydia Jocelyn, always making sure you have your pit pass on throughout the weekend. Picking up your tires and fuel brings you to a familiar face in Nichole Slegers, or as we like to call her Joey’s sister. All your on-track results are kept straight and in order thanks to Shelby Jocelyn, one of the best timing and scoring persons you will find in karting. This year, the on-track staff was led by Taylor Jocelyn, assisted by Marc Miscione, Angel Matta, Bob Phillips and Guy Keesee. It was one of the best year’s in terms of officiating and communication back to the racers with the assistance of Maddi Egger. And if you were lucky enough to reach the top-five, you found yourself working with Kevin Hodge and his rag-tag group of the tech staff. Thank you to those and everyone else that made the 2016 season what it was, and we all look forward to another season together in 2017.
It’s Always Serious Fun, Even If It’s for Charity
Saturday evening, the Karting Community United hosted a Fast Lap Challenge aboard the Simraceway Performance Karting Center Margay Ignite karts, powered by the Briggs & Stratton 206 engines. At $40 an entry, nearly 50 drivers took part in the program with half the money raised going to the charity, and the other half up to grabs to the winner. With the amount of drivers, KCU officials elected to weigh each driver to find a median weight (175lbs), and split the contestants into two groups – Lite and Heavy. Grayson Browne (Cambrian Go-Karts) set the fast time early until veteran Wesley Boswell – in the Scott Falcone suit and helmet – posted a 1:02.534-lap to take the overall and Lite division win. Fellow NorCal driver Harrison Mills took the Heavy victory.
In total, $2,680 was raised with $670 going to each winner – until Boswell gave back his winnings – over $2,000 were raised in total for the weekend going to Karting Community United. A special thanks goes to the Simraceway staff for providing their arrive-and-drive karts, which gave over 50 people a chance to enjoy a great night raising money for those in need in the karting community and enjoy a great circuit like the Simraceway Performance Karting Center.