EKN One-on-One: Mike Rolison
Driver, race team owner, and series promoter - never a dull moment with ‘Roli’
The moment the pits open, until the final trailer rolls out of the paddock, you can be sure to see a tall blur of a man running around the Rolison Performance Group tent making sure everything is taken care of. On the track, he’s the guy in the plain race suit and the plain helmet, turning the quickest laps with the most aggressive attitude behind the wheel. In the Pacific Northwest, he is the driving force behind the growing Can-Am Karting Challenge program that is devoted to bringing together the best racers in the area and the local contingent all into one traveling series. That figure is Mike Rolison.
Many in the sport know him as ‘Roli’, a long-time member of the karting community who was among the top drivers in the Northwest, earning a US Rotax Grand Nationals championship in 2006. During his climb up the ranks, Mike spent time working with other drivers as a coach and tuner when not racking up his own checkered flags and championship trophies. This success led to more and more customers, eventually leading to a full-time venture with Rolison Performance Group.
The team grew successfully, much like his driving, with a focus on reaching the specific goals set out for each and every driver. The operation began to bring in victories and championships in Rotax, SKUSA and many other programs run coast to coast. Today, RPG is one of the most decorated karting teams in North America.
While the challenge continues to strive at being the best with RPG, a void was missing in the northwest area for top level Rotax competition. The creation of the Can-Am Karting Challenge came at the beginning of 2013, and has hosted the top Rotax events in the area for the past three seasons. The series has grown to welcome Superkarts! USA, Briggs & Stratton 206, and now local option focused classes heading into the 2016 season to encourage anyone and everyone to enjoy fun and exciting weekend at the race track.
At the Challenge of the Americas series finale in Sonoma, California, where the race team is wrapping up its winter season stretch that include three weekends at the Florida Winter Tour, three with the Challenge of the Americas, and two for the California PKC series in just a matter of 12 weeks, EKN was able to hold Rolison down for a few minutes to discuss the many duties he holds and his perspective on each of his roles.
eKartingNews: Let’s begin with Mike Rolison, the driver. It’s been 10 years since your victory at the Rotax Grand Nationals, held at Road America in 2006. How has the United States Rotax scene changed from then to now?
Mike Rolison: It has changed a lot. When I was racing it in 2005 and 2006, drivers were still focused SKUSA and Stars of Karting. At that time, they were looking for other things to do. There were some hotshoes in Rotax, more coming in after I was done. When I won, certainly there were some good drivers that I had to beat, but the way I saw it going at the end of that decade, a lot of good drivers were coming on-board to Rotax. Maybe I just got lucky with my timing (laughing).
EKN: Is it the lure of the Rotax Grand Finals that has helped to bring in the strong, more competitive and year-round racers, as opposed to just the club racers we saw at the beginning of the USRMC?
MR: That’s part of it. There is some mystic with being able to get to the Rotax Grand Finals. In the last few years, you can say the same thing about the Rok Cup International Final, or the Granja Viana 500 event. It’s the same sort of lure that the SuperNationals has. Whether you’re Fritz Leesmann, who has won bunch of races, or just a local kid from Wisconsin or Washington, racing the SuperNationals is freaking huge deal. It’s similar for the Rotax Grand Finals, to be able to compete for an actual world championship.
EKN: You attended the Rotax Grand Finals that year as part of Team USA, placing 15th overall as the best member of the six-driver roster. What did you take from that event?
MR: A ton of stuff. I had, up until then, never been to any race outside the United States or Canada during nearly 17 years in the sport. What I saw there in Senior Max were a lot of bad ass drivers from all corners of the world. That was awesome. To be able to judge yourself against very, very talent racers from 15 year-of-age and up, was cool.
As a team owner, it reconfirms what I have always focused on myself…driving, driving driving. At those type of events, the equipment is provided for you, the engine is provided, there are some things you can tweak or change, but you’re looking at 70 drivers all on the same chassis. Yes, some may have come out of the jig a little bit better or this engine is just a little bit better, but they are all the same. So it comes down to you, the driver, being able to put it in position to win. It comes down to communication with your mechanic, telling them what the chassis or engine is or not doing. Otherwise, you find yourself sitting in the restaurant eating lunch during the Finals.
EKN: You’re back in the seat once again, racing at the SKUSA California ProKart Challenge in the TaG Master division. How does it feel to be competing again?
MR: It’s awesome. It’s really good to be back racing. I had never run the California ProKart Challenge before and had not actually run an X30 until the first event in Buttonwillow. I’ve driven plenty of IAME Parilla Leopards in testing and doing driver coaching ,but never an X30. To run Masters with Crow and some of these other guys is very cool.
EKN: Part of the reason you are there at the series is to help expand the Rolison Performance Group race team. After two events, how has the experience been for you?
MR: It’s been really good for the team. The races are awesome. For a lot of our drivers, in whatever series they are participating in – SKUSA or Rotax – days missed from school or work is the #1 topic with Mom and Dad. The California PKC is awesome for that and our drivers who are based along the west coast – in Portland or Seattle – with just a short two-hour plane ride to LA. They can travel Thursday night after school or work, only missing one day for Friday for practice, race on Saturday and leave home for Sunday.
EKN: The team has continued to guide a number of drivers from the intermediate level of competition to being notes as a top driver in the country. Watching you in the paddock and under the tent, you are a very focused and determined coach.
MR: It depends on which driver or which parent you talk under the tent. Many would probably say I’m too intense, but I am task-orientated. Like a Boston Terrier – focused on that one thing and won’t let go. Our approach is different for each driver, but it’s all about progress. When we approach these weekends, we work on a certain technique that they have not been doing very well over the last few events. One might have an issue with braking, another may have issues with getting most out of their brand new tires in qualifying. A lot of our attention is going to be focused on teaching these drivers what they did right and what they did wrong in the past events, and then we move forward to improve. If a driver goes out in a practice session on Friday, the final round, on a new set of tires, you have the opportunity to do a mock qualifying session. That’s why we are here. That’s why you missed school, why they are doing homework at 9:30 at night in the hotel room, and why mom and dad took time off work to bring them here. It’s all about progress.
EKN: Looking ahead, what is in store for the team during the summer months?
MR: It’s been a long winter and a lot of racing. I’m looking forward to getting home and resetting things for about two weeks and then we have the summer programs with the US Open and the SKUSA Pro Tour. Those are at the top of the list for this summer. Mixed into that will be the California ProKart Challenge and testing for the US Rotax Grand Nationals. This year, I feel really lucky to have the event on the west coast. Traveling from Portland, Oregon, we have logged in some miles over the years going to a lot of these national races. When we get the big ones along the west coast, it’s special for us.
EKN: Also part of that is the Can-Am Karting Challenge. The program has been a great asset to regional racing in the Northwest, bringing together the top racers from the US and Canada racing Rotax, SKUSA and now local option categories. After four years, what has been the biggest accomplishment from your point of view?
MR: I think being able to run an organized, professional series in the Northwest. We’ve had that in the past decades, and it was sorely needed to have back in the area. This year, we have changed things up, not starting until almost the end of May and only doing three events. We have added the local option TaG classes, so we are really trying to get a taste, from the promoter’s side of things, what racers want. In the past, we have had Rotax, Shifters and Briggs 206 – period. This year, we are welcoming all TaG engines in their own separate race group. I’m very curious to see the participation numbers. Certainly, Rotax has been very good to us, but we understand that the transition to the EVO has been a struggle over the past 12-18 months. We are still a big supporter of Rotax and the program they have maintained now for nearly two decades. We are also trying to just grow the sport of karting in general in the Northwest region. That’s why it’s called the Can-Am Karting Challenge, to welcome any and all.
We’ve started running the 206 engines and had great support from Briggs & Stratton and David Klaus. We run Superkarts! USA Stock Moto classes with support from Tom Kutscher. We run the Rotax classes with support from MAXSpeed Group and both the USRMC and the Rotax Max Challenge Canada program. The TaG classes are something I wanted to bring in, mixing it up even further with different weights for the different engines. The TaG classes this year is really focused on entry-level participation for local racers who are from anywhere and want to try their hand at a Can-Am Karting Challenge event. They may not want to jump into a SKUSA Pro Tour event or a US Open series, but they can come to the Can-Am to race against some of the top drivers in a professionally run series.
EKN: If anything, it’s just a chance for some local drivers to experience and see first-hand what its like to run in a series such as the Can-Am program, who just don’t have the experience or funding to go anywhere else.
MR: That’s one of the great things about the Can-Am. The feel of the Can-Am is very much like a regional race with the competition level in some classes is like a national race. For a local racer, you get the best of both worlds. You can grade yourself against some nationally-ranked drivers, and you get the feel of the regional experience with the barbeque, the reduce costs and a good family atmosphere.
EKN: What things are you introducing or changing this year, and what do you see for the series in the next five years?
MR: The Can-Am is not going anywhere. I don’t plan on doing anything but growing the Can-Am program, as long as I have the support from the racers. I want to do my best to listen to the racers. That’s part of the reason why we are bringing in those new classes for 2016. I want to grow karting in the Northwest. My personal goal is to have 100 drivers at one of the Can-Am events this year. We have knocked on the door a few times before, most recently at the end of 2015. I want to break that three-digit mark.
EKN: Thank you for your time, Mike, and we look forward to seeing you around this summer.
MR: Thank you for what you guys do.