OnTrack: Rolison Performance Group Tony Kart Racer 401S / Briggs 206
EKN Managing Editor tackles Challenge of the Americas Briggs 206 division
One of our goals for the 2017 season is to get the EKN staff back behind the wheel more often. Karting is not just our profession, but the sport we love. For me, karting has been a passion since my early days, as I was born into the sport as a second generation driver. My family has been karting for over 40 years. After a busy 2015 season of OnTrack segments, we were a little light in that department last year with just our annual trip to the Rock Island Grand Prix standing as the lone outing. Rob Howden, the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of EKN, was granted a chance to hit the track in early February, and my first opportunity of the new year provided me a number of firsts. I would be working with Rolison Performance Group for the first time, driving my first Tony Kart, and turning my first laps at the Phoenix Kart Racing Association in my first start at the Challenge of the Americas. It was a big weekend.
RPG is one of the hardest working operations in the karting industry today, and they’re focused on creating an environment to help take drivers to the next level. This effort can be taking a club level racer and supporting them to perform better at regional events, or taking that top regional driver and introducing him or her to national level competition. RPG has the proven success in molding and shaping young talent into future and current stars. Owner Mike Rolison made his way up the karting ladder himself, and his resume is highlighted by three IKF Duffys, wins in the WKA Constructors Championship and the SKUSA ProMoto Tour, and a 2006 US Rotax Grand Nationals victory at Road America Motorplex. For years, Rolison helped to coach drivers in the Pacific Northwest region, including working with 2007 US Rotax Masters champion Alex Raine. The list has continued to grow, even more so when Rolison stepped away from the driver’s seat to focus full-time on his RPG race team and his drivers.
My opportunity to get under the RPG tent came with the announcement that the Briggs 206 category would join the Challenge of the Americas program for 2017. Entering its 10th season, the Challenge opened up its class structure to welcome in the growing category, adding Briggs 206 Junior to the mix just weeks before the first event in Tucson. A total of 18 drivers took part at the opening event, with a total of 21 taking part at the PKRA race on February 24-26. A long list including some of the best drivers from the western half of North America have taken part in the Challenge over its decade-long history, along with many top pilots from east of the Mississippi and selected countries around the world. Promoter Andy Seesemann is a racer, a business owner and he knows what it takes to make sure each and every racer has a good time at one of his events, no matter the results. The addition of the Briggs 206 class was the perfect opportunity for me to sample what a race weekend at the Challenge entails, while completing our EKN Trackside Live coverage in the process.
The Briggs 206 class is a weekend-only category, and does not have a series-long championship. During each of the three weekends, the Briggs 206 division races for a weekend prize, which is decided by qualifying, three rounds of heat races, and a main event spread over the two days of competition. The class receives the same amount of practice time on Friday with five rounds, including the 20-minute long session to close out the day. It was my first three-day race weekend since my days road racing around the big tracks throughout the Midwest.
Unfortunately, the flight I booked to travel from Michigan to Arizona brought me into the PHX around 11:30pm on Thursday evening. That very morning, I woke up with flu-like symptoms and tried to sleep on both legs of the trip. Once into the hotel, I threw myself onto the bed and got some much needed rest before the early wake-up call on Friday morning. Thankfully, a solid seven hours of sleep helped my body feel more energized and normal. After a small breakfast, we were off to the race track. It was a quick introduction of the Tony Kart Racer 401S, as I had little time before our first session was up. Rolison showed me to my ride for the weekend, and I found that Brandon Gregersen was handling the wrenching duties for me.
Brandon is part of the MSquared Karting connection in Utah, and has worked with a number of drivers from the state, along with many others, under the RPG tent over the last few seasons. Of course, when racing under the Rolison tent, you work directly with two standouts in United States karting. Wesley Boswell is a 2003 SKUSA SuperNationals winner and long-time driver coach. I got to witness his development as a coach with drivers such as Taylor Miinch, Shawn Sharkey and Austin Elliott. Now, Wesley is focused on the development of the young talent under the RPG banner.
The other is veteran Bonnier Moulton. The MSquared Karting co-owner was one of the podium finishers at the very first SKUSA SuperNationals and is in the record books as a three-time event winner. Bonnier’s decades of experience is primarily in shifterkart competition, however, he has been a significant factor in the development for many drivers in the state of Utah and, of course, under the RPG tent.
As the second class out for the first round of practice, I used the session to familiarize myself with the kart and the track. I have been traveling to the Glendale circuit since our first trip with the Challenge in 2012, but after five straight years of visiting the 3/4-mile ‘Full Track’, it was my first time actually taking to the course behind the wheel. It is a much different vantage point than roaming around taking pictures. I was quite surprised with the minimal number of bumps on the surface of the track, which sees many triple-digit temperature days throughout the summer. I didn’t get the feeling that the track was beating me up. After the tires warmed up, I quickly identified the three key points on the circuit – turn three, turn eight and turn 11.
Turn three is the second right hander of the first set of esses, right at the pit entrance. Aboard the Briggs 206, you want to be full throttle through 1 and 2 in order to get through turn 3 correctly and fast enough to carry the momentum heading into the left-hand sweeper turn five. The next step to completing a good lap is turn eight; the 180-degree hairpin that leads onto the long backstraight. If you miss the exit of the corner, it’s going to cost you down the straight, resulting in missed time on the watch or a couple positions on track. At the end of the straight is Daytona, the banked right-hand 180 corner that produces some solid g-load on the kart and the body, even in the Briggs 206 package. The exit leads into another tight 180-degree corner – turn 11 – which is actually off-camber. This is another crucial portion of the track. It requires a smooth entry to get the maximum speed out of the exit to take you to the start/finish line.
Through the first three sessions, I found 1.5 seconds in speed thanks to getting more comfortable with the kart and the track. Unfortunately, I leveled off in the last two sessions on Friday, and unable to find more speed, which left me about one second off the fast time in 10th overall. Boswell continued to work with me on what I was doing wrong with my lines in certain parts of the track, especially in turn three and turn eight. I took advantage of both Wesley and Bonnier doing a track walk with the Junior Rotax drivers under the RPG tent to get a few pointers, and we elected to start making changes to the kart by removing the seat struts to free up the kart. The only other change we made was dropping one tooth to a 16/55 to help hit the rev limiter further down the straight.
I was able to pick up two tenths during Saturday warm-up running the session out front with no draft, which gave me a positive feeling heading into qualifying. Boswell and Brandon were quick to remind me that in qualifying I would need to draft, and so the goal was to leave pit lane with the fast drivers. Unfortunately, things did not go as planned. Derek Wang, one of the quickest drivers throughout practice, spun in the opening lap right in front of me. After that, I would put someone in front of me, and they would pull over to wait for another driver. It wasn’t until Ben Maxfield and Griffin Dowler caught me that I got to work in the draft. On my final circuit, I recorded my quickest lap (54.606), eight tenths quicker than my warm-up time, to sit tenth in class.
The main focus after qualifying and through the rest of the weekend was continue to work on my driving. One piece of input that Boswell had for me was to slow my hands down and provide less input into the wheel. He compared me to driving a dirt car, turning the wheel multiple times through a corner rather than a consistent, smooth process from entry to apex to exit. We decided to try taking the caster out of the front for the opening heat race.
Racing got underway with the opening heat race, and it was my first rolling start for a race in a long time. Through the confusion of guys raising their hands, my inability to find the flagman, and Noel Dowler pulling out of the line as we reached the staging lanes, I was out to lunch. The field took off and I lost a number of spots. I took back the spots I lost and gained two more from DNFs to finish eighth, but I was unable to reach the second draft pack by myself. The kart felt different, not the way I thought it would, so we put the castor back in and reattached the seat struts.
For Heat #2, the focus was to get a better start. After watching a number of races at the PKRA circuit, I should have known what not to do, unfortunately, when you put the helmet on you lose some of the ‘general knowledge’. I was still not on the bumper of the kart in front of me – Mike McKinney (Challenge race winner Jim McKinney’s dad) – when the green flag waved, and everyone from the outside line rushed down to the inside. I thought – ‘Let’s try to go around the outside’ of the Daytona corner – the first turn after the green flag. The thought was to set myself up for the inside of turn 11 to gain a few spots. As I went around on the outside, looking to move past two karts, McKinney and Maxfield went side-by-side, pushing wide fighting for position on the exit. Rather than getting off the gas, I kept in the gas and once my left front tire hit the marbles, that was that. I drifted wide into the dust and rocks. I continued to keep the gas pedal down, and rejoined at the tail of the field about 1-2 seconds back. The second lap, reaching the tail of the field, was my best lap of the race and put me in position to gain spots back. Contact ahead of me helped to gain a few more spots and passing a couple more put me into the eighth position once again.
After cleaning the kart, we prepped for the final day of action on Sunday, leaving one heat race and the main event. We elected to drop one more tooth on the rear sprocket to help extend the speed, but put more of an emphasis on getting through the corners with more speed. The Sunday warm-up was not as planned, slotting in behind a couple of the fast Junior drivers as we left the grid. Coming out of Daytona after the second lap, they both drifted wide and I got off the gas, setting up all the way to the right for the turn 11, when they both came across the front of the kart. No where else to go, I went into the dirt rather than risking jumping over the kart in front of me by contact. It was not my proudest moment, and the trend continued into the final heat. After a better, but not perfect start, I stayed on the tail of the lead pack, slotting in behind Bryce Choquer after he was shuffled back. On lap three, I made a mistake on the exit of turn three, and trying to gain more time back in turn eight, I went too wide on the exit and dropped a wheel. This put me down the order to the tail of the field and trying to make my way up, I dropped the left rear again with just two laps remaining. I finished 11th, putting me ninth on the grid for the main event.
I had the great pleasure to start directly behind Wang, who suffered a poor finish in Heat #2 after not starting with the rest of the field. After some good fun on the grid, we got settled in and headed toward the green flag. I kept right on his bumper, and was able to hold the outside line through turn 11 to come out in the sixth position. I lost two spots to the Dowler brothers, and then two more to drop to 10th. I fought back against Jenson Altzman and Blake Choquer, going back and forth with both until making too many mistakes to lose the draft. I would cross the line 10th, promoted to ninth after penalties.
The experience of racing at the Challenge of the Americas was complete. Looking back at the weekend, I have to remember what a thrill and honor it was to be in the seat for a full weekend of racing at the Challenge. In its 10-year history, a number of great drivers have taken part in the program, and over the last two years with the series offering the shifter and Briggs categories, many more racers have come to know the incredible staff and enjoyed experience that is the COTA program. Racing alongside drivers I have seen for years, I put a little more pressure on myself to be as consistent and fast as those who have hundreds, if not thousands, of laps more than I have completed in my career. There is no question the level of talent competing at the Challenge.
I had no worries throughout the weekend about the product that Rolison Performance Group was putting on the track for me to drive. Brandon had everything ready to go for each session, putting in the hard work all three days. His positive attitude before each session showed his drive for me to perform at my best. It was a different role for me, as I typically see Boswell and Moulton throughout the race weekend, conducting in some small talk chit-chat. Over the three days racing under the RPG tent, I tried to be the pupil and listen to anything they said to help make me better. Having raced for over 20 years, I still have a lot to learn and soak up as much as I can, when I can. The RPG crew definitely made me feel at home, and properly hydrated with a full catering service managed by Mike’s mother Dolly. I enjoyed getting feedback from a number of the drivers and mechanics under the tent, and their desire is truly unmatched. It was an honor to done the RGP livery.