From the Tower: 2017 Challenge of the Americas – Sonoma
Curtain closes on tenth season of premier west coast winter series
The 10th season of the Challenge of the Americas closed out this past weekend, running the final two rounds of the 2017 championship program at the Simraceway Performance Karting Center. The Sonoma, California circuit is one of my favorite destinations. The location is one of kind, nestled on the side of Sears Point, looking out over the Sonoma valley. And the circuit is among the most competitive tracks to race, with plenty of opportunities for passing, which results in great racing. This year’s trip for the Challenge was ravaged by some damaging winds Thursday night to the paddock, and those affected included promoter Andy Seesemann, whose tent for tires and his Full Throttle Karting race team tent was destroyed. Thankfully, no one was hurt. The event moved on with rainy conditions throughout Friday, although the precipitation ended on Saturday afternoon to welcome a bright sunny day on Sunday to crown this year’s series champions.
Three Drivers Join Team USA with Championships
The final round of the Challenge of the Americas awarded three tickets to the 2017 Rotax Grand Finals, which are set for November 4-11 in Portimao, Portugal. It is the third time that the Kartodromo Internacional Algarve will host the world championship (2012 and 2015), and a handful of United States drivers are now set to compete. For a fourth straight year, Christian Brooks will represent the Red, White and Blue at the Grand Finals. 2017 is the second straight Challenge Senior Rotax title for the California driver. Brooks was the highest finishing USA driver last year at the Grand Finals, placing 24th. Veteran racer Billy Cleavelin is making his second straight trip to the world event, earning his first Challenge title in the Masters Rotax division. Six straight wins helped the 59-year-old driver reach the Rotax Grand Finals for a second time, and he will compete in the DD2 Masters division in Portugal. Jak Crawford came away with his second career Challenge championship, his first in the Junior Rotax division. This will be the debut appearance for the Texan on Team USA, ready to take on the best in the world.
Jack Armstrong and Sebastian Mulder joined these three drivers at the top of their respective standings and will be entered the history books as series champions for the 2017 season. Armstrong contested the full schedule, and was awarded with the Mini Max crown. Mulder won both main events in Sonoma to clinch the Micro Max title. Both earned entry into the US Open/Rotax Grand Nationals event this June in New Jersey.
Local Knowledge Prevails
Saturday was a very interesting day and for us in the scoring tower, it was a wild one to watch. The weather was unpredictable, with rain staying in the area until after lunch. The skies opened and the sun came out, and the wait for the ideal time to switch to slick tires was on. Everyone was keeping a close eye on the track conditions. The Junior Rotax class was the second in race order, just after the Shifter group. In the shifter class, which had just two drivers, one went out on slick MaxOne Purple tires, while the other ran the wet weather compound. It appeared the slick tires were working decently, however, the Tic-Tac-Toe section was still damp. All but five drivers on the Junior Rotax grid switched over to brand new slick Mojo tires for the start of the final. It wasn’t the right call. A number of drivers spun on the opening lap, including title contenders Jak Crawford and Hannah Greenemeier. As the race began, the rain tire karts clearly had the pace and grip to work around the Sonoma circuit.
Among those on the treaded wets were Cameron Karting drivers Bryson Lew and Brennan Stammer. The gamble paid off, and they were able to get away from the field early, securing a large enough gap to finish 1-2. Ruthless Karting’s Jenson Altzman was another to take advantage, claiming his first Challenge podium in third. The dry tires finally came on late in the final, with Trey Brown posting the fast lap of the race. During the race, former karter and professional driver Memo Gidley stopped by the scoring tower to say ‘hello’ and we discussed the tire situation going on in the race. Memo was quick to note how the track may appear to be dry, but the surface remains very slick. This time, the local knowledge certainly paid off.
Brooks Vs. Choquer
Each year, the Challenge format presents the opportunity for the championships to come down to the last lap, the last corner, and sometimes in the final tech inspections. The Senior Rotax division has been one of those categories, including the 2014 season when disqualifications and other factors resulted in three drivers finishing within four points of each other. Four drivers entered this year’s final weekend in the hunt. Veterans Christian Brooks and Blake Choquer were the lead contenders. The wet weather threw a wrench into the mix, with Brooks coming out as the Prefinal winner on Saturday. The Senior class was the last in the race order, so the dried-out track brought everything back to ‘normal’ conditions and Choquer’s chances came back to life with a solid opening lap of the Final that allowed him to run away with the early lead. Brooks was shuffled back to third and eventually worked back to second, looking to cut down the advantage Choquer gained.
Brooks ran down Choquer with each passing lap, reaching his bumper on the final circuit. He made his move to the inside in turn eight at the helipad turn, just before entering the Tic-Tac-Toe section. They ran side-by-side into the first part of the complex, with Brooks on the left side of Choquer. As they made their way through the tricky portion of the course, Choquer emerged with the lead and Brooks trailed, raising a hand at Choquer like he did something wrong. The checkered flag waved and Choquer was the provisional winner. Brooks came off the track screaming about Choquer cutting the track, with race director Taylor Jocelyn claiming that Brooks had forced the other driver off the course.
A protest and appeal process were conducted and they eventually ruled that Choquer had indeed cut the track, and he was accessed a 10-second penalty. This decision promoted Brooks to the race win, dropping Choquer to third in the final classification. While it may have appeared that Brooks all but secured the championship, there was still a mathematical chance for Choquer to perform a perfect day on Sunday and surpass Brooks point total when factoring in the drop. The Canadian, however, elected to not show up at the track on Sunday and therefore conceded the title to Brooks, who then had enough points to claim the championship with the absence of Choquer.
There are two aspects to look at this incident. One, the call or no-call. The United States Rotax Max Challenge Sporting Regulations clearly states in rule 5.2; It is strictly forbidden at any moment to short cut the track. The design of the Tic-Tac-Toe section, in either direction, offers up the opportunity to cut the track. It is something we have seen before, and many times cones are placed along that section to prevent cutting the track. One cone was placed in the ‘Tac’ part of the complex, the right-hand turn in the ‘Reverse National’ layout. It is one of the most photographed locations on the course in either direction. Cutting at that portion is a huge advantage, even with the mud and water collected in that area.
Was the call made correct? In my opinion, no. Choquer cut the track and that call should have been made right away. However, the race director felt he was forced to take that path, and thus felt no call should have been made. I do respect Jocelyn in two aspects. One, he made a call and stuck with it. He did not back down from what he felt was the correct call. The appeal process included three other series officials who came to the decision to penalize Choquer for cutting the track. And second, Jocelyn handled himself with professionalism. He has had parents and drivers yelling at him since day one becoming a race director. Brooks was no different and showed a different side that not many in the paddock see. Jocelyn kept his composure in the heat of Brooks’ verbal barrage, and explained to him his viewpoint and his options calmly and without disrespect – which was the complete opposite stance Brooks presented himself. We saw it again the next day when he and Nic LeDuc were involved in a racing accident during the Prefinal.
This all could have been avoided had Choquer went just one tenth of a second quicker in the final few laps of the race. Brooks was well behind, and must have had the set-up to come in late in the race. Here is a breakdown of the last five laps where Brooks caught Choquer:
Brooks gained 1.727 seconds over the course of five laps. On lap 24, when Brooks finally caught his rear bumper, Choquer ran his fastest lap of the race. Brooks ran his fastest on lap 21, posting two other laps below the 52-second mark while cutting into Choquer’s lead. When the championship is on the line, don’t let it come down to a last lap stand-off. Drive your ass off to keep that advantage, just one tenth per lap between Lap 20 and 23 may have kept Brooks from attempting that last lap maneuver. Then, when the call doesn’t go your way, you decide to not even return to fight for the title even with a very little percentage of chance available? That is not the sign of a true champion.
Two years ago, when Mason Marotta was removed from the Saturday events at the Challenge finale in Sonoma, Marotta waited for his redemption on Sunday. He took the penalty like a gentleman, and showed he was a true sportsman by dominating the Sunday round. He went on to beat that year’s champion Luke Selliken, Senior rookie Christian Brooks and Bryce Choquer by a full second. When the championship is still on the line, don’t just give up, keep fighting.
10th Season Comes to a Close
The elephant in the room – or in the paddock for this matter – was the future of the Challenge. I was on-site at the Centennial track in Colorado when promoter Andy Seesemann announced the creation of the west coast winter series. It really was, and has been, the destination for winter racing along the western half of the North America. Numbers continued to be strong year after year, and Andy brought EKN on board to produce our Trackside Live broadcast and daily race reports in 2012. Since then, Andy and the entire staff have become our west coast family that we get to visit three times during the winter months.
The first five years covering the series, there was no question as to the level of talent and sheer numbers that would attend the Challenge events. A solid schedule at great circuits with a friendly, fair and fun staff that not only was there to work, but enjoy the competition conducted on the track. While the numbers dwindled this year, the talent level was still there, and we saw great championship battles and fights to the checkered flag each and every day.
The latest news regarding the future of Rotax competition here in the United States leaves everyone questioning what is in store for the Challenge. As Seesemann said in his statement following the BRP – MAXSpeed announcement, today is the day where he will sit down at the kitchen table and begin to pencil in the planning for 2018. The Sonoma weekend was ‘not the last hurrah, but the end of one chapter of our storybook and the start of a new one’. I can tell you this, Andy Seesemann will be here as part of our sport for a long time. The passion and knowledge this man has for the sport is very hard to match, only by those who truly love what we do, and cares for those around us.
No matter what Seesemann does in the future for himself, and the Challenge, he has my 100% support, as he should from the many racers, families and industry members who have supported him in the past and the current.