From the Tower: 2017 Rock Island Grand Prix

Entries eclipse 300 for first time in decade as Labor Day festival continues fun on and off the track

(Photo: qconline.com)

For the 23rd time, the city streets of Rock Island, Illinois was turned into a racing circuit over the Labor Day weekend. The 2017 edition of the Rock Island Grand Prix welcomed over 300 entries for the first time since 2007, nearly double the amount from the 2014. The coveted Rock trophy was the goal for those entered in the 17 different categories, battling throughout the two-day event to leave Sunday evening with one for the mantle. Some added to their collection while others took home their first. For the majority, another year coming up just short means 360 days of having to wait until the next Rock Island Grand Prix. For complete coverage head over to the EKN Event Page.

Pushing the Limits

The RIGP pushes you to the limits of both man and machine (Photo: EKN)

Street racing is not your typical day at the race track. For one, it’s not every day you get to take a kart on the city streets and compete at 60, 70, or even 80mph with your ass scraping the pavement from all the cracks, bumps and manhole covers. The barriers that surround the circuit give you little to zero room for making mistakes. And pushing the limit could just put you into the wall and end your race, or your weekend.

This year we saw a number of red flag incidents throughout the two days of competition – both in the heat races and the main events. Some were the typical hard hits you see each and every RIGP with the barriers as the final destination for those competitors while others were a bit more wild. Anytime you hit the track, be it a purpose built circuit or a street course, incidents will happen. With the Briggs and Yamaha divisions, the competition is so close, it is tough to give up an inch, as it may cost you more than just one spot. The great thing about the safety gear we all wear, the safety features in the karts, and the plastic barriers that surround the Rock Island GP course, no major injuries were recorded. Those bumps and bruises will heal in time, and the drive to attack the city streets of Rock Island will build back up come next August.

3 for 7

Tony Neilson scored three victories in 2017, moving his career total to 17 (Photo: EKN)

The last two years, the Rock Island Grand Prix was dominated by two names. Tony Neilson and Cal Stewart. 2015 saw Neilson break the record set by Jason Birdsell in 1998 of five victories in one year at the RIGP (racing in nine categories). Neilson was able to come away with six Rock trophies to etch his name into the history books. The following year, Stewart was able to match the same total that Birdsell did nearly 20 years prior, going five for five in main events to earn his first, second, third, fourth and fifth Rock trophies.

Both were scheduled to compete in seven classes for the 2017 edition of the Rock Island Grand Prix, six of which against one another – three Briggs 206 divisions and three Yamaha classes. The two were among the leaders in the opening category of the event, Briggs 206 Heavy. Stewart was able to edge out the second all-time winningest driver at the RIGP Neilson, beating him to the line for the first checkered flag of the day. Both jumped out of the Briggs kart and went to the grid for the Yamaha Heavy main event. Stewart won the heat race Saturday and was in the lead group while Neilson did not have the pace to stay towards the front. In the end, neither were able to secure the win as 2015 winner Tim Goettsch took the checkered.

Each had three races to rest and prepare for the next back-to-back run that included Briggs 206 Medium and Yamaha Medium. Neilson won the Briggs heat race Saturday over Stewart, and once again did the same in the Final, this time with RIGP newcomer Justin Wishard splitting the two at the finish line.

The score was now 1-1.

From the scales to the grid once again, the green flag went up for 1-minute call for the Yamaha race. As the clocked wound down, Stewart’s powerplant would not fire. The field left him and Stewart was a DNS, forced to watch a possible victory slip from his hands. Neilson put himself in position to fight for the win, however, Goettsch triumphed once again to earn his second Rock on the day.

That kept the score at 1-1 going into their separate events – TaG Senior and Briggs 206 Masters. Stewart dominated the TaG main event, leading all 20 laps aboard his Franklin Motorsports / Merlin machine. Neilson had to fight for what is now his fourth straight in the Masters class, edging out Dan Newell at the line – but not without some controversy (more on that later).

The score is 2-2.

Last year’s star Cal Stewart added three Rock trophies to his five from 2016 (Photo: EKN)

Two more events remained for the two RIGP stars. First was the Briggs 206 Heavy 2 Final. Stewart and Neilson finished 1-2 in one of the heat races on Saturday, setting up for another great battle. Stewart got the jump at the start and led the opening six laps with Dustin DeMattia on his tail. A broken front nose dragging around the city streets forced Stewart to relinquish the lead and eventually pull off. That was the second possible Rock trophy slip from his hands on the day. Neilson, who was sixth as they pulled off the starting line, continued to fight forward. Lap 10, Neilson was into the lead and followed closely by Justin Wishard. A red flag on lap 12 involving RIGP former winners Michael Dittmer and Matt Pewe stopped the race. Officials determined the race to be complete, four laps short of the scheduled distance with time schedule backing up, handing the win to Neilson. It was his third of the event, moving him one ahead of Stewart – who sat on the sideline wondering what could have been.

The last and final race of the event was the Yamaha Heavy 2 event, with Stewart looking to defend the victory gained last year. It was the last class he signed up for in the 2016 event, starting from 17th and scoring the victory. This year, the Final played out very similar. Stewart had won the heat race on Saturday, however, crossed the scales underweight. That posted him 16th on the grid for the main event. The over/under in the trailer was a third place finish for Stewart. Take a guess which bet was best. In a matter of two laps, Stewart was fourth running behind Neilson, Carter Pease, and Tim Goettsch. Neilson led lap 2 through lap 16 with Goettsch on his bumper. Finally on lap 17, the two-time winner on the day pulled the trigger to take the position. Pease followed through into the second spot, and they began fighting for the lead. On the final circuit, the two made contact, and both finished in the barriers – thankfully unhurt. This gave Stewart the lead after taking over the third spot prior to the checkered flag, with the North Carolina transplant coming around the final corners to take his third RIGP victory of the weekend. The victory made it eight total RIGP trophies, putting him tied with Todd Bolton, Michael Dittmer, Mike Welsh and the KOS legend Alan Rudolph for the fifth place in the career victories list.

The score finished 3-3.

Now we will have to wait until 2018 to see who will continue adding to their RIGP career total between Stewart and Neilson, who have made the last three events historic.

Gray Area of the Rules

From my vantage point inside the scoring trailer, there was only one protest throughout the event. The Briggs 206 Masters class has been won by Tony Neilson since it was introduced in 2014. This year’s event was possibly the most challenging victory for Neilson to earn in the four years of the category. Neilson led the first 13 laps until Dan Newell took over the lead. On the final lap, Neilson returned to the point, coming across as the winner. When taking his victory lap, you could hear a different sound coming from his Briggs & Stratton Racing powerplant.

As the next class was competing on track, a call from tech came over the radio stating the #19 Tony Neilson was disqualified for a loose exhaust. Of course, it was a shock to us in the scoring trailer and I’m sure to the rest of the paddock. Dan Newell was named the provisional winner with Neilson even handing the RIGP victory flag over to him during tech inspection. Later, Neilson filed a protest stating rule #35 in the Briggs & Stratton 206 Engine Class Regulations. It states “…if a header becomes loose (header bolts loosen) during a race but remains mounted to the head this not grounds for disqualification”. Race director Terry Riggins accepted the protest and reversed the call, giving the win back to Neilson.

This is where the confusion begins. First, how exactly were the bolts that connected the header to the head? Were they safety wired as mandated per #34e in the Briggs rulebook. Some racers say they were gone, Neilson states in the protest they were stripped. Reading how Mr. Riggins overturned the DQ, there was confusion between the tech officials and Neilson’s camp. With the way the engine cover on top is designed, there is no way to tell in the photos I have from on track to either confirm or deny either statements.

The line that states a loosen header is not ground for disqualification means loose headers will not be disqualified in the future, is the opposite of what we have seen in the past for many other categories, 2-Cycle and 4-Cycle. Is there an advantage to not have the header connected to the Briggs 206 engine?

With racers competing in multiple classes, tech at RIGP requires different procedures for racers who need to get ready for the following classes with the same kart. In Neilson’s case, the Briggs Heavy 2 class was next in the order for him to race, so repair time was crucial with just under one hour to repair and prepare his machine for the next main event.

The main concern I have is the way tech is handled. Now, before I continue, I am not throwing the tech staff under the bus. However, when issues like this decide whether someone leaves with a Rock trophy or not, we need to make sure we review how procedures are done. In the early years of my years at the RIGP, the tech area was off limits. No one was allowed into the area unless granted by the tech staff. Even those racing in multiple categories had to prep their kart in tech until tech officials ensured the correct parts were painted or sealed. The last few years, it seems that just about anyone can walk into the tech area without questions, including the scale line after the races. I’m not saying that people are cheating with this lack of security, however, the perception can stir up controversy.

In the future, I’d like to see the tech area fenced off properly to allow the tech officials to do their job without outside interruptions. That includes a full size fence – like what we see surrounding the SuperNationals track or even those that Terry Riggins rents out to the New Castle facility for bigger events. We need it for the scale line to keep the mechanics and family away from those in line to scale. And maybe just one more person to keep one mechanic and driver with each kart while waiting for tech to commence. We have over 300 days until next year’s event, so I’d like to hear what other comments the racers have on improving the event – not just in tech but all other areas to continue making this race the best street race in the world.

Breakout Performance for Wishard

Justin Wishard could be the next star at the RIGP (Photo: EKN)

In the first five years of the Briggs 206 categories, only four names have won the 11 main events contested in that time for Medium and Heavy divisions; RIGP Czar Gary Lawson (2), inaugural winner Connor Lund (2), Tony Neilson (4) and last year’s sweeper Cal Stewart (3). A new name came close to being added to that list – Justin Wishard. Hailing from Pecatonica, Illinois – a village in northern Illinois just west of Rockford – Wishard calls the Sugar River Raceway his home track. Many know of the Broadhead, Wisconsin facility as the former home to IndyCar and NASCAR driver Danica Patrick.

Wishard is quickly making a name for himself in the Briggs 206 ranks. In 2015 and 2016, Justin was crowned the 206 Cup Junior champion, making the move up to the Senior ranks for the 2017 season. The 206 Cup split up into two regions for the season, with Wishard competing in both aboard his Coyote machines. The 15-year-old racked up two championships (Central Division – Senior Heavy / North Division – Senior Medium) and two vice-championships (Central Division – Senior Medium / North Division – Senior Heavy), including a total of 12 wins in 32 main events.

The 2017 RIGP was his first appearance at the famed street race, and the young pilot pushed the limits against the many former winners in the three Briggs events. In his first race on Saturday – Briggs Heavy – Wishard bested both Lund and Neilson for the race win. He went on to finish fourth in the Medium heat and scoring another heat win in Heavy 2. His performances certainly brought on the attention by the veterans, knowing Wishard was here to win.

The young gun was relegated as far down as sixth in the main event of the Heavy category, working his way back up to third, just back of Stewart and Neilson. Wishard found himself back in eighth early on in the Medium Final, but came on strong at the end. In the last two laps, after the race was restarted for a red flag, he went from fourth to second. With two main events under his belt, Wishard took what he learned and attempted for his first RIGP victory in Briggs Heavy 2. Shuffled back to seventh, Wishard followed Neilson up through the field until the two reached the front. On lap 12, Wishard took over the lead, however, a red flag was brought out for a hard wreck exiting turn four. Officials called the event short due to time constraints, reverting back to the last completed lap where Neilson was leading.

For Wishard, it was another runner-up to complete the event with three podium finishes, no worse than third. The downside was nearly having that first Rock trophy alongside him on the ride back home. Many have been there before, and for Wishard, it was the first time. Neilson noted Wishard’s performances during the awards ceremonies, pointing out how he is among the new ‘young guns’ that could be future RIGP winners. There is no doubt he along with the many other 206 Cup racers that continue to raise the bar for Briggs & Stratton 206 racing in the Midwest will be back at next year’s Rock Island GP to battle at the front against the longtime event legends.

Goettsch Moving Up in Record Books

Tim Goettsch is now fifth in the RIGP career wins list (Photo: EKN)

Just like the Briggs division, the previous winners list of the Rock Island GP in the Yamaha categories includes many of the same names. Yamaha racing has been part of the RIGP since first editions, and remains one of the most exiting divisions to watch year after year. Those who have taken the checkered flag around for the celebration lap following a victory are the same names year after year. Last year, Cal Stewart added his name to that list, winning two of the three races. In 2017, it was Bettendorf, Iowa’s Tim Goettsch to claim two more Rock trophies to his mantel.

Goettsch has been winning at the Rock since 2002 when he came away with the victory in Junior 4-Cycle against many of the same names he races against today. Goettsch had three previous wins in 2-Cycle Pipe and four in Yamaha SuperCan, including a win over Neilson in his six-victory performance event in 2015 prior to this year. The two victories in 2017 give him double digit wins at the RIGP, putting his total to 10 and now making him fifth in the all-time career victories list – just one victory behind Jason Birdsell and Kyle Wiegand. His performances over the last 15 years have helped to put Goettsch among the unofficial RIGP Hall of Fame.

New King to Crown

Austin Wilkins is King for the year (Photo: EKN)

The King of the Streets division has been the headline and fastest division at the Rock Island Grand Prix since 2000. During the early 2010’s, the class fell off for numbers and talent. Over the last couple of years, the class has seen a boast in both columns thanks to 2015 champion Josh Lane. The longtime RIGP competitor not only wants to win a Rock, he wants to beat the best. Last year, it was Remo Ruscitti that outran the field to become the first Canadian driver to win the crown.

The quickest driver in 2016 however was Texan Austin Wilkins with his Stock Honda power. The Sodi Kart driver went on to win the Superkarts! USA Pro Tour S2 Semi-Pro champion last November, with Wilkins finishing the 2017 SKUSA Pro Tour among the top rookies by placing seventh in the championship chase. Wilkins swapped out the Stock Honda power for the Modena engine this year at the RIGP, as did many of the other competitors in the field. Wilkins trailed RIGP rookie Rory van der Steur for 18 of the 20 laps in the main event, taking over the lead just prior to the white flag (see video) and scoring his first King of the Streets triumph. Later in the day, Wilkins added a second Rock trophy in the Open Shifter class – similar to what we used to see Kyle Wiegand do for many years. There, Wilkins set the fast lap of the weekend with a 31.273 – about two tenths off his overall track record that was recorded last year.

Wilkins now has one thing to hold over his DKC teammate Jake French – a ROCK! However, Austin has some work to do to be the top Texan at the RIGP with Jordon Musser holding now a total of five Rock trophies, three in the King of the Streets category, after earning his first in the 125 Masters division this year. Better yet, he’ll need to defend his crown four more times to match the total set by RIGP legend Alan Rudolph with five KOS victories.

Third Annual Margay Ignite Shootout

The Briggs 206 category made its debut at the Rock Island Grand Prix in 2012 with 24 drivers competing in the first ever class. That year, it made up 10% of the total entries. Now, in 2017, with seven categories that include the Margay Ignite Shootout, Briggs make up nearly 60% of the entries at the RIGP. With the #OperationGrassroots movement throughout North America surrounding the Briggs 206 engine, the seven divisions at the Rock Island Grand Prix provide the optimal opportunity for local racers to try their hand at street racing.

Part of the growth is the strong relationship the RIGP has with Margay. The famed ‘Made in the USA’ manufacturer has been part of the event and street racing for decades. When Margay began its Ignite spec-package program, the Rock Island GP was a perfect fit to provide those local racers with an opportunity to try something different and unique. Different and unique is exactly what racing at the ‘Rock’ is. Beginning in 2015, Margay began with one class, many doing the Arrive-and-Drive option to compete in a spec class with a mix of experienced and beginners racers. Jeremy Remick was the inaugural winner with Jeffrey Dolian winning in 2016. Both continue racing at the RIGP in the three Briggs 206 divisions outside the Ignite program.

Expanding to welcome the Margay Ignite Junior class, racers 12-15 years of age now of the opportunity to race the city streets before receiving their driver’s license. Both years, the finish at the end of the weekend in the Junior class was among the closet finishes of the event. Last year, Ashton Wheeler was unable to defend his victory with 2016 runner-up Spike Kohlbecker moving up one spot on the podium to claim his first Rock trophy. You can believe those in the category that reach the graduating age of 15 will be among those competing in the Senior Ignite category or even the other RIGP classes.

In 2017, the program expanded to welcome a Margay Ignite Masters division for those 35-years and older with veteran racer ‘Pistol’ Pete Vetter scoring the inaugural victory. In total, the program welcomed over 50 entries to the event with a mixture of Ignite owners making their way in from one of the local Midwest tracks, or drivers taking part in the Arrive-and-Drive program, all under the watchful eyes of Greg Digness, Shane McAfee, Eddie Remick, Rick Fulks, Jonathan Strohm and Jason Birdsell. A full report on my third experience under the Margay tent will be forthcoming. We’ll have more on the third year of the EKN On-Track with Margay in a later article.

2017 Margay Ignite Shootout competitors (Photo: Margay Racing)

Labor Day Weekend 2018

I apologize if this column seems long. With 17 classes in one race day, there is a lot to cover that happens on and off the track. Throw in me racing two classes alone, it makes for a fun, exciting, and exhausting two-days at the Rock Island Grand Prix. Since going to the race in 2004, I always mark this weekend on the calendar. It was the first true event I went working for Howden Media Group prior to my managing editor duties with EKN. RIGP was the first karting race I took my son to in 2008 prior to his 1st birthday. Rock Island is the first and only street race I have raced at.

Over the 14 times I have traveled to the Quad Cities area, it has become more and more like my own personal ‘SuperNationals’. Many in paddock that have attended the RIGP year after year feel the same way. For local racers who watched the event as kids in the late 90s, early 2000s, now they have the opportunity to compete in what was their childhood dream.

Another reason I continue to return each and every Labor Day weekend, it’s family. From the many Quad City area drivers we only get to see once a year, to the familiar faces I see throughout the year in our EKN Trackside Live Tour. There are no championships to worry about, no special track time permitted in advance for those who can afford to spend a week at a track, and no other place that makes you feel at home. The many volunteers who put in 72 hours straight of building the circuit Friday overnight, keeping us racers safe on-track for nearly 12 hours Saturday and Sunday, and breaking down the course to return it back to city streets by Labor Day morning are the true heroes and super stars of the Rock Island Grand Prix each and every year. Thank you to all of you and I can’t wait for Labor Day 2018 when I can come home with that mother f&#$ing ROCK!

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