OnTrack: Margay Ignite K3

Spec program piloted by top American chassis manufacturer at Rock Island Grand Prix for third straight year

(Photo: Mark Schwigen - Margay)

Each Labor Day weekend, the city of Rock Island, Illinois turns into karting mecca. The Rock Island Grand Prix – a volunteer-based event and organization – welcomes racers from all over the country and select countries from around the world, all arriving for the chance to compete on the city streets in a two-day karting festival. For many in the Midwest, the RIGP weekend is the ‘Super Bowl’ of their karting season. It is the one weekend they mark on the calendar as their chance to earn that coveted Rock trophy.

For us at eKartingNews.com, it is the one opportunity each year that when can enjoy doing our job of covering an event, while also getting the chance to jump behind the wheel to compete alongside both the many racers we cover throughout the season and those we only get to connect with at Rock Island. The 2017 edition was my eighth time racing at the Rock Island GP, my sixth straight piloting a kart powered by the popular Briggs & Stratton 206 engine. There is not much more we can say about the engine that hasn’t been said. The fact of being able to pull out of the box, put in some oil, strap it to a kart, and pull the ripcord to put down some laps is amazing. And the lower horsepower is not only easier on my aging body, but it also emphasizes the importance of the kart/driver combination in order to be fast.

Over the last two years, I was able to take advantage of an offer provided by Margay Racing to compete in the Ignite Shootout at Rock Island Grand Prix. Street racing has always been part of the Margay history, and their loyalty to the RIGP helped merge the two to create this opportunity for club-level spec racers to come and enjoy racing on the city streets. 2015 was the first year for the Ignite Shootout, with just a single category provided, although that was expanded to bring in Junior Ignite racers in 2016. The growth of the Ignite program throughout the Midwest sparked the addition of Masters Ignite class this year, bringing the total to three classed that welcomed over 50 entries to the RIGP.

Going into the weekend, the plan was to race just the Ignite Senior category, as I was under the assumption that the weight difference between Senior and Masters was 30 lbs. I did not want to mess around trying to find two solid setups for two different classes utilizing one kart, forcing us to make multiple changes to the kart like we did in 2015 when I ran both Ignite and the 206 Heavy division (OnTrack 2015). I arrived Friday to Rock Island with the Margay tent already setup and rocking with tunes, with the many Margay crew members busy welcoming all the drivers and situating them with their karts. My Ignite K3 package was fresh off the assembly line, like many others that were Arrive-and-Drive for the weekend, a program that includes a brand new Briggs 206 engine. We adjusted the pedals for my longer legs, slapped on some stickers, including the name tags from Alpha Design Company, along with the GoPro, and we were ready to go.

The atmosphere under the Margay tent makes you feel at home (Photo: Mark Schwigen – Margay)

The rest of Friday was spent doing some pre-race bench racing and found out the Ignite Masters weight was only 10 pounds heavier than Senior (360lbs. to 370lbs.). The gears began turning inside my mind about doing the ‘double’ once again. The great thing about the Ignite is the fact that the harder Bridgestone YDS tires can go multiple weekends, and adding only three more practice sessions, along with another heat race and main event, meant that I could run the entire weekend on one set of tires. The only change we would do is weight and any kart adjustments to find a better setup. Luckily, Margay had a 10-pound weight we could add to the front of the kart for each Masters session, while also filling up the fuel tank to make the minimum weight.

I woke up Saturday morning, registered for Masters, and attacked the day with three rounds of on-track action for each of the two classes. The first session for each class was basically learning where the barriers were this year, and where the bumps were once again. You tend to remember year after year what parts of the track are bad and what parts have gotten worse due to another 365 days of weather, traffic and other elements that change the surface of the city streets. We made one change after the first round, narrowing up the rear end by 1/4” on each side to stop the kart from sliding as much as it was. We started at 32 psi on the tires, and dropped down to 28 for the second round, leaving the gearing at the 19/60 they put on all of the karts.

Fitted my Ignite with a name tag from Alpha Design Co. (Photo: EKN)

The second sessions were about getting up to speed and seeing exactly what setup we had going into the heat races. I entered the track at the back of the field, looking for some clean track. After a few laps of checking up for spinners, I was able to get clean track and lay some laps down solo. I had no drafting partner, but was still able to reel in a pack of drivers by myself. I was about six tenths off the quick times, comparing myself to those who were in a fast draft pack. I bolted on ten pounds of weight and tested the setup for Masters. The session was much like before, getting clear track only to have some yellow flags slow down my pace. With no drafting partner once again, I was half a second off the fastest times. To limit the rear of the kart from slipping so much underneath me, we expanded the width of the front by a medium spacer for each hub on the spindle (10mm).

It was fine, as going into the practice sessions, it was about feeling out the track and the kart. Not being in a kart more than two or three times a year, it’s difficult to just go 100%, especially at a temporary circuit like RIGP. I see it too many times at other temp courses I attend for work – guys just driving over their heads. You see it at the local level, you even see it on the big stage – like the SuperNationals. I was driving at about 85-90%, knowing I had more in the tank and after four sessions in the kart, this ride had it in the tank as well. Having four total sessions instead of just the two helped me feel more comfortable, helping to boost my confidence going into the heat races.

Just missed the Masters heat race win by that much (Photo: Mark Schwigen – Margay)

Now, it was race time with 23 drivers lined up for the Ignite Senior heat race. The lineup is done via pea pick, and I was starting right in the middle in 10th. I got off the line much better than any of my starts in 2016, however, when the field all met in the middle of the track I got bunched up, slowing my progress. I must have dropped to 15th by turn one. I crossed the line for the first of 10 laps in 12th and set up for the race. I was still being a bit cautious, as for maybe half the field this was their first racing laps at RIGP. I was in a group of five drivers when I tried an outside move around one of them. It didn’t work and as I looked to my left, three drivers slipped right past me – Pete Vetter, Ken Williams and Andrew Coulter. Vetter was able to get away, while I worked past both Williams and Coulter, along with the rest of the group, to finish a hard-earned seventh. My fast lap was terrible compared to the leaders, who had a clean track, half a second quicker then my 39.227 on the final circuit without a push or draft in front of me. It was fourth best of the race, so it gave me strong hopes for a podium finish heading into Sunday.

But first, the fun of the Ignite Masters heat race. I pulled the last number, and started dead last in the 20-driver field. After the first lap, I was up into 11th and was third by lap four. I cut into the four-second advantage held by second place Ryan Bettenhausen, yes, of the famous Indianapolis 500 family. I got by him prior to the white flag. Leader Keith Scharf was just ahead of me, about 1.3 seconds out front. I ran my quickest lap of the race – 39.117 – about 1.2 seconds quicker than his final circuit, only to come up one tenth of a second short at the line for the win. One more lap and the race win would have been mine. The problem, the GoPro camera died on the grid and we were unable to capture the moment on tape.

The Bell Racing USA RS7 Carbon helmet kept me safe all weekend, grabbing a lot of attention throughout the weekend (Photo: Mark Schwigen – Margay)

The results put me eighth on the grid for Ignite Senior and pole position for Ignite Masters based on their results/passing points format. It would be the first time starting on the pole position for a main event at the Rock Island Grand Prix for me. Let me tell you, the nerves were high throughout Saturday night and Sunday morning. I was amped up, excited, confident, nervous, and worried about what could happen all during that time. It was too long of a wait, knowing I was starting on pole and had my best chance ever at winning a Rock. Overnight for the warm-up, we changed the gearing, putting one more tooth on the back as we were still no where near the rev-limiter, topping out at 5500 in both races. It seemed to be better in the warm-up, so we stuck with that gear for the first race.

Starting eighth, I didn’t put a lot of hope into winning the Ignite Senior race, however, a podium was on my mind. It was probably one of my better starts ever, going four-wide into turn one. I took it too easy and Jordan Bernloehr, my rival from the 2016 Prefinal, was able to slip past me on the exit, putting me fourth. ‘Pistol Pete’ Vetter worked around me in the following corners to put me fifth on the opening lap. I remained on his bumper until he was able to pass Keith Scharf. I followed Scharf for a half-lap until he put himself into the barriers in turn one, and by then Vetter had a sizeable advantage over me. I put in some fast laps, third quickest overall (38.722), just not as consistent as Vetter to close the gap. I finished fourth, my best result in the Ignite Senior class in the three years.

My chances at earning a Rock trophy went 180 degrees, literally (Photo: Mark Schwigen – Margay)

The wait continued for the Masters race, where I would be starting on the pole position. Thankfully, I had work to keep me busy during the time between races. Rolling up to the grid, there were butterflies, no doubt. Once the helmet went on, they all went away, as I was focused on the 15 laps ahead of me. Starting on the odd side of the grid, you have to go up the road crest from the Le Mans-style start. When the green flag waved, I cut the launch down 4th Avenue too sharp instead of taking my momentum toward the outside of the track. It cost me momentum, and my start was not a successful as it was in Senior. I was back to fifth on the exit of turn one, with Vetter well out in front. I was bunched up behind Bettenhausen and Jon Vernier as we went into turn five. My inability to slip past them forced me to check up and slowed my pace heading to turn six. Typically a flat-out corner, I breathed the throttle a bit to set up for the run down the straight when I was blasted from behind by Scharf. It caught me off-guard, and I spun around 180 degrees, coasting backwards toward the start/finish line. I was able to get it turned around, but unfortunately, I fell back to 16th. From there, the rage was on and the goal now was to grab as many spots as possible. I recorded four laps in the 38’s, getting down to a 38.704 to post the fastest lap of the race, ending up eighth in the final results. The gearing helped gain 300rpm in Senior and only 200rpm in Masters.

It was a second straight year with an undamaged kart, no spare parts needed and I did not make any contact with the barriers, including the spin. This is a rarity, especially when running two classes. It’s not something other drivers at the event can say. My only regret was not leading, and not having the chance to battle for the victory on Sunday. The drive to win that coveted Rock trophy will make me return in 2018.

Rock Island Grand Prix 2017 Set Up

(Photo: Mark Schwigen – Margay)

Front width: 43”
Rear width: 50”
Caster: Neutral
Camber: -2mm negative, static
Ride Height: Neutral
Axle: 40mm x 1040mm M2/B
Hubs: 65mm aluminum (rear)
Tires: Bridgestone YDS
Wheels: DWT AlumiLite 5” x 135mm (front) / 5” x 7.75” (rear)
Seat: G-Seat ES1 #3 D3 (Soft)
Engine: Briggs & Stratton LO206
Gearing: 19/63
Clutch: Hilliard Flame (needle bearing), 2 black/2 white springs

Congratulations goes to Jordan Bernloehr and Pete Vetter for winning the Senior and Masters classes. The Senior class continues to be competitive each year, and there is no doubt that the Masters division will see an influx of new faces in 2018, all vying for the win and spots on the podium. I do not see any reason why the entry numbers in the three Ignite classes can not surpass the 60 mark and reach upwards of 75.

What the weekend really is about, spending time with family and friends (Photo: Mark Schwigen – Margay)

The weekend experience is second to none with the entire Margay family putting in the time and effort to make it a fun, safe, and exciting three days in Rock Island. Greg Dingess and his crew of mechanics, which is a term you really can’t use with the number of victories, championships and experience they all have in the sport. Jason Birdsell and Rick Fulks were very helpful throughout the weekend with their advice and help and watching Margay legend Jonathan Strohm working away with all the other karts around me was amazing. And, of course, all the other competitors. If I had a question, or if they had a question for me, everyone helped each other out. While we all want to beat each other on the track, we want to make sure everyone is at their best when we do it.

Before we can think about returning to Rock Island for 2018, Margay is now offering three unique Ignite events for the 2018 season. The first is just around the corner as Margay, a long-time supporter of the WKA Daytona KartWeek, is offering the ‘Dash at Daytona’ as part of the Manufacturers Cup Series program at the sprint track located inside NASCAR Turn 3 and 4. Those interested still have until December 15 to register with Margay for the event. The second comes during July as the ‘Battle at the Brickyard’ returns to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for a second straight year, scheduled for July 5-8. Add in the 2018 Rock Island Grand Prix, and the Margay Ignite program provides three unique locations, in addition to their Ignite Challenge circuits in the Midwest. From the experienced racer, to the new guy looking to dive into the sport, the Margay Ignite is the perfect economical, full of fun, competitive choice.

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