EKN Trackside: Rotax Challenge of the Americas 2015 – Sonoma Sunday Report
Selliken, Robb, Bonilla and Cook set to join Team USA at Rotax Grand Finals after claiming series titles
The final day of competition for the Rotax Challenge of the Americas went into the books after another beautiful day of weather at the Simraceway Performance Karting Center in Sonoma, California. The six categories competing on the year provided excitement to the very end, as only two championships were provisionally clinched after Saturday’s round of racing, with the remaining categories going to the wire, and even beyond that to decide this year’s champions. For the four headline divisions, it provided four drivers with the opportunity to compete at this year’s Rotax Grand Finals, scheduled for Portimao, Portugal in November. All four drivers – Luke Selliken (Senior Max), Sting Ray Robb (Junior Max), Paul Bonilla (Masters Max) and Sabre Cook (DD2) will represent Team USA at the ‘Olympics of Karting’ thanks to their Rotax Challenge of the Americas title.
Nash Motorsportz Senior Max
The Senior Max group was again split into two sessions, with the five championship contenders on the track for the second run. Once again, Saturday winner Bryce Choquer (Tony Kart) set the pace in the opening group, and it appeared to be the time that would withstand the 15-minute session for the title drivers. That was until Brenden Baker (Tony Kart) posted a 50.054-second lap to edge out Choquer by nine thousandths of a second. Louie Pagano (Tony Kart) was only 77 thousandths off Baker’s lap, with Luke Selliken (Kosmic) a full tenth back in fourth. Jared Higham (Komsic) posted another solid qualifying effort to cap off the fast-five. Contact between championship leader Christian Brooks (Tony Kart) and Jake Craig (Formula K) hampered both their sessions, each with damage, placing sixth and 11th.
Baker came away with the win in the Prefinal, but not without a fight. Pagano and Mason Marotta (Tony Kart) were among the drivers to take part in the lead changes during the 17-lap race, with Baker coming away with the lead on lap 12, going on to take the win. Behind him was the battle for second with Pagano coming away with the spot over Marotta, Phillippe Denes (Kosmic) and Selliken. Brooks was among the leaders at one point, until a hard fought battle with Craig resulted in the 14-year-old going off track at turn nine. Officials penalized Craig 10 seconds for the contact, moving him down to 14th as Brooks ended up 12th after getting back on track.
The feature race appeared to be Baker’s once again, as the young driver has shown the speed to win all series. A victory would propel him to the top of the championship standings and the crown. He led a four driver breakaway, and locked up with Marotta as Pagano and Selliken trailed in another drafting pair. With 10 laps remaining, all four were together and began sizing up one another. Marotta made the first move, taking over the lead on lap 15 and bringing Selliken with him. At the same time, Pagano lost his right side pod, and was shown the meatball flag. As Pagano slowed up, Brooks who had been closing up on the lead quartet, was right there and attempted a pass on Baker. The two made contact on the exit of turn one, and Baker ended up backwards, out of the race – taking him out of the title contention and finishing the standings in third. Brooks continued on but found himself trailing Marotta and Selliken. As they ran, Selliken was in position now to take the title with Brooks needing to demote Selliken. Brooks continued to ran fast laps, however, Marotta and Selliken remained consistent at the front. After 25 laps, Marotta redeemed himself, earning his second victory of the season by one-second. Selliken crossed the line in the second spot, clinching the championship by four points over Brooks. Choquer challenge Brooks in the last few laps for third, but his last attempt fell short and he settled for fourth while Denes put a second RPG driver inside the top-five.
Rolison Performance Group Junior Max
After sitting out Saturday’s round of racing, Nick Brueckner (Tony Kart) jumped to the top of the order early on in qualifying. It appeared his time would stand as the minutes clicked off in the 15-minute session until just before the checkered flag waved with Saturday winner Sting Ray Robb posting a monster lap. The point leader dipped below the 51-second mark to clear Brueckner by 0.182 seconds. David Ilavia (CompKart) finished the session third with Kellen Ritter (Kosmic) and Michael Michoff (Tony Kart) making up the fast five.
Rolison Performance Group driver Michoff recorded his best result of the season, scoring the Prefinal win. He locked onto Brueckner’s bumper from the start, after Sting Ray elected to go to the back and only make one lap. They ran nose to tail until after the halfway point when it was a continuous exchange for the lead. This allowed a charging Trey Brown (Tony Kart) to close up on the lead duo, and with two laps remaining was right there. Brown thought following in behind Michoff during one of his pass attempts on Brueckner would be the best opportunity, however, he made contact with Bruckner. Both went off the track, and Brueckner continued while Brown sat off the course. This gave Michoff a clear run to the checkered flag while Annie Breidinger (Kosmic) moved to second over Ilavia. Saturday top qualifier Carter Herrera (BirelART) came from 12th to fourth, with Brueckner ending up fifth.
The race ended up becoming a duel after the top four broke away early. Michoff set the pace and was trailed by three others as Brueckner was shuffled out of the top five. He eventually found himself back in fifth, and ran down the top four. By lap 10, the Orsolon Racing driver was at the point. Michoff planted himself onto Nick’s bumper, and they were able to pull away from a hard fought battle for third. With five laps remaining, the top two began racing for the lead once again. On the final circuit, Brueckner took over the point in turn one, and Michoff responded on the exit of tic-tac-toe. That dropped Brueckner a couple of kart lengths, which he was not able to recover until a run to the checkered flag, coming just 61 thousandths short at the stripe. Michoff celebrated his first ever Challenge victory. Zoey Edenholm (Kosmic) came from eighth to win the fight for third and land her first series podium result. Breidinger was fourth in another great effort, putting two female drivers in the top-four. Ilavia capped off his series with another top-five result. Sting Ray Robb completed zero laps, presented himself to the grid and used Sunday’s round of racing as his drop to earn his second straight trip to the Rotax Grand Finals. Brueckner accumulated enough points to end up vice-champion with Trey Brown in third.
Cambrian Go-Karts Masters Max
There is no question Scott Falcone came for victory here in Sonoma, sweeping the action on Saturday and beginning Sunday in the same fashion. The Rolison Performance Group / Kosmic driver locked up the pole position early in qualifying, posting a 51.662-second lap to once again hold a two tenths advantage over the rest of the field. Paul Bonilla (Tony Kart) charged late, ending up second with Chad Wallace earning his best qualifying effort of the series to put RPG first and third. John Crow (Birel) was fourth with Billy Cleavelin (CRG) fifth.
The Prefinal for the Masters group was an interesting 17 laps from start to finish. Falcone led the field to the green with Bonilla slow at the drop of the green. The field shuffled around him going into the opening corner, until he spun around and collected the second half of the field. This allowed Falcone a clear path at the front with Cleavelin and Crow slotting in behind. They ran that way until lap 15 when Falcone slowed coming out of the turn nine, with his chain off from a broken rear sprocket. This put Cleavelin into the lead and gave the CRG-USA driver the win, with Crow unable to take the position away and settling for second place points. Bonilla fought back to battle for what was now third with Wallace and Roman Alekseenkov (Tony Kart), making his first Challenge start. Wallace was able to get away while Alekseenkov held off the championship leader in the final corners for fourth. Wallace however was penalized five positions for an airbox infraction, moving everyone up a position and him back to the eighth spot on the main event grid.
Alekseenkov elected to not compete in the main event, moving the contenders all right there together on the grid. When the green flag waved, Falcone quickly attacked on Cleavelin with Crow and Bonilla falling in behind. Falcone was too strong, posting quick laps early to get away from Cleavelin and the rest of the field. With the Prefinal the only blemish on his weekend record, Falcone scored his second victory of the weekend and ended the championship chase in the third spot. Bonilla was able to record the fast lap of the race, working past Cleavelin and scoring the second spot to lock up the championship and his first ever ticket to the Rotax Grand Finals. Cleavelin ran third in his first COTA start with Crow finishing fourth and ending the year second in points. 2014 US Rotax Grand Nationals champion Ken Maxfield (Arrow) ran fifth.
Michael Ilavia entered the day knowing he needed to sweep each on-track session to steal the championship away from Sabre Cook. Ilavia (CompKart) opened qualifying with fast laps, as Cook was back by three tenths. After making a stop, she closed it to two tenths, but Ilavia’s 48.557-second lap was best. Cook finished second with Ben Schermerhorn (Kosmic) unable to get a lap after finally getting his engine fired just before the checkered flag waved.
The war continued on, with Cook and Ilavia going back and forth in the Prefinal. After 17 laps, Ilavia was able to score another win, making it a winner take all scenario for the main event. Each seemed to have an answer for one another, matching lap times and pass attempts. About eight laps in, Ilavia made contact with Cook’s bumper and she missed the left turn section of tic-tac-toe. This gave Ilavia a bit of an advantage, which was cut down to nothing. The two began jostling for position again as they entered the final circuit. Cook led as they took the flag, with Ilavia making a diving move into turn five after tic-tac-toe. Ilavia defending into turn nine, and Cook took advantage and was leading out of turn 10. Into the final corner, Ilavia came from three kart lengths back to out-brake Cook into the final corner. They drag raced to the checkered flag with Ilavia crossing the line first. The celebration began for the J3 Competition squad until a protest was filed by Cook’s team over the early contact entering the tic-tac-toe section of the course. After protest and an appeal process, officials ruled the incident was deemed to be contact from behind resulting in positions gained, and thus promoted Cook to the victory and dropping Ilavia to second, changing the championship to the favor of Cook.
PSL West Mini Max
This Mini Max field stepped up its level of competition in Sonoma with the arrival of Grant Langon (PSL) and Filip Niemkiewicz (Zanardi) to the lead pack. Title contender Sebastian Alvarez (PSL) paced qualifying, but the top-four was separated by less than 0.065 seconds. Langon and Niemkiewicz sat second and third, ahead of Saturday winner and point leader Payton Durrant (Tony Kart). The Prefinal featured the expected lead pack battle, which was eventually won by Langon, although a last lap turn one melee left Durrant in the grass and classified down the order in 10th after he continued on.
The final was a barnburner for the title, as it would go down to the final laps. Durrant saw his chances get spit out of the back of his kart when hard contact from the rear at the start left him with a dropped chain, leaving Alvarez and Crawford to fight it out for the championship. A three-driver scrap ensued for the race win, and the title dice was within this race as well. As the laps wound down, Langon would assume the lead as Alvarez and Crawford waged war for the crown. Each took turns in second, which was needed to clinch the title, but on the last lap, Alvarez took control of the position and held off Crawford by just 0.08 seconds at the checkered flag. Crawford’s third place result allowed Durrant’s point total to maintain his position in second overall, as Sunday’s DNF became his drop race.
Motorsports Development Group Micro Max
When a young driver has his or her program dialed in, and is full of the confidence that comes with consecutive race wins, it’s just a little easier to maintain momentum. Arizona’s Diego LaRoque (Benik) is a perfect example, having won the all five Micro Max races heading into Sunday. Diego kept up the pressure as he smoked the field in the qualifying once again, turning a 57.595 to earn the pole for the Prefinal. LaRoque continued his consistent pace in the Prefinal, taking the lead from the green flag and running out to a 5.288-second win over Leland Honeyman (Exprit), who stepped up his game to chase the leader from start to finish. Ashton Torgerson (Tony Kart) and Josh Pierson (Benik) led the next group to secure the second row for the 14-lap final. The final was all LeRoque, as he put down incredibly consistent lap times to win by just 0.454 seconds ahead of Honeyman, who posted the fastest lap of the race. Torgerson ran alone all race long to complete the podium in third, while Carson Morgan (Tony Kart) and Noah Warren (Tony Kart) completed the top five.
LaRoque’s six straight win gave him a sweep of the series, matching the feat accomplished by Jak Crawford in 2014. Josh Pierson finished second in the championship standings, just 13 points ahead of Honeyman.