From the Tower: 2015 United States Pro Kart Series – New Castle

Series closes out another successful season

(Photo: EKN)

USPKS logoThe 2015 United States Pro Kart Series closed out the season this past weekend at the New Castle Motorsports Park. The third year of the growing race program saw record numbers throughout the four events on the season, crowning eight different drivers as champions Sunday evening during the awards ceremonies. For complete coverage, visit the EKN Event Page.

Championship Performances in Pro Categories

The headline divisions of the USPKS welcomed two new champions, as Elliot Finlayson and Mike McAndrews became the third different title winner in their respective categories.

2015 Leopard Pro champion Elliot Finlayson (Photo: EKN)

2015 Leopard Pro champion Elliot Finlayson (Photo: EKN)

Finlayson finished the 2014 season with a Leopard Pro victory at New Castle, hoping to ride that momentum into 2015. The year did not begin as Finlayson hoped, finishing a best ninth on Sunday in Mooresville. Shawano was a turning point, as Elliot battled with a bent chassis after a Heat #1 wreck to drive up to a fifth place result. With a new chassis the following day, he drove to third, placing himself within reach of the championship chase. South Bend was a solid weekend, placing runner-up in nearly all the on-track sessions but more importantly, the two main events. This propelled him to the top of the championship standings heading into New Castle.

Finlayson remained focused, knowing his Koene USA Tony Kart/Comet Racing Engines Leopard was fast at the New Castle facility. He remained up front all weekend long, knowing what he needed to do in order to finish the weekend at the top of the championship standings. Two runner-up results, scoring equal points with championship rival Brandon Jarsocrak on Saturday and four more points on Sunday maintained the advantage for his first major karting title. Finlayson becomes the first USPKS champion in the three year history to earn the title without recording a victory all season. The consistency over the last three weekends earned the championship for Elliot. Even if we took the best seven of eight rounds, Finlayson’s advantage grows, solidifying his championship performance.

2015 Yamaha Pro champion Mike McAndrews (Photo: Kathy Churchill - Energy Racing)

2015 Yamaha Pro champion Mike McAndrews (Photo: Kathy Churchill – Energy Racing)

McAndrews was an inaugural USPKS champion in 2013 for the Leopard Semi-Pro category. 2014 was an up and down season after high hopes beginning the year, finishing inside the top-five in Yamaha Junior and scoring two wins at his home track of South Bend in the new Leopard Junior category. Entering 2015 as a rookie in the Yamaha Pro division, McAndrews stepped up early as a contender. He nearly pulled off the win in Mooresville, losing to championship rival Dakota Pesek. The two swapped victories in Shawano, with McAndrews winning in the wet Saturday, while Pesek walked away Sunday. Once again, McAndrews shined at his home track, taking both victories at MRP to even up the championship score going into New Castle with Pesek. McAndrews struck first in qualifying and the opening heat. Pesek wrecked in Heat #2, losing valuable points to McAndrews, but fought his way forward in the main event to be in the hunt for the win. Contact between the two on the final lap put Pesek in second, but officials moved him behind McAndrews. That left an 80-point deficit for Pesek going into the final day.

The Top Kart driver earned 10 points in qualifying and then the two made contact in the Prefinal once again. Pesek gained 35 more points on McAndrews, who was penalized for the contact and placed 17th on the grid for the main event. McAndrews had to finish third or better to secure the title if Pesek were to win the race. The BirelART driver had other plans in mind for the 18-lap Final. McAndrews was top-five by lap five, and right on the bumper of Pesek on lap 11 as they trailed local driver Jimmy Simpson in the lead. On the final lap, Simpson was shuffled back to third and with nothing to lose, attempted a pass from third to first in the final corner. Simpson pushed wide on the exit, into Pesek. That allowed McAndrews to slip around both and take the lead to the checkered flag to clinch the championship. This rivalry is sure to continue into 2016, as Pesek has now finished the last two season in the third and second, with eyes on the top prize next season.

Lemke Clinches Both Junior Titles

Double Junior champion Brandon Lemke (Photo: EKN)

Double Junior champion Brandon Lemke (Photo: EKN)

It is safe to assume that the #1 Junior driver in 2015 is Brandon Lemke. The Franklin Motorsports / Merlin driver is leading the Superkarts! USA Pro Tour standings going into the finale. At the USPKS, he led both the Leopard and Yamaha championship chases from start to finish. In the 16 main events with the series, Lemke finished first in 13, including a five-race win streak in Yamaha and what could be considered a perfect score in Leopard Junior. During the final in Sunday, Lemke was fighting with Lance Fenderson and Alex Bertagnoli, with Zach Holden running out front. Contact was made with Bertagnoli inside of Fenderson, as the two went off course and ended their day. Lemke pushed forward, inching his way to Holden and able to beat the New Castle driver to the checkered flag for the provisional win, making it a perfect score in Leopard Junior for the series. Officials however penalized Lemke, stating Brandon caused the contact between Bertagnoli and Fenderson, and was placed behind both in the finishing order. While the official record may not show it, Lemke was near perfect in USPKS competition.

Nearly a Hat Trick for Ironman Dignan

One of the rare moments Derek Dignan was not in the seat of a kart over the weekend (Photo: Kathy Churchill - Energy Racing)

One of the rare moments Derek Dignan was not in the seat of a kart over the weekend (Photo: Kathy Churchill – Energy Racing)

No one can say they did more laps in the weekend then Derek Dignan. The Michigan driver for KartSport North America drove in three classes over the weekend, driving to the Rok GP Senior victory over Friday and Saturday, while competing at the front in both Yamaha Pro and Leopard Pro. Before clinching the Rok title Saturday following three heat races and a Prefinal, Dignan battled for the victory in Yamaha Pro. Joined at the front by championship drivers Mike McAndrews and Dakota Pesek, Dignan was able to beat out both at the line for his first ever USPKS victory. Dignan then beat out Collin Warren for the Rok victory and title just minutes later. Completing Saturday, Dignan went for the hat trick, driving his way forward in the Leopard Pro Final to a runner-up finish after starting seventh. Sunday, Dignan drove Yamaha and Leopard, recording two fourth-place results to complete one of the longest but best weekends of the season.

Race to the Checkered Flag

The new location of the start/finish line at the New Castle Motorsports Park at the end of the long ‘pond’ straight is providing some exciting finishes. The USPKS program continued that excitement this weekend with a number of finishes coming down to the line. One stood out as a deciding factor in the Mini Rok Cadet championship chase.

Lachlan DeFrancesco and Sam Mayer went into the Final separated by 14 points with DeFrancesco holding the advantage. They were among the five-driver lead group, including race winner Jason Welage. DeFrancesco and Mayer each had a teammate, with Benik driver James Egozi and Merlin Nation’s Robert Noaker III making up the lead pack. While you would think teammates are going to lock up and work together, you’d be wrong. It was every driver for himself in the 15-lap event. Everyone but Noaker took a turn at the point with Mayer leading the way on the white flag toward the checkered flag. In the final laps, DeFrancesco was shuffled back, losing the draft and essentially the championship.

Welage celebrates early as Noaker drafts past for the victory (Photo: Kathy Churchill - Energy Racing)

Welage celebrates early as Noaker drafts past for the victory (Photo: Kathy Churchill – Energy Racing)

They came off the I-70 corner with Welage pulling out of the draft to race Mayer to the line. At the same time, Noaker made it three wide and had the help of Egozi behind him. Before reaching the finish line, Welage raised his hands in celebration a bit to premature. Egozi helped to push Noaker past before the line. The results put Noaker across the line first ahead of Welage. Egozi was able to slip by for the third position, pushing Mayer from first to fourth in the matter of a few hundred feet. The result of Mayer falling to fourth gave the championship back to DeFrancesco by just four points.

Two points stick out in this situation. One; these young drivers need to stop celebrating before reaching the checkered flag. While it may be fun, you can lose the victory just as easily. The second, race for every position and every point possible. Mayer was under the assumption that he just needed to beat DeFrancesco to win the title. The point system lowers the gap between finishing positions, thus the further you finish down the order, the less the gap really is. This cost him the title and the chance to race at the Rok Cup International Final in Italy. For these kids, it was another life lesson and learning experience that the sport of karting provides and it is sure to make Mayer that much better in the future.

Heats or Prefinals?

For the third straight year, the USPKS series finale ended with a qualifying, Prefinal, Final format. The Prefinal replaced the spot of two heat races, as we saw in the first seven rounds of the championship. My question is, which format do racers really enjoy the most?

At a glance, there was more laps on Saturday then Sunday, with the two heat races combining for 16 laps instead of the 10-lap Prefinal run on Sunday. The time it took to complete Sunday’s round of racing was much shorter than Saturday’s with less on-track sessions and fewer laps. With a Prefinal / Final format, the same amount of laps can be completed with the Two Heats / Final format. However, now racers are only on-track three times instead of four. This gives parents/mechanics less work between races, and also more time between races to sit back and relax, especially for those doing two classes a day.

To change things up, I would like to see USPKS move to the Prefinal / Final format in 2016 with eight categories confirmed for the class structure. Once you get past six classes, doing two heats and a main event make the days just seem too long.

How to Take the Green Flag

Leopard Pro has some difficulties taking the green flag over the weekend (Photo: EKN)

Leopard Pro has some difficulties taking the green flag over the weekend (Photo: EKN)

The larger the field, the harder it seems to get a field lined up for the start of the race. This was evident in the Leopard Pro category on Sunday. Championship to be decided, a final race win, or just a chance to post a season best result was on the line for many. Whether the pressure was personal, or from outside, it seemed no one wanted to obey the head flagman. The old saying is, ‘the race can not be won in the opening corner but it can be lost’. It was true with Roger Ralston, Braden Eves, and others losing the race in the first corner.

I believe much of it has to do with how the drivers are allowed to start the race. Since they were in Cadets, drivers are always told to get right on the bumper of the kart in front of them. As we have seen over the last few years in the Leopard Pro category, all that has done is cause incidents and problems. After receiving the green flag, if you are on the bumper of the kart in front of you, there is sure to be one, two or even more on the bumpers of the karts in front of them behind you. If you have to brake early, check up, or get held up by someone in front of you, the percentage of a chain reaction crash goes up.

Talking to drivers in the category that have been racing all season, some of the best starts were during the SKUSA Pro Tour events. Officials demanded space between the front bumpers and rear bumpers before the green flag waved. Drivers obeyed and the majority of the starts were clean through the opening corner. This space allows a driver to react to what is happening ahead, without slamming the kart in front of them.

The starting lines were implemented by the United States Rotax Max Challenge program, and other series followed suite. Lines helps separate the karts side by side, giving more escape room should something happen. Rather than penalizing drivers for stepping out of the lanes, just use them as a guideline to help the starter ensure the karts are in order for the start, instead of fanning out to four or five wide before the green flag is waved.

My favorite as a kid was watching my dad stand in the middle of the track starting races. While the club had a biggest field of about 12, he made sure drivers stayed in their lanes until passing the green flag. He placed a large cone in front of him, standing in the middle of the track with the green flag in hand. And if you didn’t listen, you got hit with the flag alongside your helmet as you passed by.

In all seriousness, it’s up to the drivers to respect one another when on the track. We have seen hard, close racing without any blatant take out moves or slamming of the rear bumper. It can be done, racers just need to educate themselves on car control and the act of starting a race. Otherwise, let’s just do standing starts so it really is up to the drivers to stay off of one another.

Farewell to Yamaha Rookie

2015 Yamaha Rookie champion Donald Whorton II (Photo: EKN)

2015 Yamaha Rookie champion Donald Whorton II (Photo: EKN)

The finale signaled the final event for the Yamaha Rookie category at the USPKS level. In 2016, the category will be removed to welcome the Micro Rok division, with the Yamaha categories dropping to just Pro, Junior and Cadet. Throughout the weekend, and for much of the season, the Yamaha Rookie category provided some of the best racing. New Castle was exciting with five to seven kart lead packs forming in every race. Donald Whorton II finished the year as the champion, winning four of the eight features. Owen Mahle and Lucas Smalec became first time winners on the weekend, joining Aidan Hinds and Conner Churchill on the winners list for 2015.

Gearing Up for RoboPong

As the weekend wrapped up, the talk was not about 2016, but about the infamous RoboPong 200. In just three weeks, the 200-mile endurance event will take place at the same New Castle facility. It will be the 12th edition of the event that produces some exciting memories and dramatic finishes. Many of the same USPKS competitors are working out the final details for their attempt to land their names on the Dan Wheldon Cup. One team that was worked out at South Bend is Brandon Lemke and TJ Koyen. USPKS champions Elliot Finlayson, Brandon Jarsocrak, and many more are schedule to compete at the September 18-20 event. This year, four support classes will compete alongside with Yamaha Senior, Yamaha Junior, Yamaha Cadet with IAME Cadet joining the list. will be trackside for the entire event, providing the same coverage it has since 2007.

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