From the Tower: 2015 Rock Island Grand Prix
Witnessing history as 21st annual Labor Day weekend event hits the record books
The streets of Rock Island opened up to karters from across North America for the 21st time (Photo: EKN)
The 21st annual Rock Island Grand Prix was held over the Labor Day weekend in the Quad Cities area once again. Warm weather kept the track clear of rain both days of action, as the volunteer-promoted event saw an increase in entries and spectators after a couple of down years in both categories. The total mark for entries this weekend was 266, up 46% from 2014 thanks to three new and popular classes, along with an increase in the TaG and shifter categories. This year’s total was the second highest in the last seven years, and could be the catalyst for a rejuvenation at the Rock Island GP. A total of 13 ‘Rock’ trophies were handed out Sunday evening at the awards ceremonies, following the first ever heat races on Saturday, giving drivers two races instead of the typical one racers have become accustom to.
Witnessing History: Neilson Breaks 17-Year-Old Record with Six Victories, Moves to Second Overall
Prior to 2015, the most victories at a single Rock Island Grand Prix event was five, set by Jason Birdsell in 1998. The Illinois-native competed in a record nine categories, winning five of the races in a combination of three Briggs Flathead, three Yamaha Pipe, two Yamaha Can, and 2-Cycle Controlled. Since then, a select list of drivers have won four ‘Rock’ trophies at one time, including all-time win leader – the ‘Emperor’ Gary Lawson.
Tony Neilson is now moving up the RIGP ranks, and could be challenging Lawson for his title if he can repeat the same performance this past weekend. The Delmar, Iowa driver competed in seven categories, winning a record-breaking six ‘Rock’ trophies Sunday afternoon. The Margay driver piloted his Brava 4.15 to victory in all four qualifying Briggs LO206 categories (Medium, Heavy, Heavy 2, and Masters). In his Kevin Williams Yamaha-powered Brava 1.15ck, Neilson drove to wins in SuperCan Medium and SuperCan Heavy 2, missing out on SuperCan Heavy at the early portion of the day – which was won in a similar ride piloted by Tim Goettsch. Aside from the Masters win, all took patience and strategy to pull off the victory as both the Yamaha triumphs were decided on the final lap.
It also took a solid crew to keep the two karts prepped a ready for each time they hit the streets. RIGP and street racing legend Scott Evans has helped Neilson over the last few years, and the first win on the weekend put the younger driver tied with Evans overall in the win column. Evans father Clarence and Tony’s dad Cliff helped keep the two karts prepped and ready to go for the seven different classes. Things were not as easy as you would think winning six of the seven races, with a hard wreck Saturday in Neilson’s second class of the day, aboard his Yamaha machine. The team, including Margay’s own Keith Freber, lended a hand to make sure the kart was ready to go.
Neilson elevated himself to and past other RIGP legends Todd Bolton, Michael Dittmer, Mike Welsh, and Mr. King himself Alan Rudolph when he took his second victory of the weekend. Birdsell and former King of the Streets winner Kyle Wiegand sat there at 11 wins each as the day moved forward, and Neilson put himself beyond both when he completed Sunday, holding his sixth RIGP checkered flag of the event.
The great thing about the Rock Island Grand Prix, there is only one a year. It’s uniqueness of racing only on Labor Day weekend keep drivers hungry to earn another victory, and if not, forced to wait another 364 days before they can have another chance.
Remembering One of Our Own
The Rock Island Grand Prix is always fun, on and off the track. This year, however, was about celebrating and remembering one of our own. In March, former RIGP winner and 12-year competitor Travis DeVriendt took his own life. His parents, Ron and Darla, along with the RIGP committee, chose to use the tragedy as an opportunity to raise awareness about suicide in young adults. T-shirts were sold in an effort to raise money for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
DeVriendt, and many other RIGP racers are local residents, growing up watching the race and looking up to the stars and competitors before becoming one of them. For many, including a number of the race winners, the event was not the same without ‘Turbo’. Neilson, Pewe, and others displayed Travis’ name tag on their karts, knowing he was there with them, and looking down upon them.
Tyler Schurr, the vice-president of the RIGP committee, is among Travis’ close friends since young childhood. Schurr would field a kart for DeVriendt at the Rock Island GP a number of times. This year, Schurr drove that kart in honor of DeVriendt after giving a remarkable speech about Travis during the opening ceremonies. Schurr drove the kart to a fourth place finish.
The racing community is certainly a family, and no matter the situation, when a member is lost, we all morn. Racing continues on, and so do the memories as the Rock Island Grand Prix will always have a special bond with Travis DeVriendt memory intact.
‘Ignite’-ing the #OperationGrassroots Movement
One of the reasons for the growth at the Rock Island Grand Prix is the expansion of the Briggs LO206 engine package. Introduced in 2012, the class began with 24 drivers. The following year, two categories were offered for the engine at two different weights, each welcoming over 20 entries. Last year, a third class was added with a Masters group entered into the program. In 2015, a total of five Briggs LO206 classes were offered. One of the two new divisions was formulated with the support of Margay Racing.
A longtime winner at the Rock Island Grand Prix, the American chassis manufacturer has jumped on board the #OperationGrassroots movement with its Ignite program. Their Ignite K3 chassis is a spec race package geared toward the entry level customer, working with the Briggs & Stratton LO206 powerplant. Over the last year, Margay has worked directly with the Gateway Kartplex, built just inside the Gateway Motorsports Park outside St. Louis. The Simraceway Performance Karting Center in Sonoma, California has a fleet of Ignite karts used for their school and Arrive-and-Drive programs daily. The new Bushnell Motorsports Park in Florida will be adding the Ignite karts to their fleet as they are beginning to open its doors to the public. Other Margay dealers and tracks are becoming more interested in the Ignite program.
The Margay Ignite Shootout at this year’s Rock Island Grand Prix featured 16 drivers from eight different states, all with different karting and racing backgrounds along with a wide range of ages. Everyone arrived Friday evening to get fitted with the kart for the weekend and take a track walk with 11-time RIGP winner Jason Birdsell. The karts were looked after by four Margay mechanics all weekend, repairing anything broken or helping to find the correct set-up for each driver. The spec tire utilized was the Bridgestone YDS compound, making it crucial for drivers to find grip and be smooth with the steering input. The main event came down to three drivers fighting it out, as Jeremy Remick was able to edge out Jeffrey Dolian and Keith Scharf.
First Time Victories
Aside from Neilson, there were seven other winners on the day with most taking home their first ‘Rock’ trophy. No other victory was more celebrated than that by Matt Pewe. Coming up just short in the Briggs LO206 Heavy battle, Pewe took to the Clone Heavy class with only one goal, winning. A 15-lap long battle with Jesse Clossey resulted in Pewe taking the lead before they received the white flag, and holding on to reach the checkered flag first alongside a large roar from the crowd in both the paddock and the fence line. It was an emotional victory for Pewe, who looks up to all those previous ‘Rock’ winners, growing up around the event. It was also a tribute to his friend Travis DeVriendt – a two-time winner in the Clone category.
Josh Lane has looked at the King of the Streets title for nearly a decade, trying the last handful of years to earn the crown. Things looked good the last few, winning the Open Shifter category but falling short in the KOS. With the combined Open Shifter/King of the Streets back to how it was in early years, the path was set for Lane to conquer. One person stood in his way – Colton Aldridge. Another two-time RIGP winner, Aldridge was fast, keeping pace with Lane all weekend. They took it down to the wire, with Aldridge going wide on the final lap at turn one, making contact with the barriers and out of the race. This allowed Lane to complete his journey, and take home his first ever King of the Streets crown. He did so with his father Lance Lane finishing fourth, as the pair now hold three ‘Rock’ trophies each.
Two victories were decided after the checkered flag, taking away a possible first time ‘Rock’ trophy for Ethan Wilson and a first in 125 Masters for Scott Barnes. Wilson set the pace throughout the weekend in TaG Masters, making his first start at the RIGP on his ‘bucket list’ tour of 2015. Anthony Honeywell challenged him all 20 laps, with Wilson crossing the line first. Engine tech took the ‘Rock’ away from Wilson, giving Honeywell his first in his RIGP debut. Barnes was able to outlast the shifterkart field to cross the line first, only to miss the minimum weight by one pound. This gave the ‘Rock’ to Boston driver Jason Alden, who eagerly awaits the 2016 event and plans to bring more of his east coast friends with him next year.
Italian Motors Makes First Visit
The fourth driver of the event to earn his first ‘Rock’ trophy was Italian Motors driver Scott Hargrove. The Sumas, Washington-based race team made the over 2,000-mile journey to the Labor Day street race for the first time, bringing with them a handful of drivers from the pacific northwest area under the guidance of team manager and IMSA TUDOR United SportsCar Championship driver Michael Valiante. Among them was rising driver Scott Hargrove, who is attempting to climb the Mazda Road to Indy ladder system, and developing a strong sports car resume.
Hargrove got behind the familiar Italkart, which has been very successful on a number of temporary circuits and high-profile events, such as the SKUSA SuperNationals in Las Vegas. Italkart chassis has seen Rock Island GP before, but it was the X125T-MX that powered him to victory. A new TaG engine, legal in TAG USA and IKF competition, is developed by Italian Motors and is showing great power and reliability – as described in the EKN OnTrack with Rob Howden months ago. The success at the Rock Island GP for the Hargrove, Italian Motors and the new X125 could help its expansion to the eastern half of the country.
EKN OnTrack Once Again at the Rock
For the fourth straight year, I was privileged enough to race at the Rock Island Grand Prix. It was my sixth time in my 12th straight visit to the famous street race, having done TaG Senior and TaG Master back in 2006 and 2007. The last have been in the Briggs LO206 categories with the latest being aboard a Margay Ignite kart. We will have more on this experience, but I would just like to thank all the crew at Margay, including Keith and Nicole Freber, Greg Digness, Jason Birdsell and the rest of the Ignite crew and competitors for a fun three days in Rock Island. I especially like to thank my dad, who still after 36 years, is right there getting in and helping out, and also talked all the ears off everyone in the paddock. He certainly worked his tail off after just going to watch and hang out. Also a big thank you to EKN Publisher Rob Howden for allowing me to do what I love, while also doing our job. It’s very rare you get an opportunity to do that in life. I’m glad you jumped in at the end of the day to get some laps in, as I know its tough to sit there and watch when you know you could be out there doing it. And while the weekend on track was not as hoped after leaving last year with high expectations and coming out of practice feeling good, anytime at the race track is a good time, especially at the Rock Island Grand Prix.