OnTrack: Franklin Motorsports – Merlin LM29
Reunited with Merlin Nation as brand continues success from Cadet to Senior ranks in United States
For the eKartingNews.com staff, the 2015 season is about getting back behind the wheel. Racers at heart, our goal is to work with teams and chassis importers that offer the best products and services here in North America, all while sampling some of the best facilities that karting has to offer. This will be an effort to help give our readers a first person viewpoint. Thanks to our trackside partnership with the United States Pro Kart Series, their Friday practice day presents the perfect opportunity to work directly with a race team and chassis brand to get a true understanding of what the team and the kart is like under race weekend conditions.
The United States Pro Kart Series visited the Michiana Raceway Park in North Liberty, Indiana on July 31-August 2, and we connected with longtime karter Jamie Sieracki at Franklin Motorsports to pilot one of his Merlin karts for the second edition of the 2015 ‘OnTrack’ program. Sieracki began an interest in karting around the age of 10, getting into competitive side a year later with his dad George at the wrench. Early on in their karting adventure, the Sieracki’s were helping fellow racers out with parts and supplies, along with engine rebuilds. That quickly grew into C-G Racing and then later adding Dream Works Karting Supply when they began to import the Merlin chassis line.
A meeting in 2003 at the Kart Marketing International expo with the Italian company MRC has led to a long and strong relationship with Umberto Merlin. The Sieracki family and Umberto have kept the same business partnership to this day, with the Merlin chassis continuing as one of the top brands in the United States. My first interaction with the Merlin chassis first-hand came in an ‘OnTrack’ article back in 2006, racing at the Rock Island Grand Prix. It was my first time racing at the Labor Day street race, and also my first aboard a TaG machine. Each time out was a blast, and the kart worked great, it was just the driver getting used to the high speeds and walls of a street race. Fast forward nine years, and we partnered up again in South Bend.
I was unable to travel down to ‘move in’ day on Thursday of the race weekend, but fortunately Jamie had the Merlin kart with the Comet Racing Engines Yamaha all ready to go when I arrived Friday morning. The Yamaha Pro category was first on track, so it was open up the tent, get the kart aired and lubed up, and hit the track. The session was more about feeling out the kart and the track, which I have been to a number times both as a journalist and a karter.
Living just two hours north of the MRP facility, it has been a fixture yearly since becoming involved with EKN. Built in 1995, the South Bend Raceway circuit was mirrored after the Goodwood Kartways in Ontario, Canada and the Badger Kart Club facility in Wisconsin. It hosted a number of club, regional and national events, including some of the early Superkarts! USA events. In 2003, the Lobaugh family took over the property, renaming the property Michiana Raceway Park, and continuing to update the facility year after year.
The ‘National Track’ A layout features 11 turns over the course of 7/10 of a mile. It is a consistent left-right, back and forth throughout the lap with very little time to reset yourself or rest. Once you get through a corner, you need to set up for the next right away. Turn one is a flat out left-hander, which is the easiest corner of the track. In earlier years, there was no run off from the original pavement. Now, concrete runoff curbing has been added to allow for a slight mistake, along with other sections of the course. It is still a place you do not want to get off course, especially at the high speeds. The exit leads into the esses portion of the course. In my previous visits to the MRP circuit, you could drive over the ‘curb’ in the first left hand corner to make the following right-left combo a straight shot. The curbs are now taller and angry, making you avoid from hitting them at all without upsetting the kart and making the rest of the esses impassable. After getting through the esses is an up and down left, corner five. The track is uphill as you reach the apex, and the track travels downhill on the exit. Another concrete runoff on the exit allows you to escape any mistakes on exit with minimal damage, but still upsets the kart slightly.
Down the hill is the 180-degree turn six. This is the first of two major downhill corners where the rubber gets laid down. The goal is to get under where all the rubber collects. For the majority of the laps on Friday, I was able to get a good line through the corner, clipping the usable curb at the apex to help keep below the grip. Back uphill to the turn seven hairpin. It is the only hard braking point on the track, as the tightest turn on the course. More concrete exit curbing gives you the extra room on the exit, but its a quick setup for the second downhill right-hander. Turn eight is a double apex corner, again at the bottom of the hill. Keeping a tight line is crucial, as the marbles on the outside will make you slip even further off course then you want to be. Up the hill once again into a double apex turn nine, the exit takes you back downhill to the newer portion of the course. The original layout took you into an esses section that was basically flat out, but led straight into the pit wall. Owner Garry Lobaugh added turn 10, which took you into the ‘monza’ turn 11. It’s a fast right-left combination that leads you back onto the main straight, completing the lap at Michiana Raceway Park.
My day aboard the Merlin LM29 continued to be one of learning, which is something you should do every time at the track. Sieracki’s philosophy was to test anything and everything, as that was what we were there for. The second session was the first lap times I recorded, as the Mychron beacon was turned the wrong direction in the first session. A 45.9-second lap time was my quickest in the session, as I still adjusted to the feel of the kart and the track. During the session we had the airbox spin and suck up the pant leg of my suit. Thankfully, I caught it before the engine shut off completely. There was no lack of grip the entire day, as the track and the kart had plenty. The chassis had been in the hands of Emerson Reed the previous week in TaG Senior at the SKUSA SummerNationals at New Castle. The settings were all the same, and Jamie decided to take out caster to make the steering easier. We also put the pedals longer to make room for my long legs.
At the lunch break, we were also able to pull out a new Tillett P1 Rib Protector. The company has been working over 20 years on rib protection, utilizing some of the best drivers from around the world. The new 2015 P1 provides the highest level of rib protection and comfort without the increasing thickness. It was evident when Sieracki sized me up for one to test while on-track. It comes in two halves, allowing you to find the exact size and shape you need for your body and seat. Initial fitting requires the rear velcro joining panel to be positioned first. Once the two halves are in position, the velcro connection panel is attached. This holds the straps that run overtop of the shoulders and loop through the front panel. The front panel then connects with the side panels by velcro, making adjustments easy and simple. The P1 comes with an instruction sheet to make initial fitting simple and easy. The thickness of the panels allows for no change in the seat size, while still providing the protection needed on the physically demanding MRP circuit.
The rest of the day was a struggle with the driver and the track conditions. Unlike the Mooresville ‘OnTrack’, the MRP facility took the rubber quickly and it wasn’t long before the track had plenty of grip. For session three, the caster change helped the steering, however the rear end would kick out in the high speed turn nine and the monza. Sieracki elected to decrease the tire pressure while changing to a standard axle. Session Four lap time was slower, but the laps were more consistent at 46.4. The turn eight downhill and the turn nine uphill corners continued to be a struggle for me. In turn eight the kart seemed to wash away while trying to power through the first apex, and the kart continued to slip out from under me at the top of the hill in turn nine. The final change was to remove the front bar, and remember to hit my marks.
We elected to stick with the same tires to try and improve our lap time from the early sessions, as new tires were good for only a few laps before they went away. The session was better for fast lap, but the consistency was gone as I missed my marks and fatigue set in. I was able to record a 46.1-laptime, nearly my best lap of the day on older tires, which was only good for 14th and 1.5 seconds off fast time. Looking at the race results from the Route 66 Sprint Series, times could put me just outside the top-10 in the regional event held just two weeks prior.
Front width: 44”
Rear width: 54.5”
Caster: 1 1/2 in
Camber: -2 per side
Ride Height: 2 washers top/1 bottom – rear up position
Axle: Merlin Green (Medium) 50mm
Hubs: 78mm front / 90mm rear
Tires: 5” MG FZ Yellow – 4.5 fronts / 7.10 rears
Wheels: Douglas Wheel magnesium
Seat: Tillett T11 VG ML
Engine: Comet Racing Engines Yamaha
There is no question that the Michiana Raceway Park is a driver’s track. With the limited time I have had in a kart, it chewed me up and spit me out. The Merlin chassis works, as we have seen it perform at the top with drivers like Kyle Kalish, Brandon Lemke, and Gio Bromante. It was an experiment putting a driver of my size into a chassis that has been developed for younger, smaller drivers. The drive that Sieracki possesses, I know that a full day at the track with him we would find the optimal setup for the kart and fine tune exactly what I was doing behind the wheel.
The growth and success of the Merlin brand is based solely on the Sieracki family. From the time Jamie reaches the track, till the tent is closed up at night, it is non-stop action under the Franklin Motorsports tent with Sieracki overseeing the customers there while giving full attention to the many Merlin drivers throughout the paddock. He pays extra attention to the younger drivers, discussing their racing line, what exactly they feel with the kart on the track, and giving them the options available to resolve any issues they may have.
It was a pleasure working with the entire Franklin Motorsports crew in South Bend. The Sieracki family enjoy what they do, and their passion is second to none. I’d put myself in any kart they have prepared and consider myself a loyal follower of the Merlin Nation.