OnTrack: Praga North America – Dragon EVO
Historic name in automotive continues to make strides in karting worldwide
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 closed out its 2015 season at the New Castle Motorsports Park in central Indiana on August 21-23. For our final OnTrack session with the USPKS program, we called up Blake Wankowski of Praga North America. The Praga name has been growing every year in the United States and world-wide since making its debut early this decade. It dates back nearly a century, producing a wide range of vehicles from motorcycles to passenger cars, trucks, buses and even aviation. A motorsports arm of the company was created, with karting a major focus by the company and owner Petr Ptacek.
Praga North America was established in the United States to introduce and grow the brand in the US, Canada, and Mexico. The brand has strong representation from coast-to-coast, with the dealers working hard at bringing on new drivers and new customers. Behind the drive is Blake Wankowski. The Wisconsin native ventured into karting as a youth, and after racing competitively at the local, regional and national level, he began working as a tuner and driver coach. Wankowski worked with top talent along with newcomers to the sport, and created Kart Star Motorsports, expanding to a full-time business as a full-service kart shop. Through his business dealings, a partnership developed with Praga, and has now turned into Blake guiding the Praga North America operation from its new location outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Praga North America is working with some of the top kart shops in the United States. Leading Edge Motorsports and Musgrave Racing Company on the west coast are putting in top results every weekend. Leading Edge Motorsports Texas and Motorsports Development Group have strong representation in the south. CPI Kart Racing and KartWerks USA are building up strong customer base in the northeast, with KartSport North America taking on the east coast. Wankowski is focused on making sure dealers have the support to provide the best customer experience possible for the racers.
The plan going to the USPKS event was to build up the kart Thursday before the race in the New Castle paddock. Last minute shipping issues and van problems delayed the arrival of Blake and the Praga North America van down to central Indiana until late Thursday night. After getting to the track Friday morning, the final build-up of the Praga was underway pitting alongside the drivers of the KartSport North America operation, one of the newer Praga dealers. Unfortunately, the Yamaha Pro division was the first class on-track and we were still finishing up the mounting of the Comet Racing Engines Yamaha to the Praga kart, along with the final touches to make the kart ready for the track. The great thing about the Praga karts, they come with all the necessary accessories needed to go racing, including different exhaust mounts, chain guard, heel stop, and other high quality products.
Round two of practice was my first session on the course aboard the Praga after missing the opening session. The New Castle Motorsports Park is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway of sprint karting in North America. Not just because of it’s location, but what it has done for the sport in the last decade. Built in 2003 by IndyCar driver and former Rolex 24 at Daytona winner Mark Dismore, NCMP was designed around a one-mile course that has developed into multiple configurations thanks to the combination and addition of more pavement for the local Kart Racers of America (KRA) club series. The standard ‘national’ layout has been the circuit utilized since the facility began hosting major events in 2004. National and regional programs crave a chance to host an event at New Castle, located about 45 minutes away from the famous ‘Brickyard’.
The facility and circuit is designed by Dismore, who took a flat plot of farming land and transformed it into a motorsports park. Mark himself moved mounds of dirt to create the elevation changes throughout the layout. For a driver, it is a flowing track. It is not extremely difficult, however, with 17 turns there is plenty of room for errors to slow your lap time down. The original start/finish line is right outside the main building in the counter-clockwise direction. The first three turns are 90-degree corners, with a left-right-left combo to take you around the paddock. Turn one is a fast left, and on the exit you need to set-up for turn two. The right-hander is a much more flatter corner, and the exit falls down some to make for one of the trickiest corners on the track. Then its a full cut back to the right to set up for turn three, another fast left-hander which takes you along the hill straight. Up and down, you prepare for turn four, a left-hand corner that is much more than a 90-degree bend. It’s a great passing zone as you get a run on someone coming out of turn three.
When you exit, you crest a little hill to go into the double-rights of turn five and six. For me, it was a problem. In the Yamaha, the sealant down the middle of the pavement adjusted the grip level of the kart. You either stayed below it, or if you drifted wide in the middle of the corner, it sent your kart out of the grove. On the exit of six is a little bend called turn seven, keeping you turning the wheel to the right as you set up for the tight turn eight hairpin. The ‘cell tower’ corner is the slowest and tightest turn of the course, another great passing opportunity. The two quickest turns of the layout follows, with the flat-out turn nine left-hand bend, up and over another hill, into the flat-out turn 10, up and over a hill into turn 11 (green corner). The right-hand corner is another solid passing opportunity. Exit is key as any slight of a mistake, and your opponents will get the run down the hill into the turn 12 bend to set-up for a pass at the inner hairpin.
Turn 13 is where we see a lot of the finishes of a race begin. If you are able to get a solid exit out of the right-hand corner, it gives you the speed down the long straight, that is a slight up-hill climb that increases as you get to turn 15. The final hairpin is a hard breaking zone, into a near 180-degree corner. The turn is banked, so drivers can take the corner much harder then expected, and when the grip level is there, even faster. That takes you to the long pond straight. Including the bend section, it is about 1000 feet. Turn 17 is the final corner, a 90-degree left turn. When the track was built, it developed into a great last lap, last corner passing opportunity for the victory. Carrying the most speed you can, drivers go through it trying not to end up in the grassy area on the exit, to reach the original start/finish line. This year, the facility created a new start/finish line about 200 feet before turn 17, making the exit on turn 15 even more crucial for a chance to drag race to the finish. At the two events EKN covered with the new S/F line, there was more photo finishes then ever seen at New Castle Motorsports Park.
The day OnTrack was one of education, working with Blake and Praga North America driver Andrick Zeen. The first time I met Andrick was just before the 2005 SKUSA SuperNationals. We went to visit the old XPLEX, and Zeen along with his brother Adam were doing practice sessions with Phil and Everett Giebler coaching them. Crazy how quickly things change, as Andrick is among the top drivers and coaches in the country. The track layout was not the challenge, but the conditions. All the racing that takes place at New Castle makes for the track to build-up rubber in the corners. What we learned on the Praga Dragon EVO, is that it has plenty of grip. My first on-track session, after just a few circuits, the kart bicycled at turn eight. That was a first in probably two decades, going back to my old sprint days just turning 16. While I was learning the kart and the track, my times were off, so we focused on what we could improve on the kart. The rear of the kart obviously had too much grip, so put seat struts on and changed the front bar to see what would happen.
I was more comfortable with the track and ran my quickest lap of the day (1:13.9) in session three of the day, my second time on course. It was just before lunch, and I adjusted my driving around what the kart was presenting me. There was still too much grip in the chassis, as it would not release from the rubber laid down on the track. And that was my battle in the final two sessions. Before session four, we put shorter hubs on the rear axle to help free up the kart. It felt a little better, however the track was changing with the warm temperatures, and the driver was getting a little fatigued. We slowed down the Ackermann, moving the tie-rods out on the spindle setting. The lap times remained the same in Happy Hour, still utilizing the same tires we began with to start the day. The kart felt better, however, there was still the feeling of just being locked down to the track through the high-grip corners, running a time of 1:14.3.
Praga Dragon EVO
Front width: 20mm per side
Rear width: 1390mm
Caster: 1 degree in
Camber: +1mm per side
Ride Height: standard middle position
Axle: IPK Medium
Hubs: 90mm front / 95mm rear
Tires: 5” MG FZ Yellow – 4.5 fronts / 7.10 rears
Wheels: Douglas Wheel magnesium
Engine: Comet Racing Engines Yamaha
I came to the conclusion, finishing my final OnTrack with the USPKS program, that a driver, especially this one, needs to be in the seat a lot more often to be competitive. The MG Yellow tire has plenty of grip for the Yamaha divisions, and the New Castle Motorsports Park is just a riot to drive around. The first part was a given, seeing that I was about the oldest driver in the Yamaha field, and you could count the number of sprint races I’ve been in on two hands. The tires seemed consistent throughout the day, as many of the front-runners would strap on a new set, run three or four fast laps and then return back to a consistent pace about four tenths off. Mark and the entire Dismore family make it fun going to the NCMP park. For the driver, its the circuit. For everyone else, it’s just easier to be at the race track. You can see the entire course, the main building has everything you need, and its right by the interstate to make for a quick trip home.
This was the first time Blake had strapped on a Yamaha to a Praga Dragon EVO. While I was not the best ‘test’ subject, they did learn from it. They also learned throughout the year in their TaG program. As that weekend, Zeen moved over to the Tacho model and dominated the field with two victories. Jake Donald and Brandon Jones then bested the field at the RoboPong 200 event aboard the Tacho chassis a few weeks later. KartSport North America owner Eric Jones ran the Tacho in the Yamaha Senior division at the RoboPong weekend, clocking off the fast time of the race while finishing third.
The Praga kart is one of beauty and quality. It comes out of the box looking like a racing machine, and the production of its products is second to none. Blake and the entire Praga North America network are making great things happen, with results on and off the track.