From the Tower: Superkarts! USA Pro Tour SpringNationals 2016

Historic event at Phoenix Kart Racing Association as seventh season of Pro Tour kicks off

SKUSA Pro Tour 2016-logoWe spend our entire raceday up in the tower, watching every on-track session while producing our EKN Trackside Live program, so not much time is spent roaming the paddock for the stories. The ‘From the Tower’ column is our chance to delve deeper into some of the accounts that develop over a race weekend, those that may or may not have been included in the daily race reports. For complete coverage of the SKUSA Pro Tour SpringNationals 2016, visit the EKN Event Page – DC

Record Weekend

The long line Thursday morning for registration (Photo: Scott Falcone)

The long line Thursday morning for registration (Photo: Scott Falcone)

The 2016 Superkarts! USA Pro Tour opened up to record numbers at the SpringNationals this past weekend. A total of 255 drivers took on the challenging Phoenix Kart Racing Association facility in Glendale, Arizona breaking all previous entry totals for a Spring or Summer Pro Tour event. With the large numbers came some issues, primarily Thursday morning when nearly everyone was trying to get into the paddock and prepare for the ‘unofficial’ practice day. Some waited over three hours to sign the insurance waivers and receive their packets as there was no registration desk Wednesday during the move-in. This was a minor setback to start the weekend, and officials moved the start of the practice rounds an hour to ensure everyone was entered into the paddock before track time began. Superkarts! USA is already looking to remedy the situation for New Castle, where the first ‘unofficial’ practice trial run took place last year. A new card system is also in the works to make the registration process much easier.

Every Track is a Challenge

For the first time in SKUSA history, the track was contested in the counter-clockwise direction. The 8/10-mile course is consistently utilized in the clockwise direction, including the two previous SpringNationals (2012 and 2014). Looking at it from the outside, and not driving it, I wasn’t impressed. I think for a driver, it was a great challenge, but for a great race track, it appeared the opposite way was the optimal choice. The feeling through the paddock was mixed, however, we were greeted to some close competition throughout the weekend in all the categories without a single double winner.

The starts for Junior, Mini and Micro were moved to the front straight toward the end of Saturday (Photo: EKN)

The starts for Junior, Mini and Micro were moved to the front straight toward the end of Saturday (Photo: EKN)

Walking around taking photos throughout the weekend, the counter-clockwise direction amped up the action through the kink section. In the ‘normal’ direction, it is a great set-up area before heading down the long straight and into the ‘Daytona’ corner – both in shifter and TaG competition. This weekend, it was a flat out, balls to wall, pedal to the metal, hang on corner. At 80mph, the ‘kink’ played a vital role in how some races were won and some were lost. It was especially tricky for the starts in all divisions, with the shifterkarts placed on the long straight for their standing start and the kink the first ‘corner’ after the launch. The single-speed categories filed into their lanes down the long straight, with the lights going out just before the kink and the field swarmed into the tricky left-hander. SKUSA officials elected to move the starting position for Junior, Mini and Micro Swift divisions up to the start/finish line, utilizing the cut-through straight to avoid the esses, and keep a slow pace toward the green flag. It helped to eliminate the high-speed wrecks, but not all could be avoided when you have over 40 young drivers all vying for the same piece of race track. Looking into the future, should Superkarts! USA return to the PKRA facility, I would assume the clockwise direction will return as the direction of the course.

Safety Always Needs to Come First

Corner workers demand our respect as their number one goal is the competitors safety (Photo: EKN)

Corner workers demand our respect as their number one goal is the competitors safety (Photo: EKN)

The kink was also the location of a very scary incident during the S2 Semi-Pro Stock Moto warm-up session Saturday. The wreck involved a few drivers, along with Checkered Motorsports’ Kyle Smith and assistant race director Scott Clark. Hunter Pickett had spun and stalled the kart, and was attempting to restart with the assistance of Clark. As Pickett was about to pull away until he was run over by another driver, and Smith connected with Clark.

Smith suffered head trauma, and discharged from the Phoenix hospital on Tuesday. The prognoses is good, however, he is in a lot of pain and not permitted to fly as of yet. Smith along with his father Jeff are staying in the Phoenix area with friends, waiting until Kyle is given the go to fly back home to Pennsylvania. A GoFundMe account has been established for Kyle Smith. Clark suffered a number of broken bones from his shoulder down to his feet along the left side of his body. Scott also suffered head trauma, and remains in a Phoenix hospital after completing pelvis and ankle surgeries on Monday. His wife has traveled to be with him as we continue to receive updates on his healing process. Please keep both families in your thoughts as they begin the path to recovery.

The situation brings about a call for change in the way we conduct ourselves on the track. Restarting a kart, including a shifterkart, is allowed by Superkarts! USA and other organizations. International Kart Federation is one organization that prohibits drivers from exiting their kart and restarting. It was a situation we saw unfold in front of us in 2014 during a street race in Texas. A driver stalled on the start, got out, waited for the field to leave and then restarted his kart. He went on to win the race until officials disqualified him for exiting the kart and restarting.

Drivers stalled on the course throughout the weekend in Phoenix and attempted to restart and rejoin the action. Some did it in a safe matter, while others did with no sense or care how they did it. Restarting of karts not only puts drivers in a dangerous position, it also puts the track workers in a vulnerable spot when attempting to help or assist.

I would like to see all organizations update their rules that anytime a driver stalls AND exits the kart, they are not allowed to restart their machine. Too many times have the corner workers put themselves in danger in order to restart a kart, with a field of 40 metal machines closing in and coming just inches away from striking them both. Too many times do we see driver walk away from their karts, never lending a hand to remove their damaged or stalled kart out of the way of danger. Drivers need to have a responsibility when involved in an accident or suffering from a mechanical issue. Get your kart and yourself out of any dangerous situation. Otherwise, there needs to be stiff penalties for ignoring safe entry or exit from the track.

Where are All the Penalties?

Penalties were the biggest complaint I heard throughout the paddock. Following a blunt and to the point driver’s meeting, many felt a number of penalties were left out on the track and nothing was handed out throughout the weekend. Sitting in the scoring tower, we hear and listen to all of the radio chatter. I can tell you there was rarely a session that the radio was silent. Large fields leads to a number of drivers close together, running in larger than normal race packs. Not all contact is deemed to be ‘avoidable’ and equate into a penalty. Contact is a part of racing and with the tight confines of PKRA circuit, it was part of racing throughout the weekend.

One thing that is lacking at the SKUSA events with the penalties is the public posting of those. At the Challenge of the Americas for example, each and every penalty is on display near the results postings to let the entire paddock know just who is penalized and for what. Part of that problem is the officials structure of the event. There needs to be more staff watching over what is happening on-track, and someone connecting with the paddock and the on-track staff. There also needs to be more corner workers to help with the safety factor. Five or six karts jammed up on the track together need more than just one corner worker there helping to pull apart the machines, especially for the younger categories that continue to increase in participation.

Large Fields and Long Days

The 44-driver field of X30 Senior gearing up for a start (Photo: EKN)

The 44-driver field of X30 Senior gearing up for a start (Photo: EKN)

The average number for entries per class was 31 on the weekend. The lowest (S1) brought in a higher number than last year’s totals with three categories reaching the 40-mark (X30 Senior, X30 Junior, Mini Swift). Larger fields tend to amp up the madness on-track. The incident Saturday morning delayed things roughly about an hour, making the event a ‘ready-racing’ push to get things completed. That leaves little time for the track workers to take breaks, thanks to the two-heat and a Final format. Thankfully, there was only two red flags – one for a blocked track and one for a flip in the Mini Swift, with all drivers able to leave uninjured.

By the time the main events began, there was a risk of severe weather approaching. The X30 Junior Final was on-track when a light sprinkle fell. At lap eight, officials called for the checkered flag, ending the race four laps early from the rescheduled 12 laps. It was one of the worst calls I had seen involving precipitation since the Rotax Grand Nationals in 2007. The rain didn’t come down strong enough until the X30 Master group was on track, following a windy and yet still dry S2 main event, as their final few laps were during a steady rain. The remaining categories moved to the wet MG Tires until the last group – S1 hit the track. The track was beginning to take a dry line, and it quickly dried up when the Pros hit the track. Billy Musgrave, Nic LeDuc, Joey Wimsett, and Luke Shanahan were among those taking the gamble for slick Evinco tires. It paid off for Musgrave, Wimsett and LeDuc, placing on the podium 1-2-3.

The day completed roughly an hour behind the printed schedule, where the day began just before qualifying following the warm-up incident. Each category saw four race laps removed, except for the X30 Junior which had eight taken away with the ‘rain’ and the shortening of the main events. This type of schedule is what kills events. We saw it in Daytona, as daylight is premium during the late December time slot. Here in Phoenix, the track lighting could have been utilized as it was during the ‘unofficial’ practice day on Thursday. However, officials were already on-track for nearly 12 hours with little to no break.

To me, a Prefinal-Final format each day allows you the opportunity to end the day at a reasonable time, while also providing more down time to give workers a much needed rest, and offer some buffer minutes incase things are delayed for any reason – incident or weather related.

Benik led the chassis win list with four, including a sweep of Mini and Micro (Photo: EKN)

Benik led the chassis win list with four, including a sweep of Mini and Micro (Photo: EKN)

On the flip side, if people love the heat format, why not do like they used to in the old ProMoto Tour days or run a CIK-style format with qualifying, two heats, Prefinal and Final over two days of competition. This would crown just one winner on the weekend – just like the SuperNationals – rather than a ‘Day 1 Winner’ or a ‘Day 2 Winner’ of the SpringNationals or SummerNationals. Give the competitors two sets of tires to use throughout the two days at any time. Bring back the open hot pit for qualifying to extend that session more, and a driver could use BOTH sets of tires to try and set their fast time. Or, I just may be talking out of my ass and the racers don’t mind what we have now.

Parity Amongst the Event

For the first time in SKUSA Pro Tour seven-year history, there was no driver who scored two main event wins on the weekend. The previous six SpringNationals and six SummerNationals had at least one driver triumph both days. This goes to show how close the competition was all weekend. Along with driver parity, there was also chassis parity with 12 different brands scoring victory in the 18 different main events. The most wins went to Benik which swept the Mini and Micro Swift divisions. The big three – OTK, CRG, and Birel ART – only scored four wins total with many of the smaller, yet successful and popular models earning victories. Praga continues to expand across North America, taking home three victories in three different divisions. GP remains its winning streak, dating back to the opening year of the SKUSA Pro Tour thanks to a big victory by former S1 champion Daniel Bray. Intrepid, Italkart, DR Kart and Merlin all added to their win total in the series with COMPKART taking home its first SKUSA Pro Tour victory thanks to the win by Dante Yu in the competitive X30 Junior division.

Breakthrough Weekend for Many

Yu was among the long list of drivers scoring their first SKUSA Pro Tour victory. Ryan Norberg and Braden Eves, each beginning their second season in the Senior ranks, were among the top drivers all weekend long. Norberg (Orlando Kart Center / Tony Kart) was fast in the dry and the wet, sweeping the opening round. It appeared to be another sweep in the making Sunday until contact at the kink with Matteo Vigano ended his race. This opened the door for Eves (MDD / Kosmic) to land his first SKUSA victory, and the two now enter the SummerNationals as the drivers to beat. It is a young look at the front with top rookies Brandon Lemke (Franklin Motorsports / Merlin) and Zach Holden (Koene USA / Tony Kart) standing on the podium as well during the weekend.

Alan Michel was among the many drivers to earn a breakthrough victory at the SpringNationals (Photo: EKN)

Alan Michel was among the many drivers to earn a breakthrough victory at the SpringNationals (Photo: EKN)

The S2 category is perfect for molding rising talent, and we continue to see future S1 star shine. Austin Wilkins showed us a glimpse at the SuperNationals in November, and followed through with his first ever SKUSA victory on Saturday. The Dallas Karting Complex / SodiKart shifterkart program has continued to evolve, and Wilkins is the latest product with a holeshot win in the tough conditions of Saturday’s main event. Sunday was another holeshot victory, this time for Leading Edge Motorsprots’ Hunter Kelly. The S5 graduate won at the SuperNationals in his Junior finale, and shown well at the regional level. Kelly continued to get better and better, with former SKUSA race winner Trevor McAlister guiding him throughout the weekend. It all came together with a masterful drive in Sunday’s Final.

Local drivers always dream of racing against the best in the country, and for Alan Michel, that wish came true. Moving up to the S4 division this season, the PKRA regular took on four former national champions in Darren Elliott, Jordon Musser, Ryan Kinnear and Gian Cavaciuti. The rain slowed his pace on Saturday with Musser coming through for his first win since his championship season in 2013. Michel fought off all of them Sunday, as the Praga driver earned his first SKUSA Pro Tour triumph.

The top of the Junior field was left open heading into the SpringNationals with the graduation of the last two champions David Malukas and Brandon Lemke. Lance Fenderson (VSR / Tony Kart) and Dante Yu (J3 Competition / COMPKART) are holding the top of the mountain after their victories on the weekend. Jagger Jones (Ryan Perry Motorsport / Tony Kart) led a number of the sessions throughout the weekend as did British driver and TaG Cadet SuperNationals winner Jonny Edgar (Team Benik / Kosmic). When the SummerNationals hit, don’t be surprised to see the Merlin Nation drivers of Alex Bertagnoli and Sam Mayer in the hunt. Diego LaRoque and Tyler Maxson became first time winners in the Mini Swift division while their Team Benik British counterparts Oliver Denny and Brandon Carr became the inaugural winners of the Micro Swift division on the SKUSA Pro Tour.

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