From the Tower: Rock Island Grand Prix 2016
Memorable three-days in Quad Cities for 22nd edition of world’s largest street race
For 13 straight years, I have traveled west to the Quad Cities area to cover the rare and exciting Rock Island Grand Prix. For the 22nd time, a non-profit volunteer-based group and diehard race fans turn the city streets of Rock Island, Illinois into a two-day race festival centered around the purest form of motorsports – karting.
I have been to nearly every type of event in the sport – dirt, oval, road racing and sprint at all types of levels including the 20-driver club race to the SuperNationals in Las Vegas. There is simply nothing like the combination of regular club racers competing alongside and against those who race at the top level of the sport. What is great, everyone has the one commonality – the love of karting.
The track is nothing like anything in the sport. Roughly nine square city blocks are fenced off to include a karting paddock, the 6/10-mile course and other activities during the day and night. Looking at the track from not every being there, you may think this is a piece of cake. Unlike a normal track, the circuit changes its character by the hour, and sometimes by the lap. Barriers are moving, weather conditions are always changing, and the grip level goes from ice to super sticky by the Sunday main events.
2016 was another memorable event with drivers making notable performances, and overall, the event had that feeling of prestige once again. Around the 20th edition, there was question that the event would continue. The last two years have seen numbers grow thanks to adjustments by the race committee and by the stronger support of the karting community take part. For complete coverage visit the EKN Event Page and special thank you to TB Kart USA for their support of the EKN Live broadcast.
Stewart Goes Five for Five
Cal Stewart is among those who has a passion for the city streets of Rock Island and the allure of winning a Rock. I had the previlege of racing alongside ‘Cowboy’ at the 2013 event when we both drove Victory Karts under the Top Kart USA tent in Briggs 206 Medium. He would finish 6th, two spots ahead of EKN’s own Rob Howden, and well ahead of myself. During that weekend, I could see first hand the determination and desire to be the quickest and the best, every time he hit the track.
Stewart sat out the RIGP the next two years, and throughout the 2016, he kept talking about racing it again. He hooked up with his friend Jesse Clossey to drive his Coyote machines in the Briggs 206 Medium and Heavy classes, while picking up a Top Kart to drive in Yamaha Medium. Saturday morning, Stewart elected to race the Briggs 206 Heavy 2 class, making it four classes on the weekend. Saturday started out great, with wins in all three Briggs divisions and fourth in Yamaha Medium. It was discovered at the end of the day, his Yamaha suffered some damage, and a back-up was needed. In stepped fellow competitor Tony Jump and father Rick, offering up a Switch Racing Engines Yamaha to race on Sunday.
The rest is history, as Stewart did exactly that. RIGP Emperor Gary Lawson had won four races in the same event multiple times, with only Jason Birdsell’s five in 1995 and last year’s six by Tony Neilson better. Stewart was not done, signing up for the Yamaha Heavy just minutes before the field took to the grid. Starting 18th, Stewart knifed his way to the front, scoring a fifth Rock Trophy to become the only driver ever to go five for five in main events.
At the awards ceremony, there was not a dry eye when Stewart excepted his first ever Rock trophy and asked Ron DeVriendt to the podium. The Briggs 206 Heavy class, in which Stewart won his first Rock, was in honor of his son and former RIGP winner Travis DeVriendt – who passed away from suicide prior to last year’s race. The class is a memorial race, as the family continues to help raise suicide awareness in young adults, raising money toward the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Stewart presented the Rock trophy to Mr. DeVriendt to an emotional standing ovation. It showed the true class and highlighted the type of man Cal Stewart is.
Stewart also gave his Briggs 206 Heavy 2 award to Tim McMeekan – who paid the entry fee Saturday morning for Stewart to race in the class. In total, Stewart was awarded 5 Rock trophies, moving him to 13th overall on the RIGP win list, and a fat wallet filled with $2,100 for his cash winnings.
Track Records Fall
The track build this year was very favorable to the racers toward the stop watch. Sunday was filled with record fast laps in every category. A wider course allowed racers to carry more speed through the corners, helping to shave off time for the fast laps of the race. A new overall ‘Xtream Award’ by the presenting sponsor Mediacom went to the fastest overall laptime, with Austin Wilkins in the King of the Streets breaking the 2006 mark set by multi-time RIGP winner Kyle Wiegand. His time of 31.176 in a Top Kart ICC-powered machine fell to the Sodi Kart Stock Moto package of Wilkins, producing a 31.084-second lap.
That was the only fast time Anthony Honeywell did not record in the four quickest categories of the weekend. Honeywell set three fast time records – TaG Masters (32.852), TaG Senior (32.173), and a full half-second quicker in 125 Masters (31.994) – the only class the Honeywell Competition/Tanda Racing Praga driver secured the RIGP victory flag.
King of the Streets Regains Numbers
While Wilkins scored the fast lap of the race, the crown belonged to Canadian Remo Ruscitti. The Italkart pilot took the lead over after lap two, and was able to drive away in his TM-powered machine. The grid was a great mixture of KZ and Stock Moto, surpassing the 20-driver mark for the first time since 2011. Much of it came from the effort of 2015 winner Josh Lane. The event is among the favorite for the Illinois native, competing at the race since he was old enough. His only goal, to beat the best at their best. Lane appeared to have the edge on the competition, driving away to the heat win, but Ruscitti showed his pro ability with a similar performance Sunday in the main event. Many are already planning on a return to the 2017 edition, with Lane having well over 300 days to convince and pursue others to visit the Quad Cities next Labor Day weekend.
Ignite Expands Program
The growth in the Briggs 206 categories continue since their introduction in 2012. In addition to the four regular 206 classes, the Margay Ignite Shootout grew in numbers as well. Sixteen drivers took part in the inaugural event last year, growing to 22 in Senior and welcoming six Junior drivers for their first time at the Rock Island Grand Prix. The category is a great introduction for racers to the event in a spec-Margay K3 kart with a spec Briggs 206 engine package. It allows new racers to RIGP the opportunity to get acclimated to challenge of racing inside the walls and on the city streets. It also levels the playing field, as the spec kart package and Bridgestone YDS tires put the emphasis on driver performance.
I myself took part in the Ignite Shootout for a second straight year. My results were much better this time around, although not what I had hoped. What was great was to see the smiles on all the other drivers making their first Rock Island GP finish. Knowing they had survived the 15 laps and battled neck-n-neck with fellow drivers was the highlight of the weekend. I’ll have more on my experience with Margay and my seventh behind the wheel at the Rock in another article.
80cc Makes Return to Rock
It had been since 2002 that the sound of an 80cc shifterkart engine was heard buzzing around the Rock Island Grand Prix. A grassroots effort has formed in the Southern Indiana Racing Association (SIRA), reaching numbers over the 20 driver mark. All different ages of drivers, wide range of chassis makes with some coming from a decade ago. It’s brought new life into shifterkart racing in the midwest, all focused on going out and having a good time. The SIRA group was able to bring over a dozen racers to reform the class into the roster for the weekend.
Among those joining the SIRA regulars was former King of the Streets winner Josh Lane. The ‘Wild Thing’ picked up an 80cc engine from California the week of the event, shoved it into the hands of his dad Lance – a multi-time winner at the Rock – and tested it at Norway Friday before heading to the Quad Cities. Lane came from the back to finish the heat race behind SIRA point leader Joe Ruch. The Final looked to be a duel between the two until a water hose issue forced Ruch to pull off. Lane ran away with the victory and the Rock trophy. That was until at the awards ceremony when he presented it to runner-up Devon Smith-Harden – who was one of the many that invited Josh to compete in the class. It was a special moment once again in what was among the best awards ceremonies at the Rock Island Grand Prix in recent years.
23rd Edition Just 51 Weeks Away
Momentum is on the side of the Rock Island Grand Prix. Racers today are picking and choosing what events they attend throughout the year. With the Labor Day weekend locked in for the annual event, racers can plan their season around making the trip to the Quad Cities. The last few years have seen a growth in entries, and 2016 was no different. The atmosphere around the paddock was great, and reminded you of years past with the big, major race teams and kart shops supporting it. Racers are loyal to this event, and a new generation of drivers are looking in at the chance to be part of this amazing event. The future is looking brighter for the Rock Island Grand Prix.
Check out some of the Facebook Live videos we created during the weekend: