OnTrack: CSK Racing – VLR Emerald

EKN Publisher enjoys great day with Tri-C Karters

Rob Howden sampling the VLR chassis during Tri-C Karters opening weekend at CalSpeed (Photo: Trisha Thibodeaux / Tri-C Karters)

It’s not uncommon for the EKN office to receive invitations to drive karts in club and regional events, and trust me, if we had the time and an unlimited travel budget, I’m sure that David and I would accept every offer. There are some tracks and clubs that we’d love to cross off the bucket list, but the truth is that we simply don’t have a bottomless well of cash or enough airline credit to fly around the country. So, the best option is adding track tests or actual participation to the events that we’re already planning to attend.  David and I have both raced at the Rock Island Grand Prix, and we’re looking to get DC behind the wheel in Phoenix is a couple of weeks, when we’re there to cover the second round of the Challenge of Americas. That said, I wasn’t actually planning to attend the opening round of the Tri-C Karters in Fontana, but my most recent outing behind the wheel benefitted from some good timing, which made it all work.  Having travelled southwest to the first COTA winter series round in Tucson in late January, I was already planning to remain in Southern California until Round #2 in Phoenix on February 24-26, so when the message arrived with an invitation to drive at CalSpeed, I was all in. I was staying just an hour from the track, and a fun Saturday in the seat sounded like a great idea.

CalSpeed Karting’s Mike Smith reached out to me in early January with an offer to drive one of their new Briggs 206-powered VLR Emerald karts at the opening Tri-C round, and the race date was just a week after the COTA event at Tucson, so the option was viable. I’d worked closely with Mike in the late-2000’s when I published IndoorKartingNews.com, a site that I launched to focus on league racing at indoor tracks around the country. Mike was the top competitor indoor kart racer in the nation, having won the US Indoor Karting Championship in Phoenix in 2008. He competed overseas in the Indoor Kart World Championship in Belgium as well, finishing an incredible fifth.  Mike also earned a spot on my IKN All-Star team through a nationwide driver search to race in the 2009 Machismo 12-Hour, and he and the three drivers in my all-star quartet would go on to win that race.  Ironically, Mike now works full-time for Rob Niles, the promoter of the Machismo and the owner of the company that runs the karting program at Auto Club Speedway.

That stated, Mike’s invitation to try out the new CSK Racing Arrive-and-Drive program was a welcomed opportunity to re-connect with a friend and colleague. The invite also provided a chance to do something that I’ve never done before, as I was quite surprised when I realized that I’ve actually never driven a lap at CalSpeed.  I’ve announced a dozen or so races at the facility, including IKF Region 7, Stars of Karting, CKI and Challenge of the Americas events, but I’d never actually been on the track myself.  This seemed like the perfect opportunity, and since I hadn’t driven since late last summer, I jumped at the chance.  The new VLR Sr. Spec LO206 class at Tri-C provides a level playing field with a spec kart, spec gear, limited chassis adjustment and a minimum weight of 365 pounds that’s focused on a 200-pound driver, which makes it extremely user-friendly and accessible to all.  As we’ve discussed on EKN so many times before, if we can remove the barriers of entry to the sport, it will become much easily for people to experience karting and to all in love with the thrill and excitement of driving. This class, like the Margay Ignite program, does exactly that.

VLR Emerald chassis (Photo: EKN)

The VLR is the new project from Art and Rod Verlingiere of RLV; one with the goal of providing a low-cost spec four-cycle package centered on the increasing popular Briggs 206 engine.  The kart, built by EKS in Italy, utilizes a mix of 28mm and 30mm tubing, a removable front bar, adjustable rear-ride height, a 40mm axle and a front geometry set-up that allows for minimal adjustment. The kart is finished with KG FP-7 bodywork and a spec 0039 seat. It’s a nice package, priced at $3995 race-ready with Bridgestone YLC tires.

My VLR experience was laid out with Friday afternoon practice ahead of a full race day with the Tri-C Karters on Saturday, which includes a morning warm-up, qualifying, two heats and a main. Our planned Friday practice was scuttled by rain, as with sun coming on Saturday, not a soul elected to hit the track for wet weather practice.

On Saturday morning, Smith took the new CSK drivers for a track walk, detailing the driving line and unique aspects of CalSpeed’s ‘Sportivo’ layout. Driver coaching is a positive component of the CSK program, helping to expedite the learning curve of the new racers they’re hoping to attract with the arrive-and-drive effort.  I took full advantage of Smith’s expertise and insight, and joined a half-dozen drivers for the tour. The primary overtaking opportunities on the Sportivo layout are the two hairpins – Monaco and Long Beach – but you can also make moves in two other areas of the track.  Mike detailed corner entry and exit points, and detailed some of the dangers to stay away from.  It was an extremely useful session.

The track surface was cold and a little damp for our warm-up, and considering the fact that I’d never driven the track, I took the first laps a little easier. I also simply wanted to get a feel for the VLR, gauging the quickness of the front-end at turn-in, how the brakes felt and how the kart would rotate at the apex with the stock set-up.  A number of drivers spun during the opening laps of our warm-up, caught out by our cold Bridgestones and the slippery racing surface, and I didn’t want to be part of that action.  I really liked the flow of the Sportivo layout, with two hairpins, a couple of double-apex sweepers and corner combinations that leverage the elevation changes of the facility.  I came up to speed quickly during the warm-up session and was comfortable in the VLR, which was very balanced despite the slippery nature of the cold track surface.  Once the Bridgestones started to come up to temperature, the grip increased and I was able to start taking some corners flat-out, albeit with a nice controlled drift.  I was able to lay down a best lap of 54.013, about a second off the quickest time of the session.  I knew I’d have ground to make up from the get-go, as the VLR Sr. Spec program has attracted some of the top drivers from CalSpeed’s Sport Kart program, and they have countless laps on the track. I see this as a huge positive, as it gave me a goal to shoot for, a benchmark.  And with varying levels of experience in the field, everyone has someone to race with, regardless of their pace.

The trackside atmosphere at the Tri-C Karters event was exactly what I like seeing when it comes to club karting. Everyone was walking around with a smile, and Tri-C knows how to take care of their racers with coffee and donuts in the morning, and on this occasion, nachos were available at the Tri-C tent over lunch. It was a really nice touch.  Even at the drivers meeting, club president Nathan Thibodeaux made certain to reiterate the core values of fun, competition and safety. I think he set the tone for the day and from what I saw, 99% of the racers were having a great time.

Qualifying was up next, and they kept us separated in leaving the pit area, as drafting was not allowed.  The track was still coming in, so again, my plan was to gauge the grip level and then try to hit my marks.  I stepped it up a little to find just over seven-tenths of a second, posting a 53.299 to sit seventh in the order, closing on the leaders by three tenths.  I was still 0.7 seconds off, but I’d made progress, which was good.

CSK Racing’s Mike Smith and Howden debriefing after an on-track session (Photo: Trisha Thibodeaux / Tri-C Karters)

The kart felt great, but again, I’m not a guy who throws changes at a set-up until I think I’m driving the kart to at least 90% of its limit.  There’s no sense trying to hide driver error with requests for adjustments.  I was simply braking too tamely into the hairpins and I wasn’t carry enough corner speed either. Looking back at some video of the day made me realize I was also pinching the exit of turn four at the top of the hill by the paddock, losing too much exit speed.  Improving those areas would get me to where I needed to be, I believe.  The kart showed neither oversteer or understeer, so again, no changed. It was very balanced and I felt confident in it. This was all about seat time.

The opening heat race did not go as planned, as upon exiting the Monaco hairpin side-by-side with another driver on the opening lap, I got squeezed lightly into the outside tire barrier and made contact, causing a spin.  In hindsight, I should have leaned back a little harder, but I was not expecting to be run out of room.  Lesson learned.  I pushed the kart back onto the racing surface, hopped in and got rolling again, and despite a badly bent steering shaft, I caught and passed a couple karts to finish 12th. Interestingly, I was still seventh-tenths back on outright speed to the leaders, even with the bent steering shaft, but I did get into the draft over the last two laps of the heat race as I caught a pair of karts fighting for 11th. The draft plays a big role in the 206’s speed at CalSpeed, and it was evident.  Back in the paddock, the CSK crew went to work and we got the steering shaft changed out in about 15 minutes.  Everything else looked good on the chassis, so now I just need to get to work in the second heat to recover. I had topped the fuel tank up after being close on weight following the warm-up, and rolled across at 374 pounds. We’d just let the fuel burn up for the rest of the day and I knew I’d be good to go for the main.

CKS opens up the tracks’ driver classroom/lounge for their arrive-and-drive customers, which is a nice addition, and I’m sure it will be even better in the high heat of the summer, thanks to its cooling AC.  While hanging up before the second heat race, I discussed strategy with fellow driver Vladimir Orlov, who has the same speed as I did and was also involved in a Heat #1 incident, and was starting right behind me in 14th. We decided that we’d work together to move forward, but Vladimir was more aggressive over the opening laps and worked quickly past the guys in front of us while I took my time.  I took things easy at the start of the second heat to avoid the expected carnage, and slipped into 11th to start the attack, right behind Vladimir. Together, we worked to ninth and tenth by the halfway point of the eight-lap heat, and then put in some good laps to pass a pair of karts, finishing up seventh and eighth to fill row four for the 15-lap final.  I was getting increasingly comfortable and was pushing the braking zones, found another eight-tenths, posting a 52.417 and ended up about less than three tenths of a second off heat race winner Miles Calvin’s fast lap (52.157), although Aaron Downs finished second with a quick lap of 51.866. I was inching closer, but still didn’t believe the kart needed any adjustment.  If I was able to latch onto the lead group at the start of the main, I thought that I’d be good to go.

The popular Briggs 206 powerplant that is part of the VLR racing package (Photo: EKN)

Thinking about tucking in behind the lead pack, and actually making that happen, are two different things, and the start was pretty chaotic as Vladimir and I simply couldn’t hold on during the opening laps.  We ran in our starting positions early and we were there for the first four laps, grasping onto the tail of the pack as they battled, but they were just a tad quicker on cold tires and pulled away just enough to shake us from the draft.  From there, Vlad and I raced hard and I eventually slipped past to grab seventh, but he got to the inside of me entering the downhill off-camber left-hand Sportivo corner, but tried to carry a little too much corner speed and spun at the exit.  I was able to avoid him and then I pulled away to a decent gap ahead of Steve Jasinski and Jacob Linton, as they had to check up. My advantage shrunk over the last five laps as Steve and Jacob worked together, slowly reeling me in.  Jacob made a move to the inside heading into right-hand turn one on the final lap, but I held my ground on the outside, knowing I’d have the inside line for the double-left turn two-three complex. I was able to get a better run through turn four as a result, and luckily, Steve was pressuring Jacob for position over the final lap.  Late-race contact up front put Miles Calvin on the sidelines, which advanced me to sixth in the final tally. Miles’ brother Logan Calvin took the win over stepbrothers Jon Kimbrell and Aaron Downs. Hannah Grisham and Mark Connell capped the top-five, and my hat goes off to Mark as the 48-year-old fought wheel to wheel all day with the ‘kids’.

For the most part, it was all smiles and high-fives in the scale line, which is what club karting is all about.  The CSK staff provides great support and the camaraderie under the tent, and I truly had a great dayThe program offers a real ‘try before you buy’ opportunity, as the all-inclusive race day arrive-and-drive rental program that I enjoyed is available for just $350 at all Tri-C Karters club races in 2017. This fee includes use of the race ready VLR Spec 206 race kart, all consumables including tires, fuel and oil, a front row pit spot under the CSK team tent, and the private indoor air-conditioned driver lounge that I mentioned.  The driver coaching and mechanical support are included, as are the club fees, which include the $100 class entry fee and $10 transponder rental fee. CSK Racing will also be offering a trackside support program to owners of the VLR Spec 206 kart package for $50 per race. This fee will include a pit spot under the team tent, the driver lounge, driver coaching, technical/setup advice and discounts on parts and services. It’s a solid program to bring new racers into the sport.

Anyone interested in participated in an upcoming Tri-C Karters race with CSK Racing should using the following contact information to discuss opportunities with Mike Smith or a CSK staff member:

Facebook: CSK Racing

Email: mike@calspeedkarting.com

Phone: 951-506-9363

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