From the Tower: 2017 United States Pro Kart Series – Liberty Grand Prix

Predictable weekend outside Pittsburgh for second event toward championship chase

The second event of the 2017 United States Pro Kart Series was held on the June 2-4 weekend at the Pittsburgh International Race Complex. The Wampum, PA facility has hosted the USPKS four times in its five years. Nearly every time the series and other programs visit the 9/10-mile Wilson Circuit, rain hits the area. This time was no different, with the clouds opening up with the rain around lunch time, going on and off until the last main event. Head to the EKN Event Page for full coverage of the weekend.

KA100 – The New Headline Category

KA100 has become the new headline category at the USPKS program (Photo: EKN)

The event was just short of the 100-mark for entries, with the KA100 leading the charge with 23 drivers taking part. The first four years, it was the IAME Pro division that led the way, posting over 30 driver for nearly every event for the first three years. Last year was the first time in the series history the numbers dropped below the 30 mark, with 25 as the lowest turnout. The bar was lowered in April with the 2017 debut showing 19, while this weekend marked an all-time low with just 9 drivers.

A number of factors have played into the loss of drivers in the category. Teams and drivers are selecting events rather than attending them all. In the past, teams and drivers did both WKA and USPKS. Now in 2017, many are selecting one or the other (more on that in another column). Drivers are also moving on. Only two drivers from the top-10 standings returned to compete – Brandon Jarsocrak and Armin Cavkusic. Some have limited their schedules, a couple moving on to cars, and others have jumped over to the KA100 program.

The total package provided by the USPKS and IAME USA East of a free engine by entering all four events for 2017 was a easy choice for some in IAME Pro to make the switch over. Obviously, with a new engine package, there was question just how good the powerplant would be.

With my first observation at the Pittsburgh weekend, it has put it back into the hands of chassis tuning and performance of the driver. We saw four different chassis fighting it out at the front – Merlin, Praga, Fullerton, and OTK – both in the dry and in the wet. At the Pittsburgh facility, the KA100 (on MG Reds) is about 2.5 seconds quicker than a Yamaha Can (on MG Yellows) and about 3 seconds slower than the IAME X30. It was great, clean racing that instead of being the first class per round at the USPKS weekend, needs to be the final race to end each day with excitement and everyone watching along the fence line.

What does the future hold for the KA100 outside of the USPKS, we will wait and see.

New Teams Join the Fun

Ocala Gran Prix has joined the roster of teams competing at the USPKS (Photo: EKN)

While there were notable teams not in attendance at the USPKS event in Pittsburgh, there were others making their series debuts. Ocala Gran Prix is jumping on for the remainder of the series, visiting Pittsburgh with four drivers. Jeremy Fletcher scored the team’s only podium finish with a third in IAME Mini Swift, and was a contender throughout Sunday. Three drivers flew the flag for OGP in IAME Junior. Zachary Hollingshead came away with a fourth-place result. Dylan Gennaro and Jade Hubert, who raced while suffering from a blood infection and rash caused by a bug bite, made their first USPKS starts. All will be in the hunt in New Castle at the end of July.

Speed Racing Concepts was created this December, and is already notching victories. Tyler Gonzalez scored the victory in IAME Junior on Saturday, placing runner-up on Sunday. Adding Alex Powell and Paul Bocuse in Mini Swift, SRC is growing into a solid operation with the experienced and successful Mike Speed at the helm.

Russell Karting Specialties has been a leader in the United States karting industry for decades. Their long-term partnership with the Parolin brand continues, as does the success with the chassis. RKS has seen young driver Caleb Gafrarar excel in Kid Kart and now Micro Swift competition over the last two years, including two podium finishes in Pittsburgh. Jim Russell Jr. is busy this year, helping take drivers from the Kansas City area – Jace Park and Ethan Ayars – around the country to get them big event experience and expand on their development as drivers. The operation is also building the shifterkart program within the Texas ProKart Challenge.

Protesting Pushback Bumpers

The ‘Pushback Bumper’ has helped to keep the starts cleaner with minimal incidents (Photo: EKN)

This was my first weekend with the new pushback bumper system in action. The USPKS and Route 66 Sprint Series had used it once each, and the Can-Am Karting Challenge implemented it at their opener in May. The main reason for the implementation is to stop the bad race craft. Kids have been using their bumper like they were in NASCAR, with no respect for the other drivers around them or event respect for their own equipment. With the largest field being over 20 drivers, there were no issues at the starts as everyone gave each other enough room to negotiate the track. Even the Mini and Micro kids got through the opening corners with no issues, settling into a position and then began working on moving up the order.

USPKS officials review the bumpers prior to gridding, making sure they are not tied down or altered to not ‘push back’. Tech officials have the stock parts on hand, and inspected a number of nose cones throughout the weekend while in tech following races. And during the racing, they caught one driver attempting to put the nose cone back to the rest spot, which is an automatic disqualification. The system is in its early days, and the USPKS staff is making sure they stay on top of everything.

There were a reduced number of penalties for pushback bumper given out on the weekend compared to the GoPro weekend. There were 11 5-second penalties (one side pushed in) with 13 10-second penalties (both sides pushed in). Racers however are now protesting the ruling for the pushback bumper. One example was the IAME Junior main event on Sunday. Maks Kowalski was starting fifth and left the grid late. He raced back up to catch the field, attempting to get into his position for the start. During that time, before the green flag waved, his bumper was pushed in on side while he was attempting to retake his original starting position. When he pulled into the scales, officials called in the penalty for the bumper and right away his team was on to fill out a protest.

A new update to the rulebook added in April for the USPKS after GoPro reads like the following: If a dislodged bumper penalty is issued in the Main Event (Finals), you may protest it using the normal protest channels, but only conclusive on-board video evidence will be considered. USPKS officials found the incident occurring before the green flag and not during the competition laps, and Kowalski retained the victory.

This is where I am torn. Do we just keep it as a go, no-go penalty, meaning if its pushed back then lay down a penalty, no matter the situation. Or is onboard review and protests the best solution to overturn the penalites. Racers should have the opportunity to argue when the bumper was pushed back, as officials do not have an exact system of determining when, only to observe onboard footage. This, however, goes away from what they do at the international level – including the Rotax Grand Finals, CIK Championships and more, where a penalty is a penalty, and no overturning. Obviously, this is something new and we can’t jump to assumptions on which way works best.

Gary Willis Exited the Building

Officials are here to keep the racers safe and police the action, not to take your verbal abuse (Photo: EKN)

Saturday’s IAME Mini Swift ended a few corners early as Isaac Beekman tangled with Nikita Johnson. Beekman got the worse and flipped over hard. Thankfully, the rest of the field avoided hitting him as the kart sat on top of him. Nikita did the best he could trying to get the kart off Beekman before I was the first to the scene and take the kart off. Props to Beekman, who I never heard cry but just wanted to get up, only complaining of shoulder pain. It ended up being a broken collarbone as he was back at the track later that evening. We look forward to seeing him at the races soon with a full recovery.

As we were attending to Beekman, USPKS officials brought out the red flag. Corner workers began to display the black/yellow dual flags with head flagman Tony Jump displaying the full red. With the location of the ambulance on the outside of turn 1, the leaders were asked to stop just prior to the turn. The first four came to a stop, but it was Nicholas Terlecki that came in too fast and slammed into the back of the parked leaders.

Assisting with the red flag incident and the packed schedule, I was not able to review the post-red flag contact after it occurred, just hearing the slam and what others had to say about it afterwards. It was not the optimal safe slowdown we hope for when a red flag comes out, and obviously is a teaching moment for these nine to 12-year-old drivers.

At the end of the day as the staff was wrapping up things and settling down to relax after a 12-hour day on track, Gary Willis approached Race Director Jason Ludwig. Since the USPKS began, Jason has been a key figure on the staff, always ensuring situations are done correctly and fair. Willis’ major complaint was the hard contact post-red flag, involving his driver. I can understand his concern and wanting something to be done for the hard avoidable contact, because it is a major safety concern. His approach however was not ideal, and ended with a number of vulgar remarks toward Jason.

Ludwig did the best thing and removed Willis from the remainder of the event, and USPKS has implemented a ban on him attending further events until deemed to return, should a public apology be made. I applaud the USPKS for taking a stand against this type of attitude and personal attack on the very people who are here to keep the racers safe. It’s not the first time and it won’t be the last. This winter at the Challenge of the Americas, Race Director Taylor Jocelyn kept his cool when Christian Brooks nearly stepped over the line with his comments toward him and a call he made. Kevin Williams with WKA has seen his share of angry parents and drivers as well. Joe Janowski is new to the RD position, so we’ll give him some time.

In the end, we need to remember that the race staff is here for us. Not to collect a big check at the end of the weekend, but to enjoy the thrill of karting and serve as key members at an event. It is not something to look over, as time and time again, parents blame most things on the race officials rather than looking to their child. Are the officials going to make a mistake from time to time, sure. They are human. But so are you and so are these children who are piloting the racing machines. For many of the parents in the karting paddock, they have never taken a lap in competition, and only see events through their eyes, focused on the one driver they care the most for.

I strongly suggest the next time you are at a club race, pick up a flag and go work a corner. See just how difficult of a duty it is to watch over these young and talented kids.

First IAME International Final Entry Awarded

Brent Crews took home the free entry to the IAME International Final with his solid weekend in Mini Swift (Photo: EKN)

The first person to represent the United States of America at the IAME International Final is Brent Crews. The Nitro Kart driver scored the victory in the IAME Mini Swift division both days to secure the most points on the weekend. Connor Zilisch had the lead going into Sunday thanks to the points he accumulated in qualifying and the two heat races. Crews was able to overcome that deficit, and finish the weekend as the top points earner. The prize is a entry spot at the IAME International Final in Le Mans, France to take part in the X30 Mini division, thanks to the USPKS and IAME USA East.

The full tickets to the IAME International Final remain in the championship chases, along with the SKUSA SuperNationals 22 Guaranteed Starting Spot positions when the USPKS continues on July 28-30 at the New Castle Motorsports Park in New Castle, Indiana.

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