From the Tower: 2017 WKA Daytona KartWeek
2018 season begins with annual trip to Daytona International Speedway
For all intents and purposes, in the world of karting, we blend the end of one year and the start of the next. In Daytona in late December, the 2017 season ended at the same time as the 2018 schedule began. The annual WKA Daytona KartWeek took place between the Christmas and New Year’s Eve holidays, which signaled the last event in the 2017 calendar year, while also kicking off the first championship chase of the 2018 season. The Daytona International Speedway has always been a destination facility, as are the beaches that lie alongside the Atlantic Ocean. The water was as inviting this year as it has been in years past, with cold temperatures hitting the area for Day 1 and Day 2 of racing at the Margay Sprint Nationals. Wet weather greeted the opening day of racing, although the track eventually dried despite the fact that mist hit the area as the sun went down somewhere behind the clouds. The cloud cover finally broke on Day 2, bringing some much-needed sunshine to warm up the temperatures, but it also heated up the action as the aggression throughout the divisions amped up.
New, New, New
The 2017 Daytona KartWeek was an event of ‘new’ components for the WKA Manufacturers Cup series. First on the docket was a new numbering system. All classes are running within a specific set of numbers, such as 300-399 for IAME Senior, 700-799 for IAME Junior, etc. This new approach made recognizing some of the familiar faces a little more difficult, especially if they were in a different brand of chassis or sported newer graphics. This move was made to keep in line with what Superkarts! USA and other organization around the world are doing with the IAME classes. The Yamaha divisions fell in with the same numbering system as well, and it further aided everyone in identifying what karts belong in what class.
A new class and engine package made its official WKA debut in Daytona. The IAME KA100 is a new championship category for the 2018 season. The engine made its North American debut last season and is gathering some real interest around the United States. In KA100 Senior, 14 drivers started the inaugural event with WKA, and the engine package provided some close racing. Senior rookie Colin Neal may have swept the event, but the competition was tight. Qualifying had four drivers within nine hundredths of a second, and the top seven were within three tenths. It’s a great ‘in-between’ engine package, in terms of speed and lap time. The engine package was about two seconds slower than the IAME X30 and two seconds faster than the Yamaha Can. It will be interesting to see if those with KA100 engines from the USPKS decide to hit other WKA events on the season.
WKA also implemented a new tire distribution system for race tires. Previously, competitors were allowed to bring in their own tires and check them in prior to the start of the event. Now, competitors are required to purchase their race tires from WKA as part of their entry fee, similar to what we see done in other series. Practice tires are still at the discretion of the competitors, as no practice tires are sold by WKA. It was a mixed review with many liking the new procedure and some against it. Some racers feel that they should be able purchase their tires from the kart shop of their choice. Some shops are not happy about the loss of revenue either. On the flip side, this new system helps to eliminate the perception that ‘special tires’ are given to certain drivers. In Daytona, there were a few hiccups with the process that I hope get refined before the next event in March. As the year goes on, we will see if the new system can run without any issues and becomes more acceptable for WKA racers.
Another change for the 2018 season is the new 26mm header for the X30 engine in IAME Junior. The goal is to slow down the Junior field, as in the year’s past, the Junior drivers have been as fast or faster than the IAME Senior field. Weight is not an option, as there are already a large majority of Junior drivers with 20 lbs or more of ballast on their karts. The more feasible option was restricting the powerplant. The 26mm exhaust header has replaced the 29mm exhaust header that was utilized in the past. For many, it was the first time using the smaller header with the X30 engine. The data shows that the small header slowed down the Junior drivers significantly. Here is a look at the fast laps for the Junior and Senior categories at Daytona from 2016 and 2017:
IAME Junior: 41.309 (Day 2 Final, 2017), 40.842 (Day 2 Final, 2016)
IAME Senior: 40.549 (Day 2 Final, 2017), 40.557 (Day 2 Final, 2016)
Difference: 0.76 (2017), 0.285 (2016) = 0.475
This will be something that we will watch at the tracks that the series will return to, gauging the speed difference from 2016 to 2017.
IndyCar Sweeps Margay Dash at Daytona
A great addition to the annual trip to Daytona for KartWeek was the inclusion of the Margay Ignite class. The new ‘Dash at Daytona’ event featured 33 drivers coming in from many parts of the United States and Canada, all competing on the spec Ignite K3 chassis powered by the Briggs & Stratton 206 engine. Among the 33 drivers were a pair of IndyCar pilots who will almost certainly be on the most famous grid of 33 drivers come May. Harding Racing pilot Gabby Chaves and Andretti Autosport driver Zach Veach were joined by Mazda Road to Indy standout Juan Piedrahita in Florida, as the trio took a road trip from Indy to Daytona to compete in the ‘Dash’. The Margay Ignite Arrive and Drive program featured a packed tent drivers, but all eyes were on the duo who are set to start their 2018 IndyCar season in March.
Chaves was the early favorite, having raced at the Daytona KartWeek in the past, dating back to the days when he was a Cadet driver and, most recently, in 2013 in the TaG division, a year after winning at the SKUSA SuperNationals. Veach has been in the open wheel ranks for nearly a decade now, as the 23-year-old got his start in racing through karting. Veach raced at locally in Ohio, before moving to cars.
While it was not the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the opening event of the 2018 IndyCar season, the trio took the event as serious as anyone in the Daytona paddock. A three competitors drove for the win each and every session. There was no laying off; it was full aggression for each and every position. Off the track, they worked with the Margay mechanics and talked with other drivers, working to get the best setups possible. The interaction with the fellow Margay Ignite drivers and the young competitors in the paddock was great to see. All three drivers took time for photos and to talk about racing with those who are one day hoping to be where they are today.
Veach was able to edge out ‘Battle at the Brickyard’ Ignite winner Charlotte Lalonde for the victory in Day 1, while Chaves outran Rock Island Grand Prix Ignite victor Jordan Bernloher for the top step of the podium on Day 2. As expected, the 2018 season will be another year of growth for the Margay Ignite program in terms of exposure, additional Arrive-and-Drive events, the Ignite Challenge and more tracks jumping on board the train.
Second-Generation Drivers Honing Talents
Aside from the current IndyCar drivers who were competing in Daytona, there were two very notable former Indy 500 winners in the paddock. Two-time Indy 500 victors Juan Pablo Montoya and Emerson Fittipaldi were both in attendance to support their kids – Sebastian Montoya and Emmo Fittipaldi. Each have similar careers, racing both Formula One and IndyCar, while Montoya spent nine seasons in NASCAR as well.
Both of the second generation drivers were regulars in the paddock throughout the 2017 season, each working their way up the karting ladder. Sebastian moved up to the Junior ranks, and won his first major race on Day 1. Emmo has been working the Cadet category, and was inside the top-15 in the large 45-driver Mini Swift division, placing 12th and ninth in the two finals. The Montoya father/son relationship is much like what you see throughout any paddock, with JP working as the mechanic, mixing the fuel, doing the driver coaching, and being there for every moment with Sebastian. Emerson, at 71-years-old, is still very active in what his son Emmo is doing, although he’s just not the one turning the wrenches on his Nitro Kart. Emerson was kind enough to speak with WKA announcer Eric Brennan during the Micro Swift main event on Day 2.
Great Debut for New Partnership
Among the new developments for the 2018 season is a working relationship between Nitro Kart and the Fullerton USA program. The 2017 season was the debut for the Nitro Kart Cadet chassis, earning multiple wins and podiums on the year, including championships at the national, regional and local level. New for the 2018 season is their working relationship with Fullerton USA. The chassis brand carries the name and development work of world karting champion Terry Fullerton. Both operations are located in North Carolina, so the partnership is a great venture for both. In Daytona, Nitro Kart won three of the four Cadet features, earning six podiums. Add in the fact that it was the best event for Fullerton USA yet, with five podium results in IAME Senior, IAME Junior and KA 100 with Austin Garrison, Edward Portz, and Blake Hunt.
Since the 1970s, the WKA has been coming to the Daytona International Speedway not to compete just inside the facility, but around the 3.5-mile road course that utilizes the high banks and infield section. The same circuit used for the 24 Hours of Daytona, minus the bus stop on the back straightaway, is the course that the WKA National Road Racing competitors tackle every year. Gone are the days of grids featuring over 100 drivers in one class, however, the numbers were very similar to last year. The paddock is much more laid back, yet the drive to be the best is still the same. Daytona is about speed, and a handful of drivers and machines have the ability to reach the limits. A top speed of roughly 150 mph was hit by Rick Fulks in a laydown, twin-engine machine. Sitting on each side of the USAC Race Director are 125cc Sudam engines. Fulks was able to clock in a 1:56.880 lap time, which is about four seconds off the track record. The quickest lap of the event went to veteran John West in his 250cc twin-cylinder powered Andersen Superkart. West recorded a 1:53 lap in practice, but his 1:54.941 lap in Unlimited #1 on Day 1 was best over the two days. Fields were large in the IAME Sprint, Briggs 206, shifterkart and Yamaha laydown divisions. Full results can be found HERE.
One of the largest events in karting has always been the annual WKA Dirt Track World Championships. The old ‘stadium’ track west of the DIS facility welcomed hundreds of entries for the week between Christmas and New Years. Things, of course, are not what they used to be, as this year’s event was not as well attended as the last at the flat track that is located outside NASCAR 1-2. Track conditions were much better than last year, as WKA and DIS made sure the track was ready to race after sitting dormant since last year’s KartWeek. The lower numbers could be due to the change to the Vega tire, along with another large event put on, at the same time, in South Carolina. Things seem to always be changing and moving in the dirt world.
I always leave Daytona wondering if this will be the last year I drive through the tunnel under the high banks. Overall, the event went off well. Of course, we always want bigger numbers and there is no doubt room for it, looking at the paddocks. Thankfully, the racing never disappoints, as action is happening throughout the day at all three tracks. If you have never been to Daytona, you need to make the trip. There is a special feeling when you drive through those tunnels and I certainly can’t wait for December 27, 2018.