EKN Trackside: Texas ProKart Challenge – Speedsportz Report
Hewitt and Baker storm to impressive main event wins in series opener
Max Hewitt emerged from the S2 lead battle to win his first shifter main, impressing in Houston on an Alpha
(Photo: Ken Johnson : Studio52.us)
If their season opener at Speedsportz Racing Park this past weekend is any indication, the Texas ProKart Challenge is a series on the move. The SKUSA regional program closed their 2017 schedule at the New Caney, TX facility last October and returned just five months later to fire up the 2018 campaign, setting a series record for entries in the process. The event welcomed 84 drivers spread over seven classes, which represents a 13% growth spurt from where they left off in 2017. The double-digit numbers in Mini Swift, X30 Junior and X30 Senior bode well for the future, and as always, the Texas PKC drew a talented Stock Honda race group. Shifter rookie Max Hewitt (Alpha Kart) scored a popular win in the S2 Semi-Pro Stock Honda class, outgunning S4 Master national #2 Ryan Kinnear (Sodi Kart) and S2 category frontrunner Blair Hosie (Alpha Kart), while Brenden Baker (CRG) dominated the X30 Senior action to start his regional season with a victory.
While other parts of the country battled cold temperatures and precipitation, the Houston area offered sunshine and warmth for the weekend’s events. The mercury topped 80 degrees for Saturday’s racing and the addition of a significant breeze helped to quell the higher humidity. The Texas PKC staff, led by Gina and Mark French, put on an extremely well-run event and the race crew was aggressive with penalty calling and assessment from the get-go. Mark French has taken up the role of Race Director for the year and as a veteran member of the community, he was quick to drop the hammer on over-aggressive driving. As a result, the main events featured truly impressive driving for the most part. This was not the only big positive on the weekend. In talking to a number of families, they are thrilled with the series’ decision to run single-race weekends during the school year events, as the March and September races are being offered with a Saturday practice and a Sunday race day. In the summer when the kids are out of school, for the June race at Denton and the July event in Amarillo, they’ll offer Friday practice and will run a doubleheader race weekend to result in six races over four weekends.
As stated, the racing was exciting in all categories. In Woltjer Racing Engines X30 Senior, the weekend started with PSL Karting’s Ryan Norberg (Birel) in the mix. PSL had brought their rig to Speedsportz from Florida to support the Alan Rudolph and the Speedsportz track, which is one of their BirelART dealers. Norberg came along for the ride and after qualifying off-pole to Baker, he had a good battle with CRG driver in the opening heat race. The #1 plateholder elected to remove himself from the remainder of the weekend so as not to affect the points championship. In his absence, Baker had no real competition as he had his CRG on rails, turning in a flawless performance to win the second heat and the main event. Alejandro Jaramillo (TonyKart) was involved in a close battle with defending X30 Senior champion Brett Mitchell (TonyKart), and made a late-race move to take the runner-up finishing position. John Berry and Matt Stretch completed the top-five in the 15-kart field.
A three-driver battle was waged in the Dallas Karting Complex S2 Semi-Pro Stock Honda category and all three topped at least one session. DAMZ Racing’s Blair Hosie captured the pole in qualifying, while Dallas Karting Complex driver Ryan Kinnear won the opening 12-lap heat race before Hosie fought back in Heat 2 to again nab the pole for the final. Hewitt completed the lead trio in qualifying and both heat races, but he was the one to watch from the green flag in the main event. The Alpha Kart pilot worked past both Hosie and Kinnear in short order, and took off from his competition as they fought it out for the second step on the podium. The Kinnear versus Hosie battle was a good one. After holding off several aggressive overtaking maneuvers from Hosie, including one successful pass in the Turn 14 hairpin that Hosie immediately gave back in a show of sportsmanship due to excessive contact, Kinnear closed back on Hewitt over the final laps. Despite pushing hard over the late race charge, Kinnear could not get himself into a position to make a bid for the lead. At the stripe, Hewitt earned his first S2 victory in only his second start, having run one race in 2017. The margin was 0.491 seconds at the line, as the top-three was covered by less than 1.3 seconds. Outside the fight for the podium positions, Mark Snyder (Formula K) finished fourth and Dylan Towne (SodiKart) was fifth.
The fight for the S4 Master Stock Honda win was waged between national #3 Rod Clinard (CRG) and Nathan Stewart (SodiKart) and the battleground was developed within a pack that consisted of a pair of S2 drivers as well. Clinard led early, but as he was attempting to get past one of the S2s, he was baulked on the exit of Turn 14 and that was enough for Stewart to slip past to take the lead and the eventual win. Miguel Garcia finished third ahead of Venkat Reddy (CRG) and Thane Morgan (SodiKart).
PSL Karting’s Miguel Mier (BirelART) was the class of the X30 Master field, as he was consistently a half-second or more quicker than his competition throughout the day on Sunday. The event did not go as smoothly as it could have for Mier, however, as he was collected at the start of the second heat race by an over-eager competitor whose aggressive move caused a chain reaction that left a kart on top of Mier on the exit of the turn. This DNF dropped Miguel to eighth for the start of the 16-lap final, but Mier was on the move immediately to chase down Keith Harless (BirelART), who won the second heat race to start the final from the pole. Harless jetted out early in the main, but it was only a matter of time before Mier got the front. He was fifth at the end of the opening lap and was into third by lap three. Mier closed quickly on the leader, but he let his desire to lead get the best of him and he made an aggressive move on Harless in the right-hand turn 14 hairpin as soon as he arrived on his bumper. Mier plowed past the corner apex as he attempted to make the turn, and made hard contact with the leader, pushing him offline and almost off the track. After the contact, Mier would jet away to a 12.8-second win, but he was hit with a one-position penalty for avoidable contact that moved him behind Harless for the race win. With Harless on the top step of the podium and Mier in second, Jorge Garcia (BirelART) completed the top-three. Rod Lake (SodiKart) and Robert Navarro finished fourth and fifth.
The main event for the Texas Barge X30 Junior drivers was fun to watch, as the group is deep with talent and features a number of top Mini Swift drivers from 2017. Rookie X30 Junior driver John Burke (TonyKart) went to the lead early in the 16-lap race, followed by Emiliano Richards (TonyKart) and Branyon Tiner (TonyKart), who is also in his freshman year in Junior. The trio would pull away over the course of the race, and once past the halfway point, Tiner moved by Richards to take over second. Over the final circuits, Tiner was on a mission and he eventually caught Burke with just two laps remaining. On the final lap, Burke ran the defensive line at the end of the long backstraight but then failed to do the same in the next corner, the left-hand hairpin turn 7, and Tiner slipped inside for the lead. Richards followed him through, fully intent on going from third to first on the final lap. Richards made his bid for the win in turn 14, throwing his kart to the inside, but he pushed wide at the exit, and Tiner executed a perfect outside-inside move to get the better run off the corner. With open track in front of him, Tiner beat Richards to the checkered by 0.217 seconds. Burke powered home to a strong third while Jose Garfias (TonyKart) and Adrian Cruz completed the top-five.
Two of the drivers deserving of a mention from the X30 Junior main were Travis Wiley (CompKart) and Ayrton Hernandez (BirelART), who hooked up together after starting at the tail of the 19-kart field. They stormed through the field and eventually into the top-10, with Wiley taking sixth and Hernandez in eighth.
A two-driver battle for the MindShift Financial Mini Swift win developed quickly as Aden Rudolph (BirelArt) and Jack Jeffers (Benik) paired off to work together in the main, slowly inching away from their competitors to duke it out amongst themselves. Rudolph and Jeffers had topped the field all day, with Aden scoring the pole position in qualifying and Jack sweeping the heat race wins to secure the pole for the final. Jeffers led the first nine laps of the 14-lap main, as Rudolph showed patience in pushing the leader out from the pack to make it a two-horse fight. The duo continued to extend the gap back to the battle for third, which was being waged between Jace Park (Parolin), Davis Cunningham (CompKart), and Alex Stanfield (Energy). With five to do, Rudolph made his move and took over the point, and over the final circuits, he was successful in holding off Jeffers to score his first Texas ProKart Challenge win. Jeffers finished second, while Cunningham made a late-race pass to take third from Park and Stanfield.
A total of six Alan Rudolph Racing Academy Micro Swift drivers took to the track for the opening Texas PKC round, and visiting driver Caleb Gafrarar (Parolin) came away with the big win on Sunday in dominating fashion. The North Carolina nine-year-old showed his continually developing skills and racecraft as he used consistency to stretch away to a 7.840-second advantage at the checkered flag. Gafrarar qualified on the pole and won both heat races, which meant that the main event win completed the sweep, but his competition was extremely fast as well. Ethan Thomason (Benik) set the fastest race laps in both heat races, and would finish the day in second ahead of Santiago Duran (Benik). Sarah Bradley (Benik) finished fourth while Jack and Oscar Iliffe (Benik) were fifth and sixth.
There was one other on-track scrap we should cover, and that was the hilarious Jake French vs Ryan Norberg ‘Head-to-Head’ battle that raised over $1000 for MD Andersen Cancer Center of Houston. The two SKUSA #1 plate holders and EKN #1s faced off in a skills competition to see who would earn the pole for a 10-lap rental kart shootout. Fully suited gloves and helmets, Jake and Ryan started with a nut and bolt challenge, followed by a G-rated version of beer pong and then a classic checkers match. When the game came down to a stalemate, Norberg suggested Rock-Paper-Scissors and ended the epic first round with a decision scissor over paper move.
The drivers moved to a Le Mans style start for a 10-lap rental kart race that would be interrupted at the halfway point, as the drivers needed to stack six race tires into a pyramid. The drivers went back and forth for the first five laps, but when coming to the midway point, Norberg locked the brakes and looped his Speedsportz Birel into the tire zone. Having to start backwards, Ryan threw the last two tires onto the pile but didn’t quite nail the pyramid. The pending penalty was never enforced, as Jake held off his attacker over the final five laps. The assembled crowd loved the action, the series raised over a grand for cancer research, and French and Norberg became friends, having never really encountered each other before in their specific TaG and shifter careers. All in all, it was a fun way to end Saturday’s schedule.
The weekend in Houston was a tremendous launch for the Texas ProKart Challenge, with many happy racers leaving with smiles, all ready to get back together in June for Rounds 2 and 3 at the North Texas Karters facility in Denton. The three-day event is actually a three-night event, with practice on Thursday evening and racing under the lights on Friday and Saturday night. The TPKC staff has a ton on the drawing board for that weekend to make it a fun-filled event.