Mechanic Minutes: Dan Schlosser – FIA Karting Championship Academy Trophy – Germany

Longtime industry veteran provides his insights into the opening round of 2019 program with Team USA driver Luca Mars

Luca Mars and Dan Schlosser on the grid for the FIA Karting Academy Trophy in Germany (Photo: Luca Mars)

2019 marks the 10th season for the FIA Karting Academy Trophy program, which opened up at the Pro Kart Raceland facility in Wackersdorf, Germany on May 2-5. The United States have sent drivers to race in the unique championship series against drivers from all over the world. The 2019 season is welcoming 51 young drivers aged from 12 to 14 from 47 countries, including five continents, all competing on OTK chassis equipped with Vortex engines from the OK-Junior category on Bridgestone tires.

Representing the United States of America at the 2019 FIA Karting Academy Trophy series is Pennsylvania driver Luca Mars. The 13-year-old is among the top Junior drivers in North America, earning the SKUSA Winter Series and Florida Winter Tour championships this winter. At the beginning seven years ago when Mars first got behind the wheel of a kart at the Pittsburgh International Race Complex, Dan Schlosser was there. Schlosser was key to building the karting program at the Wampum, PA facility until branching out on his own Kartwerks USA program. For roughly 15 years, Schlosser has worked with a number of drivers, with he and son Andy Schlosser working with Mars since he turned his first laps in a kart.

Below is a capture and vision of the FIA Karting Academy Trophy program through the eyes of Schlosser, who turned the wrenches for Mars at the opening event in Germany.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019 – Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Now that’s a commitment – a quarter million dollars in karts alone from OTK (Photo: Dan Schlosser)

The FIA Karting Academy Trophy program has always been something we have watched, particularly over the last few years as some of our competitors have been participating. When the offer was extended to Luca from Kevin Williams and Mike Tetreault with the World Karting Association, we were very excited to accept. Luca has run to a few big international events previously, including the Rok Cup Superfinal and Rotax Max Challenge Grand Finals, but the opportunity to run a full series was very appealing! Particularly under the Academy format with the sealed engines and identical karts – this would be a true drivers championship.

Our travel schedule had us leaving Tuesday, arriving in Germany Wednesday morning. A mechanical issue requiring a repair to our plane nearly stranded us in Pittsburgh before we ever got rolling to Europe. Air Canada did not have a later flight so we would miss the drivers meeting, introduction programs and kart lottery had we taken their revised plan. Instead, Brett bought three last minute flights on Lufthansa to get us there on time. We made the gate with literally minutes to spare as we had to retrieve our luggage, clear customs, check bags, clear security and dash to the gate. On a positive note though, we ended up in Business Class! We landed at 10am Wednesday, picked up the car and drove straight to the track as the meetings began at 1:00pm.

Luca draws kart 49 and engine 1 (Photo: Dan Schlosser)

We had our introduction and driver meetings as well as the kart and engine raffle. Luca drew engine #1 – and we left hoping that is a good sign! We also prepped our chariot for the weekend. I have to say that 50 identically prepared OTK Exprit chassis with Vortex OKJ engines is a pretty cool site!

The karts off the rack were extremely well prepared so all we needed to do was mount the seat, adjust pedals and steering for the driver and mount the engine. The gear is spec, the engine/carb is sealed and there is no flex to deal with so the engine install was very clean and quick, particularly with no harness and battery box to deal with.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

We had a great opening day. FIA had the drivers busy with several meetings dealing with driver conditioning, health and anti-doping programs while we were able to pick up fuel, tires, transponders and wrap up final prep in the paddock. Finally we were able to get on track in the afternoon for three 20-minute Hot Pit practice sessions.

Assembly was pretty simple as the karts came very well prepared – seat, pedal assemblies and engine install was about all that was left. (Photo: Dan Schlosser)

Hot pit is a foreign concept to us in North America outside of the occasional practice day but here it was not only possible but necessary with the long 20 minute sessions. Fall off in tires was very evident as the rather hard YNC tires gained a significant amount of pressure under the OKJ horsepower. Chassis changes aside, the hot pit let us dial in pressures in a third of the time it would normally. That said, we still had plenty of time to make front end and seat changes quickly and get two to three effective runs in a single session. The Wackersdorf pit lane was significantly uphill though, which put a bit more pressure and effort on the old mechanic with the push start!

Luca ended up P3 in the final round out of the 49 that made it on track so a good way to start the week.

What an amazing program – from top to bottom the structure, staff, schedule, equipment, etc is absolutely professional and first class. Very cool atmosphere!

One of the rows of Academy participant tent space (Photo: Dan Schlosser)

While the track was one of the most physically demanding and challenging tracks we’ve raced, it is just one component of a huge facility that is unlike anything we see in North America. They take the business of karting seriously here and they do it all in the traditional 7-8 month season we see throughout the northern part of the US and Canada. The outdoor track has a covered pit area, elevated mechanics stand, trackside garages, paved paddock and superb viewing of 90% of the track from any angle. The adjacent building hosts a huge indoor karting facility and a full service restaurant & bar with those tall German draft beers – for the end of a long day for the mechanics of course! Anxious parents may get an earlier start it is rumored… Both tracks share these facilities along with a huge viewing deck for the outdoor track and smaller one for the indoor track plus meeting rooms, race control rooms, pro shop, etc. Really a remarkable example of a facility. It would be interesting to see someone employ this model in North America.

Friday, May 3, 2019

It was a whirlwind day where we flipped the switches to official practice and qualifying. A solid day with a few uncharacteristic bumps in the road to make it exciting!

We started off with a wet track in the AM, after a night of light rains, along with considerably cooler temps. While the forecast called for intermittent rain throughout the day, this was the only wet session.

The full service bar and reataurant at the beginning of the day. As the temps kept dropping this room became increasingly full! (Photo: Dan Schlosser)

While rain prep was a snap and we were ready to rip, we got tripped up by two unique aspects of top tier international racing. First, this is a quiet pit event meaning that you are not allowed to start your kart for any reason anywhere on the facility until the green light comes on to leave the pits. For someone whose primary job is to eliminate surprises, not knowing if your damn engine will start is anxiety inducing!

Second, this OKJ engine package is direct drive – meaning they eliminated all the parts that make karting easier like clutches and on board starters. While all this makes for a warm fuzzy feeling for old timers that want to return to the purest form of karting, what it really means is the old chubby guy has to push the kart and driver down pit lane until the engine fires.

So needless to say those two things, combined with a truly nifty rain hood for the airbox (that unfortunately prevents the driver from being able to choke the carb) came together today all at once! And I was able to enjoy pushing the kart multiple times. Looking at the bright side it was a great way to add another crisis management skill to our playbook! Fortunately, Vortex has awesome mechanics on grid for Academy racers who showed us a few tricks of the trade and we had zero issues the rest of the day.

The indoor facility looks amazing (Photo: Dan Schlosser)

After losing just a few moments of the session, Luca was on track and up to speed quickly but the session came to an end prematurely with a rare off under braking. Back to the unique aspect of the direct drive engine package, once it stalls the driver has to be able to restart the kart by pushing it himself and that is a tough task for the young drivers, particularly in the wet. We will add that skill to our quiver soon enough though hopefully once we get home to Pittsburgh International Race Complex.

The second and third sessions were back to dry so we were able to return to testing some setup and gearing changes. This is where the long 20 minute sessions and hot pits really come in to play and allow you to fine tune quickly. Over the next two sessions, we ran through a batch of ideas from tire pressures to gearing, to chassis changes. This is one of the coolest parts of racing at this level honestly! Even had time to run all the way back to the paddock to fetch a broken part replacement from OTK and still get back on track. The session would have been lost if it wasn’t for the hot pit. I think this situation really lets our years together shine – between the derivations I see on track compared to what I expect to see out of Luca normally and his feedback that we can hash through quickly on pit lane, we can make decisions quickly and rarely miss big.

We felt pretty confident in our package going in to qualifying and Luca delivered on track, laying down the second fastest lap in our group to be just a tenth of a second off of Robert De Haan’s fast time. Unfortunately, the other group seemed to have a slightly better track and we ended up P10 overall. They either had more grip from the KZ kart rubber or just a warmer track as the clouds rolled in between the two sessions. Either way it was still a great result and we are excited to get to racing tomorrow!

Hotel Schlossresidenz Heitzenhofen (Photo: Dan Schlosser)

The day of firsts, or unique happenings at least, didn’t quite end there though. The engine draw program here at the Academy also features the occasional engine swap to try to keep everyone honest. So all the drivers in the top-12 had to swap engines immediately as we left scales. While losing an engine that we were very happy with is a bit of a concern, the efforts to maintain parity by the Vortex crew are very much appreciated! All in all another tremendous day with a few new tricks learned on and off the track! Tomorrow we had just one warm-up and two heat races, and hopefully a little less pushing and running for the mechanic.

At home, we are known for being first in and last out on any given day and that didn’t change in Germany. The net result was that our away from the track adventures were fairly limited. Most nights we found ourselves in the quaint little town of Burglengenfeld – old castle overlooking a village with cobblestone streets and the classic German buildings with colored stucco and red tile. Oddly enough, the tiny town had no less than 6 Italian restaurants or pizza shops and we ate in half of them. While a bit odd, the track has so much good German food at their trackside restaurant and food vendor trailers that we actually needed a break some nights. On one stop though, thanks to our British friends the Dodds family, we made our way to a classic German Brewery with a restaurant and worked our way through their incredible beer offerings and an extended dinner. A very fun evening with great company!

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Our driver with his ride for the three race series. We keep the chassis for all three events but the engines are randomly drawn for each round. (Photo: Dan Schlosser)

Saturday was a cold and soggy day at ProKart Raceland in Wackersdorf, Germany where we finally got to some heat racing! It was a classic wet or dry head scratcher today as the rain was supposed to start later but came early, stayed around just briefly, went dry and then a deluge hit just before the second race. I know a lot of people hate the stress and anxiety that goes with days like this, but honestly the moving parts make for an intense challenge in setups as well as logistics and execution, which can be very gratifying when everything comes together!

Our first heat saw all but one kart go out on wets to a rapidly drying track. In the end, that one ‘Bob Noaker’ wannabe tuner hit the home run coming from near dead last to win the race – hats off to him and his driver for a job well done! Luca had a great start in the race and then ended up in a few battles that brought him home 9th in the end. A solid effort.

Next was Heat 2 where Luca had another great start and looked like his regular self in the wet over the opening laps. He was doing battle in the 5th to 7th range as the drivers seemed to exchange positions at every corner. Unfortunately, just a few laps in the driver immediately in front of Luca caught a curb and spun on the soaking wet track. Luca nearly threaded the needle but the back end of the kart stepped out just a tick and when he went back to power the tail whipped around and the kart stalled thus ending our chances.

Mars battling the wet conditions in Germany (Photo: Luca Mars)

The second heats were crazy with karts off all over the track from the leaders to the stragglers. The points situation is turned completely upside down now! As they look to narrow the field from 50 to 34 karts tomorrow after the third heat, we were in good shape to make the show so long as we could nail down a respectable finish.

We stayed in the Hotel Schlossresidenz Heitzenhofen. While the name was fun enough for me, the place itself was pretty fascinating. We stay at very nice traditional hotels typically so this was a unique and fun departure. The property is centered around the original castle (a schloss) that was built in 1150. Yes, nearly 870 years ago!!! The Sarfert family has owned the property for 6 generations and they have the hotel now along with the original castle, plus many buildings added over centuries – church, brew pub, mill/power plant, rental villas, carriage house, etc.  The family was fantastic and shared all kinds of information with us over breakfast each morning. This was easily one of the non-racing highlights of the trip!

Sunday, May 5, 2019

We went into Sunday with Luca sitting 34th in points after two heat races with just 34 of the 50 drivers advancing to the final with no LCQ on the schedule. A little bit of stress as outside of the one session Luca was clearly at the pointy end of the grid all weekend. We quickly discovered when the competition is this tight though, the margin for error is sooo slim. Despite so many front-running drivers having a bad result or two in Heats 1 & 2, their spots were quickly filled by some pretty capable shoes.

Driver parade (Photo: Dan Schlosser)

Warm-up went pretty well with Luca crazy fast at the beginning of the run and ending up P4 in the session. We experimented with a few things, for what was forecasted to be a very cold and cloudy Final, and felt pretty confident we had the right package for the task at hand – needing to go forward quickly early in the race.

They run a slightly unusual format where the third heat is on Sunday so we really didn’t know our ultimate fate until that was done. Going into that race the points were very close and we felt confident that a top ten would put us solidly in the Final.

Of course, as we are standing on grid the clouds rolled in with a few raindrops making the mechanics more than a little nervous! It held off though fortunately as we pushed the karts off grid. Luca got shuffled out a little from the outside row but avoided the mess inside of the first hairpin. The net result though still put us back around 12th as things sorted out. Luca drove a smart race, bringing it home 8th without taking any crazy chances and had a fast time just two thousandths off the winner.

After the points were tallied, the run in Heat 3 moved Luca up 10 spots on the grid to start the Final 24th. A big jump but would have preferred the inside line after our Heat 3 experience.

The entire FIA weekend is impressive but they really do the Finals properly! All the mechanics brought the karts to grid (yes with grid girls) and the lineup was quite impressive. The driver’s parade was next as they walked from the pits to the grid for introductions, greeting/event medal presentation and photos at the starting line. We then pushed off the karts from the track grid. The whole presentation ran in perfect time to the minute of course and the race was underway.

Until we meet again in a few weeks. Rest easy my friend. (Photo: Dan Schlosser)

Luca had an amazing start pushing his way to the inside of the Turn 3 hairpin, swinging wide at the exit to shut down any over/under attempts and then drove a brilliant defensive yet quick line to net 5 spots on the opening lap. He then went to work and was up to P11 by lap 5. From that point the leaders had pretty well checked out and he had a few good battles with the karts around him before pulling away to finish 10th, just a kart length off of P9. All in all, a fantastic way to close out our first Academy experience!

After all the hoopla, there was still work to do though as the karts have to be torn down and prepped to OTK’s satisfaction (and mine…laughing). I’m fairly certain we put the cleanest, most ready to race kart back on the rack. Not sure how impressed Brett Mars (Luca’s father) was though being one of the last out of the Academy tent city. Old habits are hard to break.

A few quick thoughts – the karts and engines supplied were everything you could hope for. Every nut, screw, decal, spacer you needed was there. The engine (despite my anxiety) fired on the first spin and was flawless the entire weekend. Even after having to swap engines after qualifying with someone that clearly didn’t hold equipment cleanliness to the same standards, there was no discernible difference between the engines. Engine and carb swaps, as determined by Vortex, were regular occurrences throughout the weekend designed to ensure that no one at the front of the grid had anything special. All in all, the parity across the kart and engine platform was astounding and the support from the OTK, Vortex and Dakton people was phenomenal.

Speaking of the Dakton data system though, we are not allowed access to any data throughout the weekend outside of the lap timer, max rpm and engine temps. For those that have run with us you can only imagine the withdrawal pains that caused!!! We haven’t run that many laps without data since Luca’s first day in Kid Karts.

Huge thanks to many people – Ward Racing for the support and Dominik’s input. World Karting Association for the invite and opportunity – this is just an amazing program and we are doing our best to represent Team USA properly! The entire FIA Karting Championship for putting on one of the best run events we’ve ever had the chance to participate in. OTK Exprit Kart & Vortex Engines for providing 100% first class equipment and support.

Lastly, congrats to our friends at Energy Corse Racing Karts with Mick Panigada for the fantastic winning run by their pilot Robert De Haan in Academy as well as their big win in KZ2.

The next event is scheduled for June 14-16 as the FIA Karting Academy Trophy joins the European Championship for KZ and KZ2 once again, this time at the Circuito Internazionale Napoli in Sarno, Italy.

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