Rock Island Grand Prix: Reaching 25 Years of History

(Photo: Joe Brittin)

One of the longest running events in United States karting – the Rock Island Grand Prix – is about to write the 25th chapter of the famed Labor Day street race. Each year, a group of volunteers plan and execute a two-day racing festival in the city streets of Rock Island, Illinois. The Quad Cities area has become the holiday weekend home for a number of karters year after year, in addition to introducing the sport to the thousands of spectators that surround the 6/10-mile course.

In order to understand where the Rock Island Grand Prix has come from, you have to go back to 1993 when Tom Ott and Mike Berg pushed to bring a karting street race to the Quad Cities area. The Rock Island Argus newspaper grabbed hold of the idea and partnered up with Gus Traeder’s Professional Karting Association (PKA) to put on a Labor Day race. Unfortunately, the Great Flood of 1993 put off the debut of the Rock Island Grand Prix a full year. It was 1994 when competitors took to the city streets for the inaugural event. A cancellation of the 1997 event due to legal liability issues in a lawsuit from the 1995 event was the lone year the Rock Island Grand Prix has not been held during this period.

The event was mostly grassroots racers during the early years before it began grabbing the attention of racers throughout North America, and eventually around the world. In 2000, Superkarts! USA King of the Streets event moved to the RIGP and the event has continued the tradition of crowning one driver each year. That along with the event’s support of TaG (Touch and Go) engine categories sparked big numbers and big teams during the early 2000s.

Throughout the years, the Rock Island Grand Prix has rolled with the changes in the sport, putting in massive efforts to ensure everyone had a place to race each Labor Day weekend. The event battled through the tough economic times during the late 2000s and early 2010s. Their focus back on the grassroots racers, thanks in part to the Briggs & Stratton 206 boom and the much recent support of the Margay Ignite program has helped numbers to grow back to near record totals.

To help celebrate the upcoming 25th edition of the Rock Island Grand Prix, we at eKartingNews tracked down some of the historic names of the past 24 years to give a glimpse of what the Labor Day event means to them and bring back some exciting memories for each.

Gary Lawson

The Rock Island Grand Prix Emperor with the most wins over the 24 years of the event is Gary Lawson. With 25 victories, he leads the all-time win list. The first came in 2003 with a total of three Rock trophies that weekend, and his last coming 2013 where he won a total of four that Labor Day weekend. All of the wins for the Mentor, Ohio native were in 4-Cycle (14) and Yamaha (11) competition.

Gary Lawson is the ‘Emperor’ of the RIGP with 25 total career wins

“I enjoy so many different aspects about the Rock Island Grand Prix. The atmosphere is always incredible once the races get underway, but even the simpler things such as hanging out for hours in the ‘staging area’ talking about racing was always a good time. I look forward to the opportunity to make it back sometime as a spectator. I never had the opportunity to go out and enjoy the night festivities while we were there. We spent many Friday and Saturday nights working in the pits until midnight making sure we were as prepared as possible for the next day. Maybe this will be the year!”

“My first time racing at the Rock and my most memorable race was in Yamaha Can racing with local legends Todd Bolton and Scott Evans in 2001. They kept tag teaming me the whole race. I would pass them one at a time until I got to the lead then they would both draft by me. This happened what seemed like a hundred times. Not sure which one of them won but it was a lot of fun and everyone was all smiles at the scales.”

“One of my favorite memories from Rock Island was when my best friend and my brother went out Saturday night and had a little too much to drink. My friend couldn’t find him in any of the bars and eventually went back to the pits and found him passed out in a chair by our trailer with a sandwich in his hand. He couldn’t get him to wake up so he left him there for the night. I found him in the morning sleeping in his racing suit.”

“One of my favorite races was when missed qualifying for Yamaha Can in 2011. It rained right before and we lost track of time switching over 3 karts. I started last but got a great start and was in the top-10 after the first lap. I steadily worked through the field and caught the leader as we came to the white flag. I was able to pass him down the back stretch and was uncontested coming to the line. The best part was when I heard the recorded race commentary from Rob Howden the next day. The energy he had when I came out of the last corner got me excited every time I listened to it.”

Alan Rudolph

Street racing was part of Alan Rudolph’s karting career from the beginning, as he was part of the inaugural Rock Island Grand Prix. Rudolph won the Shifterkart division in 1994. The midwest native won five times total at the Quincy Grand Prix, including the second ever ‘King of the Streets’ main event. The title moved to Rock Island Grand Prix the year after, and Rudolph was crowned for a second and third time in 2000 and 2001. Coming back to win in 2006 and 2007, Rudolph has won the KOS a record five times, making him the star of the event for a decade.

Alan Rudolph winning King of the Streets in 2006 (Photo: EKN)

“For me Rock Island has always been a special place. Is it the great crowds, the fast track, Roger Ruthhart and his amazing staff, the party in the plaza Saturday night, or the heavy ass rock you get to carry home on the plane? Yet, it’s all that. This race for me will always be one of the greatest events like Quincy Park.”

“For me, my favorite memory, best victory and finish at the Rock Island Grand Prix were are one in the same. It was my fourth King of the Streets win in 2006. It was on the RBI AR kart with Richie Buxman. We put all of our energy into this product that we built from the ground up, and with the company and chassis brand coming to an end that year, we went out on top. That moment and the many memories collected through the years at the Rock Island Grand Prix will be with me forever.

Tony Neilson

Taking over the baton for most popular driver at the Rock Island Grand Prix has been Tony Neilson. The Davenport, Iowa native has 17 wins at the event to sit second in the all-time list, and has the record for most victories in one day with six. He surpassed that total at the recent Elkhart Riverwalk Grand Prix, winning eight main events. The longtime Margay driver is the true ‘Ironman’ of street racing.

Tony Neilson won a record six ‘Rock’ trophies in 2015 (Photo: EKN)

“1994 was the first year I raced during the Gus Traeder / PKA era putting on the event. Since it was in my hometown, it was a huge deal for locals. The race had all the big name PKA guys there, so since I was a Junior driver, it was pretty cool to see the big names…Evans, Rudolph, and Jones. If I can remember right, it rained a ton which made for some interesting racing.”

“Winning six Rock trophies in 2015 is my favorite memory. Everything went perfect that day and I had my entire family there to enjoy it with.”

“The best victory however is in 2006 when we won our first race there (Pipe Senior Heavy). It was just me and my dad putting in the effort and time to get that first Rock trophy. While I have a number of people helping me the last few years, it still is a challenge to win at RIGP every time we hit the streets. There are so many variables that come into play – the high level of competition and navigating around the lap karts can make or break your race. You have to be prepared, and have a lot of luck.”

Scott Barnes

The Rock Island Grand Prix is among the largest street races in the world, welcoming a number of international drivers during the first 24 years. No one from outside the USA has visited the Quad Cities area as much as Bermuda native Scott Barnes. “Skitchy” races anything, and is another one of those RIGP Ironman, racing in multiple categories and karts throughout the years. The three-time winner has been a King of the Streets, Open Shifter, Moto, TaG and Briggs 206 competitor during his years at the Rock Island Grand Prix.

Scott Barnes (Photo: EKN)

“The first time racing Rock Island was 2000 or 2001, and I’ve only missed one year since. After being to Rock Island so many times, I’ve had a lot of good memories there, met a lot of cool people and been lucky enough to have some good results. Back when all the big race teams were filling up the pits, it was always cool to see all the team drivers and wanting to be one of the ‘fast guys’. One of my favorite bitter/sweet memories at the Rock was the first ever TAG race at Rock Island under Tom Argy Sr. when I was able to put my kart on the pole position. I’m honored to set pole position in the first ever TaG race… but the race sucked thou cause Tom wanted to showcase the ‘Touch and Go’ key start to the new Rotax karts. We rolled to the grid, killed the karts and when the flag dropped, we had to restart the karts and race. Well, when the flag dropped my engine didn’t start till everyone was through turn one. Pole position to last sucked but was cool to earn that pole position.”

“I’ve been lucky enough to win three times at the Rock…but my best victory has got to be the first time in 2007 in the 125 Moto race. The race was awesome, where my teammate at the time Pat and I pulled away. I made a pass with one to go to beat him to the checked and get my first Rock! Been a lot of years at the Rock and a lot of top five finishes but only three wins. Everyone that races RIGP knows how cool it is to win a Rock so I feel lucky coming from a small island with no where near the amount of seat time as the ‘fast guys’ to be able to compete with these guys and to have three Rocks on my shelf!”

Josh Lane

On and off the track, no one hits the rev-limiter like Josh Lane. The Chicago-area native came to the Rock Island Grand Prix from the road racing ranks as a young, hungry and enthusiastic driver. Today, Lane is among the RIGP veterans with four Rock trophies of his own, and his dad Lance matches that total as of last year. While Josh remains a threat for victory on the streets, it’s his passion and goal to get big shifterkart fields at RIGP every year that makes him among the event’s ambassadors. Not to mention his ability to lead the Sunday-night party.

Josh Lane won the crown in the King of the Streets back in 2015 (Photo: EKN)

“The 2004 or 2005 was my first year at Rock Island, I don’t remember. Seeing my dad win there for the first time and just how happy it made him was one of my favorite memories. I also remember in 2007 hitting a barrier so hard that my transponder went bouncing down the track. I ran and got it, put it in my pocket, and kept driving. It’s a even match for my best race between the King of the Streets win or the 80cc Shifter victory. I called up Ryon Beachnor in California the week before the race and he sent me the motor. The kart was so good, it didn’t feel fair. But only one driver is crowned King, and that is one of the reasons why I keep returning.”

“As I’ve gotten a little older, it’s turned more into what it is for all the people I try to get and come. Hearing their experience and how much fun they had. Sure, I want to win like the rest of them, and at a given time, if the stars align it could happen. But at this point, it’s much more then just winning. Either way, I’ll send it with the best of ‘em.”

Ty Schurr

Not only are racers working to bring more entries to the event, but racers are also behind the scenes helping to put the pieces together so the event goes off every Labor Day. Ty Schurr resides just outside of the Quad Cities area, and is one of the key figures in the volunteer-based organization that helps to put the pieces together for the Rock Island Grand Prix off the track. His passion for the Rock began as a racer himself, and continues to this day through his volunteer hours and the many customers of Schurr Power.

Ty Schurr (Photo: EKN)

“My first race at Rock Island was in 1999 in the Briggs Junior class. My best personal finish was 4th place in 2015 in the Clone class. I’ve been fortunate to be a part of numerous wins with customers of mine, who race with my engines. I believe Schurr Power now has 14 Rock Island Grand Prix wins.”

“I had the opportunity to have the late Travis Devriendt drive for me for a good number of years. We were friends long before we began racing in the late 90’s. He first started racing for me in 2003 in an effort to promote my engine building business. One of my favorite memories of both Rock Island and Trav would be his first win in 2006 in the Briggs Animal Medium class. This class was known as the Rumble at the Rock.”

“Trav was racing with some of the best kart racers at the time. The class included Gary Lawson and Scotty Cleman. Trav ran great all weekend and qualified well. Sunday’s race day was derailed by heavy rain. We put on our rain setup just before the final on Sunday. I recall sprinting to our Coyote kart on the grid to make a last minute castor change. Trav had a rough start to the race. He spun out into the barriers in turn 4 and had to pull his own kart onto the track. After falling back to last place, Trav recovered and came back to run down Gary Lawson for the lead with only two laps left. He was extremely fast in the rain because he drove fearlessly. On the last lap, Trav came by the pit area at turn six in the lead. We were all ecstatic to seem him win his first of many Rocks!”

“The volunteer effort to put on the race every year is a monumental effort. Most would think that after 25 years, it would be on cruise control, but that is not the case. Each year, we are challenged with securing volunteer and paid labor to execute the event. We’ve built some great partnerships over the years, but we often find that most people or groups have a finite duration to the number of years they wish to volunteer for one event. We do have many loyal team members that continue to help each year and we are very thankful for them.”

“This challenge has caused other street races to cease in existence. Each year, a large portion of our team’s discussions and effort is placed on solving this. The group that takes on the task of building and tearing down the track is the most critical. We are often in need of more help in this area.”

Keith Freber

One person who understands the passion and desire for the Rock Island Grand Prix is Margay owner Keith Freber. A longtime supporter of the event, many karters have taken the checkered flag or earned their first Rock trophy aboard a Margay. Over the last four years, their Ignite Shootout has brought many new competitors to the RIGP every year, expanding the reach of the Labor Day street race.

Keith Freber with his Margay staff at the 2018 Rock Island Grand Prix (Photo: Margay Racing)

“I can’t say for certain but it was early on, mid-1990’s.  Probably 1995/1996. Have not missed many since! A lot of good memories happened away from the track and usually involved some ‘Kung Fu Fighting’!”

“By far, TaG Senior in 2009 was the best race I’ve witnessed.  We were running Michele Bumgarner on a Brava 1.9/Vortex and the field was deep with some really quick drivers.  Michele qualified 5th and I was pretty confident that she would get the job done.  She was a real pleasure to work with and absolutely fast. They called her class to the grid on Sunday afternoon and Mike Birdsell and Rick Fulks took the kart to the grid.  I was relaxing for a bit before heading to the grid when I see the guys running full speed, with the kart, back towards our tent. The wiring harnesses on the Vortex engines were apparently made by Lucas and were, let’s just say, a bit fragile. One of the ignition wires had broke and Mike noticed it as they positioned the kart on the grid. It was a crazy scene, we had no time to fix it but got it repaired and got the kart back on the grid just as the field was rolling off.”

“The green flag flies and Michele works her way into the lead after a few laps.  The top five are really tight. Right at half way, Michele catches a lapped kart at the worst possible place, looses a ton of momentum and falls back to a fairly distant fourth.  I was crushed, thought we were done.  Her next lap was 7/10ths faster than she had gone all weekend.  I thought hey, we might still have a shot here.  She was absolutely determined, put her head down and passed some of the best in the business to take the lead back with two to go.  Michele held on for the win, I saw her take the checkered flag and headed back to the scales to meet her. She never showed up.  Finally, she arrives on the back of the pick-up trailer.  The coil wire had broken again 100 feet past the finish line…  Not sure that I have ever seen a driver so determined to win a race. SHE made it happen, it was all her.  One of the most determined drives I have ever seen.  I would love to have seen how she would have faired in a proper top-level series.  I think she really would have been exceptional.”

“What makes RIGP so special? Easy, the karters.  Great people, great racing and always a good time.”

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