EKN Trackside: 2019 Rock Island Grand Prix – Race Report
Liberante claims King of the Streets as Lawson, Neilson and Goettsch add to their record totals
Labor Day weekend for the sport of karting is about the Rock Island Grand Prix. The famed street race through the downtown road of Rock Island, Illinois celebrated the 25th running, welcoming another stellar paddock of local stars, grassroots racers, and top pilots from around the country. In total, 18 categories battled for the coveted Rock trophy and a place in the history books for this unique festival in the Quad Cities area.
The opening race set the tone for the Briggs & Stratton 206 divisions with the return of the ‘Emperor’ Gary Lawson. The Ohio native made his first trip back to RIGP since 2013, racing in four divisions and hoping to add to his record 25 wins. Lawson drove away in his Comet Kart Sales Eagle chassis to the victory in the Briggs 206 Heavy 1 main event. He led all 15 laps to a 4.8-second advantage for his first win on the day. Michael Welsh won the battle for second over Connor Lund, Tony Neilson and Morgan Schuler who recorded the fast lap of the race.
His second victory came in the Briggs 206 Medium division, leading the final 14 of 15 laps to another 4.4-second gap. Evan Stamer led the opening lap, finishing second over Welsh, Neilson and Ashton Wheeler. Win #3 was the Briggs 206 Masters class, his first time competing in the division. Lawson led all 15 laps, driving away to a 3.6-second margin of victory and setting the new all-time win total to 28. The battle for second was intense, as Neilson came away with the spot over Jeff Dolain, Welsh and Schuler.
Lawson was en route to victory in the Briggs 206 Heavy division until a chain issue put him on the sidelines. This moved the fight for second into the run for the Rock, including three drivers. Former winners Connor Lund, Morgan Schuler and Tony Neilson shuffled for the lead with Neilson able to secure the lead for his first victory of the day. Schuler came home second over Lund with Matt Pewe and Mahlon Borntreger completing the top-five.
Neilson was busy on the day, running a record total of 10 classes with three different Margay karts. It was a solid ‘batting average’, winning three on the day. His second win was in Yamaha Heavy 2 as it came down to a last lap battle. Neilson was able to come around the final corner first to clain the victory. Tim Goettsch was second over Dustin Blomme, Gage Rucker and Casey Jacobs. The third win closed out the event with Margay Ignite Masters at the end of the day. He was down to fifth after the opening lap but worked his way forward to eventually take over the point and score the victory, bringing his win total to 20.
The all-time win list at the Rock Island Grand Prix now has three drivers standing alone. Sitting tied for third entering the weekend was Tim Goettsch. The Quad Cities native added a 12th career win by coming across the victor in Yamaha Medium. The top four fought all 20 laps, with Goettsch making a last lap pass to secure the victory. Gage Rucker was second over Michael Welsh and Tony Neilson with Dustin Bloome in fifth.
Rucker was the third different Yamaha winner on the day, as the Margay driver won his first Rock trophy. It was a three-driver break away in Yamaha Heavy 1 with Rucker trailing Michael Welsh and Tony Neilson for much of the race. On the final lap, contact involving Welsh and Neilson allowed Rucker to slid through for the lead and the victory. Chad Patch came across the line second with Dustin Blomme third. Neilson fell down to fourth with Michael Dittmer completing the top-five.
Fellow Margay driver Evan Stamer won his first Rock in the Margay Ignite Senior 1 main event. Stamer was able to edge out Tony Neilson with a last lap pass to claim the victory. Justin Vancil was second with Pete Vetter fourth and former winner Jeff Dolian in fifth. He made it a pair of Rock trophies after the new Briggs 206 CIK class, taking the same Ignite kart and putting on the Hoosier R60B tire. Stamer grabbed the victory on a last lap pass to bring his total to two on the day. Justin Wishard was second with Ashton Wheeler third. Michael Welsh had fast lap of the race, placing fourth with Bermuda’s Scott Barnes in fifth.
Barnes brought his win total up to four, earning the Rock trophy in the 125 Masters Shifter division. ‘Skitchy’ led all 20 laps aboard his Crockett Motorsports GP for the victory, with four-time winner Lance Lane and Jason Campbell giving chase the entire time. Christopher Rock was fourth with Troy Allard in fifth.
The 20th edition of the King of the Streets was celebrated on the weekend, welcoming 22 drivers from all over the country. The format changed for Saturday as the class ran two eight-lap heat races back to back. The first heat was based on the pea pick, with the second inverted. The opening heat was won by 2017 winner Austin Wilkins with California native Race Liberante coming up to the win in Heat #2. Each had DNFs in the opposite heats, putting them ninth and 11th on the grid. Last year’s winner Rory van der Steur started the main event on the pole position alongside three-time SKUSA SuperNationals winner Billy Musgrave, making his first RIGP start. Rory grabbed the holeshot over Musgrave, who took over the lead on lap four. Behind them, Liberante was charging through the field with fast laps of the race and worked up to second at the halfway point. From there, he was able to run down Musgrave and take over the lead as the white flag waved. Liberante came across the following lap, jumping out of his J3 Competition CompKart celebrating his first King of the Streets victory. Musgrave was runner-up with Croc Promotion USA teammate Jake French in third. Joe Ruch was fourth with former winner Josh Lane in fifth.
Liberante was able to pull off the double, also winning in the Open Shifter division. He led all 20 laps for the victory to become the third straight double winner in the shifter classes. The 2017 winner Austin Wilkins was second with Devon Smith-Harden in third. Joe Ruch and Scott Barnes completed the top-five.
Wilkins did grab a third career Rock trophy, winning the TaG Senior class. It was the return of the category after no TaG class in 2018. Josh Lane led early until Wilkins took control, driving away on his Crosslink Competition Exprit machine to a six second advantage. Aaron Snyder was third ahead of Aaron Bromberek and Ricardo Nunes.
‘Pistol’ Pete Vetter grabbed his third Rock as well. Vetter was able to outgun all the young guns in the Margay Ignite Senior 2 main event. Vetter edged out Evan Stamer for the victory. Hunter Richardson had fast lap of the race, running third while Justin Vancil and Michael Scharf completed the top-five.
Shawn Welte, Marty Westen and Dave Fisher completed the Rock winners, with the trio winning the three different vintage divisions on hand.
Weather on the weekend was a welcomed change to year’s past. There was no humidity on Saturday, although a late rain storm came through to postpone the last two heat races to Sunday morning. The day was running late with a lengthy red flag for an incident in the first heat race of the day. Turn two saw two major incidents on the weekend, including that one and another in Margay Ignite Senior 1 main event. The RIGP staff was able to make up time on Sunday to close out the day on time and award the Rock trophies at the awards ceremony that night.
The attention now turns to 2020, and what the future holds for the Rock Island Grand Prix after 25 editions. When karters return to the Quad Cities area next Labor Day, the event will embark on its fourth different decade, dating back to the inaugural event in 1994.