Rotax Max Challenge Grand Finals: The Olympics of Karting
If you were to poll the karting community here in the United States regarding their top-three karting events, the list would be large and diverse. Among the races on that list, and likely a #1 selection for many, would be the Rotax Max Challenge Grand Finals. Each year, only a select few from around the world will earn a ticket to compete in the annual event, which now features 36+ drivers from over 50 countries, all vying to be crowned the Rotax champion of the world.
Rotax has been one of the leaders in both the ‘Touch and Go’ (TaG) movement and the single-engine competition approach for many years. The inaugural Rotax Max Challenge Grand Finals were held in Puerto Rico in 2000, and that event was focused on one category. The following year in Malaysia, the race began recognizing the top Masters drivers in the International category as well. For the opening three years, competitors would ship their own karts/engines to the event. The 2003 race in Egypt was the debut of the Junior Max division, and the competitors all competed on the similar CRG chassis.
The 2004 edition in Spain offered a unique change in the format, as Rotax did away with competitors shipping in their own karts. The event was the introduction of the RM1 class with all Senior/Master competitors racing aboard the same spec package. This was the beginning of the DD2 division, featuring a two-speed Rotax engine. This sparked the spec chassis/engine combination for the event and Rotax brought in chassis partners and suppliers for each of the categories in Malaysia in 2005 for Senior and Junior. The RM1 remained in place until 2007, when it transitioned to the DD2 format. 2008 marked the shift from the Masters division in the Senior group to the DD2 category, before a separate DD2 Masters class was created in 2010. The most recent expansion came in 2016 with the addition of Mini Max and Micro Max to provide a total of six stand-alone categories at the ‘Olympics of Karting’.
The race celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2019, and the 2020 edition will be the 20th time the United States of America will field a team in competition.
Rotax in the USA began under the SSC Racing banner with company head Joe Ramos as the early distributor. The program began from the ground up, introducing the engine package to tracks as a turn-key package that shops could sell to people off the street. As the Rotax engine platform expanded, so did the tracks and the Rotax experience across the country. The first US Rotax Grand Nationals was in 2001 held in Las Vegas. Three of the next for US Grand Nationals were at the circuit known as the ‘X-Plex’ before the event began moving to different locations throughout the country. As the Rotax format expanded, so did its popularity and each year the US Rotax Grand Nationals grew. The event at one time welcomed roughly 200 drivers, all vying to be a US Rotax Grand Nationals champion and earn a ticket to the Rotax Max Challenge Grand Finals.
Over the last 20 years, the Rotax Grand Finals have welcomed some of the best karters from around the world. Success at the RMCGF has been the stepping stone for some to the professional ranks of motorsports, including those on Team USA.
One of the first members of Team USA at the Rotax Max Challenge Grand Finals was Tim Lobaugh. The industry veteran won the inaugural US Rotax Grand Nationals in 2001 to win his spot in Malaysia as part of the RMCGF.
Tim Lobaugh: “Getting the ticket to the Rotax Grand Finals was tough as there was a ton of karts, maybe 80 entries and it was all one class. The talent level was from top level guys to 60-year-old guys. I was one of the fastest all week. I tested engines and karts, working my butt off for that win. That was the biggest race I had won. The next day we had to box up the kart and all the spares we thought we might need and ship that to Malaysia.”
“It was my first international event and I was going to live it up. I might have qualified in the top 25, I can’t remember for sure. My mechanic was from Australia and we worked with some of those drivers to get fast. They tested a month before so I was trying to get as much info from them. My engine broke in the Prefinal, so I had a new engine that had never fired before, so I wasn’t sure what was going to happen in the final. It did not go well in the main event, but I had the time of my life. I would not change anything. The experience from those races was something you really can’t explain. This was the only one I raced at but went to more as a mechanic. The people who you meet from all over the world is something that sticks with you.”
For Team USA, results have varied year to year and throughout the different categories at the Rotax Max Challenge Grand Finals. The first taste of the world stage podium came in 2008 in LaConca, Italy when Acceleration Kart Racing’s own Curtis Cooksey stood on the podium in the DD2 Master division. Stuart Marsell also became the first podium finisher that year in DD2, however, he did not get to physically stand on the podium as he was promoted to the third position after the ceremony due to a penalty to a top-three finisher. Cooksey remains the lone USA driver to stand on the podium in his respective class, while Marsell was joined in subsequent years as a DD2 podium finisher by Cody Hodgson (2009), Joey Wimsett (2013), and Taylor Greenfield (2018). While the Senior Max class has been part of the RMCGF for 19 of the 20 years, USA drivers have only finished on the podium twice with now-IndyCar driver Oliver Askew (2013) and Luke Selliken (2015).
Askew has a solid record in Rotax competition, earning a spot on Team USA for four straight years. Oliver’s first came in 2011, followed by a second year in the Junior category in 2012, in which he placed 16th as the highest finishing Team USA driver. 2013 was a memorable season for Askew, first earning the US Rotax Grand Nationals Champion in his Senior Max debut, before following it up with the third-place performance at the Rotax Grand Finals in NOLA. The following year in Spain, Askew led Team USA with a sixth-place result.
Oliver Askew: “The Rotax Max Challenge Grand Finals was always a pivotal event during my early years in karting. It was what we worked towards all year and it’s great to see that it is continuing to push young drivers to perform at their absolute best on the world stage with unparalleled competition.”
The first victory for Team USA at the Rotax Max Challenge Grand Finals came in 2013 on home soil. The event was hosted for the first time in the USA at the NOLA Motorsports Park that year, and was supported by a year-long build-up to the event. A total of 24 drivers represented Team USA, and they were joined by the addition of a Mini and Micro Max ‘invitational’ that featured drivers from the USA and Canada. In the Junior race, Juan Manuel Correa led one and only lap, the final circuit, after a last lap, last corner pass to secure the first victory at the RMCGF for Team USA. Mathias Ramirez-Barrero came five hundredths short of earning a second in 2015 in Portugal. Those two finishes are the only podium results for Team USA in the Junior category.
Juan Manuel Correa’s career was launched forward by the victory at the Rotax Grand Finals. By 2016, Correa was racing Formula 4 in Europe, reaching the top step of the podium three times. This success led to him advancing to the GP3 series before running Formula 2 in 2019 as part of the Sauber Junior Team.
Juan Manuel Correa: “For me, competing at the Rotax Max Challenge Grand Finals as a kid was the one race you always had your eyes on. The focus every season I competed in the USA was to obviously win races, but the second biggest goal was to get a ticket to compete in the most equal playing field and prestigious karting race in the world, the Rotax Grand Finals. I still remember the first Rotax Grand Finals I competed at in Portugal. I was so proud of myself just because I made it there. The year after, when I actually won the Grand Finals, my career changed for the better, and the decisions I took after that moment and the opportunities I got are what have eventually taken me to where I am today. To this day, I consider winning the Rotax Grand Finals one of the biggest highlights of my career.”
In 2016, the Rotax Max Challenge Grand Finals added the Mini Max and Micro Max divisions as official categories to the event. The USA had implemented the Mini Max category in 2003 as part of the US Rotax Max Challenge while Micro Max came on in 2008. That early start helped build a solid foundation for not only the Rotax program, but our success in those categories at the international level. Over the last four years, USA drivers have won two of the four titles in the Micro Max division, including Diego LaRoque as the inaugural champion in 2016 and Brent Crews scoring the victory in 2018.
The thrill of victory is not the only way to measure the experience that is competing at the Rotax Max Challenge Grand Finals. Winning a ticket and simply being part of Team USA is a milestone for any driver, be they young or old. Derek Wang and Nathan Mauel have the most RMCGF appearances with Team USA at nine, who both were part of the DD2 Masters category in 2019. Wang has been a part of Team USA for nearly a full decade, beginning in 2010 in DD2, missing only the 2012 edition. Since 2013, Wang has been one of the top DD2 Masters drivers on Team USA. From 2015 to 2019, he was the top finishing USA driver with a best finish of seventh in 2017. Mauel first took part of the RMCGF in 2004 and raced in the DD2 division seven times (2005, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2015, 2016, 2017). The 2019 edition was his first time in the DD2 Masters class.
Nathan Mauel: “The Rotax Grand Finals is fierce competition that is a must for any driver. I have been racing the Rotax program for 18-19 years now. I enjoy the competition and all the friends I have made all over the world. Returning to the Grand Finals is my goal every year I race. The Rotax program, in my opinion, is the best program that there is out there. The event is well organized and provides entertainment for all family members. You get to travel and race against 72 best drivers in your class from all over the world.”
At the 2019 Rotax Max Challenge Grand Finals in Italy, Team USA welcomed new members to the squad, including drivers in the youngest category – Micro Max. The Stars & Stripes Open event at Pittsburgh International Race Complex awarded a select few tickets to the RMCGF. Adam Brickley was one of the Micro Max drivers competing and came away with the overall victory to earn a trip to Italy. His father Jim told EKN that a fun trip to race with friends ended up becoming a once-in-a-lifetime trip for the entire family.
Jim Brickley: “Adam and I saw a great chance to run a Rotax race with equally matched lottery motors. This leveled the playing field and let it come down to the driver’s skill. The Rotax Grand Finals in Sarno, Italy was a once-in-a-lifetime event for our whole family. We made a family trip out of it, making it the best vacation ever. The racing was intense, but with all the competitors on equal motors, tires, fuel, and of course karts, the driver’s skill could be demonstrated. It is so cool to have the opportunity to race against champions from so many countries. It felt like we were at the Olympics representing Team USA. J3 provided a great atmosphere for the entire time and led Team USA to some great results.”
The opportunity is there for you to be part of Team USA for the 2020 season, competing at the Rotax Max Challenge Grand Finals. It begins by joining the Rotax community with J3 Competition. Their dedication and direct work with BRP-Rotax is focused on rebuilding a solid base of Rotax racers here in the United States. Part of that revival begins with the rebirth of the US Rotax Grand Nationals, set for July 2-5 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. That is where racers have the opportunity to earn a ticket to the Rotax Grand Finals and take part in the ‘Olympics of Karting’.