EKN Trackside: 2023 Challenge of the Americas – Phoenix – Saturday Report
Gulick and Hodgson win big on first day of racing at Phoenix Kart Racing Association
The halfway point has been reached for the 2023 Challenge of the Americas championship following the Saturday action at the Phoenix Kart Racing Association. Round Three was put into the books at the Glendale, Arizona facility with perfect racing weather greeting the roughly 120 entries in the seven categories. GFC Karting’s Jacob Gulick secured his third career victory in the ROK Shifter division while CompKart pilot Oliver Hodgson defended his new home with third straight win at PKRA in Senior 100cc.
The ROK Shifter class presented by Swedetech Racing Engines was swept on the day by Jacob Gulick (GFC Karting). The Round One winner cleared the field in qualifying by nearly a half second and dominated the Prefinal, winning by over 11 seconds. Issues surrounding the LeVanto tires has been an issue, and Challenge promoter Andy Seesemann brought the competitors together and provided them with new rear tires to utilize for the main event. At the green flag, Round Two winner Macy Williams (CB / Gillard) grabbed the holeshot and led the opening four circuits until Gulick was able to take back the top spot. From there, he drove away to a 4-second advantage for his second victory on the season. Keawn Tandon (GFC Karting) was runner-up in his 2023 debut while Ethan Booher made it an all GFC podium with a move for third late in the race ahead of Williams. Henry Barton (RWR / CRG) capped off the top-five.
Oliver Hodgson (CompKart) made it three wins in a row at PKRA in the Senior 100cc presented by Forward Direction Motorsports. Championship leader Liam Letzsch (GFC Karting) was able to grab fast time in the qualifying session, however Hodgson took over at the start of the Prefinal to never relinquish the top spot through those 14 laps and the 20 of the main event. The wire-to-wire sessions gave Hodgson his first win on the season in his 2023 debut. Jesus Vasquez Jr. (Nash / EOS) made his first start of the year in the class, running second the entire distance of the main event. Behind him was the battle for the final podium position including Letzsch, Senior rookie Cooper O’Clair (CompKart) and Josh Campbell (RPM / Tony Kart), who missed Friday practice to play in the Arizona state championship for his high school basketball team – winning the state title. Letzsch held onto the spot for much of the race but in the end, lap traffic played a role and Campbell was able to take advantage to claim the position ahead of O’Clair and Letzsch.
The Nash Motorsportz Junior 100cc class welcomed a two-time winner in Nixx Eggleston (Ruthless / Exprit). Max Altman (Speedsense / Exprit) was the driver to beat as the day began, securing fast time in qualifying and winning the Prefinal. In the Final, Eggleston put in a solid opening lap to grab the lead and from there led all 20 laps to secure his second victory on the season, his first career Challenge win at his home track. Keagan Kaminski (FW / GFC) ran second for much of the race until point leader Alexander Gonzalez (Nash / EOS) worked by for position late in the race. Altman would go on to finish the race in fourth, however, was disqualified on the day for physical actions done by his mechanic. That person was suspended from the series for a full season by series officials, and unfortunately Altman lost all his finished on the day. That promoted Payton Westcott (Nash / EOS) to fourth and Ryan Giannetta (FW / GFC) to fifth.
The finish went down to the wire in the Ruthless Karting Master 100cc division, however, the end result was the same for the as the two main events in Tucson. Christopher Mann (Ruthless / Exprit) set the tone with fast time in qualifying and leading all 14 laps in the Prefinal. He got out to a healthy lead on the opening lap of the main event as Stepanova Nekeel (Ruthless / LN Racing Kart) – subbing for the injured Derek Wang – was able to push past two-time race winner and defending champion Ian Koentges (FDM / CompKart) at the start. Koentges worked by Nekeel and began to reel in Mann. By the halfway point, Koentges took over the lead and the two ran nose to tail the remainder of the distance. Mann was unable to make a charge, keeping the pressure on, but came up short as Koentges won his eighth straight in the class dating back to last year’s season opener. Nekeel pulled off early, and Preston Newberry (FDM / CompKart) retired on the opening lap with a broken chain, allowing Daniel Jones (RWR / CRG) and Luke Tracy (VemmeKart) to fight for third. Jones was able to secure the position in the end as Jeff Tompkins (Tony Kart) completed the top-five.
The Ron White Racing ROK Shifter Master class nearly welcomed a first time winner on the day. Bud Grossenbacher (Racelab / TB Kart) continued his pace from Friday Pre-Qualifying to set quick time in qualifying and win the Prefinal. He jumped out to the lead at the start of the 20-lap Final, and led the opening five laps until pulling off with a flat tire. That handed the lead over to two-time winner Jonathan Vitolo (GFC Karting), who led the remainder of the race to claim his third straight victory on the season. Nick George (Aluminos) and defending series champion Kevin Woods (RWR / CRG) kept it close, finishing second and third. Pat Beckley (GFC Karting) and Bill Pyles (CRG) were fourth and fifth.
Blake Nash (Nash / EOS) became the first two-time winner in the new OK-N category presented by P1 Engines. Alex Keyes (AKR / Charles Leclerc) was the driver to beat as the day began, setting fast time in qualifying and went on to win the Prefinal. Nash was second, trying to work past Keyes on the final circuit of the Prefinal but came up short. In the Final, Nash nearly was shuffled back after Chase Jones (MPG / Kart Republic) got a great start to move into second through the opening laps. Nash made a bold move into turn one – fourth turn after the start – to reclaim second and from there began to run down Keyes who pulled out to a sizable lead. It took Nash 13 laps to catch and pass Keyes for the top spot, and from there drove away to a 1.7 second advantage with fast lap of the race. Keyes settled for second, his first podium in the category while Round One winner Jesus Vasquez Jr. (Nash / EOS) stood on the podium for his second time, placing third. Jones won the battle on track for fourth, however, was penalized 10 seconds for passing after the commitment cone prior to the start, dropping him to seventh and moving Dustin Salaverria (TKC / Sodikart) to fourth and Chris Martin (TKC / Sodikart) to fifth. All driver in the category were competing with the TM engine.
It was a busy day on and off the track surrounding the Mini ROK class presented by Alex Keyes Racing. Braydon Wagner (GFC Karting) set fast time in qualifying however he and two others – Matt Guidera (RWR / CRG) and Luca Popescu (Nash / EOS) were found to violate the rear width rule and were put at the back of the 11-driver field. That put Conner Lypka (CompKart) on the pole position for the Prefinal. Round Two winner Gabriel Balog (Racelab / JV Kart) started second and grabbed the lead early, going on to the race win by holding off a charging Guidera at the end by 29 thousandths at the line. Guidera used the front row starting spot to jump out to good lead at the start of the Final. He would eventually be run down by Popescu and Wagner. The three drivers swapped positions in the second half of the race with Popescu coming away with the top position, and becoming the third different first-time winner on the season. Wagner was a close second, earning fast lap of the race, while Guidera came across the line in third. However, he was removed from the results after tech for a clutch issue. That promoted Balog to the third spot with Lucas Tarango (Ruthless / Nitro Kart) into fourth and Paxton Romero (FDM / CompKart) in fifth.
All the drivers will be back in action on Sunday for Round Four of the series. Tune into the live audio commentary, beginning at 9:30 am, on the EKN Radio Network app or on www.ekartingnews.com/live