EKN Trackside: 2023 Challenge of the Americas – Sonoma – Saturday Report

Pickett and Keeble top Senior categories in first day of doubleheader finale

Former series champion Hunter Pickett won in his 2023 series debut in ROK Shifter (Photo: EKN)

The penultimate round of the 2023 Challenge of the Americas cruised through a cool day at the 12-turn, 0.7-mile Sonoma Raceway in California, but the racing was hectic at times despite the fact that the incoming point leaders succeeded in strengthening their grips on their respective titles. Hometown hero Hunter Pickett (PSL / Birel ART) showed the way in ROK Shifter, while factory Sodi Kart driver Harley Keeble tamed the Sonoma layout to top the main event in Senior 100cc, running with The Karting Collective. As always, the track set the stage for some stellar racing and has surely fueled even more tension for the Sunday season finale.

In the Swedetech ROK Shifter category, veteran Hunter Pickett (PSL / Birel ART) laid down an artful domination of the day, sweeping all three sessions in style. Point leader Jacob Gulick (GFC Karting) and Round 4 podium finisher Keawn Tandon (GFC Karting) were the primary challengers all day, and the main event would come down to Gulick chasing Pickett for 20 laps. The duo had very similar pace, which allowed Gulick to close slightly in the late going, but Pickett was not fazed in the slightest as he powered ahead to hold a 0.119-second advantage at the checkered flag. Tandon got a solid start and hung with the leaders early but faded to a comfortable third ahead of Brian Keck (GFC Karting), who slipped past CB Motorsports’ Macy Williams (Gillard) to take over fourth. Williams rolled home to a strong top-five finish to cement her spot as the series runner-up. Unofficially, with three wins, a second, and a third, Gulick looks to have locked in the series title. Other impressive runs were turned in by Ethan Booher (GFC Karting) and Preston Lambert (SpeedSense / Exprit). The duo started deep in the field after Prefinal issues and advanced their way to six and seventh, having started 14th and 16th, respectively.

British driver Harley Keeble earned his first victory in the USA by winning Senior 100cc (Photo: EKN)

Not surprisingly, considering the close nature of the field in qualifying, the Forward Direction Motorsports Senior 100cc category was hard-fought all day. Rookie senior Anthony White (CRG) topped the charts in qualifying over Chase Hand (GFC Karting), and then the Prefinal got wild quickly as the front row was stuffed to the middle of the top-10 through the early part of the 14-lap race. After qualifying ninth, British driver Harley Keeble (The Karting Collective / Sodi Kart) into the lead of the Prefinal by lap five and held the spot to secure the pole for the main event. The opening lap of the Final was aggressive as Keeble ran defensive through the opening corners, and the contact fired up the intensity. Keeble would be shuffled down to the 10th spot as Jesus Vasquez Jr. (Nash / EOS), Chris Martin (The Karting Collective / Sodi Kart) and Hand all led until Senior rookie Stephen Eisert (SpeedSense / Exprit) took control of the point. Keeble’s fast laps of the race pace allowed him to knife his way forward, reaching the lead group and begin fighting Eisert for the top position. Coming to the white flag, Keeble was able to take the spot and put distance between he and Eisert, driving to his first victory on USA soil. Keeble was penalized three seconds for passing under yellow, a number of drivers including Eisert were caught for tram line violations at the start. Keeble was still declared the winner with championship leader Liam Letzsch (GFC Karting) moved up to second ahead of Eisert. Valen Venkatesh (SpeedSense / Exprit) to fourth and Kane Martin (Nash / EOS) placing fifth. The third podium finish on the season for Letzsch puts him in a good position to lock up the championship heading into Sunday over Eisert.

Jonathan Vitolo locked up the ROK Shifter Masters championship with his fourth victory on the season (Photo: EKN)

In the Ron White Racing ROK Shifter Masters class, Jonathan Vitolo (GFC Karting) was challenged all day by The Karting Collective’s Tim Barber (The Karting Collective / Sodi Kart), who set the fast time and qualifying and won the Prefinal as well. Vitolo leveraged a great start in the Final to take over the point, and he would not relinquish the position despite being pressured for 20 straight laps. Vitolo and Barber traded fast race laps over the distance as the gap never extended to more than a second and a half, and it was Barber’s pace for the final laps that made things a little tense for the eventual winner. Vitolo would fend off the attack to score his fourth win of the year and, in the process, he clinched the championship crown one race early. The margin of victory was just 0.327 seconds, while Vikek Tandon (GFC Karting) cruised to the final step of the podium. Bill Pyles (CRG) was fourth with Samuel Gluss (The Karting Collective / Sodi Kart) classified fifth.

A second straight victory for Christopher Mann in Masters 100cc (Photo: EKN)

The fight for the championship in the Ruthless Karting Masters 100cc class is the closet of any with defending champion Ian Koentges (FDM / CompKart) leading the way now by just 11 points after Chris Mann (Ruthless / Exprit) scored the main event win. The gap would be even smaller if not for the fact that Mann forfeit his pole position run in qualifying by being a pound light at the scales, and then after starting at the tail of the short six-kart grid, he could not find a way past Koentges in the Prefinal. Koentges earned 15 points to Mann’s nine over these two sessions, but Mann’s early move to the lead in the Final still gave him the most points on the day as he also set the race’s fastest lap. Heading into Sunday, Koentges has an 11-point lead in the standings and both are sitting on the same drop score of 99 points. It will be a head-to-head fight all day long with every point hanging in the balance. Behind the two championship combatants, David Pergande (JH Motorsports / LN Racing Kart) was strong in the final, taking second from Koentges for a few laps, but in the end, engine issues caused him to fade to third. Scott Formenek (SpeedSense / Exprit) finished fourth ahead of Ron Schoonover (JH Motorsports / LN Racing Kart).

Blake Nash swept the action in OK-N on the day (Photo: EKN)

The revised format for the P1 Engines OK-N category gave them qualifying and three heat races for their schedule on Saturday. Three-time winner Blake Nash (Nash / EOS) dominated the day, leading the way in all four sessions. His 50.689-lap time in qualifying put him on the pole position for the three heat races. Nash would go on to win all three heat races, despite the rest of the top-five in qualifying all within 91 thousandths of Nash’s time. Nash led all 10 laps in Heat 1 but was trailing Dustin Salaverria (The Karting Collective / Sodi Kart) in Heat 2 before winning by over two seconds. The third heat was another 10-lap cruise control for Nash, taking the win with Salaverria once again in second. They will fill out the front row for the Prefinal on Sunday with Anthony Freese (WCM / Birel ART) and Flavio Aquini (Italcorse America) in row two.

A first Challenge victory for Max Altman in Junior 100cc (Photo: EKN)

Max Altman (SpeedSense / Exprit) was able to secure his first Challenge victory on Saturday in the Nash Motorsportz Junior 100cc division. He nearly made it a sweep on the day but was shut out for fast time in qualifying by Spencer Smith (FDM / CompKart), who took fast time by just 16 thousandths of a second. Altman led all 14 laps of the Prefinal with three-time winner Nixx Eggleston (Ruthless / Exprit) and Turner Brown (SCR / Redspeed) right there in second and third. In the Final it would be Eggleston and championship leader Alexander Gonzalez (Nash / EOS) that were in the fight for the victory over the 20-lap race. Each took a turn at the point until Altman secured the spot with four laps remaining and put some real estate between he and Eggleston. At the line it was a 1.8-second victory for Altman over Eggleston. Gonzalez lost the leaders and fell back to fifth at the checkered flag. It was Yana Kapoor (Leading Edge Motorsports / Tony Kart) that put in a great performance in the final, as she came from sixth on the grid to earn her first Challenge podium finish. Gage Korn (Race Factory / Kart Republic) was able to make a last lap move up into the fourth spot ahead of Gonzalez. He would be penalized five seconds for cutting the track, dropping him to ninth in the final order and putting Nico Sarphati (GFC Karting) into the fifth position.

Braydon Wagner was named winner in Mini ROK, earning his first series victory (Photo: EKN)

It would be another post-race decision that would decide the winner in the Alex Keyes Racing Mini ROK division. NorCal driver Mateo Calderon (Aluminos) set the pace in qualifying and was able to score the win in the Prefinal. He and championship leader Gabriel Balog (Racelab / JV Kart) were able to get away out front but was reeled in by Braydon Wagner (GFC Karting). All three led at a time but the race went down to a final lap battle. Balog went on the defensive line with he and Wagner making contact in the Tic-Tac-Toe section of the track. Balog cut straight through while Calderon went around Wagner to now put him into second. They went side by side on the exit of the final corner, with more contact made. That slowed down the pace of Calderon, and Balog was able to cross the line first with Wagner close behind in second and Calderon third. Official penalized Balog for the cut track on the final lap, thus moving Wagner to the top of the podium for his first series victory. Calderon moved to second with Julian Sanchez (GFC Karting) on the podium in third. Luca Popescu (Nash / Energy) was fourth with Balog dropping to fifth with the penalty. The results Saturday still make for the championship to be a toss up, based on the results in the final round on Sunday.

The drivers are all ready to do it again on Sunday for the final round of the 16th edition of the Challenge of the Americas. The weather in Sonoma is forecast to be a little cooler than on Saturday, but with a couple of title fight still to be decided, it should be heated trackside all day long. Be sure to catch the action on Saturday and Sunday with LIVE audio at www.ekartingnew.com/live or www.ekartingnews.com/radio and be sure to follow the EKN social media channels for updates, photos, videos and more!

EKN Global Members Discussion: