EKN Trackside: 2023 Challenge of the Americas – Sonoma – Sunday Report
Pickett and Vasquez claim wins as championships are decided for 16th season of series
All cards were left on the table Sunday as the 2023 Challenge of the Americas hosted the final round of the 16th season with a full day of action at the Sonoma Raceway karting center. The Sonoma, California facility always produces great racing, and Round Six of the premier west coast winter series was just that. There was no lack of drama as the seven main events on the day helped to decide the final chapter to the 2023 championship chases. Victories on the day by Hunter Pickett (PSL Karting / Birel ART) and Jesus Vasquez Jr. (Nash / EOS) helped to carry the momentum into the rest of the season, while the title chase went down to the wire in Senior, Junior and Masters 100cc categories to keep those in attendance on the fences.
The SwedeTech ROK Shifter title was in the hands of three-time winner Jacob Gulick after his runner-up performance on Saturday clinching five straight podium finishes. It was about the race win on Sunday, however, his GFC Karting teammate Keawn Tandon had other ideas, laying down fast lap in qualifying with a 49.076-lap time. Michael Avansino (Croc Promotion) joined in on the fun with the second quickest lap ahead of Gulick with Saturday winner and former champion Hunter Pickett (PSL / Birel ART) in fourth. Tandon was able to fend off challenges by Pickett and Gulick for the Prefinal win, however it was Pickett that grabbed the holeshot to lead the way in the Final. That was the winning move as Tandon was unable to mount an attack for the 20-lap race, with Pickett taking a second win on the weekend by six tenths of a second. Gulick was in third until a flat left rear tire took him out of the race on lap 12. That allowed Avansino to claim his first Challenge podium in third. Brian Keck (GFC Karting) and Senior rookie Preston Lambert (SpeedSense / Exprit) rounded out the top-five.
The championship decided on Saturday saw Gulick claim his first Challenge title of his career, along with the ROK Cup Superfinal ticket to compete in Italy later this year. Round Two winner Macy Williams (CB / Gillard) finished runner-up with Ethan Booher (GFC Karting) ending an impressive winter season with third in the championship.
As it has been all season long, the Forward Direction Motorsports Senior 100cc category gave us an amazing last act on Sunday. Round One winner Chase Hand (GFC Karting) set the tone with fast time in qualifying and coming away with the Prefinal win over championship contender Stephen Eisert (SpeedSense / Exprit) and Jesus Vasquez Jr. (Nash / EOS). The 20-lap Final was an all out war with no one working together and every driver for themselves. Eisert and Hand exchanged the lead throughout the first half of the race, keeping the lead group at a healthy count. On the opening lap however, championship leader Liam Letzsch (GFC Karting) was shuffled off and fell outside the top-20, which at the time took the championship out of his hands and put into Eisert’s. By lap 11, Vasquez put him at the lead of the group as they continued to shuffle for position behind him. Eyes then went to Saturday winner Harley Keeble (The Karting Collective / Sodi Kart) as the Brit charged forward from starting 31st due to an engine failure at the start of the Prefinal. With just a few laps remaining, he was at the tail of the lead group that featured roughly seven drivers. Up front, Vasquez was able to fend off the challenges for the lead, as he led the last eight laps to secure his first victory in the category. Last year’s champion Kyriakos Sioukas (AKR / Birel ART) drove up to second ahead of Eisert. Hand recorded fast lap of the race but fell short of the podium by one spot with Timothy Carel (RPM / Tony Kart) finishing fifth. Keeble was into the top-five but was shuffled back to sixth to close out his Challenge debut.
Letzsch knifed his way forward, working up to the 10th spot to secure his second Challenge championship in three years. The title gave him the ROK Vegas ticket to compete in the event later this October. Eisert settled for second in the standings in his rookie campaign, 54 points behind. Hand, despite missing the second event, was able to gather enough points to finish on the podium in the third position.
Lap by lap, the championship for the Ruthless Karting Masters 100cc class was bouncing back and forth between defending champion Ian Koentges (FDM / CompKart) and now two-time winner Christopher Mann (Ruthless / Exprit). Koentges made full changes, including a chassis and engine swap overnight and it paid off, securing fast time in qualifying ahead of Mann for the five bonus points. The chassis and engine move forced Koentges to start at the back of the field however for the Prefinal. Koentges made quick work of the seven driver field and went from last to first in the shortened 10-lap race. It was Mann however that looked like he was shot out of cannon as the field exited the opening corner of the 20-lap Final. Holding the outside line from the front row, Mann was able to excel down the hill into Tic-Tac-Toe very quickly and pulled away from Koentges. With Mann out front, Koentges had to battle with Daniel Jones (RWR / CRG) – who did not compete on Friday or Saturday.
As they ran, Mann had fast lap of the race and was winning. Koentges just needed to finish second to claim the title by two points. If he fell to third, it was a six point advantage for Mann in the standings. Jones had a big cheering section with the whole Ruthless group cheering him on. Jones was able to pull off a pass and hold second for a few laps, but Koentges fought back. Jones tried in the closing laps to make a move, and on the final circuit was trying to set up a big run down the straight when he dropped a wheel and spun off. Mann went on the win his third straight main event to even the score with Koentges, however the defending champ landed a second straight title with the runner-up result. David Pergande (JHM / LN Racing Kart) and Luke Tracy (VemmeKart) were able to slip by Jones for third and fourth in the final corner, putting Jones fifth in the order and third in the championship.
No one could have scripted the final round for the Nash Motorsportz Junior 100cc division. It began with a celebration for Payton Westcott (Nash / EOS) as she secured her first top qualifier honors to beat out the 31-driver field for the top spot. She was quickly shuffled back in the Prefinal, which was stopped on lap four for a red flag incident involving Ty Fisher flipping over. After he was checked out and cleared by medical, the race continued and three-time winner Nixx Eggleston (Ruthless / Exprit) drove to the front for the win, gaining valuable championship points with point leader Alexander Gonzalez (Nash / EOS) back in 16th. Eggleston opened the 20-lap Final leading the way until lap eight. A slight bobble through Tic-Tac-Toe allowed a train of drivers to pass through. When reaching turn six, holding the outside, a fifth driver tried passing Eggleston. It was championship leader Gonzalez who worked his way forward quickly over the opening laps. The two title contenders made contact, and Eggleston went into the tire barriers. Gonzalez continued, and eventually closed back up on the lead pack that included last year’s champion Christian Cameron (AKR / Birel ART) and Gage Korn (Race Factory / Kart Republic). Final lap fireworks with drivers racing for the lead saw Gonzalez make his move past Korn and Cameron. Gonzalez escaped with the lead and crossed the line as the provisional winner. A 10-second penalty for Gonzalez would have dropped him down to nearly ninth, however, with additional penalties to those finishing inside the top-10 move him to seventh. With Eggleston finishing 26th, he claimed the championship by a mere five points over Gonzalez.
Finishing second on track, Korn was promoted to the top spot for his first victory to close out the rookie campaign in the class. Nico Sarphati (GFC Karting) made it two Junior rookies on the podium in the second spot while Keagan Kaminski (GFC Karting) was put into third. Hudson Sharp was placed in fourth with Turner Brown (SCR / Redspeed) ending up fifth.
It was a $500 payday for Blake Nash as he completed the weekend sweep of the P1 Engines OK-N category. Nash (Nash / EOS) set fast time in qualifying and won all three heat races on Saturday to start the Sunday Prefinal on the pole position. He led every lap of the shortened 10-lap race as they fought for position behind him. It was the same in the 20-lap Final, with Nash escaping away from the field early and driving away to a seven-second margin of victory. The rest of the field fought for second as Flavio Aquini (Italcorse America) was able to secure the position ahead of Dane Idelson (Birel ART). Dustin Salaverria (The Karting Collective / Sodi Kart) was fourth with Derek Wang (Ruthless / LN Racing Kart) completing the top-five.
Tim Barber was able to do what he did not pull off Saturday, a victory in the Ron White Racing ROK Shifter Masters class. Barber (The Karting Collective / Sodi Kart) set fast time in qualifying and won the Prefinal, only to lose out in the Final to provisional champion Jonathan Vitolo (GFC Karting). Barber repeated the qualifying and Prefinal feats, and then led all 20 laps for his first Challenge victory. Vivek Tandon (GFC Karting) was able to work past Vitolo on the opening circuit. Vitolo took back the position a few laps later and held off Tandon for the second spot, ending the season as series champion. Andrew Wait (The Karting Collective / Sodi Kart) drove to fourth with Samuel Gluss (The Karting Collective / Sodi Kart) placing fifth.
The Alex Keyes Racing Mini ROK class welcomed its fifth different winner over the six rounds in 2023. Mateo Calderon (Aluminos) set fast time in qualifying but was beat out for the Prefinal win by Round Two winner Matt Guidera (Benik) – who retired in the main event on Saturday early with electrical issues. The two were able to pull away from the rest of the field in the 16-lap Final. Each took a turn at the point but it was Calderon who led the majority of the race, and was with Braydon Wagner (GFC Karting) challenging Guidera late for second but came up short. Luca Popescu (Nash / Energy) crossed the line in fourth but was penalized two positions for contact. That moved Julian Sanchez (GFC Karting) into the spot and Gabriel Balog (Racelab / JV Kart) to fifth.
Wagner and Balog were the two fighting for the championship heading into the Final, with the driver finishing ahead earning the championship. Wagner’s third-place result was his fifth straight podium result, giving him the title by 20 points over Balog. Popescu would complete the championship podium in third.
The book is closed on the 16th season for the Challenge of the Americas. The program will look ahead to the winter of 2024 for the next championship season. Before that, the focus now turns to the special one-off event this summer. The ROK the PARC event is scheduled for July 14-16 at the Pat’s Acres Racing Complex in Canby, Oregon. A full slate of Challenge categories, including the OK-N division, and special events during the weekend will make for an exciting weekend at the PARC.