EKN Trackside: 2023 Xtream Rock Island Grand Prix – Race Report
Bujdoso makes history with third straight King of the Streets triumph as Jones is crowned twice
The 2023 Xtream Rock Island Grand Prix was contested over two days in the city streets of Rock Island, Illinois. Karters from around the country along with international drivers converged onto the 28th edition of the Labor Day karting festival for a chance to win one of the most coveted trophies in the sport – the RIGP ROCK. Weather was perfect over the two days of competition, featuring warm temperatures and clear skies – however – hydration was key for those taking on the 6/10-mile course and the many volunteers working around the circuit.
The headline category of King of the Streets may have not had the numbers it featured in the past – however the speeds were just as quick as any year. Five drivers took to the circuit with two-time former winner Andrew Bujdoso leading the way. His Magik Kart was on rails, and it was difficult for the rest of the field to keep up. Former RIGP winner Scott Barnes retired after contact with the wall, along with Oscar Panozzo. Former RIGP winner Joe Ruch suffered damage but continued to finish all 20 laps in the second spot. Out front, Bujdoso recorded a fast lap of 32.610 on a tight circuit, leading wire-to-wire for victory. He becomes the first driver to win three straight years in the King division at RIGP, matching the feat set by Alan Rudolph who won in 1999 at Quincy before the crown category moved over to the Rock Island Grand Prix. Ryan Bjerkes drove to the third position.
The King of the Rock 100cc was the first crown category in the race order. Chase Jones was able to set fast time in qualifying, the lone driver into the 34s by 45 thousandths. It was 2021 victor Race Liberante who bested his MPG Motorsports teammate for the win in the heat race. Liberante led the majority of the race with Jones on his bumper the entire time. They began shuffling over the final two laps with Jones able to complete a last corner pass for the lead and the victory – taking his first in the class and becoming the third different winner in three years. Liberante settled for second with Charlie Mohr able to beat out defending King – Justin Wishard. Riley Scott completed the top-five in the 10-driver field.
A total of 27 drivers made up the King of the Rock Briggs division, also welcoming a third different winner in three years. Former RIGP winner Connor Lund was able to set fast time in qualifying with a 38.081-lap. He led the field to the green flag for the 10-lap heat race but slipped back to fifth. Chase Jones and Race Liberante locked up and were able to run away for a 1-2 finish. Liberante jumped out to the lead with Jones on his bumper until lap six when Jones took over the point, bringing Justin Wishard with him. They were able to get away from the rest of the group fighting for third. Wishard stayed locked on Jones bumper until the final lap. He made his move, however, lap traffic stalled his attempt, allowing Jones to reach the line first to claim a second King victory on the day. Defending King Drake Ostrom was third with fast lap of the race ahead of Lund and Liberante.
The overall win total at the Rock Island Grand Prix is 28 – set by Ohio driver Gary Lawson. Tony Neilson is closing in on that record, grabbing two more ROCK trophies on Sunday to bring his total to 25. The first came in the Margay Ignite Masters division. Neilson won the heat race and jumped out to the lead in the 15-lap main event. He led with Jeff Scott on his bumper the entire distance. A last lap battle saw them go side-by-side through every corner, until contact in turn five put Scott into the wall. This allowed Neilson to reach the line first to claim his fourth straight in the category. Scott ‘Skitchy’ Barnes ended up second with EKN’s own David Cole placing third. Andrew Coulter was the lone driver running at the end, placing fourth in the 10-kart class.
His second on the day came in the Margay Ignite 2 division. Four different drivers led in the race, including heat race winner Justin Vancil, Ashton Wheeler, Neilson and two-time defending race winner Scott ‘Skitchy’ Barnes. It was Barnes leading the way at the white flag, but Neilson was able to get around for the lead and the victory – his first in the class. Barnes fell back to fifth as Wheeler, Gage Kemp, and Vancil – who set fast time in the race – all slipping past.
Barnes would gain two more ROCK trophies as the Bermuda driver won two in shifter competition. Barnes was able to outduel King winner and Magik Kart teammate Andrew Bujdoso in the Open Shifter category. Ryan Bjerke won the Stock Honda division as the lone entrant in the race group. The second victory on the day for Barnes was in Open Shifter Masters. He led all 15 laps to bring his RIGP victory total to eight. Joe Ruch trailed in second with Kenneth Hahn placing third ahead of Nathan Williams. RIGP Race Director Terry Riggins made another start at the event, as the 77-year-old karting legend continues his love on and off the track.
Gaining two ROCK trophies of his own on Sunday was Race Liberante. He opened the event with the first victory in the Travis DeVriendt Memorial Briggs 206 Heavy 1 class. Connor Lund won the heat race, but it was Jerry Fandrey leading the way for the opening five laps before Chase Jones and Liberante worked together to get to the front. Jones led only two laps before Liberante took control. The two battled on the final lap, with Liberante coming through to claim the first victory of the day – his second in the class in three years. Jones settled for second with Drake Ostrom winning the battle for third ahead of Jeff Dolian and Michael Dittmer – who set fast lap of the race.
The second came in the Senior 100cc main event. Liberante and heat race winner Chase Jones broke away from the field, putting on a great show for the entire 15 laps. In the end, Liberante held the advantage over Jones, winning the class for the first time and bringing his RIGP win total to six. Jones was second with Talan Drake beating out Charlie Mohr for the third spot. Oscar Panozzo rounded out the top-five.
Two was the magic number on the day as Michael Dittmer was able to claim a pair of ROCK trophies. The first came in the Briggs 206 Heavy 2 category. Tony Neilson won the heat race but fell toward the back of the top-five with Justin Wishard and Mick Gabriel moving to the front. Gabriel grabbed the lead on lap five and showed the way to the white flag. Dittmer, who was sixth early on, knifed his way up with fast laps of the race, eventually getting into the second spot late. On the final circuit, Gabriel went defensive, and contact was made. It sent Gabriel wide on the exit of two, getting sucked into the barriers. This allowed Dittmer to take over the lead and edge out Drake Ostrom by 92 thousandths at the line. It was his second time in three years winning the class. Justin Wishard, Connor Lund and Neilson crossed the line close behind.
The second win on the day for Dittmer came in Briggs 206 Medium 1, a class he did not enter for until Thursday. Dittmer was fifth in the heat race while Tony Neilson won the race on Saturday. Neilson was among the different leaders in the race, including Mick Gabriel and Dittmer. With two laps remaining Dittmer controlled the lead and was able to hold on through to the checkered flag to claim victory, his first in the original Briggs 206 class at the RIGP which began in 2012. Neilson was there until contact with the wall took him out of the race, allowing Drake Ostrom to claim second ahead of former RIGP winner Michael Welsh with Gage Kemp fourth and Gabriel down to fifth. Dittmer is now tied for third in the all-time win list with fellow Quad Cities driver Tim Goettsch.
Three other former RIGP winners grabbed another ROCK trophy to add to their collection. Jeff Dolian earned a third victory at Rock Island Grand Prix with second in three years in the Briggs 206 Masters class. Dolian won the heat race on Saturday but it was four-time class winner Tony Neilson the led early. It was only two laps before Dolian returned to the point with Michael Dittmer jumping into second. Dittmer took over the lead on lap 13 but on the final circuit, Dolian took back the position and reached the line first for the victory. Dittmer settled for second with Neilson in third. Michael Welsh and Matt Pewe completed the top-five.
For a second straight year, Riley Scott took the victory in Margay Ignite Senior. Scott was third in the heat race on Saturday behind 2018 winner Scott Barnes and Gage Kemp. Scott took the lead from Kemp on lap two, and was able to hold on to the end to become the first two-time winner in the category since its inception in 2015. Tony Neilson was second in the order over Barnes with 2021 winner Ashton Wheeler fourth and Justin Vancil fifth.
Mick Gabriel won his second Briggs 206 Medium 2 race in three years with the checkered flag on Sunday. He and Justin Wishard worked together to get out front early with Gabriel in the lead for much of the race. The two battled on the final circuit with Gabriel reaching the checkered flag first. Wishard was shuffled back to fifth with Ostrom – who posted fast lap of the race – along with Neilson and Welsh slipping by for position on the final lap.
A new class for the Rock Island Grand Prix was the Briggs 206 Novice division, reserved for anyone who had not won on the city streets prior. Heat race winner Jerry Fandrey was unable to make the start due to issues in a previous race. This allowed Jeremiah Davis and Huntington Bolton to take control at the point. Davis led the first 14 laps until on the final circuit until contact with the barriers took the possible first victory away. Instead, Bolton went on to reach the checkered flag first, adding he and Todd Bolton to the list of father/son duos to win at the Rock Island Grand Prix. Don Newman was second ahead of Palmer Eicher Jr. and Joseph Rapp.
Yamaha SuperCan Heavy was back for a second straight year, welcoming first time RIGP winner Charlie Mohr. The heat race winner was able to lead all 15 laps to claim his first ROCK trophy. Blake Korth was second ahead of former RIGP winner Shane Wells. Matt Graham and Jon Proctor completed the top-five.
Three Vintage categories competed on the day with three different winners. Erik Gasparovich from Latvia took the top honors in the Open class over Roman Padans and Aaron Kruger. Dave Doogan won the Yamaha division ahead of Kris Porter and Travis Porter. Steve Welte was the winner in Mac class with Richard Vandermaiden second and Randy Duncalf in third.
The two-day Xtream Rock Island Grand Prix is completed for 2023, following the great efforts after the banquet by many racers and their families helping the volunteer staff tear down the track until midnight. The planning is now underway for the 29th edition of the street race for Labor Day weekend in 2024.