EKN Trackside: 2023 Rotax Max Challenge US Trophy Final – Sunday Report
Hodgson defends US crown as 12 tickets to Rotax Grand Finals awarded from New Castle Motorsports Park
The 2023 Rotax Max Challenge US Trophy Final was completed on Sunday at the New Castle Motorsports Park. Three official days of competition went into the books from the New Castle, Indiana facility, with Race Rotax / J3 Competition welcoming over 110 entries over the five categories offered. It was a battle through the Prefinal and Final races for all, including weather issues at the end of the day to add to the drama with the 12 Rotax Max Challenge Grand Finals tickets on the line. The J3 Competition staff delivered a tremendous inaugural event in 2023 and they raised the bar significantly this year, taking the race to a level that will most certainly fuel ongoing momentum into the 2024 season.
The Senior Max class was last in the order and provided one of the best races of the season. Multiple lead changes took place over the 15-lap battle that saw the top-11 crossing the line nose to tail. Three-time Team USA driver Ryan Norberg (RPG / Kosmic) went from fourth to first in a matter of three corners, including a run around the outside of two drivers and slipping past Frankie Mossman (MDR / LN Racing Kart) for the race win. Defending race winner Oliver Hodgson (J3 / CompKart) ended up third after starting on the pole position with Dalton Hanes (Racelab / TB Kart) in fourth.
As the field were to take to the track for their grid presentation, a light rain hit the area and forced drivers to choose between rain tires or the dry MOJO tires. Many rolled out to the track with rain tires but during the introductions, it was a mad dash to change back to dry tires. All but two made that switch, with Chase Jones (MPG / Kart Republic) rolling the dice for more wet weather. As the field took the green, they danced around the opening corner, with top contender Diego Ramos (PSL / Birel ART) getting spun around from the P5 starting spot. He was able to continue on, crossing the line on the first lap in 21st. Up front, Jones took advantage of the damp track to lead opening circuit however Hodgson was solid on dry tires in the wet to stay on his bumper, along with Race Liberante (MPG / Kart Republic) from the eighth starting spot. Hodgson and Liberante were able to get away as Jones began fading back with the track drying quickly thanks to no more rain and the 36-karts forming the dry line. Lap times continued to get quicker and quicker, but the advantage was already gained by Hodgson and Liberante. By lap eight, Liberante was not able to keep pace and began his decent down the order. Mexico driver and Senior rookie Ernesto Rivera (RPG / Kosmic) took over the second spot and began his quest at running down Hodgson. Behind him, Hanes and Aidan Fox (FAS / Tony Kart) ran nose to tail, but just out of reach from Rivera. That is how the race stayed throughout the second half of the 18-lap run. Hodgson secured his second straight US Trophy Final title, winning by 1.1 seconds over Rivera. Hanes held off Fox for the third step on the podium in his first ever Rotax race. Brazilian Diego Ramos fought forward from his opening corner spin and was fifth at the checkered flag, however, a pushback bumper penalty dropped him down to 10th in the final order. That promoted Colombian Diego Contecha (RPG / Kosmic) to fifth, who started the Prefinal in 20th and the main event in 12th.
A great story emerged throughout the weekend in the Junior Max category with 32 drivers battling. Wesley Gundler (FAS / Tony Kart) came into the weekend as the US Trophy East champion, fighting for one of the two tickets up for grabs. Gundler won two of the heat races on Saturday to earn the pole position for the Prefinal. There he was able to best a charging Turner Brown (SCR / Redspeed) who started ninth. Brown led at the white flag but Gundler was able to secure the win on the final circuit to lead the field for the 17 lap main event. He slipped back as far as fifth early on with the fighting heated up early. Contact pushed early leader and top qualifier Diego Ardiles (RPG / Kosmic) back along with Nathan Dupuis (SCR / Redspeed). US Trophy West champion Nixx Eggleston (Ruthless / Gillard) and Brown took turns leading until Gundler secured the spot on lap 13. From there, Gundler showed the way to the checkered flag to become the 2023 US Trophy Final winner. Eggleston held on for second with Jackson Wolny (SCR / Redspeed) earning the third step of the podium. Brown dropped to fourth with Ardiles getting shuffled back late after fight back forward, recording the fast lap of the race in fifth.
The late entry of three-time Rotax Grand Finals winner Ben Cooper (RPG / Kosmic) shook up the Masters Max division from the start of the event. His sweep of the first day in action put him on the pole position for the Prefinal. He was able to lead all 15 laps in the Prefinal, however, the field went on the attack at the start of the Final. But Mundy Loyer (Nash / EOS) was able to put Cooper out of the lead in the early laps. Cooper was able to get by on lap three for the lead but couldn’t get away right away. Fighting for second place helped his cause, as they battled for the spot allowing Cooper to get inch ahead. By the end of the 17-lap race, Cooper secured the victory by 2.3 seconds. Derek Wang (Ruthless / LN Racing Kart) – 11-time Team USA member – found the speed he was lacking all weekend to be able to grab the second spot ahead of Laurentiu Mardan (Tecno Kart USA). Loyer crossed the line in fourth but was penalized 10 seconds for jumping the start. That promoted Billy Cleavelin (Ruthless / Kosmic) to the spot, gaining a total of six positions. Christopher Mann (Ruthless / Exprit) was sixth, battling with Cleavelin for the ‘Reserved’ ticket spot on the final circuit. Cleavelin was able to prevail, however, Mann was penalized for avoidable contact earlier in the race with John Bonanno (Fulkrum / CompKart).
The day in Mini Max will be one talked about for many years to come. Last year’s winner Gage Korn (MPG / Kart Republic) and British driver Oliver Warner (MPG / Kart Republic) came from second and third on the Prefinal grid to go 1-2 in the race ahead of pole sitter Isaac Malcuit (PSL / Birel ART). Both Korn and Warner exceeded the rear track width in tech and were removed from the results to put them 15th and 16th on the grid for the main event. In a matter of two laps, Warner was able to negotiate the entire field to lead the race. Korn followed through and was second by the end of lap three. They were able to lead the way while the weather provided more drama, with mists and sprinkles hitting the racetrack to make it slick. On lap eight, an incident near the tech barn brought out a yellow flag in the area, but track officials were able to clear the karts from the impact zone. At the same time, the rain increase a bit more, and drivers were now running the wet line. A few spins occurred at the ‘scoreboard’ corner. As they came around to complete lap 10, officials waved the checkered flag, cutting the race short. Officials deemed the race to be a red flag / checkered flag – however – only the checkered flags were displayed. When they crossed the line, Korn was leading the way ahead of Warner. However, officials reverted to the last completed lap, thus giving the win to Warner who was leading on lap 9. Korn was classified second with Malcuit ending up third. Matteo Quinto (Tony Kart) was fourth with Fion Shi (RPG / Gillard) in fifth.
Lucas Palacio (TKG / Kart Republic) was the driver to beat on the opening day of action in the Micro Max division. Lucas Tarrango (Nitro Kart) and Enzo DiGennaro (TFR / Kart Republic) were the top challengers. DiGennaro took the attack to Palacio, leading late in the Prefinal but fell just short at the checkered flag to Palacio. It was not just DiGennaro on Palacio’s bumper in the Final, but it also included Cam Becker (Kart Republic), Sterling Mulata (Kart Republic) and Holden Myers (CompKart). Palacio led the group until the final lap and the final corner. Myers put himself into the second spot, and made a last corner attempt for the lead and the win. Contact was made and it sent Palacio into the grass as the checkered flag waved. Officials deemed Palacio crossed the line first, despite drifting in the grass and not on the racing surface. Myers, who was second at the line, was penalized five seconds for the last lap contact with Palacio. That moved Becker to the second spot on the podium with Mulata in third. DiGennaro ended up fourth with Conner Lypka (CompKart) classified fifth as the penalty to Myers dropped him to sixth.
Once the racing was completed, the 12 tickets to the 2023 Rotax Max Challenge Grand Finals were awarded at the podium ceremony. Four tickets were in the Senior Max division. As winner Oliver Hodgson already held a ticket from a Canada Final program, this gave Ernesto Rivera (Senior) and Dalton Hanes (DD2) the ‘Open’ tickets with Cooper O’Clair (Senior) and Race Liberante (DD2) the ‘Reserved’ tickets. Both tickets in Junior Max were won by the two champions in 2023. East champ Wesley Gundler took the ‘Open’ ticket with his victory while runner-up and West champ Nixx Eggleston was awarded the ‘Reserved’ ticket. Canadian Ben Cooper will make his first start in DD2 Masters at the Rotax Grand Finals, looking for a fourth victory at the event. Joining him will be veteran karter Billy Cleavelin as the 66-year-old will make his second RMCGF appearance with the ‘Reserved’ ticket in Masters Max. Oliver Warner and Gage Korn were 1-2 in the Mini Max division, earning the two ‘Open’ tickets while Matteo Quinto took the ‘Reserved’ ticket. It will be Korn’s third straight Rotax Grand Finals appearance. The victory by Lucas Palacio will complete the Team USA roster as the lone ticket winner in Micro Max.
EKN will have complete coverage of Team USA leading up to and during the December 2-9 event at the Bahrain International Karting Circuit when the world comes together to decide the 2023 Rotax Max Challenge Grand Finals champions.