EKN TRACKSIDE: PRI ALL-STARS KARTING CLASSIC
The third annual PRI All-Stars Karting Classic was another ground-breaking event for the karting community. Taking place just outside the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Florida - the site of the 21st annual Performance Racing Industry Trade Show - the best of the best from both professional motorsports and the North American karting world came together to battle wheel-to-wheel in front of the many exhibitors and attendees from the show.
Under the dark Florida sky with a dozen light towers surrounding the facility, former Firestone Indy Lights series champion Jay Howard further solidified his name in the motorsports with a dominant victory in the 40-lap main event program, besting Rahal Letterman Racing ALMS driver Joey Hand and former Formula One driver and current NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Scott Speed. On the flip side, '07 Skip Barber National champion and '08 Star Mazda Championship runner-up Joel Miller returned to his karting roots to add another prestigious victory on his CV by winning the Karters division, leading the six drivers who transferred into the Masters race.
Rain was predicted for the day, and it came through during the early hours of the day on Thursday with the precipitation ending around 2:00 pm, an hour before the drivers were scheduled to head on-track. The dampness stayed until the karts hit the track for the first of two 20-minute sessions, and while the karters were split on their decision to run either rains or slicks, by the end of the opening Masters session, everyone was on slick tires. The second session began the process of laying down rubber on the temporary course as the teams commenced setting up for the qualifying sessions.
The Karters division began the official on-track action with a 15-minute qualifying session. Star Mazda Championship runner-up Joel Miller (Tony Kart USA) was the fast driver in practice and was the quickest driver early with a 17.711-second lap time. The Californian's lap time would stand to hold the pole position despite late attempts by Felipe Guimaraes (RDD Motorsports - Kart Mini) and defending race winner Gary Carlton (SSC East - CRG) to take over the top spot. As the checkered fell, Wes Phillips (Turn 1 ProSports - Birel) snuck in his 27th lap, which would be is best, stealing the outside row one starting spot. Guimaraes and Carlton would filled the second row with Cory Pollock (MRP - Birel) and Matt Jaskol (SSC East - Zanardi) on row three. Indy Lights driver Cyndie Allemann (Screaming Talent - Maranello) was seventh with Kyle Wiegand (Team Top Kart USA), Jose Zanella (Tony Kart USA) and Jarvis Gennari (Tony Kart USA) completing the top-10.
The Masters division pilots given 15 minutes for qualifying and Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon (Team Arrow USA) began the session as the driver on top of the scoring monitor. The positions began to change around halfway through the run, and the quick fell as well, as Jay Howard (Screaming Talent) had things rolling in his debut aboard a Maranello chassis. Scott Speed (Tony Kart USA), AJ Allmendinger (MRP - Birel) and a few others battled for the top-five, an order that was constantly changing. As the session neared its end, Speed continued to inch closer and closer to Howard's fast time until finally overtaking the pole position. Speed had topped the final practice session as he and his father Mike were clicking once again, making all the right chassis adjustments. Speed would hang on to secure the spot and the pole for the main event with Howard wrapping the session in second. Wheldon was third while Allmendinger and Jan Heylen (SSC East - CRG) completed the fast-five. Joey Hand (Team Top Kart USA) was sixth with Oswaldo Negri Jr. (RDD Motorsports - Kart Mini) and Alex Tagliani (Turn 1 ProSports - Birel) to start the Prefinal on row four. Rounding out the top-10 were Buddy Rice (Tony Kart USA) and defending champion Michael Valiante (Italian Motors).
The Prefinal for the karters began with an opening lap crash involving many karts, ending a short run for Josef Newgarden (Team Arrow USA), Michael Hogg (Italian Motors), Bill McLaughlin (Motorama Kart Parts - Birel), along with Position One Motorsports Luis Martinez Jr. and Airel Jimenez. Stuart Marsell (Team Arrow USA) was involved as well, but he continued on right in front of the leaders. The top-five were nose-to-tail with Miller leading the way until Guimaraes took the lead after Bobby Wilson (FirstKart.com) slowed up the leader, who fell to third behind Wes Phillips. A few laps later, Carlton would go from fourth to second, as the reigning Karter class champion was on the move. Guimaraes was able to get through for the win, however, second through fifth got bunched up in the final corner resulting in Phillips getting hit from behind by Pollock. Carlton crossed the stripe in second while Miller took third. Pollock ran fourth ahead of Spencer Pigot (Screaming Talent - Maranello) in fifth, having raced up from 15th after a mechanical issues put him on the sidelines early in the qualifying session. Phillips would have to start the final from tenth following his final lap issue, coming in behind Gennari and Joey Wimsett (Champion Racing - Intrepid). Chris Scribner (Team Top Kart USA) advanced to ninth from 17th, while Nick Defazio (Position One Motorsports) attacked from 26th and made it into the top-10.
The pros got the job done to open up the Prefinal with no issues as Speed led the way with Howard, Wheldon, Allmendinger and Hand making up the early top-five. The two former winners - Rice and Valiante - got together on lap three in the infield right hander, putting Valiante on the sidelines and Rice to the tail of the field. Howard was able to get by Speed and would cruise to the win by just one-tenth, taking the pole for the main event. Allmendinger got around Wheldon for third while Heylen moved up to fifth. Hand, Negri and Vitor Meira (Motorama Kart Parts - Birel) had some contact in the final few laps with Meira coming away with sixth, Hand in seventh and Negri dropping back to ninth, right behind Nelson Philippe (SSC East - CRG). Jamie McMurray (SSC East - CRG) crossed the line in tenth.
In the Karters main event, 40 laps were on the docket with 30 drivers vying for the top honor and the six transfer spots to the main event. Guimaraes and Carlton led the field to the green flag, and this time, all the drivers got through the opening corners and around for the first lap. To begin lap two, Guimaraes controlled the point with Carlton, Miller, Pollock and Scribner running in the top-five. An early lapper gave Guimaraes some trouble which allowed Carlton to slide by for lead, as Miller followed him through for second. Pollock would drop Guimaraes back another position while Pigot and Gennari held the final two transfer spots. This would change when Gennari made contact with the outside barrier in the final corner, ending his race on lap 13 when he pulled to the infield. Carlton and Miller ran together upfront, building some gap between themselves and the drivers running third through sixth. Miller would assume the point just before they caught a gaggle of kart, looking to find a way through to put them a lap down. They were able to get their way through without incurring any damage, as did the trailing pack of the next four drivers. With just seven laps remaining, Carlton's bid at repeating as champion would end when he pulled off to pit lane with flat right rear tire.
Following Carlton's departure, things got wild and crazy. Miller would then run comfortably alone at the front while the drivers battling in the top-six got very racy among themselves and with lapped traffic. The major change occurred when Phillips and Guimaraes were attempting to lap Matt Jaskol and James Davison (FirstKart.com), when contact was made in the final corner. Then, as they headed into turn one, Guimaraes made a bold pass attempt that resulted in him flying over Phillips' front-end and backwards into the barriers. During the wreck, Phillips throttle stuck and put him in the wall again, ending his race with two laps to go. Miller would go on to earn the checkered flag for the victory with Pollock and Pigot crossing the line in second and third. Kyle Wiegand (Team Top Kart USA) turned in a solid effort as he moved up from 11th to fourth, while Tyler Dueck (Champion Racing - Intrepid) came all the way up from 23rd to fifth. Scribner earned the final transfer position at the checker to extend his night, taking the final grid spot in the Masters main event. During the podium ceremonies, it was released that Wiegand would be removed from the results due a broken exhaust header, advancing Joey Wimsett - who finished seventh - into the sixth and final transfer position.
Led by Red Bull motorcycle stunt rider Aaron Colton, who served as the pace vehicle with fireworks spraying out the back of his superbike, the Masters field came around to get the green flag in front of a packed house of motorsports enthusiasts and industry members. Howard brought the field down at a fast pace and the result ended with Wheldon climbing the back of Speed as they entered turn one. Wheldon spun around and was forced to watch the entire field pass him by, taking up station at the tail of the field and out of a chance at the victory. Allmendinger would slot into third right behind Howard and Speed, while Philippe and Hand filled out the early top-five. The race was on and everyone seemed to be ready to battle. Howard and Speed would pull out to a small advantage over the rest of the top-five until the lapped traffic played its part in the race. Before the halfway mark, Meira was unsuccessful in an overtaking maneuver on Townsend Bell (Tony Kart USA), ending with Meira doing a 360o. over the top of Bell's machine, putting both in the barriers. Meira stalled and unable to continue, while Bell pulled out just in front of the lead duo. This held up Speed enough to allow Howard to stretch out a small gap as Speed continued to work for a way around Bell. This brought Allmendinger and Hand up on Speed's bumper, kicking off a great fight for the final podium positions.
Howard would cruise to a three-second victory, capping off a great weekend aboard his Palm Beach Int'l Raceway backed Maranello. The fight for second was the real show as Allmendinger held second over Joey Hand and Scott Speed. On the final lap, Allmendinger was doing his best to hold off his challengers, but got held up by Valiante, who was dealing with a damaged chassis. Allmendinger did not get a good run heading into the infield section of the track and this opened the door for Hand, who made his bid for second. An aggressive dive down the inside of the right-hander resulted in left-front to right rear contact, sending Allmendinger off line, fighting to maintain control of his kart with the steering wheel at full lock. Hand was able to slip through to steal second, while Speed followed him through to take third. It was an incredibly exciting end of a great race, that saw Allmendinger recover to finish fourth. Negri was fifth in the final tally, ahead of Heylen and Philippe.
The lead karter was Pollock, who put in a masterful drive in advancing from 25th to eighth. If the race had been just a few laps longer, Pollock may have been able to challenge for sixth, as he was one of the fastest karts on the track. Buddy Rice and Alex Tagliani capped the top-10, while young Spencer Pigot completed a great outing with an 11th place finish from 26th on the grid.
With the third edition in the books, there is no doubt that the Stars of Karting and Performance Racing Industry partnership will only grow, which will make the PRI All-Stars Karting Classic one of the races to attend year after year. Howard and Miller's victories put three different winners in both division for the event's history, thus in turn will bring back the many big names and karting stars in 2009 to be able to raise the All-Stars Karting Classic trophy.