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  • Russell Soto

A Weekend in the Big Time - The Rotax US Grand Nationals at New Jersey Motorsports Park

June 21st to 26th were the long-awaited Rotax Grand Nationals at New Jersey Motorsports Park, and as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do a major national event in our backyard, we decided to enter. I decided to document this experience as much as possible, so instead of the usual blog entry, for this one you will get a much more detailed narrative. I want to communicate as much of this experience to you as possible, so I hope you enjoy it!

A Weekend in the Big Time

What’s it like to run your first National event

by Russell Soto

In American football it might be the NFL, in motor racing it might be Formula One or Indianapolis. In the world of competitive karting, it does not get much higher than competing in a National event, and as a driver I learned that the very first time can be an experience as intense, harrowing and overwhelming as it is incredibly exciting.

I’ve been karting on a very limited budget for 7 years. In this time I’ve had some success in club and regional races, and even built a reputation as a fast competitor that tends to place high with limited resources. Having read about and followed National events for some time, I thought I knew what to expect. But when you’re there, just standing in the paddock, it feels like a completely different ball game. Let me share with you what it’s like to spend a weekend in Big Time Karting, through a newcomer’s eyes.

Wednesday - Setup Day

It almost seemed like the start of a typical day of karting, and as we approached New Jersey Motorsports Park after the two-hour trip from Jersey City, it still felt like just another regional weekend. All that familiarity faded away as soon as we saw the long line of cars waiting to enter the karting track, Tempest. Once we reached the top of the bridge leading to the paddock, I realized we were entering a different world.

We were welcomed by a colorful forest of trailers and tents, certainly enormous compared to any karting event I’ve been in. We made our way through the metal canyons formed by the huge facilities of factory-supported karting teams, to the one under which I'd be driving that weekend – PSL Karting.

My mechanic Nick Frangoulis and I unloaded the kart and entered the PSL compound for the first time. What we saw had every bit of the taste and feel of Formula One. Rows of pristine Birel ART karts, carefully prepped – almost “manicured” – by uniformed PSL personnel, sat on stands. With its flooring, sliding doors, windows and dedicated catering and “relaxing” area, The PSL "tent" was like a building of its own, like a hotel lobby filled with team drivers already at their laptops watching GoPro videos and studying track data. All the while I seemed to be the only one shocked by all this: everyone else seemed used, which almost made me feel embarrassed…but I thought it was great.

We settled the RY30-S8b Birel ART chassis that I’d be using for the weekend into its working stall, mounted some old VEGA practice rubber, and performed a quick engine swap for a regional-level Rotax Senior, in preparation for the next day.

The level of professionalism displayed by PSL was also a pleasant shock – whenever Nick or I needed anything, a team member was always ready to help immediately: each of them helpful, professional, and an absolute pleasure to work with.

Thursday - Practice

We were back at the track by 8 am, and there wasn’t much time for talking as we were all focused on running as many practice sessions as we could, to collect feedback and data. But as soon as the track went "green" at nine, rain started to fall, which made some drivers reconsider going out. Because Rotax Senior was the first category in the rotation, our session would be under the slickest conditions. I kept the slick tires on as it was still dry enough for them, and followed my PSL Northeast teammate Adam Rylance for most of that first practice session.

Our season in the Northeast started very late this year, so it felt weird to be driving the full NJMP karting track after so long. But by the third session I felt acclimated and could attack the corners more, even in damp conditions. I was surprised at how quickly veteran National drivers got used to the track. Right away we could tell we were down on power from most runners, a reminder that teams bring only the best of the best in engines, drivers and equipment - no resource or expense is spared at this level. Facing this, we had to be content with being 2 seconds off the pace, and took some consolation in knowing that we were using a set of old tires with three practice days prior to this event - it was a shock to see just how many sets of tires some of the top runners went through, changing to new rubber as many as once each session - some even more!

We still did some useful work that day, making a few setup changes, mostly to help with our power deficit. Especially useful was being able to download data off my Mychron 4 and give it to Elton, PSL Karting's data analyst. Together, we compared my laps with those of PSL teammate Michael D'Orlando. I had never enjoyed this level of data analysis, and was both excited and intrigued: What was once just lines on a graph started to tell a story of how and where I could gain time relative to one of the Nation's top drivers. It felt great to be driving again, especially when every moment brought me something to help me improve as a driver. With that in mind, we left to prepare for the next day's sessions.

Friday - Practice, Qualifying and Heat 1

We happily opened the hotel curtains to see evidence of blue skies. In the dry weather, we completed our practice sessions smoothly and without issues. It also became obvious that simply watching these National drivers zoom by on their supremely-tuned engines and pristine rubber would not be as productive as taking advantage of observation, feedback and data analysis to improve my own level. At the end of practice we were able to shave off chunks of time from the day before, still on the old practice rubber. We were on good spirits, as we had closed the gap and knew we had the pace to run with the pack.

The driver’s briefing soon followed, explaining the rules of the event and how the weekend would go: There would be one 15-minute qualifying session followed by three heat races, 10 laps each, one on Friday and two on Saturday. The heats would be non-progressive (drivers start each heat in their original qualifying order, regardless of finishing order). Saturday would end with a 14-lap pre-final, with the main event, the 20-lap final race, scheduled for Sunday morning.

We had reason to believe a mid-field or even top-10 qualifying time would be possible, and after a short intermission we fitted new Vega rubber. But disaster struck as soon as I hit the track: the fastener connecting the airbox to the carburetor worked itself loose, and tragically robbed the Rotax of power. As a result, we would have to start last in all three heat races!

I'm not a stranger to starting last due to some mechanical issue. But starting last in a race of this level, with opposition of this caliber, is a whole other story! Nick and I discussed just how I would approach the situation, and how I'd have my work cut out for me to make up as many spots as possible during the first few laps - before the tidal wave of more experienced drivers loomed behind me - if not the engine, we knew we had the pace and the chassis to achieve a good placement.

After a brief lunch break, it was time for the first heat and my very first National racing experience. Starting last on the grid, I was able to avoid a wreck at turn one and get by most drivers, climbing all the way up from 27th to 12th at one point, but finishing 20th at the end of the ten laps. I can't say I felt overjoyed at my performance, and to be honest I felt a bit like a fish out of water! Great starts and aggressive overtaking are not enough: The intensity and constant, wheel-to-wheel action of a National event creates a pressure cooker in which the slightest mistake - forgiven at the club or regional level - results in a train of karts storming past you on the inside of the following corner. I was reminded that I was, indeed, in the middle of Big Time Karting, and my level of concentration would have to come up accordingly. In only ten laps I learned more about race craft than in any previous race I've ever been in. With that in mind, I finished the day feeling "just alright" about it, considering that it was only my very first National race.

Saturday - Heat 2, Heat 3, and the Pre-final

With the sun shining and clear skies, the day again promised some good racing. We tried an adjustment during warmup to make the kart looser on entry and help it rotate around the corners, but when it proved slower we switched back for Heat 2. Nick and I surprised ourselves at how efficient we had become in setup, testing feedback and adjustment - the pressure of nationals brings a mechanic's level up, as much as a driver's.

But the pressure can be a lethal, double-edged sword. Starting last once again, we climbed up to 22nd, but a costly mistake in the final laps lost me some positions. My driving was also very tense, and my anxiety was showing. Fellow competitors who knew me from regional and club events stated that I looked like a different driver. The mixture of anxiety at competing nationally for the first time, the tension of the fast-paced pit and paddock work, and - let's face it - a bit of frustration at not finishing as high as I'm used to, all combined to make me miss braking points and apexes, and generally over-drive the Birel ART.

I was told this is common of drivers in their first National event. But an important ingredient of success in racing - at any level - is keeping your cool and your head down, not allowing any tension to get in the way. To me, racing is like music...playing an instrument, hitting your notes and keeping your tempo is made easier when you learn to block everything out and enjoy yourself and the music. Your playing then becomes as joyful to the listener as it is to you. Playing at Carnegie Hall for the first time, I suppose musicians need to learn to "forget" where they are, trust their training, practice and ability, and just "let the music flow." The U.S. Open was "my Carnegie Hall," and I was determined to learn this aspect, if nothing else.

So after that heat, I just sat in the relaxation tent - another perk of Big Time Karting under the PSL tent - drank a lot of water and sat back to think about the track and my marks...and how to make some sweet music.

By the time Heat 3 rolled around I felt like I was in a different zone. As a result, I had a good start, passing 6 karts on the opening lap to get to 21st. But then, I felt like I was driving faster and faster, letting the kart stretch out and run, climbing up to 13th halfway through the 10-lap heat. The pressure, anxiety and competitive shock of the weekend melted away, and for the first time I felt everything come together. This was the Nationals, and I felt like I belonged!

After a long fight for positions, I finished the heat in 14th, my best result of the weekend. Understand that given our limited budget and resources, we came into this event with a mindset that a top 15 result in any of the heats - especially the third one - would be quite an achievement against the best drivers in the country, and some from abroad. So we took this result to be "mission accomplished," only bemoaning the notion that were it not for that loose airbox in qualifying, a top-ten finish would not have been out of the question.

The officials set the grid for the pre-final based on the highest scorers in the heats. So instead of starting last I would be starting 21st - thanks to my performance in heat 3. But our biggest disappointments still lay ahead.

As we got ready to go out and set the kart down on pit exit, my mind was only focused on driving. During the outlap and formation lap, the Birel felt very planted and hooked up. I was determined to execute the blazing starts that I seemed to have a handle on all weekend, make up as many places as possible, and then hang on and try to keep the faster runners at bay for as long as possible. And chain had come off mid way through the formation lap, meaning that I would not be able to even start the race! Extremely upset and frustrated, I pulled my kart into the runoff area outside one of the straights and just helplessly watched as the 14-lap prefinal went underway. I must have looked to all the world like the very picture of absolute dejection.

And it felt worse than it looked. But as painful as it was to just stand there, I took it as an opportunity to see what other drivers were doing, and what I could try out for the final the next day. Taking that result from the third heat back with me, I kept my head held high for Sunday.

Sunday - The Final

Warm Up went really well as I managed to run close to my teammates, matching the pace of the mid-field runners. This helped me face the fact that - because of that DNS in the pre-final - I’d have to start last in the race for all the marbles! It would be a long, twenty-lap race, so patience would be key. I was determined to drive thinking of the long term, being consistent, taking care of my tires, and timing my overtakes correctly.

Starting 27th, I passed five karts within the first two laps, and settled in for the long race. Again, the kart felt hooked up, and I was relaxed and confident that I would fight my way up the pack to knock on the door of the faster runners. A train of karts had developed behind me, but I was beginning to gap them by lap 9, on the way to top 20 and beyond. But it was not to be.

Going into turn one I was "dive-bombed" by another kart that I had gapped by a couple of kart lengths. I was literally pushed off the track, and immediately a pack of karts took advantage of my lost momentum and tried to follow through the move the first kart had made. One of them seemed to incorrectly judge the gap and smashed into me mid way through the corner, as though he had not even braked. Miraculously, we both escaped injury after quite a scary collision, but my kart was left with pieces of bodywork dragging and a bent steering wheel. This made the kart extremely hard to drive, and the track marshals quickly waved the black and orange flag, meaning I'd have to pull into the pits and accept the DNF for the final.

Lessons learned

Equally miraculous was that the chassis was found to be perfectly straight, which was handy because a bent one would have probably put a huge dent on my budget and threaten my season.

I breathed easier, and then realized that I had just participated in my first National race - it was hard to believe! I learned a lot about myself - as a driver and person - and there were many lessons I needed to take to heart. As much as I would have loved to walk away with a better result, I have to remember that our primary mission was to learn as much as possible and apply these lessons to my ongoing effort to become a better driver.

Over the course of four days of intense competition, I shaved one and a half seconds off my best time with the same kart, engine and tire compound. To me, that is the single, shinning statistic that tells the story of how I improved from a weekend of competing against the best Rotax drivers in the country. But I'm still half a second behind the Norbergs and D'Angelos of the world. Where is that .5?

To be perfectly honest, I can't ignore the notion that a lot of that half second has to do with the better equipment and resources available to those with much bigger budgets than ours. There is also no substitute for seat time and experience. Taking that into consideration, the margin gets smaller. But it's in that small, tiny and imperceptible margin that races are won and lost, and where the world class drivers come into their own. The smaller the margin, the harder it is to overcome it. Participating in this U.S.Open has given me an idea - a roadmap, if you will - of how I intend to make up that fraction of a second.

It's in improving my focus and consistency, becoming better at setting up the kart and understanding both how to interpret data and how to solve problems on the fly, in the high-strung and dynamic setting of a motor race.

It's also in how you work with your team and mechanics, to realize that while the kart only has one seat, they are right there with you, every step of the way.

It's in taking care of yourself - Going to the gym and eating right, getting your rest and making sure you build a positive and healthy mental attitude. How to never give up and cultivate that fighting spirit lap after lap, from green to checkered.

Above all, it's in realizing that - while you may not have a "golden engine" or an army of technicians - you are involved in the single most exciting activity you can think of, with the opportunity of performing on the big stage. There really is something wrong with you if you're not having fun at the end of the day!

While the U.S. Open was certainly a different level of competition for me, I will cherish this experience forever. I do hope to return to another National event somehow, and enjoy another weekend in "The Big Time." I would like to thank the folks at PSL Karting, for holding my hand through this awesome learning experience, my mechanic Nick Frangoulis, my PSL Northeast teammate Adam Rylance, and all the folks who support karting in the Northeast.

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