Each year, the karting season comes to a close with the biggest event of the year, the SKUSA SuperNationals. The event, now in its 22nd year, gathers the world of karting together in the city of Las Vegas that puts our little sport on the map to a larger general populatoin, even for just a week. World Champions, professional drivers, and up and coming superstars all mix into what many could consider the showcase event for karting in the world.
This year's event is as big as ever, drawing in over 500 entries as SKUSA makes its return to the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino after three years at the Las Vegas Convention Center. The Rio has a certain feeling to it that past spots did not. It may just be nostalgia kicking in, but that's what helps make this race unique.
Like every year, drivers will be greeted by a brand new track layout. This year's layout is a combination of some before it, as the first three corners resemble last years layout almost to a T. The parking lot at the Rio is smaller than at the Convention Center, making the track a bit narrower than recent years. With this many anxious drivers, those narrow sections could wreak havoc when heat racing begins on Friday. However, the track looks to be a pretty smooth, fast track which could prove to limit the accidents.
With that said, I'll breakdown a few of my favorite categories and give everyone at home some predictions to scrutinize later.
X30 Senior: Can anyone stop Travisanutto?
Picking a podium in X30 Senior just may be the hardest part of this job every year. I can see realistically 15 drivers having a shot at all the glory and if you throw in the uncertainty of a temp track with a half dozen heat races, you're basically throwing darts. I'll give it my best shot.
I know I just set this up to sound like it's going to be hard to pick a winner, but this year I don't think there's any other option than Lorenzo Travisanutto (Kart Republic). The Italian is your reigning World Champion and has been nearly unbeatable the second half of 2018. Pair that with having the 2017 SuperNationals victory taken from his hands because of a controversial jump-start call from race marshals and you've got the perfect storm.
Now comes the hard part. Who pushes Travisanutto from qualifying to the finals? Two other factory pilots made the trek from Europe in Pedro Hiltbrand (CRG) and Jorge Pescador (Praga). Dante Yu could be considered in that category as well, being the lead driver for the Compkart brand. Matheus Morgatto (Exprit) recently announced his new role as Factory Tony Kart in 2019, but comes in waving his AM Racing/Exprit colors one last time before moving on. I think all four have some of the best odds at the podium.
It wouldn't be an accurate prediction if I didn't have three time defending SKUSA Pro Tour Champion Ryan Norberg (Birel ART) in the mix. My one hesitation for picking the Floridian for the win on Sunday is his unusual lack of results on temp circuits. Despite those hesitations, I think he'll keep it in the mix all week and I've got him as a strong candidate for the podium.
Norberg's biggest competition on the Pro Tour are here and have the experience on these circuits to show up big. Ryan MacDermid might be the hottest driver on the continent right now after big wins to end the Tour in Indiana and another two weeks ago in this same parking lot at ROK The Rio. I'm also not counting out Brandon Jarsocrak (Kart Republic), Olin Galli (CRG), Austin Garrison (Fullerton), Christian Brooks (FA Kart), Callum Bradshaw (CRG), Jake Craig (Tony Kart), or Samuel Lupien (Kosmic).
X30 Senior Prediction - 86 pre-entries
1. Lorenzo Travisanutto
2. Dante Yu
3. Pedro Hiltbrand
4. Matheus Morgatto
5. Ryan Norberg
Pro Shifter: Massive field of Honda's as talented as ever
To me, it appears Pro Shifter Stock Honda has the clear edge on depth of talent compared to the KZ2 class. It's a complete 180-degrees from years past and even more interesting seeing how this is the swan song of the category for SKUSA. 2019 ushers in the new IAME SSE 175cc Shifter category as the headline SKUSA Shifter category, giving this event a bit more meaning for the Honda crowd.
IPK North America and Leading Edge Motorsports have dropped the hammer with their lineup this year and I believe one of their drivers will grab the victory here this weekend. Jeremy Iglesias comes in as the factory Formula K pilot, Vice Champion in the KZ European Championship, and now with experience on the Honda's after last years run in this category. He's paired up with the newest addition to the Formula K brand, Danny Formal. The Costa Rican needs no introduction, having won at karting's biggest race before. Having already gotten up to speed with the new brand two weeks ago at the ROK event, I don't expect any trouble for the newly wedded Formal to be inside the top three all weekend. Francesco Celenta (Praga) comes in with no experience on the temporary circuit or the Honda package, but the winner of one round in the European Championship this year has the driving talent to make up the gap.
This category's defending Vegas champion is Billy Musgrave (Aluminos). The Los Angeles-area resident would like nothing more than to put his name at the top of a category he's made his name in one last time. He'll run well, but I think he falls just a bit short in the end. AJ Meyers (Mad Croc) is the #1 plate holder after a great run in the Pro Tour with TB kart USA. Since then, however, the two parties have split. Myers has landed at Mad Croc USA and has told us he's been testing in Florida with the new hardware. He's quite optimistic in his Shifter package and has driven so well in Vegas in the past it's hard to think he's nit a contender despite the move.
Mathias Ramirez is fresh off his ROK The Rio win, inches ahead of Formal, and comes in showcasing the new GFC colors. His ability to make anything fast gives him a good shot at the win is weekend, but can he keep it out of trouble which he's been known to find over the years. He's driving double duty this weekend as a few other drivers are, with his other category being KZ2. Pedro Hiltbrand (CRG) is a world champion, but his lack of experience on the Honda is what's keeping me from moving him into my top five. The Spaniard will be teaming up with Pro Tour #2 Kyle Wick at CRG Nordam and hopefully that turns into a good learning environment for him to help him get up to speed quickly.
Pro Shifter - 50 karts
1. Jeremy Iglesias
2. Danny Formal
3. Billy Musgrave
4. Mathias Ramirez
5. Francesco Celenta
KZ2: Top heavy
The absolute elite levels of karting invade Vegas once again when the KZ2 class hits the track. This category historically brings in the factory pilots from Europe against top-flight North and South Americans. This year, the star power is down a bit, but the fight at the top will nonetheless be a good one.
Italian Paolo De Conto (CRG) comes in looking for his fourth SuperNationals win and what could be his fourth in five years in this category. His run started back at the last time this event was run at the Rio, 2014, when De Conto ran for Birel ART factory. Since, he's joined CRG and has really dominated the international shifter scene, winning on almost every continent including two World Championships. I suspect we won't see De Conto's best until Sunday, something we've noticed over the years. He'll keep it clean and up front through qualifying and the heats, but Sunday is when he separates himself. I'll look for that to continue in 2018.
Speaking of Birel ART, they've got an ace as well in Marijn Kremers. The Netherlands native has shown at times to be blazing fast in KZ action in Europe and North America. His issues with longer runs over the years have me placing him fourth on my list, but I suspect he'll lead laps in the heats.
Two Americans jump out at me as potential winners and that's Mathias Ramirez (GFC) and Jake French (Sodi Kart). The latter is no doubt one of the fastest drivers you'll find, but he's been known to put himself in some bad situations. If Ramirez can keep it clean in the heats and come into Sunday with a front-three-row starting spot, he's going to be a great darkhorse pick. The former, the Texan, jumps into a KZ kart for the first time in Vegas, passing on his familiar Honda. Although he's been out of the seat a bit more this year than in years past as he's getting his feet wet in formula cars, he's still put in the work at Dallas Karting Complex to stay competitive. I suspect a good drive this week from the French family and have them comfortably in my top five.
Others to look out for will be the Australian Joshua Fife. He's had some good runs here over the years and I think his experience will have him standing out in this year's field. Rubens Barrichello makes his SuperNationals debut and should be quick, but can he hold up to the wear and tear of parking lot courses? Lastly, three Americans that could find themselves in the top five are Kyle Wick, Rory Van Der Steur, and Matt Jaskol.
KZ2 - 38 karts
X30 Junior: Experience will reign supreme
If X30 Senior is the hardest category to pick for, then this is the second toughest. At the top I have a heavy dose of drivers with recent European experience, starting with Birel ART factory driver, Thomas Nepveu. The Canadian got his initiated with European racing this year in the FIA Karting OKJ category, ultimately finishing inside the top fifteen at the World Championships in Sweden. His experience on the temporary circuits added to that is why I'm giving him my nod for the win.
Sebastian Montoya returns a year later to defend his podium at the Convention Center and will look to move up event higher. The Columbian's win two weeks ago at ROK The Rio certainly gives him the confidence to win and I suspect he'll be one to beat throughout the week. The most decorated driver in this field could very well be Vice World and European Champion, Gabriele Mini (Parolin). Coming up just short of two very big championships may give him the chip on his shoulder to power through the field this weekend. However, it's his first trip to SuperNationals and that's proven tough to overcome for many over the years.
Two drivers moving back into Junior after competing some in Senior are Dutchman, Kas Haverkort (CRG) and American Jace Denmark-Gessell (Tony Kart). Haverkort comes in as a factory OK driver for CRG and found some achievement in the FIA European Championship. His move backward is a bit surprising, but should prove to be successful. Denmark-Gessell just recently begun his Senior-level racing, starting in Italy at the ROK Cup International Final in Super ROK. I think these two having tasted Senior-level driving will give them an advantage here this weekend.
Luca Mars and Connor Zilisch were my 5B and 5C choices for my top five, but I just couldn't find the room. They've been so good all year and I will not be surprised to see them in the front rows starting SuperSunday. Returning X30 Junior SuperNatinals Champion, Jak Crawford, returns to defend his crown as well. He's raced quite a bit in Europe this year like the others mentioned before, but his back-and-forth transition into stock car racing has me hesitant to have him with the leaders. Jeremy Fairbairn (Tony Kart), Oliver Calvo (Parolin), Tyler Gonzalez (FA Kart), and Arias Deukmedjian (Praga) are four names I've earmarked as possible dark horse candidates.
X30 Junior - 77 karts
1. Thomas Nepveu
2. Sebastian Montoya
3. Gabriele Mini
4. Kas Haverkort
5. Jace Denmark-Gessell
Mini Swift: Familiar names at the top
I'm not sure anyone has competed in more karting events in the last six weeks than Jamaican Alex Powell. The Energy Corse cadet pilot started it all off in early October with the Autumn Trophy in Lonato, Italy, followed by the ROK Cup International Final and WSK Final Cup Round 1 in successive weekends at the same facility. Then came the second round of the WSK Final Cup, also in Italy just last weekend, and now he's flown around the world to Las Vegas. If there's any downside to Powell's abilities right now it may be exhaustion from all of the travel. Multiple podiums and a win in those events has him coming in hot at the right time, and that's why I'll have him as my pick to win here this weekend.
Kai Sorensen, Carson Morgan, and Jeremy Fletcher are three SKUSA Pro Tour regulars that I think will give Powell pressure throughout the week. I would absolutely not be surprised to hear any of these names called as the winner come Sunday. Briton Freddie Slater comes into Vegas as the runner-up from the IAME International Final in France just over a month ago. With a 10th place finish in Vegas a year ago, Slater will almost certainly improve upon that this year. The Benik team driver is one of those up and coming drivers who we suspect will have a long career in motorsport.
James Egozi has put together perhaps the strongest year of any Mini driver in America this year. A combination of a Mini ROK Florida Winter Tour Championship, US Open Rotax championship, and ROK The Rio victory, 2018 will be a year he looks back one of his best. However, one thorn in his side has been IAME competition this year. His results in Pro Tour competitions have not been as stellar. If he can get over that hurdle here this weekend, his race craft can do the rest.
Also on my radar are the young guns of Diego LaRoque (Nitro), Nikita Johnson (Energy), Jace Park (Parolin), and Noah Baker (Kart Republic).
Mini - 51
1. Alex Powell
2. Kai Sorensen
3. Carson Morgan
4. Freddie Slater
5. Jeremy Fletcher
What's on tap
As has been the case for years, each day has a morning group and an afternoon group. Everything gets underway on Wednesday for a full day of free practice. This day is typically reserved for kicking up dust and getting the track conditioned for the weekend. Thursday we'll see three more free practices before getting into timed qualifying. Friday is a full day of heat racing, which concludes on Saturday with the possibility of a last chance qualifier for a handful of categories. And lastly, SuperSunday will be be live streamed on the SKUSA Facebook page and we'll try to grab that feed to place here on Kart360 so that everyone can join in.