Johnny Johnson

ROK The Rio: What to watch for

Vortex and ROK Cup USA bring their show to Vegas.

The week of Halloween is here which means it's also time to get ready for the first edition of the ROK Cup USA flagship event, ROK the Rio. It's been a long time coming for the Florida-based operation having announced their intentions in 2017. The full support of Vortex, the manufacturer of the ROK category of engines, will be noticeable with factory engineers on site to assist both the competition and operations.

As I write this, the latest numbers indicate we're into the 220s in entries. That number ballooned in the last three weeks from the 170s prior to the ROK Cup International Final earlier this month and could very well be even higher with on-site sign-ups.

The week looks to be your typical Las Vegas weather for this time of year. Sunny skies in the upper 70s is the forecast for the four days of competition.

Eveything gets started with a full day of practice on Wednesday as the dusty concrete gets kicked up and replaced by sticky Bridgestone rubber. Following practice will be the the anticipated Tire Changing Competition before we get into officially timed sessions on Thursday.

Nepveu and Crawford highlight the deepest field in Junior ROK

The largest category of the weekend will be Junior ROK which will likely be in the low 40 count. Thomas Nepveu (PSL Karting / Birel ART) just might be the favorite after his great drive at the world championships in mid-September. But then you must not forget the likes of Jak Crawford (Kosmic) or Sebastian Montoya (Tony Kart) who raced extensively in CIK events throughout the year and come in with the additional experience.

One driver not on the pre-entry list that will be on track and in contention is Tyler Gonzalez. The newest addition to Team Benik makes his debut in the new colors after a quick move to CRG Nordam. The move back to an OTK machine puts him back on the same equipment he ran so well on prior to the change. I don't expect they'll waste any time getting up to speed.

Dale Curran (REM / Kosmic) and Connor Zilisch (Late Apex / Kosmic) arrive in Vegas just weeks after major disappointment in Italy at the ROK Cup International Final. Both drivers had much success in their heat races until bad luck struck both in the final. I look at both as potential winners and certainly podium candidates. Alessandro De Tullio (AM Engines / Exprit) and Nichola Zecchinato (Tony Kart) also ran well in Lonato and they too should be eyeing a podium spot.

Lastly, Luca Mars (Speed Racing Concepts / Tony Kart) and Jeremy Fairbairn (Supertune / Tony Kart) are no strangers to the ROK power plant or racing in Vegas. It's a deep field but these two have what it takes. Paolo Ferrari (Baby Race / Parolin) is a known name in Europe but has made the long trip to Sin City running for the powerhouse Baby Race. Keep an eye on the Italian as well.

Ryan Norberg
Senior ROK odds-on favorite, Ryan Norberg. Photo: Johnny Johnson / Kart360

Senior ROK chasing Norberg

This week will have the biggest Senior ROK field in North America this year with entries approaching 40. With that said, I still believe it's Ryan Norberg (PSL Karting / Birel ART) versus the field.

The Orlando driver has been at the top of single speed racing in North America for a few years now and returns to ROK competition after yet another successful Florida Winter Tour back at the start of the year.

On his heels will be a fellow Birel ART driver, Ryan MacDermid (Prime Power Team). The Canadian has been adapting well to the Senior ranks in his sophomore season and comes in hot with a win at the most recent SKUSA Pro Tour.

I'll also be watching a pair of west coasters in Jace Denmark-Gessell (RPM / Tony Kart) and Phil Giebler (PGR / Ricciardo Kart). The difference in experience couldn't be more stark with the former having just recently jumped to Senior and the latter having been in the category 20 years ago. It'll be fun to see if experience plays a factor for either, which can be exploited on these demanding temporary courses.

Lastly, the girl power this week will be in full effect with Zoey Edenholm (GFC Kart) and Emma Dellatre (AKT / Kosmic). Edenholm comes into Vegas waving the brand new colors of the GFC kart and has the capabilities to be up front. We'll get to see how she adapts to the new team and chassis, led by American karting star Gary Carlton. Dellatre is coming off arguably her biggest win in karting, the OMP Trophy event at ROK Cup International Final. With that momentum, I giver her good odds of landing on the podium and an outside shot at the win.

Shifter ROK pits East Coast vs West Coast

In a recent announcement, long time Shifter Kart ace and multi-national champion Daniel Formal has made the switch to Formula K and IPK North America, debuting the new colors in Vegas. The Costa Rican who formerly called Florida home will transition to a new chassis as he's done many times before. He'll rely on his experience in the early going as he gets up to speed with the team at Leading Edge Motorsports. I don't expect the new hardware to be an issue and have Formal as my favorite this weekend in the six-speed category.

I'm putting Formal on Team East Coast and he'll be joined by Mathias Ramirez (GFC Kart) and Jimmy Cabrera (AKT / Kosmic Kart). For my money, Ramirez has as much raw talent as anyone in the paddock. That talent is constantly on display in his lap times both in qualifying and racing. His switch to GFC Kart may have been the highest profile move for the new kart company and he'll have Shifter Kart legend Gary Carlton to work with this weekend. If he can keep his nose clean, the youngster out of Florida has as much of a shot as anyone.

Cabrera is another with incredible raw talent. He's had some trouble in the past getting up to speed outside of Florida, so I'm going to watch to see how he adapts to the temp circuit. He has the ability to be on the podium Saturday.

On the west coast side of things is Hunter Pickett (Sodi Kart) and Nicky Hays (PGR / Ricciardo Kart). Pickett is a superstar in Stock Honda racing and I'm excited as hell to see how he comes to play with the ROK Shifter package. Hayes is more than familiar with the ROK engine from his time at Challenge of the Americas earlier this year and will indeed have stopwatches on him throughout the week.

One exception to my East vs West rule is Max Hewitt (CRG Nordam). Who resides in the middle. The Texan has years of national level racing under his belt and this year made the move to CRG Nordam. He too has extensive Stock Honda experience and will be on my radar as one to watch.

International “ROK Stars” highlight Mini ROK

Like Junior, Mini ROK is also very close to eclipsing 40 entries and has maybe a dozen possibilities when picking a winner.

Although Alex Powell (Energy Corse) is on the pre entry list, I can't say for sure if he's in attendance. Having been racing in Italy for what seems like a month straight, it's possible he's elected to sit this one out. If he's made the trip, the Jamaican is the hottest cadet driver on the planet having picked up a runner-up position at the ROK Cup International Final followed by a huge win at the WSK Final Cup event the following weekend.

Running alongside Powell at the ROK International event was Kai Sorensen (Supertune / Tony Kart) Nikita Johnson (AKT / Energy Corse), and James Egozi (Koene USA). All three put in top flight performances with Powell at the ROK International event and these four get my early nod at the win this week.

Jeremy Fletcher (OGP / Tony Kart), Jace Park (Parolin), and Logan Toke ( Top Kart) have been accomplished drivers this year in their own right. How they adapt to a parking lot circuit will make all the difference as the week progresses.

Of note, Sebastian Wheldon, son of the late Indy 500 Champion Dan Wheldon, makes his ROK Cup debut with OGP and Brandon Carr returns stateside with Benik Kart.

Whats up next

Wednesday: Practice; Bridgestone Tire Changing Competition

Thursday: Qualifying; first heat races

Friday: Heat racing concludes

Saturday: Finals

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