Getting ready for the Rotax Grand Finals following SuperNats in Las Vegas, I had about two and a half days to pack, finish up schoolwork and prepare myself mentally for the week ahead. It doesn’t sound hard, but it was actually quite a challenge because SuperNats was tough on me. Nevertheless it had to be done. I couldn’t be disappointed in a poor result because of bad luck forever. My family and I flew out of Calgary International Airport straight to London Heathrow, and then on to Lisbon International Airport. From Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, we drove three hours to Portimao where the track was located and arrived on Friday. Portugal was an insanely beautiful country; the beach in Portimao literally looked like it was off a post card. I really enjoyed the Portuguese style food as well. Our Hotel was really nice, no complaints there, and the next day things began.
Saturday it was straight to the track to get registered in the Junior category as the #163 driver, then Sunday was the famous kart raffle at the Rotax Grand Finals. All the kart manufactures lined their products up on the front straightaway and Rotax televised how all the drivers from one class to the next got their karts. When Rotax scanned our driver cards it automatically selected the kart that we would run for the entire Grand Finals. That was without a doubt one of the best sights I’ve seen in karting; to see all the karts lined up and drivers waiting and ready to get their karts. After the memorable kart pick, it was straight to putting the newly attained Birel chassis together to my comfortability.
Monday was one of the most exciting days of the event as it was the first day on track. This track was amazing; it was a mix of technical and flowing sectors and incredibly high speed. No track that I have yet driven compares to it. I knew from the very first session out that it would take a huge effort to conserve the D1 Mojo Tires. The track was so high speed that keeping the kart under control was a heavy task. The Rotax Grand Finals only gives you four practice sessions to dial in your setup on the chassis before qualifying. This means you have to make sure your feedback is second-to-none in order to make progress with the development of the chassis setup. It also means you have to learn the track extremely fast and keep adapting your driving style to how the track wears in on all of the sessions. The first session out I was moderately fast, about top five in my group. I was happy with that result, and I knew exactly what the kart needed for session two. Session two was another success. We went position 4 in my odd number Junior Rotax group. I was very pleased with that result as it put us well inside the top ten. I again knew what the kart needed and things were going very well at this point, but of course I wanted to make them go better. That being said, on the final session of Tuesday practice we took a very big gamble on chassis setup. We thought that it was the correct move but it was definitely a poor decision. Honestly though, I prefered that we try it and know that it doesn’t work in the practice runs rather than in the heats. I was content going into Wednesday’s final practice and qualifying.
I knew that the kart and my driving could enable a top five qualification. Out for the final practice session before qualifying I was very fast, position 3 in my group. It was up to me going into qualification to get the perfect draft and lap combination in order to attain a great qualification. Qualifying I was honestly really disappointed in my own effort. I kept searching for that perfect draft and just could never nail it, and then before you knew it there was a minute left in the session and I had to take a sloppy last lap effort as my best lap. That put me 12th overall and in-group D position 6 for all of my heats. Now I knew I had some work ahead of me as I started on the outside of every heat.
The first heat went respectively well. The start was really sketchy and I lost a few places on the outside, but once I got through it I drove back to sixth. I didn’t want to take any big risks in the first heat so I kept my nose clean and stayed where I was. The second heat I thought went very smoothly. I made a better start on the outside and made up more ground throughout the race. All while keeping my nose clean yet again. I finished up fourth, but 20 minutes after the race I was handed a three-second penalty for lane violation on the start. The lane violation was inevitable, I was rear ended hard from behind and I dropped two wheels out. I was disappointed that the officials never took that into consideration but there was nothing I could do but focus on the races ahead. I knew in the third heat in order to start in a top ten position for the Prefinal I would need a great drive into a top position. That never happened. The third heat was disastrous. In parc-ferme we were very rushed changing our setup from wet to dry, as we thought the final heat would be a wet race. We made it by seconds on the starting grid! On the warm-up lap everything seemed to be fine but on the start I knew there was something very wrong. Right when I cracked the throttle the engine would bog down to the point of dying. On the start I lost close to twenty positions before later in the race finding the choke to be on. That gave me a 24th position for heat three. What started off to be a great week was starting to take a turn for the worse.
The Prefinal I was in 20th starting position. Not only was I right in the pack, where all the crashes happen but I was on the outside for a starting position. My goal for the Prefinal was a top-ten finish. I just didn’t realize what was to come. The first lap was crazy, like no other race I had been in. With the first lap like it was, I lost a lot of positions, but since there were so many crashes it came out I actually gained places! I started working my way up the field until a driver who had shot off the track came back on right in front of me, we got tangled up in the next corner. I lost everything I gained. At the end of the actual race, with all the penalties and crashes, I finished up 18th. That was definitely not where I wanted to be starting the Final, but there was nothing I could do. The driver’s presentations were at lunch break before the Final. It never fails in giving me chills seeing all the drivers representing their countries. After that I really started thinking about my game plan for how I wanted the Final to go down, and I didn’t have much time to think before it arrived.
All the grid girls lead the drivers of the junior competiton to their starting position. At that point it set in – this was it. Everything that lead up to this point didn’t matter, it was show time! The start for the Final was perfect, I stayed clean and made up a couple of positions. From there I was on a mission picking off people left, right and center as quick as I could. The kart was perfect! It was sacrificing bottom in turn for top end on the straightaway. All I had to do was drive it perfectly through the infield to stay with everyone and on the straightaway I had an advantage. Everything was going better as planned, I was a making passes everywhere I could and I was moving up the field very quickly. On the closing laps I started to reel in 2nd and 3rd. On the final lap I made a move into third and then made another move into second. The driver attacked back in the final corners though and I settled for a well-earned third place podium position! I cannot express enough how it feels to be the first ever Canadian and North American to ever reach the Junior podium at the Rotax Grand Finals. The feeling I got on the podium while they raised my country’s flag with the flashing lights, and champagne is something I will never forget!
After all of the interviews after the podium presentation it was off to the hotel to get cleaned up for the Rotax Grand Finals end party. To top off my fantastic weekend, it was one of the best parties I have ever been to, and a great way to wrap up the season! I can’t thank the partners of Parker Thompson Racing enough for all their support this year and helping me become 3rd in the World! Thank you once again to: Bell Racing Helmets, OMP, Polen Designs, Tillett Racing Seats, Courtney Concepts, RLV, Sylvan Lake R.V. and CanadianKartingNews.com.