October 23, 2005
6th of 21 in Vet B
Those who follow off-road racing know good and well what four letters
– GNCC – represent to our sport. Grand National Cross Country.
Woods racing. The best of the best. In the past it has brought Shane
Watts here from Australia, lured Paul Edmondson from Great Britain.
This year the great Finnish rider Juha Salinen has tried his hand at a
style of racing that is purely American. Juha has dominated.
The racing, while impressive on many levels, is rivaled by the event
itself. Think county fair, without the rides and the carnies. The
vastness of the staging area (200 acres, maybe?) is first evidence of
the magnitude of the affair. Hundreds of pickup trucks, many
attached to covered trailers, line up in haphazard rows on top of
recently harvested corn stalks. Empty spaces remain where ATV rigs
departed after the previous day’s races. The center of activity is the pit
area reserved for the factory teams, where most of the major
manufacturers park full-size 18-wheel trucks and trailers, each
polished to an impossibly sparkling shine. Under the wide awnings of
each trailer are motorcycles of matching colors, on display in
showroom-new condition, and fleets of mechanics and support crews.
To the fastest of the fast - the Barry Hawks, the Mike Laffertys, the
Rodney Smiths - the scene I witnessed upon arrival was all in a day’s
work. Just as their speed in the woods is abnormal to all but fellow
professionals, their accommodations and support are such that the
average amateur can only fantasize. Although most of these riders cut
their racing teeth among the ranks of amateurs and probably are as
comfortable tearing apart the bottom end of an engine case as their
mechanics, the professionals appear to leave most details of bike
prep to others. They've earned it.
Unlike their motocross counterparts, the factory-supported woods
racers receive no other special treatment at these events. They may
arrive in style and receive preferential parking spaces, but the
professional woods racers register for the race in the same general
fashion as the amateurs and compete on the same course, at the
same time, as amateurs. Imagine Ricky Carmichael picking his way
through the B class at Hangtown or the average sprint car racer lined
up next to Tony Stewart at Talladega. In any given race Juha Salinen
will lap most of the field and pass hundreds of riders in often tricky
circumstances. Each pass has potential for disaster. But he must do it
time and time again in order to win.
Racer Productions and the Coombs family organize and promote the
Grand National Cross Country series. They do it well. The brainchild
of the late Dave Coombs a couple decades ago, the GNCC series
makes 13 stops between the months of February and October. All but
one location lies east of the Mississippi. The attraction to this series
seems to have grown from a unique, effective idea: give the riders
what they want. Most who race the series regularly would probably
point to three factors which keep them coming back for more: 1)
consistent organization; 2) excellent logistics; and 3) well-designed
courses. Whether it’s Texas, Georgia, or South Carolina, the races
begin at the same time, the scoring system is always electronic, and
everyone has a place to park. Trails are routed in a manner to avoid,
for the most part, major deterioration caused by hundreds of
motorcycle and four-wheeled ATV’s passing over the course several
times during the two-day events.
In its infancy the series attracted national-caliber riders and eventually
the factory teams began showing up on a regular basis. Today a
fourth factor attracts even more riders to the series: the opportunity to
mingle with the top off-road riders in the world. The average GNCC
fan can approach the Yamaha trailer and ask Randy Hawkins how he
sets his suspension for rocky courses, with no special invitation, no pit
pass, no competing with 15-year-old groupies. Other than his blue
Yamaha factory-issued shirt, Randy appears to be an average guy.
Along with the pro-level racing itself, his responsibilities in the
Yamaha off-road effort include team leader and mentor to younger
racers such as Jason Raines. His racing resume is impressive,
although championships are less frequent these days. He has won
seven AMA National Enduro titles, the last of which came in 2004.
Randy is articulate and is interviewed often. At the Ironman GNCC
near Crawfordsville, Indiana, he will spend most of his Sunday
morning signing autographs, talking with racers and fans, and being
interviewed in front of television cameras. He does all of this with
eloquence and class and shows yet again why at 39 years old he is a
significant asset to Yamaha, even though he has never won a GNCC
Others who have won titles are just as accessible and well spoken.
The great KTM rider Juha Salinen signed autographed posters next to
teammates Mike Lafferty and Robbie Jenks. Seated next to Randy
Hawkins under the Yamaha awning were former series champion
Barry Hawk and Jason Raines, still determined to break his injury
curse and win a GNCC title soon. All will converse freely with anyone
willing to engage them.
Each year a fresh crop of young, fast racers make their mark on the
series. The major manufacturers, always on the lookout for new
talent, have surely noted the deeds of 19-year-old Charlie Mullins and
a waif of a teenager named Thad Duvall, barely tall enough for his
boots to reach the ground while seated on his Yamaha. Young Duvall
cannot legally drive a car on public roads but will eventually finish
12th overall at the Ironman. Charlie Mullins will finish on the podium
in 3rd place. The future seems bright for both racers.
My experience at the Ironman, my first GNCC race, was probably
similar to that of most amateurs. Following the initial awe of the
factory teams’ semi-trailer setups and helicopters flying above and the
sheer volume of participants, I focused on the task of racing. My first
mission was locating the registration area, no small assignment
amongst the myriad of trailers and tents of off-road vendors
presenting their merchandise. Had my KX250 failed to run properly, I
am confident I could have purchased onsite whatever was necessary
to bring it to working order. Once located, Racer Productions’
registration process was quick and painless.
The level of competition at a GNCC race is, approximately, one step
above the typical local competition. The top riders in any given state
or district series, who would normally race the AA (Pro) class, will
often drop down into one of the amateur classes at the Ironman. In
turn, the local A class riders like me regularly move into a B class. In
my case, I chose Vet B, which on the starting grid was placed in the
next-to-last row. All but one class (Senior B) would begin their race
ahead of me at regular one-minute intervals. By the time my row left,
Juha Salinen would be nearly halfway around the 11-mile course.
GNCC races begin much like any other hare scramble, with dead
silence shattered by a flagman dropping his flag and 20 or 30
engines screaming to life. Each rider aims for a sharp turn
somewhere in the middle of an open field and hopes to be the first to
arrive there. From my vantage point in the next-to-last row, I could see
each group of riders, minute by minute, grow slightly less aggressive
as the slightly less skilled took their shots at sprinting to the first
corner. When all the rows ahead of me finally left the starting area,
the chill of a cool October day had worked its way through both of my
jerseys. Once the announcer screamed “Ten seconds!” over the
public address system, the cold left my body and I braced for the
flagman’s signal to start our engines.
There’s no time to think when the flag drops. The motion of the start
is nearly automatic and begins with the first sign of movement from
the flagman. The best riders will have their kickstarters thrown down
and their engines bursting to life by the time the flag reaches the
ground. Clutches release, rear wheels kick up plumes of dirt and a
couple dozen dirt bikes blast off toward the first turn.
I rarely have any definitive recollection of the individual components of
a dead engine start. Either my reflexes or my execution (or both) is
generally lacking and I am often one of the last to arrive at the first
corner. Compounding my futility at the Ironman GNCC was a rider
braking hard for the first turn, skidding onto his side and blocking my
path. After negotiating this minor obstacle, I fell into the rear of a pack
of riders blasting along the edge of the woods. This initial high-speed
section, about a mile long, was designed to put space between riders
before entering the narrower trails. Earlier rainfall had made these
open-field trails damp enough to form ruts, which at 40-50 mph
generated some unease both from the raw speed of attack and the
close proximity of other riders jockeying for position.
Once inside the woods, the trails were remarkably rough and choppy.
Several hundred ATV’s had raced through much of the motorcycle
route the day before, as had about 200 motorcycles in the morning
race. The narrow trails native to forests east of the Mississippi were
notably absent in this part of Indiana. In fact, hand protection was
mostly unnecessary in all but a few short sections. Never had my
handlebars enjoyed such distance from trees. Seasoned, cranky
racers call these courses “Motocross in the Woods”, so named for
their lack of technicality, and on this day I was one of those racers.
Eventually the course took a respite from the wide, punishing trails.
Technical sections arrived in the form of deep, narrow ravines and
slippery creek crossings. My first off-trail excursion occurred just after
a rock-ledge crossing of the main creek. Near the top of a steep hill
was a sapling leaning into my path. I wrongly assumed I could power
my way past the small tree, but it deflected my front tire at an odd
angle and I found myself on the ground. Anyone I’d passed in the
previous 5 minutes sped by as I righted the KX and restarted.
The first challenging technical section came at the bottom of a deep
ravine filled with large, wet rocks. This early in the race, much of the
Vet B class remained in a tight pack through the ravine. With no place
to pass, we followed the leaders in a single file line until the trail
opened beside a moderately wide creek. After a muddy, rutted section
running parallel to the creek, course arrows pointed us directly into
the water. I used that opportunity to challenge the riders in front of me
and re-passed a handful who’d earlier made it around me. The
opposite side of the creek offered more mud and ruts and a small
water-filled gully that on a subsequent pass, immediately in front of
me, would swallow the business end of an unfortunate bike and most
of an even less fortunate rider.
Two steep hills were the primary challenges of the remainder of the
course. Each lap of a hare scramble course usually contains a
handful of these obstacles, the type of which instill feelings of dread
upon each encounter. A length of trail, insignificant rounding error
when calculating the total distance of a race, where little time is
gained by executing perfectly but much time and energy are lost with
the smallest of mistakes. One hill followed an extremely steep
descent into a gully; the other had a relatively flat approach but an
incredibly steep angle. The latter hill was one of the highest I’d ever
climbed with such a severe incline. I knew it would be difficult when a
mass of spectators were visible along its base. What appeared to be
hundreds of fans lined the steep slope to watch what was surely an
abundance of carnage on the hillside. One particularly helpful
spectator pointed me to an outside line each time I approached, and
each time I ascended the hill, I came at it in second gear and with
wide open throttle. Anything less would have caused a less-than-
pleasant experience on the hillside.
Juha Salinen caught up to me on the second lap. The Flying Finn
may not have a firm grasp on every word in a Webster’s dictionary,
but there is one he has mastered perfectly: Pass. This word he
screams as he approaches each rider he encounters. And there are
hundreds. His riding style didn't convey blazing speed or the wildness
of Shane Watts in his prime; rather, Juha just went. No wasted
energy, no delays in passing slower riders, just pure efficiency on a
dirt bike. Several minutes elapsed before the next rider passed. Juha
had a huge lead.
After two laps, I wasn't sure if I’d make the full three hours. The
roughness of the course was taking its toll on my body. Somewhere
in the third lap, I decided four would be enough. On that lap I enjoyed
accepting a young spectator’s challenge to jump from a 3-foot creek
bank directly into the creek, rather than riding into it down a rutted
path. On the fourth lap I failed to climb the steep hill which followed
the steep descent. I discovered that I've nearly mastered the art of
removing a motorcycle from the side of a hill which can barely be
scaled by humans without climbing equipment. It takes years of
practice and many curses.
The white flag appeared at the scoring area when I completed my
fourth lap and I decided to tough it out for a final pass through the
Ironman course. Another half-hour later, tired and beaten, I arrived at
the finish line and my helmet’s bar code was scanned one last time. I
had completed my first GNCC. For the next week I would pay the
price of a Veteran rider pushing himself nearly to his limit. Sore back,
tired legs, and the satisfaction of a hard afternoon of racing. I slept
very well that night and dreamed of hills and trees and creeks,
famous racers on the same course as me and Indiana cornfields,
harvested. Good night, Ironman.
November 27, 2005
White City, Illinois
Toys for Tots team race
My feelings about the Cahokia Creek Dirt Riders property should be
well known to my regular readers, but if you’re new, let me explain it
this way: when dry, the club grounds are heavenly. When wet, not so
much. The annual Toys for Tots charity team race was a mudder,
albeit a manageable one.
Just as I was leaving my suburban storage unit, bike in truck,
teammate Matt Sellers called to check on my progress. What he was
really checking on was whether or not I was still motivated to race in
downstate Illinois, given a radar summary heavy on green. I had
barely touched my KX250 since moving to my Chicago city condo and
had accumulated a healthy dose of pent-up motorcycle withdrawal.
Screw the rain, I was racing. And since I had no desire to ride solo in
the Ironman class, Matt’s presence was not optional. We would ride,
Three hours later, a light rain continued to wet the muck that had
overtaken the Cahokia Creek club grounds. I rarely need any
reassurance that four-wheel-drive is the best money I ever spend on
my vehicles, but anyone who’s ever questioned the value of this
$4,000 option should have witnessed the performance of two-wheel-
drive cars and trucks in perfectly flat grass. Not pretty.
Familiar faces abound at downstate races, and on this day I chatted
with Scott Maxwell and son Manuel, smiling brightly on his CR80
during the youth race. David Brewster was also on hand to race the B
class in conditions which suited him just fine. In the mud, Mr.
Brewster is gifted. As for Matt, his expression was already that of a
survivalist. He claims it only rains when I drag him into the Land of
Abe, and sometimes he is correct. A light mist continued as we
geared up and gathered in the starting area.
The predictably messy start became downright unpleasant about a
quarter-mile into the six-mile course. A moderately challenging hill on
a dry summer day was now a 15-bike bottleneck. The days of waiting
my turn came and went many years ago, so I pointed my KX at a less
popular line choice and opened the throttle as much as it would go.
Results were mixed. Near the top of the hill, momentum ended and
so did my progress. On its side, the engine kept running but
eventually died while I attempted to stand it up on uneven ground.
Eventually I found the proper state of body contortion to restart the
engine and spin my way back on the trail.
On track again, the course wound its usual way through the club
grounds, short on traction but high on what I call “slideways”.
Definition: sliding around the course and spending as much time with
the bike sideways as pointed straight down the trail. With a thick layer
of hard clay under an inch or two of muck, the corners had only minor
berms and required careful navigation. If brakes didn't stop my
progress, trees were glad to help. While four-strokes love these
traction-less conditions, a couple of nasty, root-infested hills would be
less kind to the thumpers. Each hill came and went with only a
moderate effort for me and my KX two-smoke, but the second halves
of the teams would surely struggle when their turns came. By that
time, the small amount of topsoil would be shaved down mostly to
hard, wet clay.
The scariest parts of the course were a pair of downhills, both near
the end of the course. The first steep decline was a relatively straight
path to the bottom of the hill. Sounds simple enough, but the clay
made scrubbing speed nearly impossible. I rode the rear brake and
prayed I would have enough room at the bottom to avoid trees. The
second nasty downhill came just before the scoring barrels and
required a left turn as the decline steepened. At the apex of the turn
was a tree, which helped slow my progress but went a bit too far. I
came to a complete stop, and although I kept the bike upright, many
riders would not. Eventually most riders would miss the turn
altogether and take a straight, fast route to the bottom of the ravine.
That is, if they were able to keep their bikes on two wheels. Many did
After checking into the scoring barrels, Matt took off for his first pass
through the course. I went back to my truck for a new set of goggles
and talked to David Brewster in the pits. After 40 minutes or so, Matt
appeared at the barrels and I readied myself for my second and final
pass. Brewster’s partner checked in just behind Matt and we both
began the lap within a few seconds of each other. I kept a safe
distance ahead of Brewster until stalling while trying to brake hard for
a muddy turn. Although I restarted in time to avoid getting passed, he
was nudging my rear tire and our twin KX250’s were closely spaced.
Later, Brewster got around me by taking a better line around a slower
rider on a hillside. Eventually we came to the toughest hill climb on
the course, where I took the established but heavily chewed-up line.
While Brewster took an alternate route up the hill, I stuck to my line
and barely – just barely - spun my rear tire over a particularly nasty
root. Had my momentum been every-so-slightly less, I would have slid
backwards to the bottom of the hill for another attempt. As it stood,
my line choice was considerably quicker than Brewster’s and I didn't
see him until I’d finished the lap.
The rest of the lap was uneventful, other than an alternate route down
the final scary downhill, which was a more direct path but steeper (I
survived). Matt took his final turn and we finished our race in 4th
place. With my racing fix satisfied, I returned home to Chicago and
began my motorcycle hibernation. It’s cold up here.
White City, Illinois