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
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 title.
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
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,
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
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, rain or…rain.
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 not.
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