Friday, June 3, 2011

Seen and heard at Springfield

After a long weekend that really felt long, it's taken me a couple of days to recover and compile a few notes on 'Springfield 1'.

The racing was supposed to start Saturday afternoon, with the TT. The paddock was pretty much fully installed when I made the mistake of looking at the leaden sky and saying, "Maybe it won't rain." Within moments, a hellacious rain- and lightning-storm washed out Saturday's program. Teams rushed to pack up again, and there was gridlock as vehicles trying to get down into the paddock to load up blocked the path of vehicles trying to leave.
Check out that sky. That was at about 1630h -- broad daylight!
 I didn't bother setting my alarm for Sunday morning, because I knew there would be delays while the Mile track dried out. As it was, the bigger teams' semi-trucks and motorhomes couldn't even cross the track to set up in the infield until after noon. AMA Pro officials had to make a tricky decision, whether or not to break up the track surface. Running the harrow over it would speed drying, but if it rained again, the rough surface would absorb even more water and put the whole event at risk. Eventually they did roughen it, then began rolling it again.

That left the riders with lots of time to stand around and wonder exactly what conditions would be like when the track was finally opened. We had a really wet track here in 2009, and veterans of that race remembered that while the track surface dried fairly quickly (and to a fast, tacky finish) the Springfield dirt has a 'spongy' base that tends to form ruts.

It seems that almost all flat track racers have an eternal optimism in their own riding abilities. All morning, I asked riders what conditions they expected. No matter what they answered, I asked them whether that would favor them, or hurt their chances. Everyone said told me the overnight soaking gave them an advantage. They almost all added that the gnarlier the conditions, the better, as far as they were concerned.

Kirkness, Baker, and Jake. Three of the heroes of the morning, feeling pretty good about their chances in the Main.
I wandered way down to Turn 4, and watched the track dry as, in ones and twos and small groups, riders came down to take a look. Because the turns are banked up a few degrees, the area along the rail was a bog, but from about a third of the way up the track, where the cushion would normally start, it looked a bit dryer.

When the track finally opened, most of the riders stayed off that wet-looking rail, although the handful of riders who did venture down there found that it was tacky and very fast. The whole track was pretty fast, and as you'd expect, abundant grip enabled the 'imports' - Ducatis, Kawasakis, Suzukis, and a few KTMs, Triumphs (I think I even saw a BMW) - to exploit their horsepower advantages.

Readers of an earlier Blue Groove post on Nichole Cheza will know that she ran well at the last 'wet' Springfield race, and that one of her goals was to run better in the fast draft on the Mile tracks. She looked hooked up and quick all day, and put herself solidly into the Main event. She seemed more confident than I've ever seen her in the draft.

The GNC's two Aussies, Mick Kirkness and Luke Gough, both started out the day in style. Kirkness was riding a yellow Suzuki with a conspicuous lack of sponsor stickers. He was right at the sharp end of things, an impressive third overall in the first qualifying session. Gough rode a beautiful Kawasaki courtesy of his sponsor Skip Eaken and metal fabrication guru Ricky Howarton. This is an interesting bike with an even better back-story, so I'll save it for some future Blue Groove column.

The big story in qualifying and the heats, though, was Brad Baker. Last year, the Lloyd Brothers Motorsports team fielded a Ducati for Joe Kopp. That bike became the first non-XR-750 to win a big-track National in decades. Kopp's since retired from flat trac. (He's now road racing in the Vance & Hines-sponsored spec series for Harley-Davidson XR1200X Sportsters, and was racing out at Miller Motorsports Park in Utah last weekend.)

Kopp encouraged Lloyd Bros. to give Brad Baker a shot. He's a kid (just 18, still in high school) from Kopp's home state of Washington. Baker justified Kopp's faith by totally dominating the first part of the day. I watched Baker's heat race from down in Turn 4, where the Lloyd Brothers' bike looked planted and seriously fast. What I wasn't seeing was that as the kid rocketed down the straightaway, the Duc was shaking like a trophy salmon in a fisherman's net.

AMA Pro shortened the schedule by taking six riders out of each heat and foregoing the semis altogether. Am I the only person who didn't mind this variation? I think it's easier for the fans to understand, and it keeps the day short and sharp. They also flipped the order, with Pros riding after Experts. That was all done to ensure that the Expert Main came off before darkness fell, or rain cut the day short. But, as the day wore on, it was warm and breezy and eventually the sun broke through. The track did (as Werner had predicted) begin to dry out. Down on the rail, it was rutted and bumpy, but still offered some grip. Just off the rail it started to get almost dry-slick. Most riders got slower, not faster, with each passing session. One exception was Chris Carr who put the #4 Harley-Davidson on the front row by winning his heat. It's clear that he really, really wants to end his riding career on a high note and although the results weren't what he wanted, he just plain outworked almost everyone all weekend long. 

By the time the Dash for Cash finally came off, at the end of the afternoon, both Carr and Smith had had long days that started out promising but ended in relative disappointment.

On the Pro side, I noticed that my fellow Canadian, Mike Labelle, looked strong through practice and qualifying. (He caught my eye at the final Mile of 2010 when he pulled off the gnarliest pass I've seen in ages.) Nicky Hayden's cousin, Hayden Gillim, who's normally billed as a short track and TT specialist, also looked fast and comfortable in the draft. Both Labelle and Gillim are a tad bigger than the average flat tracker, and if they're fast on the singles, they'll be even faster on twins. Meanwhile Shayna Texter, all 95 pounds of her, was finding the bumps and ruts to be a real handful. (When I saw her the next day, she told me, "My neck's still sore!" from trying to hold her head steady as her bike bucked underneath her.)

As I walked through the pits later in the day, I caught this snippet of conversation coming from under one Pro pit awning: "You're doing everything OK. You just need to open the throttle a bit more." Ouch.

The Expert race, which was shaping up as a battle between youth/metric horsepower and experience/Harley-Davidson traction, didn't quite materialize that way. Brad Baker bogged down on the start line, and although he put in a really spirited ride to get back to the leaders, the Ducati's handling wasn't quite up to its power production.

Team owner Dave Zanotti spent the race literally chain-smoking, lighting one cigarette off the other, as his rider - XR-mounted Jake Johnson - was in the thick of the lead draft with Sammy Halbert and Jared Mees (also both on Harleys.)

In classic Springfield fashion, the win went to the rider who timed the final draft-and-pass on the run to the stripe. Last Sunday, that was Jared Mees - a well-earned win that's been a long time coming for the 2009 Champ. Once again, despite the presence of more and more potent metric bikes on the grid, it was an all-Harley podium that, I'm sure, was popular with the crowd. The parking area over on the paying-customer side of the Grandstand was almost all hogs (perhaps appropriate at a state fairground, there is an entire building right nearby that's devoted to the exhibition of swine, after all!)

The next morning, as I was checking out of my motel, the people in front of me took care to reserve their rooms for the fall races, so I'd say that in spite of the rain and delays, some epic races left the fans satisfied. I have much more to write, including notes on the TT and a lengthy correction to my history-of-the-XR-750 post, which was sternly delivered by Bill Werner. People have warned me that Bill doesn't take kindly to journalists getting things wrong, and now I know that's true! A correction will be forthcoming...

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