Thursday, May 5, 2011

Notes from the Blue Groove: Steve Bonsey comes home

It's a long drive out to Salinas for most AMA Pro Racing Flat Track riders, who are typically based in the midwest. But one guy with a real short commute will be national number 80, Steve Bonsey. This weekend's TT and short track races are almost taking place in his back yard.

"Yeah," he told me, "I'll be able to go home for lunch between qualifying and the heats."

Even though he's still young, and will have the shortest commute in the history of flat track this weekend, he's already taken a long and winding road to the Grand National Championship. The path from the GNC to MotoGP has been well worn by riders from Kenny Roberts to Nicky Hayden. Bonsey's come back in the other direction, from racing 125 and 250 GP bikes in Europe to the world's premiere flat track series.

"I started when I was about four years old," Bonsey told me. "My dad raced dirt track, and Doug Chandler and Ricky Graham were from Salinas. There's a real community that we have here; Doug helps out the Bowmans, and Doug's brother helped me quite a bit coming up through the amateur ranks. Ricky Graham's brother Billy helped me out, too."

One of Bonsey's early sponsors, Ray Abrams at A&A Racing, drew Bonsey to the attention of Kenny Roberts. 'The King' came out to watch Steve racing at Lodi, in the fall of 2006. He was impressed, and asked Steve what he wanted to achieve as a motorcycle racer.

"I didn't really know much about MotoGP," Bonsey admitted. "But I really looked up to Nicky. I liked the way he rode dirt track and I saw him transition into road racing. So I told Kenny that I wanted to be like Nicky and race in the World Championship."

Within three weeks of that conversation, Roberts had arranged for him to test a KTM 125 Grand Prix bike in Spain, where he crashed and hurt himself. Despite that shaky start, Steve raced two full World Championship seasons in the 125cc class, silencing some of the skeptics by scoring points in his second World Championship event, despite the fact that it was only his fourth road race of any kind. (He did three club races on an SV650, almost certainly making him the least-experienced road racer ever to compete at the world level.)

"A lot people say that dirt track helps you out in road racing," Bonsey told me. "But on the 125s, there was nothing in common. I had to start over, learning a whole different riding style, keeping the wheels in line. I threw myself on the ground a bunch of times trying things that I wasn't sure of. I just had to go out there with guys that had been doing it for five years. I'd go into the corner as fast as they did and grab a handful of brake and tuck the front. It was tough, but I caught on."

The highlight of his World Championship career (so far!) came in Portugal in 2008, where he qualified second. After a terrible start, he fought his way back from 15th to fourth. "I really think," he said, "that if I'd had a decent start I could have finished on top of the box that time."

A move up to the 250 class in 2009 was disappointing when sponsorship evaporated and his team could only field a bike for two races. That led to a return to full-time GNC racing last year.

Like most young California riders, he came up racing on short tracks like Lodi, and didn't have much experience on the Miles and 1/2-miles. In fact, almost the only times he'd raced the bigger tracks were at the Amateur Nationals in 2003 and '04. Luckily he found that while there may not have been much flat track knowledge that applied to racing 125 GP bikes, he had learned things in Europe that he could apply in the GNC.

"I think the 125 experience benefits me on the Miles, not getting sideways and losing time. And on the 125s, you have to use every bit of the track, and that also helps," he said, adding, "In that class, with the times so close in qualifying, every little bit counts; pulling your elbows in, getting in the draft. That helps me in dirt track during qualifying. You have to think of every little thing that can make your lap faster."

Even though he lives a few minutes from the Salinas track, Steve's only raced there once."It's nice," he said. "There's big grandstands and the dirt's awesome. Compared to what we usually race, which has a lot of clay, here there's a lot of sand, so it dries out fast. They'll have to stay on top of it, but when it's good it's really good."

"Last week in Du Quoin, you had to get a good start and ride your own line, hope that you could block the other guys." he recalled. "Salinas is going to be a real wide, wide-open kind of race, you could win there coming from last. It's going to be fast and exciting; you're going to need a big motor and the strength to hold on for 25 laps because that track's going to be tough."

He loved living in Europe, but the racing was tough learning experience. This time, it will be nice to have a home-field advantage.

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