Supermoto Finale and Fragile Future
Rocky season ends with a bang
Even the most casual observer of the USA motorcycling racing scene must wonder at the turmoil generated this year by AMA's sale of its racing program. It may take years for stability to return. Supermoto - that unique blend of dirt bike and slick tires, asphalt and earth - has this in common with its big brother, Superbike: this year was hard, and it's not clear what's going to happen next year. This was the context for the XTRM/AMA Supermoto Finale, presented by Parts Unlimited, on November 16 and 17 at Infineon Raceway's Jim Russell Karting Center.
In many ways it was a minor miracle that it happened at all. The Daytona Motorcycle Group had its hands full with taking over the Superbike series and was not sure what to do about Supermoto. Enter supermoto founder and visionary Gavin Trippe, who, in a move reminiscent of Steve Jobs' return to Apple, offered to help. Together with entrepreneur Troy Lee, he produced a schedule in January to "keep the patient alive."
The path to Infineon was torturous, including an October finale originally scheduled for Texas, which was cancelled on only four days notice. Yet here in Sonoma, California, at a track nestled in greening hills and under blue November skies, were the 18-wheelers from Yamaha, KTM, and Honda. The paddock was full with every other kind of vehicle known to man that can haul a motorcycle. Top racers and a great track - this would be an appropriate, dignified conclusion to the 2008 series.
With three championships at stake there was tension in the mix as well as dignity. In two of these classes (Unlimited and Premier), the series point spreads were close enough that two more races could reasonably change the order. Only in the Lites class could a winner be projected before the polls closed: Graves/Yamaha's Brandon Currie had four straight wins under his belt. By the weekend's end the mix would include two more elements - triumph and tough luck.
Following practice, qualifiers and heat races, the main program began on Saturday at 3 pm. In the Supermoto Unlimited it looked like series point leader Daryl Atkins (Factory Aprilia/Rip It Energy) had the championship sewed up as he'd been in the lead for 10 laps. Hart & Huntington's Steve Drew, five series points behind, had spent most of the race parked in 5th position. Enter tough luck. On the 11th lap, coming off the steel plate jump in the straight section, the bead of Atkin's rear tire popped off the rim. His race was over. In that same lap Drew moved up to first place. He crossed the line in a photo finish 0.07 second ahead of Atkin's teammate, Ben Carlson.
The Lites race, smooth and failure-free, lacked the dramatic lead changes and passing of the preceding race. Brandon Currie ran first; Mach 1 Motorsport's Danny Casey, second; and GP Husqvarna's Xavier Bellerophon (from France) third - for all 13 laps.
Premier series point leader HMC/KTM'sTroy Herfoss had earned pole position. He lost that initial advantage on the first lap when his bike stalled in the dirt section, putting him back in 12th position. Mark Burkhart (Graves/Yamaha), bearing the number-1 plate, took the lead and held it for 14 (of 17 total) laps, chased by Herfoss's teammate, Chris Fillmore. Advancing steadily, by lap 12 Herfoss was in third place behind Fillmore and Burkhart. Going into the last lap, misfortune struck, and it was Burkhart whom she hit, ending his race with a blown motor. Fillmore and Herfoss took the first two spots on the podium. Troy Lee Designs/Honda rider Cassidy Anderson was third.
Drama in the Paddock
While the riders and crews went about the business of racing, there was a current of activity in the paddock of crucial importance for the future of the sport. The important players were all present - the series sponsor XTRM, the AMA, organizer Gavin Trippe, the big factory-supported teams from Yamaha, KTM and Honda, and smaller satellite teams with partial support from the manufacturers.
It was clear that some folks would not be back next year, and obvious that others would stay on the fence until more was known about 2009. Kurt Nicoll, in charge of KTM racing, cited the instability in venues and the tanking economy as the two biggest problems faced by Supermoto this year. HMC/KTM will not be participating in a full series next year, according to Nicoll. Their team of Troy Herfoss and Chris Fillmore will disappear into road racing, Herfoss in Australia and Fillmore with KTM. This bad news came from a solid supporter of Supermoto racing - Nicoll is not only the KTM racing boss, he's also a member of the HMC team, and rode to a second-place finish this weekend.
Yamaha needs to know more about the 2009 season before deciding, according to Patrick Stevenson, manager of the Graves/Yamaha Supermoto team. Daryl Atkins was candid about the problems smaller teams faced, particularly the financial losses connected with the Austin cancellation. At the other end of the spectrum, Troy Lee Designs' Honda team is fully committed to participating next year.
BP Racing's Mike Hammett, whose team recently obtained sponsorship from Yamaha, is ready to go. Ultimately, "we're just racers who want to race," he says. Like Atkins, he can't afford another season like this. He feels we "hit rock bottom and it's only upward from now on."
Provisional 2009 schedules were floated privately to the teams this weekend for their input. Some preliminary information became available: It appears that the 2009 schedule will have up to 10 rounds at western venues, Colorado being the farthest east. Locating the series in the west will take advantage of the concentration of the major teams in California (now that KTM is withdrawing the Wisconsin-based HMC rig). Discussions with the city of Long Beach for a street race are promising, and "Reno would love to have their Supermoto race back again," says Trippe. Adding a green theme (the low carbon footprint of Supermoto bikes) to the adrenaline rush Supermoto brings to spectators should help sell city fathers on hosting street races. XTRM will capitalize on the experience of amateur series organizers with strong track records (like Brok McAllister and Don Canet) to enhance the success factor for individual events. Plans are for an early-December release of the 2009 schedule to the public.
Sunday morning began another gorgeous Northern California day. The devastating wild fires raging in Southern California seemed far away and the ground was still moist from heavy rains earlier in the month. Perfect for racing.
Now trailing Drew by eight points, Atkins still had a chance for the series championship, but that depended not only on Atkins winning, Drew had to do poorly. How poorly? Fifth place or worse. Atkins did his part by checking out at the start and finishing a full second ahead of second place Kurt Nicoll. Drew, starting from the second row this time, settled in fifth place where he remained for nine laps. On the tenth lap he got around Bellerophon, moving into fourth place. Not wanting to take an unnecessary risk by attempting to pass Ben Carlson or Kurt Nicoll, he held his position to the finish and took the title - by one point! On the podium, an exuberant Drew said he'd "never been happier to finish fourth."
Unbeatable Brandon won the Lites again. "To finish this year off perfectly was amazing," said Currie in a post-champagne comment. "It was something to dream about, and to have it come true is unreal."
The last race of the day and the 2008 series began with the KTM team practically invisible at the start. Fillmore was in the third row while Herfoss, because of a mechanical failure in his heat race, was buried in the last of five rows. Now two orange machines were to work their way up over the next 17 laps.
Anderson took the holeshot and the lead for 14 laps, until Burkhart finally passed him. With two laps to go, was this to be Burkhart's win? On the last lap, as Burkhart was about to exit the dirt section, a lapper got in the way, forcing him to check up. Back on the gas, the bike spun out from underneath him as he hit the last jump. It was a star-crossed weekend for Mark Burkhart - a seized engine Saturday and now this fall, today. Meanwhile, Fillmore had moved up quickly to third place and Herfoss, by the 13th lap, to fourth. When Anderson crossed the finish line, Fillmore was only 0.4 second behind. Herfoss took third and the series championship by 12 points.
This weekend in Sonoma had it all: Brandon Currie's triumphant six-in-a-row perfect season in the Lites class; the conclusion of the season-long duel between Daryl Atkins and Steve Drew, decided by a one-point margin; Herfoss twice coming from the back of the grid to the podium; and the incredibly tough luck of 2007 champion Mark Burkhart to be in the lead on the last lap on both days and be stopped with the checkered flag less than a minute away.
The action in the paddock was, in its own way, equally dramatic. Criticism of this year's instabilities was always tempered with understanding for the difficulties faced by those individuals and organizations who took on the challenge of making a season happen. Lessons were learned. There's a good chance of seeing a 2009 schedule next month. To be able to conclude a rocky season with two days of exciting racing at a venue that won praise uniformly from riders and team managers is no small accomplishment.
Finally, the hundreds of fans on hand Sunday afternoon saw a show to remember. Supermoto, with only five years under its belt since the first AMA national event, will have arrived when the spectators number in the thousands instead of the hundreds. That just may happen in 2009 in a city near you.