Friday Night Lights

By Andrew Short, ‘

The redheaded stepchild of Supercross went down under the night skies of Daytona Beach, Florida, this March when round 10 of the SXGP series came to town. Often cited as the “orphan Supercross,” this year proved that the nickname and the reputation may be endangered. In the last few years, Daytona has seen major changes and progression to its outdoor format. The most notable modification was when the event moved from Saturday to Friday night, and it now takes place under the lights instead of the bright sun as it did in years past. In addition, the field has been narrowed to the traditional twenty riders for battle in the main event. The show itself has been fluffed up, and with the new track layout, the race doesn’t resemble the Daytona of old whatsoever. One thing remains the same, though; the track still separates the men from the boys, and doesn’t take any prisoners. As a racer, you either love it or hate it.

PREPARATION IS HALF THE BATTLE

The week prior to Daytona throws everyone off of their regular routine, scrambling to practice for the mayhem. The schedule is bumped up an extra day by having the race on Friday, which leaves only a couple of precious days of testing before the grueling sand race. This year the Honda team and I gathered up in the Southern California high desert to ride the Sunrise Supercross track, a perfect place for Daytona testing. Eric Kehoe plowed a hole in the fence surrounding the Supercross track, opening up a torn-up sand section and basically combining a “rocky Southwick” with a normal SX track. According to Ernesto Fonseca, “It’s as close to Daytona as it gets in California.”

Trying to set up suspension for the Daytona track is an oxymoron in itself. Our typical Supercross setup hardly feels like suspension at all because it’s so stiff. Of course, stiff suspension and square-edged bumps mix like water and oil. Some riders prefer going with a motocross setting to absorb the square edges, but this guarantees suffering on the Supercross obstacles. The majority (myself included) prefer chattering our kidneys, getting kicked around by bumps, but smiling mid-air, knowing there is a plush landing over the triple in our future.

BIKE WEEK

By Thursday all the riders have arrived for the race, and are headed up the highway to Daytona. Driving up, you realize that Bike Week is a motorcycle lover’s paradise. There isn’t another race on the schedule where you sit at a stoplight when leaving the track, surrounded completely by Harley dudes on every type of bike imaginable-it’s really interesting to say the least. In fact, Bike Week is an experience like nothing else.

I went to AMA registration to check in, and found all the moto guys sitting in the stands of the backstretch of the road racetrack. As we all admired the road race practice and qualifying, we started asking who in their right mind enjoys going 200 mph lap after lap. They are either really brave or just plain dumb, but no matter what, we all have tremendous respect for our two-wheeled brethren. After the road racing wrapped up, we moto guys moved in and finally got to see the track for the first time. From the very first glimpse, I realized that the new track layout was a hit. It looked fun yet challenging, and everyone left the stadium eagerly anticipating race day.

THE BIG DAY

Race day started off with 15 lucky riders winning the lottery during roll call at the riders’ meeting. When your name is called, they are making sure you are present for the mandatory meeting (those not present get a fine), and on this day they also had to take a drug test. How they were chosen, I have no clue, but it was funny watching the riders’ faces as the names and numbers were called. Practice was uneventful, except for when my teammate Travis Preston got his soil sample out of the way early on. The track held up well, and besides the strong winds, the weather was picture perfect.

As the sun started to s and opening ceremonies were in progress, “Mr. Daytona” and four-time winner Jeff Stanton offered up some insider’s advice to me. “Get the start and fall into a fast pace early on to set the tone.”

Opening ceremonies turned out to be a little weak compared to the Clear Channel show, but at least it was different. The 125cc heat races took off, and the track was looking great; I was anxious and excited for the gate to drop on my qualifier!

The pack kept tighter than usual for a Daytona race. Stanton’s advice for the start was definitely holding true, as the guys who started up front were staying there. The lights on the track were certainly improved from last year, but still weren’t dialed in to perfection, at least compared to the stadiums that we’re used to competing in.

Daytona consists of just about every type of soil known to man. When you add artificial lighting, ruts, bumps, and Gary Bailey’s design to the equation, you can’t take your eyes off the track unless you want to visit Doc Bodnar at the Asterisks semi. Even though the track had been tamed down from years past, it was still claiming a few riders as the races wore on. Chad Reed set a blistering pace in the first 250cc heat race, leaving the rest of the pack battling for second.

Ricky Carmichael almost holeshot the second heat race until yours truly braked early and squeezed by on the inside, getting the exact start that Stanton wanted to see. Ricky made quick work of me as I tried to hop in and learn what I could from the former multi-time champ. RC won easily, but everyone noticed the champ was a little off. This had people scratching their heads even before the main started.

125ccs OF ADRENALINE

The race of the night was between two riders nobody suspected in the 125cc final. The support class main was chaos from the beginning, claiming favorites Davi Millsaps, Grant Langston and Matt Walker all within the first few turns. The Daytona track tackled Walker three times early on before he retired, proving just how tough this place was. Soon to follow was his teammate Langston, who was eventually lapped by the leaders after going down hard. While Millsaps had the speed on his side, he lacked in the luck department, and got cleaned out by Troy Adams, who eventually cruised to the podium. The two Joshes (Grant and Hansen) were out front early and positioned themselves for a great finish. As all of the excitement was happening behind the leaders, it wasn’t until the last lap that the real fireworks began when Hansen cleaned out Grant after the white flag. Amazingly, neither of the four-stroke motors stalled, and the two riders got up immediately. Hansen went on to win, and the fans gave the two riders tremendous applause for the heart and determination they showed while racing.

MAIN EVENT MAYHEM

Chad Reed got out to an early lead in the 250cc Main, with Carmichael catching him slowly but surely. Remarkably, Reed held off Ricky’s charge and slowly began pulling away. I battled with Tim Ferry early on, but by the time I got by him, the leaders had gapped me. Around lap 16, I was lapped by both Reed and RC. As Carmichael went by me, we hit the triple and went into a section of sand whoops. No sooner had he passed, than I got a bird’s-eye view of Ricky swapping out and taking a right-hand turn onto the pavement as Tuff Blocks were flung all over the track in a single second of chaos. It is amazing how fast those two (Reed and RC) go, and how quickly the bike got away from Ricky. He was so committed going into the section that it was all or nothing.

Once Carmichael crashed, the excitement was suddenly extinguished. Reed went on to an amazing upset win in Daytona, of all places, which must have really chapped Ricky’s hide. Behind the two was Mike “The Rock” LaRocco, who ended up on the podium in his fourteenth start at Daytona. Once again, he waxed all the young guns who were calling him “The Pebble.” I ended Daytona for the first time ever with a respectable finish, ending the 250cc main event in eighth place.

The 35th annual Daytona Supercross was the best yet, and there were over 45,000 fans who would surely agree. The majority of racers who actually enjoyed the challenging new Daytona track would agree just the same. The major changes to the format, as well as the excitement the night provided, made it clear that Daytona is no longer the “orphan Supercross” of old, but rather a thrilling race with new visions on the horizon to become one of the most unique races around.

ith a respectable finish, ending the 250cc main event in eighth place.

The 35th annual Daytona Supercross was the best yet, and there were over 45,000 fans who would surely agree. The majority of racers who actually enjoyed the challenging new Daytona track would agree just the same. The major changes to the format, as well as the excitement the night provided, made it clear that Daytona is no longer the “orphan Supercross” of old, but rather a thrilling race with new visions on the horizon to become one of the most unique races around.