Monday Kickstart: Steel City

“It feels like the last day of school,” is what we heard from several riders and mechanics this weekend. Yes, that’s right; the 2008 season has officially come to a close. More than sixth months of racing, battling, injuries, winners, losers, rookies, and all of other things that are a part of our sport came up an end this weekend at Steel City Raceway. Though the AMA series is over, we still have the MXoN, the Bercy SX, and the U.S, Open in the coming months. So, may be the ’08 season isn’t entirely over.

With Steel City being the closing round, promoters and sponsors were all in agreeance to attempt something a little different. Round 12 of the outdoor National circuit was moved from the traditional Saturday/Sunday race weekend to Friday/Saturday. The reasoning behind the switch stems from a couple of ideas. The first idea was to allow riders, teams, and fans to spend the rest of their holiday weekend with family and friends. A second reason may have been to test out the attendance and to get feedback from riders and teams about the new schedule. Don’t be surprised to see some new changes for the ’09 outdoor season; too bad nobody is quite sure what they may be. It seems, though, the entire industry is ready for a change to be made in order to make the outdoor season more convenient for everybody. Either way, riders and teams seemed to enjoy Friday/Saturday feature, giving them an extra day to relax.

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For 2008, the Steel City Raceway crew turned to Mark Peters to redesign the track, improving the layout for both riders and fans. One of the bigger changes of the course was an additional section, which added on an extra 15 to 20 seconds to the lap times and included a fairly large double. A lot of the buzz throughout the weekend was in regards to the new changes, but Factory Yamaha’s Broc Hepler seemed to disagree. “There weren’t that many changes to the track,” said Hepler. “I wish the track was a little more rutted and beat up. I’ve never seen this track so hard pack,” continued Hepler. “Even so, it didn’t hurt the racing because Tim [Ferry] and I battled in both motos.”

Speaking of battles, there were quite a few this weekend in both the Lites class and the Motocross class. In the Motocross class, we saw a battle between Monster Energy Kawasaki’s Tim Ferry and Factory Yamaha’s Broc Hepler. In the first moto, both riders went back forth for second place. Ferry would move around Hepler, but Hepler would quickly find his way around Ferry and the pattern would repeat itself for a majority of the moto. It was more of the same for both riders in the second moto and, once the white flag was out, both riders had managed to reel in Stewart without realizing it. “I didn’t realize James was within sight until I saw him cross the checkered flag,” said Ferry. “When I saw him cross the finish line, that was the first I really saw him.” Though Red Dog and the Iceman battled in each moto, Ferry was able to come out on top with a 2-2 finish, but admits it was harder than he anticipated. “Broc [Hepler] says he doesn’t ride here, but he takes some unique lines and it was hard to figure out where he was going,” Ferry told us. “It took me a majority of the moto to learn his lines and make a pass on him that would stick.”

As for the Lites class, Rockstar/Makita/Suzuki’s Ryan Dungey was able to get himself out in front early and avoid any carnage that may have happened behind him. In the first moto, RD28 took the lead away from Yamaha’s Matt Lemoine and checked out. Meanwhile, however, his rival Ryan Villopoto had suffered from a poor start and by the end of lap two was in 13th place. By the time RV2 had made it up to the front-runners of Lemoine, Josh Grant, Jake Weimer, Brett Metcalfe; Dungey was all but gone. That’s when Villopoto made a pass on Izzi, but Izzi had something to say about it and quickly passed Villopoto back. Unfortunately for RV2, when Izzi made the pass both riders hit, bending Villopoto’s shifter. “I was stuck in second gear, and I couldn’t do anything about it,” says Villopoto of the incident. As for Izzi, the Suzuki pilot told us, “When Ryan passed me I squared him up in the next corner to pass him back… I really think he hit me,” said Izzi. “Just because he as the number one plate on his bike doesn’t mean I’m going to pull over for him. It’s just racing.”

Izzi and Villopoto weren’t the only ones to make contact in the Lites class. During the second moto, there was a three battle between Metcalfe, Weimer, and Izzi for second place. After spending a majority of the race following Metty, Weimer made an aggressive pass on the Australian rider. Both riders made contact, however, Metcalfe got the short end of the stick as he hit the ground and was stuck under his bike for a few moments. “It was one of those racing situations,” said Weimer of his battle with Metcalfe. “We came into a corner together and he thought he had it, and I thought I had it so we didn’t left off. We made contact and, unfortunately, he went down.” Weimer explained to us that he did apologize to Metcalfe after the moto was finished.

One of the bigger surprises in the Lites class was second place finisher in the first moto, Matt Lemoine. Lemoine took the holeshot and the early lead before Dungey made his way around him. Lemoine then found himself in a battle with Geico Powersports Josh Grant, who almost took the Yamaha pilot for an off track excursion at one point during the moto. Lemoine was able to hang tough though for second place. In the second moto, however, Matt had worked his way into fifth place after a so-so start and was looking to continue moving forward. Unfortunately, Lemoine took a soil sample in the later stages of the moto and was taken back to the semi via the team mule. Though Lemoine was unable to continue the second moto, teammate Broc Tickle was able to pick up the slack and found his way into fourth place by the end of the moto. Tickle has had some impressive rides throughout the summer, but he seems to go relatively unnoticed by some. However, Broc has proven more than once this year that he can be a contender for a podium spot.

In the world of the WMA, Honda pilot Ashley Fiolek came into Steel City with a comfortable 28-point lead, and many were thinking that AF67 was going to play it safe and bring home the number one plate. Fiolek did bring home the number one plate, but she and Jessica Patterson were in an all out battle for the course of the their first moto. Both riders passed each other around four or five times before Fiolek was able to inch away from JP. Fiolek is the first girl to take the number one plate away from Patterson in five years. “One bad season in five years isn’t too bad, so I really can’t complain,” said Patterson of handing over her number one plate to Ashley. “Ashley had a great season, and I am really happy for her.” As for Fiolek, she was relieved to get this race out of the way and also have the number one plate. “I was so nervous and shocked that I couldn’t even talk,” AF67, told us after clinching the title on Friday.

In other news, the Joe Gibbs Racing squad lost both Gavin Gracyk and Charles Summey to injury and was left with an empty semi coming into Steel City. However, after a few phone calls, Jeremy Albrecht found himself two riders: Alaska’s Ben Lamay and Southern California’s Sean Borkenhagen. For Lamay, the chance to ride aboard a JGR bike wasn’t much of a drastic change. Ben has been riding the 450 since his debut at Millville and it’s been on a Yamaha. As for Borkenhagen: Sean has spent the entire summer in the Lites class and on a Honda for that matter. Even so, it was a chance of a lifetime for both riders and well worth it. Lamay was able to produce a 17-15 for 15th overall while Borky struggled to adjust to the YZ450F going 27-24 for 27th overall. “I had such a great time on the JGR Yamaha,” said Borkenhagen. “I struggled though because the first time I got to ride the bike was for Friday practice. I am pretty bummed because I know I could’ve done much better, but we didn’t have enough time to truly dial in the bike.” Even so, Borky was still excited he was able to taste the life of a factory rider. “I really hope that I can find myself a in that situation again, but next time I want it to be permanently.”

0-24. Monster Energy Kawasaki’s James Stewart won all 24 of his motos this year, becoming the only the second rider to sweep an entire outdoor National season. “It takes a lot of luck to do this,” said Stewart of his perfect season. “I had a lot of near misses throughout the season, and last weekend at Southwick I almost hit a downed bike. Somehow I missed it, but I couldn’t tell you how.” James admitted that he if would’ve fallen in the second moto like he did at Freestone earlier this season, he wouldn’t have won the moto. “This was the smallest margin I’ve won by all year long. If I would’ve fell in a corner like I did at Freestone, I know Timmy would’ve been able to take the win.” As for Stewart’s plans for ’09, nobody is certain what color bike he’ll be on, and when we tried asking him he just laughed, “Why are you guys always asking me this?” We may see James debut whatever his new ride may be as soon as the U.S. Open or as late as A1.

That about wraps it up for Steel City. It’s been a long season for many and some time off awaits all the riders and teams. Be sure to check back in the coming days for Wednesday Wallpapers and interviews with Josh Grant, Sherri Cruse and others.