Step Right Up and Place Your Bets on Who Will Be The Next Big Thing
It had already been a wild year in the amateur ranks, and we hadn’t even reached spring. New sanctioning bodies had sprouted, new ranking systems were introduced, and the tug-of-war was on to get amateurs to race even more events. Lake Whitney and Mosier had already run in Texas, and a healthy crop of new amateurs were already eyeing their pro debuts for later in the year. That made the time just about perfect for all the top amateurs to trek to Las Vegas for the 33rd annual NMA World Mini Grand Prix.
The World Mini features a sometimes-surreal mix of expectations and pressure. Of course, each manufacturer has high hopes for its riders, and the demands the riders put on themselves are equally lofty. Then there are parental expectations. Some riders and parents rely on the contingency bonuses that come with wins and top finishes to keep their race programs going and get from race to race, so it’s not always exactly just kid stuff when the riders hit the line. The bottom line is that the racing is as serious as it gets for amateurs, and with over 3,200 entries, you get full gates, lots of qualifiers, a dizzying array of classes for all bike sizes, skill levels, Mod and Stock variations and age groups, all run over four days (plus a move-in and practice day).
The track is located on the grounds of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and is only used for the World Mini. It also underwent some configuration changes this year, with large off-camber sections added on a couple of straightaways. That made things interesting, particularly when large packs of riders were exiting the first turn together. There was also one extremely long rut-filled straight that made for a great test of horsepower, bravery, and skill. The good news is that amateur racing continues to boom, with over 3,200 entries, and according to the NMA crew, there were a lot of new riders and parents getting familiar with the whole World Mini drill.
Unfortunately, injuries sidelined several top competitors. Ryan Villopoto was already injured coming into the race, putting a ding in Team Green’s efforts. Yamaha’s Jacob Saylor was missing from the pro class after bruising a kidney during the week. He came back to try and race, but finally decided to opt out. Team Green’s Matt Boni was also sidelined during the week after coming up short on a double, leaving him with a pair of very tender wrists. Honda-mounted Jeff Alessi fractured a wrist, which left him sitting on the sidelines as well. Even with a handful of top riders out there was plenty of great racing, but nothing was as interesting as watching the pro classes.
There was plenty of top talent lined up for the pro races this year, but the biggest head-to-head battles came down to a week-long duel between Josh Grant and Mike Alessi. The two battled in their individual qualifiers, and early on Saturday we asked Mike if he was approaching the racing differently, now that he had made the jump to pro. “It’s a little bit different. There aren’t five qualifiers…there might only be two qualifiers. I know they’re faster, but they’re cleaner riders…they’re professionals. They know what they’re doing. They’re not the typical amateur riders who are going to clean you out in the first turn, or the first chance they get.”
By the time it rolled around to the weekend, the nice talk was out the window, and there were claims of team tactics. Of course, who was trying to take out whom depended on whose eyes you were watching with…or whose stories you were listening to. But there was plenty of action. At one point, Mike was forced to quite spectacularly blow through a hay bale at the end of the start straight. Both Josh and Mike had solo crashes of their own, and Mike made an amazing charge from the back of the pack in a moto. Late in the weekend, Mike also had a huge high-side while exiting the first turn in one of the run-offs.
The other subplot that made wwatching the racing interesting was that while Josh and Mike were running head-to-head in Vegas, the two of them were really headed in different directions. Mike had turned pro earlier in the year, but had yet to turn 16 (which he did in mid-May), so he was looking to mark some milestones by beating a couple of established pro riders at individual races, ride his last amateur national at Loretta Lynn’s, and then make his national debut at Millville, MN. Josh, on the other hand, has been making waves with his results from earlier in the season at Lake Whitney and had a head-to-head tryout for a Factory Connection ride scheduled for the week after the World Mini. So he was looking at making an almost immediate jump to the national scene. The ironic part was that he was slated to go against his friend and Honda of Houston teammate, Thomas Hahn. Of course, by now you know that Josh got the call for the Factory Connection ride, and surprised quite a few people by grabbing the holeshot and pulling a huge lead in his first national at Hangtown…before crashing.
So who was the big winner of the weekend? We’d call it a wash. Mike took the 125cc (Stock and Mod) classes, while Josh took both the 250cc crowns. However, we’d say Mike wasn’t quite on his game, and Josh looked calm and collected. Here’s hoping that Mike has his mental game together a little better for later in the summer, particularly for all the smack that he and his dad have been laying down. One thing’s for sure…Millville will probably be one of the most closely-watched Nationals of the year.