Intro and photos by Donn Maeda
Imagine the first pro National of your career; lined up against the best riders in the sport whom you’ve read about and watched on television for years, your heart begins to race inside your chest as the starter points down the row of riders and turns the 30-second card sideways. Now imagine timing the drop of the gate just right, powering off the launch pad and grabbing a clear-cut holeshot over the other 39 riders on the line.
Well, that’s exactly what Amsoil/Factory Connection/Honda’s Josh Grant did at the 125cc National Championship Series opener at Hangtown. Recruited to the team only a few weeks before the start of the Nationals, Grant was an absolute rookie when he lined up next to the best 125cc riders in the world, but the multi-time Amateur National Champion put his tried and true starting technique to work for him and led more than a couple 125cc National Champions through turn one. Grant has always been a fast starter—further evidenced by the multiple holeshots he’s grabbed since the series opener—and we caught up with him to have him share some of his quick-starting secrets with TransWorld Motocross readers.
Though it is entirely up to you and what you feel comfortable with, I have found that using my index and middle finger to pull in and release the clutch lever on the start works best for me. Using more than two fingers provides less feel as I feed the clutch out and I have a greater tendency to just dump it off the line. I don’t use one finger because my bikes usually have stiff clutch springs in them and it’s too hard, so two is the magic number for me, whether I am racing a 125 or 250.
One of the coolest little tips I can give is to hold your front brake on the starting line. Not only does this keep you from creeping forward and into the starting gate, but it also allows you to let your clutch lever out just a little bit, until you can feel the slack in your chain go tight. Learning where that spot is takes a little time so don’t go trying to do it during a race without practicing it first and getting a feel for it. By letting the clutch engage just a tiny bit, you are eliminating that split second that it takes to transfer power to your rear wheel. Also, getting some tension on the chain helps lessen the chance of your rear wheel breaking loose and losing traction when you release the clutch the rest of the way. Practice this technique, because it really works!
- Go to the line early to pick your gate. Watch the starter and how he starts the race or two before yours. Most times, they have some sort of pattern that you can detect, which will help you anticipate the drop of the gate better. If you know that the track you are racing at has a concrete start gate, take a broom with you so you can sweep all of the loose dirt off your launch pad.
- Doing a pre-race burnout on the cement gets your rear tire nice and warmed up so that it gets better traction when you release the clutch. I know that tires are expensive, but if you are serious about racing you need to get good starts, and to get good starts on concrete you need to do a burnout. A cold tire will spin a lot more than one that has been warmed up properly. Put your bike in first gear and get your weight off the seat while you hold the front brake and release the clutch with just enough throttle to break the tire loose. I do a burnout for about four seconds when the starter is pointing at riders down the line, then I will pop the clutch a few times and surge forward to keep the tire warm and get a good feel for the amount of traction I will have when the gate drops. If you do a burnout for too long, the tire will get too hot and not have time to cool down and get sticky. There is a fine line between too much and not enough when it comes to burning out, but four seconds should be a good guideline.
- Starting on a cooncrete launch pad can be tricky because your knobby rear tire is designed to grab traction in dirt, not cement. With the proper technique, though, there is plenty of traction to be found on the concrete. Because your rear wheel will spin much more on concrete, your body position is much more upright than it is on dirt. I sit in the pocket of the seat; the lowest point in the foam, usually right in the middle. If your legs are long enough, it is always best to start with both of your legs down because that will help you maintain your balance better as you blast off the line. If you start with both legs down, you can use the back of your left boot to pull the first up-shift, once you leave the line. Slam into the shifter with your heel; if you have Alpinestars Tech 6s or Gaerne SG-10s, that is what that knob on the back of your boot is for! Since I am short, though, I start with my right leg down and my left leg up so I can shift right away. In the amateur ranks I was allowed to use starting blocks so that I could start with both feet down, but that’s illegal in AMA Pro Racing.
There are a lot of different theories about what to concentrate on when it comes to starts. Some people look at the gate next to them or even at the little pin that holds the gate up, but focusing directly at my starting gate has always worked best for me. I start in second gear on 125s, 250 four-strokes and 250s, but big 450 four-strokes have enough power to pull third off the line—especially on cement. I use a medium throttle setting to keep the rpms up; you want to have the bike revved up enough to keep from bogging when you release the clutch, but not so high that you do a big burnout. Traction is the key.
- When the gate drops, feed the clutch lever out without popping it all of a sudden. You can’t go too slowly because then everyone will smoke you, but you do have to be smooth as you engage the clutch and apply more throttle. On cement starts, I sit loosely on the bike and let it move between my legs.
- Stay loose as you power over the starting gate, and be prepared to compensate with your upper body just in case your rear wheel gets a little squirrelly as it goes over the metal gate. If you got a clean launch off the concrete, though, your bike should power right over it, nice and straight.
- Once I am over the gate, I usually grab third gear (or fourth on a 450) as soon as my rear wheel hits the dirt. Be careful not to shift too soon though, because your bike will bog. Once onto the dirt, I apply full throttle and lean back to get my weight on the rear wheel. Continue to stay loose on the bike so you can compensate for any loss of traction or a side-to-side swap.
By this point, you should be able to tell if you got the jump on your competition. If you did, you control the race to the first turn and can enter the first turn in the line you are most comfortable with. If you don’t get a good jump off the line, you need to make a split-second decision about what you are going to do in the first corner. If you are near the front, going to the inside is safest so that no one else can dive under you. If you are in the middle of the pack or worse, going outside is a better choice because the guys ahead of you will bunch up in the first turn.
As is the case with anything, practice makes perfect. When you practice during the week, set some time aside to do some practice starts, and before you know it, you’ll be grabbing big holeshots, too!