By Michael Antonovich
Photos by Michael Antonovich, Chris Kinman, Brendan Lutes, and Jeff Kardas
It was as if no time was wasted when it came to finding a replacement rider for Trey Canard after his season came to a sudden end in Los Angeles. By the next round in Oakland, the rumor of a fill-in was in full swing and practically every Honda mounted racer was a possible candidate. The early choice was Geico Powersports Honda's Eli Tomac, who had dominated the West Coast Lites season seemingly from the start, but when Tomac injured his elbow in the San Diego main event, Factory Honda was forced to start the search once again. The next name on the list was Troy Lee Designs/Lucas Oils/Honda racer Cole Seely, who had kicked off his season with a convincing win at the Anaheim opener. Though Tomac statistically had a better season until San Diego, he lacked the experience on the bigger bike that Seely's gained in 2011 as a Josh Grant's substitute. And like that, Cole Seely was called up just days after San Diego to join the factory effort.
He nearly turned down the offer. Tomac's DNF pulled the points chase tighter, and while Seely was seated in third overall, he knew that a string of solid finishes could net him the title. "My first answer in my head was, 'No, don't do it,' because I didn't want to get hurt. With three rounds to go, anything could happen. And that is my main obligation, to race the Lites class." Seely spent an evening weighing the pros and cons of moving up and phoned the American Honda brass the next day with his decision. "I called back the next day and told them that I would do it, mainly because I love racing Supercross. And I knew that it was going to be fun." But there were still hoops that Seely and Honda had to jump through to please all involved. "I was so 50-50 about it. I just figured that I'd say yes, and if the sponsors could figure it out, then let's do it and if we couldn't, we won't. But Red Bull and Lucas Oil, both huge sponsors of our team, stepped down and said I could do it. It took a little bit of work, but I'm thankful for Tyler Keefe, my team manager, and Eric Kehoe for making it happen." After only three days aboard the bike, Seely headed to Atlanta and began his "spring break."
To say that Seely's Atlanta kickoff was successful may be an understatement. He finished third in his heat race behind JGR/Toyota/Yamaha teammates James Stewart and Davi Millsaps, chose a prime gate for the main event, and to the surprise of many, himself included, took the pack of riders to the first turn with a commanding lead. "I wasn't ready for that, and I think that it hurt me. I could have ended up leading it for longer and could have won one of the races if I had calmed down (laughs)," stated Seely. "I didn't expect to come out in the first round, get the holeshot, and lead for that long." As he set the pace, his mind filled with possible outcomes, the most reoccurring being a main event win. "At lap five I was like, 'No one has passed me yet?' I knew that Dungey was behind me, but I was sure that he was going to stick a wheel to me in the first two or three laps. When I watched it on TV, I saw that I pulled a little bit of a gap." Ryan Dungey eventually made his move for the lead on the eighth lap and as Seely settled to a respectable sixth place finish, he began to realize what it takes to race up front in the premier class. "That is where experience comes in. Racing a little bit longer and making the step up to that class is something that you have to get used to."
The four weeks of Seely's time had him facing nearly every condition or layout thinkable. The larger, more open spreads of Atlanta and St. Louis gave him a chance to see what the larger bike was capable of, while the tight confines of Indianapolis tested his control over the power. But no challenge was as great as the one he faced in his first trip to Daytona. The oldest and most demanding track on the Supercross tour resembled a low-lying marsh after torrential rains hammered the Florida circuit, presenting the Southern California native with conditions he had rarely ever faced. "It was a lot to take in. But I kept thinking, 'Alright, I knew I was going to have to do this one day. And if my success keeps up, I am going to be one of the top guys in the 450 class and I am going to encounter a rain race where I will have to salvage points or win the thing." The night was eventful, to say the least. After coming through the LCQ, he lined up far to outside and was forced to navigate through the first turn in the rear of the field. As the sixteen-lap main event drug on and he laid the bike down a handful of times, he recalls thinking, "Maybe I'll just cross that bridge when I come to it."
The staff that makes up the Muscle Milk American Honda team is that of modern day legend. With Eric Kehoe, Justin Brayton, and Chad Reed as advisors, Seely was able to learn what makes a successful Supercross racer without the pressure of a championship. "Obviously, they hired me because they knew I would do good and I needed to fulfill that, but I wasn't in the points hunt." Being at the races every weekend was all that Honda wanted, as Seely was taking the place of an injured rider. "One thing I did have to do was stay healthy," he says. "As far as pressure goes, that was where I was getting it from. It was just, 'Don't crash and don't get hurt so you can get back on a Lites bike.'" The budding 450 racer was also able to test at Reed's Florida compound between the St. Louis and Daytona rounds, and it was an opportunity that Seely did not take lightly. "I was blown away by it. They brought both semis out because they were both on the road and one day I was the only one there, so it felt pretty special (laughs)." With a massive amount of land and equipment at their disposal, the team took over the central Florida estate and even erected a Daytona-esque track. The time spent under the watchful eyes of the entire staff is something that Seely is sure to benefit from as his career continues, as he learned more about what it takes to set up a bike in ever changing conditions.
So now the question is this: Where does Cole Seely go from here? He knows that he has the speed to run at the front of either class and with the help of Charles Dao, he is building the strength and stamina that it takes to last the full 20 laps. He feels that he is gradually becoming more of a 450 rider and he will be forced to move up if he happens to claim the championship, but he is signed to race for Troy Lee through 2013. The future of his career hinges on the next three rounds of the West Coast Lites season, and Seely feels that he now possesses an edge over his competitors. "The best way to keep yourself in that racing mindset is to keep racing," says Seely. "And the guys that I was racing in the past month are the best in the world." When asked what would happen to his contract with Troy Lee if he wins the title and if the young team would or could commit to a 450 Supercross program, he sums it by saying, "The only way I will move up is if I win a title. We have talked about it a little bit and the team is progressing fast, like I am." He is openly committed to Lee and the support the helmet painter/designer/team owner has given him, and he says he would like keep a connection to Lee by running Troy Lee Designs gear for as long as possible, regardless of the team he is riding for.
The heightened levels of skill and speed by his temporary competitors is what may make the difference for Seely come Seattle , when he will line up against his Lites rivals for the first time since February. "The Lites guys are great racers, and that is my level right now. But I just raced with the best guys on the planet, so it almost makes it seem a little bit smaller when you are stepping down to race the Lites. After racing with James Stewart, Ryan Villopoto, and Justin Brayton, it gives me a huge confidence boost." The combination of skill, strength, and newfound assurance could be what moves Cole Seely up in the final standings.