On Saturday, Josh Hayes said it would take some "incredible bad luck" for him to steal the MotoAmerica Superbike title away from his teammate, Cameron Beaubier. On Sunday, "incredible bad luck" happened to Beaubier.
Fortunately for Beaubier, Hayes wasn't able to pull off the second half of the miracle he needed to overcome the 29-point lead Beaubier brought into the final round this weekend at New Jersey Motorsports Park. So despite the surprise plot twist of the points leader pulling off the track with smoke trailing from the back of his Yamaha YZF-R1, Beaubier will still carry the MotoAmerica number one in 2017.
A dramatic last day of Superbike racing
The combination of a title at stake and some fast guys with nothing to lose made for exciting racing in the last day of the MotoAmerica season. In Superbike race one, Hayes and Yoshimura Suzuki's Roger Hayden swapped the lead several times with Beaubier following close behind. It took most of the race for the other Suzuki rider, Toni Elias, to overcome his ninth-place qualifying position and join the usual battle of four at the front that dominated the season. On lap 22, Beaubier fell from second to fourth as both Hayes and Elias passed him, and he settled for fourth as Hayden held off Hayes for the win.
That should have been the championship for Beaubier, with a 22-point lead. Hayes had to win race two with Beaubier finishing worse than 13th for Hayes to take the title. Surely, it was over.
Hayden, Hayes and Elias took off at the front of race two, shadowed by a surprisingly strong Bobby Fong on a Superstock 1000 Kawasaki ZX-10R. With nothing to lose, the three at the front battled fiercely for the win while Beaubier was willing to watch them go at it.
"I was pretty content staying behind Bobby because he was ripping," Beaubier said. "Then I almost high-sided a couple of times in a couple of weird areas, almost like I hit some water or something"
He looked down at his bike for leaks but didn't see anything.
"Then about nine to go, I was coming down the front straight and my bike just died," he said. "I saw some kind of liquid — I don't think it was oil, maybe coolant — on my foot, and I just parked it."
As Beaubier slumped in despair over his disabled bike, the crowd at NJMP suddenly realized the impossible was now possible.
"I was so nervous, I didn't even want to watch the race," Beaubier said. "I don't ever want to root against my teammate, but when I saw Toni and Rog ahead of Josh, I wasn't bummed, I will say that. I love you Josh, but sorry."
By that point, however, the two Suzuki riders had opened a two-second gap on Hayes, who was beginning to realize he had no chance of catching them.
"I was gutted for him, even though I knew he was safe," Hayes said of his young teammate. On the other hand, with Hayden and Elias both going for the win, maybe Beaubier wasn't safe. That's what the crowd was thinking. Elias was leading, feeling much more at ease with his Suzuki GSX-R1000 in the warmer temperatures of the afternoon race. But if either rider made a mistake that took both of them out of the race, Hayes would waltz to the finish line unchallenged for the win and the championship.
"It could happen," Hayes said.
Meanwhile, Hayden was trying to invent a way past his teammate.
"I didn't know where I'd be able to pass him," said Hayden. "I knew I couldn't outbrake him in turn one. I tried to pass him where he wouldn't expect it, in the last corner, and it was a little sketchy."
Elias was taken by surprise. "Is impossible to pass there," he said. But Hayden couldn't hold a tight enough line and Elias retook the lead as he raced to the finish line to beat Hayden by 0.156 seconds.
In the end, Beaubier finished the season happy and relieved. Hayes gave full credit to his teammate — "He earned and deserved the championship" — and is coming back for another season, when he'll be 42, to try to keep extending people's ideas of how long a competitive roadracing career can last.
Hayden said he's still learning, and Suzuki should have a better bike for him next year. And Elias' characteristic smile disappeared only for a moment when he learned he'd missed out on second place by one point. He couldn't help think of the earlier round at NJMP in the spring, on a disastrous rainy weekend where he only scored four points.
"I lost 46 points in one day and I thought, 'This could be the key in the championship,'" he said. "And in the end, it is like this."
Supersport, the closest title fight of all
Despite a torrid, season-ending win streak, J.D. Beach needed help to retain his Supersport title. He didn't get it.
With a 14-point lead going into the final weekend, Beach needed two wins and a second- and a third-place finish by his teammate, Garrett Gerloff, so that the two would tie on points and Beach would win the title by virtue of having more wins.
In the Saturday race, Beach and Gerloff battled closely, nearly colliding early in the race, which would have had disastrous consequences for one of them. With about five laps to go, Gerloff nearly high-sided, and that warning, along with lapped traffic that didn't fall his way, led him to finish second. Third-place finisher Valentin Debise was more than 14 seconds back and couldn't give Beach the help he needed.
On Sunday, a similar scene played out, with Beach and Gerloff pulling away from the field. But this time, Gerloff didn't take any chances and cruised to second place, which gave him his first professional title by four points, despite Beach's season-ending win streak of seven straight races.
After enduring what he called "The longest 23 laps of my life," Gerloff said that as he crossed the finish line he was thinking about the sacrifices his parents made driving him to amateur racing events as a kid.
"I saw myself with a number-one plate a long time ago back when I was like 12 years old with my first roadrace bike," he said. "To finally get there and do what I always knew I could do is amazing."
Overshadowed by the drama of the Superbike race and the closeness of the Superstock championship battle were other stories of the weekend, such as the double win by Bobby Fong in Superstock 1000. He will now get to go to Europe to compete in a World Superstock race.
Yamaha announced that its 2017 Superbike team will be the same combo of Hayes and Beaubier. That's good news for anyone who hopes to see the Yamaha dynasty continue, but disappointing news for those who hoped Yamaha would find a way to move Beaubier up to the world level. MotoAmerica also renewed the KTM RC Cup for another year and Dunlop as spec tire provider for three more years, and Elias said he is enjoying life in the United States, feels like people here are treating him great and he has no desire to go anywhere else.
If 2016, the second year with MotoAmerica in charge of domestic Superbike racing, was a lot like 2015, only a little better, then 2017 is set to follow the same pattern, as the effort to rebuild motorcycle roadracing in the United States continues.