There's no question that Toni Elias has added an exciting new story line to this year's MotoAmerica season.
His riding style, with the bike slewing sideways beneath him in seemingly every turn, and his fierce competitiveness (as shown by his record of three wins and a crash in four races) has made him a focus of fan attention. He has played a major role in breaking the Graves Yamaha domination of the Superbike class and putting Yoshimura Suzuki back on top, a position it practically owned in the Mat Mladin and Ben Spies years. Elias is second in the standings, one point behind his teammate, Roger Hayden after the first two rounds at Circuit of the Americas and Road Atlanta.
Prior to his unexpected appearance in MotoAmerica this year, Elias was most likely known to racing fans in the United States as the answer to two good MotoGP trivia questions: Who was the last man to win a MotoGP race who was not riding for a factory team, and who won the very first Moto2 championship? That one and only MotoGP win by Elias, at Estoril in 2006, riding for the Gresini Honda team, was also one of the closest finishes ever in MotoGP. He pipped Valentino Rossi at the line by 0.002 seconds. By denying Rossi five points, he also played a key role in Nicky Hayden winning the championship that year. Now, Elias finds himself a teammate to another Hayden. Elias' career appears to be full of surprises.
Elias replaced Jake Lewis on the Yoshimura Suzuki team when Lewis was injured before the season began. He was intended to keep the seat warm until Lewis healed and could return. Now, with his success and popularity, the team faces a difficult situation. Lewis will soon be ready to come back, but how do you kick out a guy with a great shot at bringing home a championship for you?
The series also benefits from a new international presence this year, which consists not just of Elias in Superbike, but also former Moto2 racer Claudio Corti in Superstock 1000 and French rider Valentin Debise in Supersport.
"I think it's good for the series for sure to have a world champion over here in the mix, dicing it up," said Roger Hayden. "I think it shows our series is pretty tough. He's definitely a fierce competitor. His last two laps are always his best ones."
We grabbed Elias for a few questions during the recent round at Road Atlanta.
Q: Tell us how this opportunity came up and what your reaction was when you got the call.
A: This has been totally unexpected. I was at home with no opportunity to race, a difficult situation. Suddenly I got this call, asking if I wanted to go test for Yoshimura Suzuki at the COTA test. Just a test, to gather information for the team. To everyone's surprise, including mine, I was fast and I felt good. I wanted to be here. Then the opportunity arose for me to compete in the first two races. In the first round we won both races and it's been perfect. I didn't expect this when I was at home. I never imagined all this. But I'm back, I'm winning, and I'm very happy to be here.
This has led us to start thinking about continuing for the rest of the season. We'll know soon. I hope they can find a way to be able to run all three of us, with Jake, too. I have found a family here. That's very important. A great motorcycle, a great team, and for me this is a new life.
Q: You're known for an exciting riding style, with the motorcycle moving around a lot. How have you had to adapt your riding to the MotoAmerica Superbikes and the Dunlop tires?
A: The most difficult change has been the Dunlops, especially the rear. It is a harder tire and for me that's not good. I have raced Superbikes before with Aprilia and I have lots of experience, but in the end it is similar to MotoGP. How it works, the feel, how to set up the bike, everything. I have a good mechanic and we are communicating well. The motorcycle is really fast on the straights and we just have to improve with the tires more than the motorcycle, for me. Because I am small, the rear tire stays cool, doesn't come up to temperature and doesn't deform. We've been working and we've found ways to get more grip and temperature, and in the end that is what has allowed us to win.
Q: Many people remember your famous victory in Estoril in MotoGP in 2006 when you beat Valentino Rossi by a split second. That win also played a role in Nicky Hayden winning the world championship and now you're teammates with another Hayden.
A: Portugal was my greatest moment, my best race, especially because we were fighting with the best of them all, Valentino Rossi. And I also had the honor of sharing the podium with Kenny Roberts Jr. It's a great memory. The other day at COTA we were remembering that. And yes, that victory helped Nicky and I was happy to help him. I've always had a great relationship with him and his family. Whenever I see them, any of the brothers, it's always a friendly hug. Now I'm teammates with his brother. All good.
Q: Based on your experience racing at the world level, what do you think are the possibilities that some of the young riders in the MotoAmerica series can move up to world championship racing?
A: I think it's very possible. I always say the same thing. If we look at the different levels of riders, people think that MotoGP is the super level of riders, World Superbike is a little lower and here is even lower. To me, it's not that simple. I think people are a little mistaken. If you leave MotoGP and go to World Superbike, you find some really fast guys, like Sykes and Rea, Davies and Giuliano. The level is high if you want to be in the top five. Look at Nicky. Nicky has won in MotoGP. Now, true, his motorcycle could be better, but anyway, it's not easy to run in the top five in Superbikes. And that's Nicky. A great rider. And I came here to the United States and faced Josh Hayes, Cameron Beaubier and Hayden. Holy shit! Very fast, you know? I remember at the test, I couldn't believe the pace. I'm there, at the same level, but if you want to be in the top five, the level is high. People don't realize that.
Q: In Texas, the TV announcer said you were enjoying the breakfasts here in the United States. True?
A: (Laughs) Sometimes what is available isn't the best for me. Here, in the hotels everywhere, there are some good fried eggs, toast, bacon, all these things that are so good. That's what I ate that Saturday and it was a little hard on the digestion. I'm pushing on the track and the fried eggs start coming up.