I must have written half a dozen different headlines in my mind during race one of the MotoAmerica Motul Superbike/Bazzazz Superstock race at Virginia International Raceway Saturday.
“Rare mistakes cost Yamaha riders big points.” No, scratch that, those guys are coming through the field fast.
“Yoshimura Superbike team tightens grip on points lead.” Forget that. Toni Elias got taken out.
“Yamaha factory riders mount amazing comeback to finish on podium.” Oops, not quite.
Normally, the headline would be about Roger Hayden winning the race and Quicksilver Latus Motors Kawasaki’s Bobby Fong finishing third overall on a Superstock 1000 Kawasaki ZX-10R, beating the Superbike guys. But Hayden’s quietly competent performance and Fong’s David-beats-Goliath achievement were overshadowed by the drama taking place elsewhere.
The weekend was difficult from the start, with cold and wet conditions on Friday, followed by cool and damp conditions on Saturday morning that had turned sunny and moderate by the time the Superbike and Superstock 1000 riders lined up. Superpole was the first time the track was completely dry.
Yoshimura Suzuki Factory Racing was the team most affected by the lack of dry practice time because they are also still dialing in the new GSX-R1000. As a result, Hayden and Elias were no faster when they put on their qualifying tires than they were on race tires. Hayden qualified fifth and Elias, the points leader with three wins in the first four races, qualified ninth, the slowest rider on a Superbike.
“Everything is new,” said Elias. “Sprockets, gears, frame, setup, electronics, from zero. If you have two practices in bad conditions, you arrive to race day without information.
“Yamaha is not our problem. Our problem is inside. The enemy is starting from zero every weekend.”
Elias made up for his qualifying position in spectacular fashion, however. Using his position on the inside of the third row, he burst off the line and moved into third by the time the pack reached turn one. Elias later admitted he wasn’t sure he was going to get slowed down in time to make turn one, but he not only did pull off a pass of six riders, but on lap two he also took the lead.
Behind him, the two Monster Energy/Yamalube/Yamaha Factory Racing riders were making uncharacteristic mistakes. First, defending champion Cameron Beaubier ran off the track at turn one. After two days of rain, the grassy areas off the asphalt were nearly a swamp, but Beaubier kept his Yamaha YZF-R1 upright and rejoined the race, though down in 16th place. Then, a few laps later, his teammate, Josh Hayes, ran off track. Hayes’ off was scary for a minute because his trajectory put him on a downhill grassy slope heading right back onto the racing line. Somehow, he didn’t crash but did slow down enough to avoid shooting back onto the track and into the path of the pack. He rejoined in 12th.
At the front, Elias, Hayden and HelmetSounds.com/Western Services/Meen Yamaha rider Josh Herrin swapped the lead. After the race, Hayden was critical of Herrin’s racecraft.
“If he would just settle down,” Hayden said. “You don’t go and dive-bomb everybody.
“I was hoping he would do that to the next guy and I would get away. Whenever I would pass him I would try to put together the next four corners really good.”
Hayden did just that and with 10 laps to go he had built a 1.4-second lead over Herrin and Elias.
Meanwhile, the Yamaha riders were coming. First Beaubier and then Hayes set the fastest laps of the race, gradually lowering the times until Beaubier ran a 1:25.080 on the next-to-last lap.
With five laps to go, Herrin made one of the pass attempts the other riders criticized him for, trying to get inside Elias. Contact sent both bikes skittering into the muddy grass and out of second and third place. Herrin jumped up and apologized to Elias in the grass, but the damage was done.
By the time I talked to Elias an hour after the race, he was philosophical and ready to move on.
“That was the most risky point of the track,” Elias said of Herrin’s pass attempt. “But tomorrow we have a race and we don’t have time to think about it. We cannot control the others, like Herrin.”
The crashes and their blistering pace put Beaubier and Hayes back into second and third, giving two guys who could have easily finished with no points a date with the podium ceremony. Until the last corner, that is. That’s when Fong surprised Hayes to steal the final podium spot despite being supposedly outgunned on a Superstock 1000 bike in amongst the Superbikes.
MotoAmerica Motul Superbike/
Bazzazz Superstock 1000 standings
“My bike is getting such a good drive off the last corner and I think Josh had a little spin up out of there,” Fong said. “He might have hit the water or something. The water was coming across the track. I got a pretty good run on him and I got by him at the start-finish line.”
Meanwhile, Beaubier was thankful for a second-place finish that improved his position in the standings on a day that could have been disastrous. Beaubier said his off-track excursion was his own fault, and then he focused on salvaging what points he could. He never imagined getting 20 of them.
“I just rode my heart out, man,” he said of his comeback effort. “I feel like a ride like that is the way you win championships but a mistake like that is the way you lose them. So all in all, I’m happy to be up here.”
Supersport and Superstock 600
In the Supersport class, most of the excitement took place in turn one on the first two laps.
In what is likely to be a season-long pattern, three riders — Monster Energy/Yamalube/Y.E.S./Graves/Yamaha teammates J.D. Beach and defending champion Garrett Gerloff, and M4 ECSTAR Suzuki's Valentin Debise — are the class of the field, and the three lined up on the front row for Saturday's race.
On lap one, Gerloff, Debise and Team H35's Benny Solis nearly tangled in turn one. A lap later, Gerloff made a double-draft pass on Beach and Debise down the front straight to move from third to first going into turn one, but contact with Debise forced the French rider to run off the track and into the muddy grass. The bike tumbled, huring its fairing and gas tank in opposite directions.
The crash dropped Debise from first to third in the Supersport class, now 21 points behind Gerloff.
With Debise out, Gerloff and Beach settled the race between themselves, with Gerloff eventually able to open a gap. Solis finished a distant third, nearly 50 seconds back.
Team MG55's Michael Gilbert had perhaps the most uneventful race of the day, winning Superstock 600 by six seconds over a tight three-way battle for second. The win gave Gilbert a share of the points lead in Superstock 600 with Nick McFadden.
With the rain having moved out, Sunday looks like an even better day for racing at Virginia International Raceway.