A champ and two Superbike rookies filled the podium in the opening race of the MotoAmerica Motul Superbike series at Road Atlanta Saturday while chaos behind them scrambled the expected standings. Sunday could be even more eventful.
Yoshimura Suzuki Factory Racing rider Toni Elias got his title defense off to a perfect start with a win while Yamalube/Westby Racing's Mathew Scholtz finished second, hounding Elias the first half of the race — and even leading for a couple of corners — before fading a few seconds back. Monster Energy/Yamalube/Factory Yamaha racer Garrett Gerloff finished third in his first race in the Superbike class.
Elias got one of his typically great starts and led the field from the first lap, pulling polesitter Scholtz with him. The chaos began early, as two-time champion Cameron Beaubier on the other factory Yamaha crashed on the first lap. Moments later, Genuine Broaster Chicken Honda rider Cameron Petersen also crashed. While Beaubier was able to get back in the race, Petersen was out. Though he appeared to be uninjured, the last report I had was that Petersen was taken for a medical checkup.
The next title contender to fall was Roger Hayden on the other Yoshimura Suzuki.
"I just lost the front end," Hayden said later. "I never had any warnings in that corner all weekend but I was going a little bit faster than I've been all weekend, too. So either too much speed or too much front brake, one or the other. Rider mistake."
Elias and Scholtz pulled a small gap, with Elias slapping the tail of his GSX-R1000 to try to encourage Scholtz to follow him so they could both pull away from Gerloff. Scholtz did take one shot at Elias, surprising the champ with a pass on lap five, but he only held the lead for a few corners. Though Scholtz would end the race with the fastest lap, Elias was able to pull away a few fractions of a second from the mid-point on.
"Around lap 14 or 15 I really started pushing the front and had a few close moments, so I settled for what we had," said Scholtz. "I couldn't keep that sort of pace up. One lap I completely closed the front and I almost fell off the side of the bike. It got really sketchy toward the end."
Elias said new parts for the Suzuki that came after the pre-season test at Barber Motorsports Park gave him the final edge he needed. "I knew we were very strong but I was insecure about these guys' pace," said Elias.
Gerloff admitted he had a few nerves in his first Superbike race, but in the end he rode a mature and strategic ride, despite a near tankslapper early on.
"You probably saw that moment I had on the first lap," Gerloff said. "I had some fresh brakes and man were they fresh!"
Behind Gerloff came Bobby Fong, Jake Lewis, Kyle Wyman, Danny Eslick and David Anthony. Beaubier got by Josh Herrin on the next-to-last lap to finish ninth and salvage seven points. It's been a long time since Herrin was so happy with a 10th-place finish.
A Herrin-raising weekend
For the Attack Performance/Herrin Compound/Yamaha team, this was always destined to be a hectic weekend. The deal came together late and the Yamaha YZF-R1 Superbike was not ready for pre-season testing. Things got worse when the team transporter broke down in Louisiana on the way to Georgia from the West Coast.
Herrin had a loaner YZF-R1S from Yamaha he was using as a street bike. He threw it in the back of his truck and drove to the track, where the team worked all Friday evening putting it into race trim: everything from removing headlights to adding borrowed suspension parts. The bike took to the track for the first time in a Saturday morning practice session with a black fairing that didn't match the stock red front fender and tail piece and a "2" painted on the front by hand with a borrowed can of spray paint.
In the end, Herrin finished 10th, last rider on the lead lap, 1:09.741 behind Elias on a bike that was visibly slower down the back straight and three seconds a lap off the leaders' pace.
"When I found out the truck wasn't going to be able to make it, we're faced with a couple of different options," Herrin said. "We can try to find a bike to ride, but I don't really like borrowing stuff, especially a complete bike. We could sit out the weekend or try to get some points. I pitched the idea of riding my own bike. They said it'd take a lot of work but they could do it.
"It turned out this has been one of the funnest weekends I've had in a long time. My mom said, 'It feels like you're 15 again.' My dad's here, my mom's here, my friends are here, just working on the bike together under the little tent. It's been cool and I told everybody earlier I'll be so happy if I can get top 10 and we ended up 10th. I got six points. That's the whole reason we rode it. To get points."
While Saturday's race put two of the expected title contenders in a hole, Sunday's race has the prospect of shaking up the order again. The forecast calls for rain most of the day with stronger thunderstorms rolling through about race time.
The two riders who dominated Saturday's race had different reactions to the prospect of a wet race on Sunday. Elias was hesitant. Scholtz stopped just short of saying "bring it on."
Rain arguably cost Elias a shot at the title in 2016, when he finished far back in the field in two rainy races at New Jersey Motorsports Park. That was on the old version of the GSX-R1000, however.
"Rain is difficult. Anything can happen, but I will try to stay on the bike," said Elias.
By comparison, Scholtz finished last year with a win in wet conditions at Barber, beating the Superbikes while riding a Superstock 1000 bike.
"I'm really confident," said Scholtz. "The rain brings out some of my best riding so I'm looking forward to it."
Rain could also help Herrin, erasing some of the disadvantage of having an underpowered street bike.
"We'll put the stock shocks back on probably because I like it a little softer in the rain," Herrin said. "With less power, it could end up being a really good bike to be on."
Supersport: Another Beach day
Pre-season favorite J.D. Beach qualified on pole and led every lap of the first Supersport race of the year, but it wasn't nearly as easy or uneventful as that sounds.
With Valentin Debise out with injury, the racer pushing Beach hardest was Hayden Gillim, both of them on Yamaha YZF-R6s. Gillim got a bad start from his second-place qualifying position and that cost him on the second lap when Braedon Ortt crashed in front of him, taking them both out. Then Gillim's luck got better as Michael Gilbert's got worse. Gilbert crashed in turn five on the fourth lap, bringing out a red flag.
The restart gave Gillim a second chance. His second start was a little better. Gillim was able to catch up to Beach and hassle him all the way to the end, but Beach held on for a 0.223-second win.
"My starts haven't been too good. Burned up a few clutches. So I just had to roll off the line and hope I didn't get passed by too many guys," said Gillim, riding this year for the Rickdiculous Racing team. "Got right up on him but just couldn't do anything. He was coming out of the corners really well and wasn't making any mistakes going in, so I didn't have any openings really. Maybe the last lap going into [turn] 10A, but I knew if I tried that we were both going off the track or one of us was going down."
Cory West, who has plenty of experience at Road Atlanta but no full-time ride, filled in for Debise and finished third, just over six seconds back. What's next for the replacement rider?
"Hope somebody calls me and wants me to go racing again," he said.
LiquiMoly Junior Cup debuts
The Junior Cup replaced the KTM RC 390 Cup for 2018 but the first podium of the year was still two-thirds orange. Pole-sitter Alex Dumas on the KTM Orange Brigade/JP43 Training KTM RC 390 led the entire race, and only Ashton Yates on his Yates Racing Yamaha YZF-R3 could stick with him. They were the only riders who could drop into the 1:43 lap range, but late in the race Dumas upped the pace and turned some 1:42 laps to pull away to a 5.3-second win. Sean Ungvarsky finished third on the Ghilliman Racing KTM RC 390.
"I think in the last turn a few times I went out in the gravel, but you gotta do what you gotta do," said Yates. "I was trying my best to hang with Alex."
Jamie Astudillo won a furious battle among half a dozen riders for the fourth spot on her Quarterly Racing/On Track Development Kawasaki Ninja 400, earning the former motocrosser the title of the next up-and-coming female roadracer to keep an eye on.
Twins Cup: Small field, smaller margin of victory
The first ever twins cup saw a small field consisting entirely of Suzuki SV650s and Yamaha MT-07s and two veterans contested the victory. Chris Parrish on a Suzuki beat Jason Madama on a Yamaha to the finish line by just 0.057 seconds, with Curtis Murray finishing third on another Suzuki.
"I was watching him," Parrish said of the close fight with Madama. "We're in our 40s and the last couple of laps I was getting tired and my fingers were going numb and I was starting to make mistakes." Parrish estimated his Suzuki was down 12 horsepower to the MT-07, "But I knew what I needed to do to stay ahead of him and I got it done."
Check back for full coverage of Sunday's racing at Road Atlanta.