The last time Roger Hayden was at the Pittsburgh International Race Complex was the worst time of his life.
The MotoAmerica test in May at the new track coincided with the bicycle crash in Italy that took the life of his brother, Nicky. There was no way that coming back to PIRC was going to feel like just another race.
“It was probably one of the toughest weekends,” said Hayden. “I was talking to Toni [Elias] about it in the truck the other day. I love the track and everything but this is where everything happened and, I don’t know, I just didn’t have the greatest vibe going in. But we’ve just got to be professional and shake that off.”
After a third-place on Saturday, Hayden’s Yoshimura Suzuki team made some changes to the setup on his GSX-R1000 for Sunday that he said helped him in the areas of the track where he had been weakest. With a good start in Sunday’s race, he converted his pole position into a 2.1-second lead by the third lap and a 3.3-second advantage by the fifth lap, which was when Saturday winner Cameron Beaubier finally was able to push his way past Elias on the other Yoshimura Suzuki and move into second place.
As Beaubier set off after Hayden, Elias was fading. The motorcycle did not have enough rear grip, and he tried adjusting the electronics on the fly, but the situation didn’t improve and he fell back to fourth behind Josh Hayes.
“All I could do was try to protect my position against Cameron and Josh, but it was impossible,” Elias said. “I tried to follow them but I didn’t have the rhythm. Jake Lewis was coming, [Mathew] Scholtz, Bobby Fong and I was thinking OK, I will finish seventh. But sometimes the luck is in your side.”
That luck for Elias was bad luck for Cycle World Suzuki rider Hayden Gillim, who suffered a scary crash in turn one at the start of lap 11. Gillim slid through the grass, his body flung into a wall of tires placed in front of a guardrail, while his bike flipped and catapulted over the guardrail. Gillim was eventually able to climb into the ambulance under his own power, but the red flag was waved to attend to him.
That red flag changed the outcome of the race in more ways than one.
The stoppage gave the Yoshimura Suzuki team time to look over Elias’ bike, but they could find nothing wrong that would explain his grip problems. In the end, they added preload to his front suspension, which took away a little stability but gave him enough additional rear grip to race at the front.
On the restart, Hayden once again pulled away from the field with Elias in second and Beaubier again trying to pass Elias. Beaubier pulled off the pass, but when he twisted the throttle his Yamaha YZF-R1 slewed sideways and he nearly high-sided. Beaubier avoided the crash but pulled off the track and slumped over his motorcycle. The tank-slapper was so violent it dislocated his shoulder, according to a Yamaha statement. The Monster Energy/Yamalube/Yamaha Factory Racing rider was taken to the hospital for treatment and was later released.
Beaubier’s withdrawal allowed Yoshimura Suzuki to record another one-two finish, but for just the second time this year, Hayden was the winner. On the victory lap, he stopped and leaned his bike against the guardrail in front of the hillside filled with fans, unzipped his leathers and revealed the “69” shirt underneath in honor of his brother.
“I really wanted to win,” Hayden said. “I’m just glad for my family, my mom, dad, brother and sisters, everybody to have something to cheer about.”
“I am so happy for Roger,” Elias said during a podium ceremony that was more emotional than usual. “He is a good guy and a good teammate.”
Toni Elias, champion elect
If the Sunday Superbike race provided unexpected plot twists and a result that not everyone expected, the other races played out according to the most likely scripts. In the Bazzazz Superstock 1000 race, Yamalube/Westby Racing’s Mathew Scholtz won to extend his points lead to 64. He now has 15 podium finishes in 16 races. In Supersport, Garrett Gerloff put in another machine-like performance for the win and the podium was exactly the same as Saturday’s. And in Superstock 600, Jason Aguilar returned to the winner’s circle and opened up a 17-point lead over Michael Gilbert.
The Motul Superbike championship is looking more and more like it has Toni Elias’ name written on it, for three reasons: Elias’ consistency, finishing first or second in every race except for one crash that was no fault of his own; Hayden’s double DNF at the previous round at Sonoma Raceway; and Beaubier’s DNF after the red flag at PIRC. Hayden’s win moved him back into second place, but he is 79 points behind with four races (100 points) remaining. Beaubier is now 85 points behind.
Racing resumes in two weeks at New Jersey Motorsports Park and the final round is at Barber Motorsports Park on September 15-17.