It was the strangest of times, it was the most predictable of times. It was a weekend of triumphs and a weekend of disasters and 0.002-second photo finishes and double winners. It was... well, it was a MotoAmerica weekend of racing like no one has ever seen before.
MotoAmerica became the first professional motorcycle series to start racing this weekend, getting a one-day headstart on Monster Energy Supercross, with races at Road America that were closed to fans. In the four classes that ran two races, the same rider won both Saturday and Sunday. In the HONOS Superbike class, four-time champion Cameron Beaubier, riding for the Monster Energy Attack Performance Yamaha team this year, dominated by leading every practice session, setting a new track record, winning pole and winning both races, by 7.800 seconds on Saturday and 13.430 seconds on Sunday. In past years, Beaubier has been more likely to start off weak and win championships by finishing the season strong. Spotting him an early points lead gives no encouragement to his competitors.
While Beaubier's wins were not exacting shocking news, everything else about the weekend felt strange, starting with the empty hillsides around the four-mile track, which usually draws one of the largest crowds MotoAmerica sees all year. People entering the track were checked for a fever and everyone had to fill out a survey in advance, stating whether they had been exposed to the virus or had shown symptoms. Everyone was required to wear a mask in the pits, where keeping a distance is basically impossible. Television interviews were conducted at a distance using boom mikes. Post-race interviews, press conferences and podium ceremonies were abridged or eliminated. It wasn't always a perfectly choreographed CDC-approved procedure, however. After one race, riders were spaced six feet apart for the post-race podium interviews but then forgot and congratulated each other by shaking hands, rendering the social distancing moot. For the most part, however, teams were willing to do whatever they had to do to get back to racing.
"I'm just really thankful to be here and that we were able to get the season started off," said Westby Racing's Mathew Scholtz, stating what many riders were saying.
What happened on the track
Knowing that a global pandemic, protests and National Guard mobilizations were erupting all weekend elsewhere only made the unusual weekend of racing under sunny skies in the woods and hills of Wisconsin seem more surreal, at least to me. But those are other topics. Here's what happened on track.
While it was a dominating weekend for Beaubier at a track he enjoys, it was a mostly disastrous start for the M4 ECSTAR Suzuki team, especially for Toni Elias, the only man who has beat Beaubier for a Superbike title in the last five years. On Saturday, the chain fell off Elias' GSX-R1000 and on Sunday he crashed on just the second lap of the race when he cut turn six a little too tight at full lean and his engine case grounded on the inside curbing. "The engine touch the ground, I lose contact with both wheels, I lose everything," said Elias. So while last year's champion left the first round with a maximum 50 points, Elias leaves with zero points.
After a fourth-place finish on Saturday, things turned worse for the other Suzuki Superbike rider, Bobby Fong. Last year's Supersport champion was at the back of a tight, three-way battle for second with Attack Performance rider Jake Gagne and Westby Racing's Mathew Scholtz. The front end of Fong's Suzuki was shaking and pushing the brake pads away from the rotors. "It happened a few laps prior and some corners I came in with no brakes and I had to pump the brakes," Fong said.
Going into turn five, he drafted past Gagne, only to find he had no brakes, and he hit Scholtz as he was pumping the brake lever and trying to stop.
"I was trying to move out of the way of where Scholtz was going and unfortunately I ended up hitting him," Fong said. "I feel bad for the Westby team and Mathew. I took him out of the race."
The crash ended a promising weekend for Scholtz, who finished second on Saturday.
The departure of Elias, Fong and Scholtz left Gagne alone in second and two unlikely riders battling for the third spot on the podium in Sunday's race. Kyle Wyman on the Inde Motorsports Ranch/KWR Ducati team and Josh Herrin, riding a BMW S 1000 RR this year for Schiebe Racing, fought back and forth for third with Herrin eventually winning the battle by 0.011 seconds.
|HONOS Superbike standings|
"It just feels good to get it up there," Herrin said of his podium finish on a new-to-him motorcycle he had almost no practice time on. "Obviously we got a little bit lucky with those guys going down but we've been doing our work."
Another Ducati V4 R finished fifth Sunday, with P.J. Jacobsen riding the same Stock 1000-spec Celtic HSBK Racing bike he used to win the Stock 1000 race on Saturday. Despite the lower spec, Jacobsen's Ducati was only a few miles per hour slower on top speed than the Superbikes.
Finishing third on Saturday and second on Sunday put Gagne second in the standings. Like so many other riders, he's adjusting to a new team and a different motorcycle and limited test time, but he said the spot on the Attack Performance team is the best opportunity he's had yet in MotoAmerica.
"100 percent," Gagne said. "I'm on a championship-winning bike and my teammate's a four-time Superbike champ."
"I got the front end feeling a lot better for me," Gagne said of the Attack Performance team's progress in tuning the bike to suit him. "And that was the main thing, just getting a better front feel for the tire. I'm just trying to find my sweet spot and we're working our way there."
"I think everybody's a little behind," Gagne added. And while that's certainly true, with so many riders on new teams or different bikes, there was clearly one guy who needed no adjustment time. Beaubier has instantly gelled with his new team at Attack Performance, working with team owner Richard Stanboli, and was setting track records all weekend.
"I'm in a good place right now," said Beaubier, who won his 39th and 40th AMA Superbike races this weekend. "Honestly, I don't think I've ever been this comfortable on a motorcycle. I'm just having pure fun on the thing."
That's not good news for the rest of the field.
The only rider nearly as dominant as Beaubier was Richie Escalante in the Supersport class. The Honos team rider out of Mexico won both races on his Kawasaki ZX-6R, in a field mostly filled with Yamaha YZF-R6s, the bike Escalante has ridden in previous years. Escalante led from start to finish on Saturday. Then he won the Sunday race despite making a mistake and running off the track on the first lap. It took him just one lap to get back to the front.
Like Beaubier, Escalante said he is in a good place, having gelled with his new Honos team and having used the time off to get himself in peak mental and physical condition. The team is bilingual, which helps with internal communication, and the switch to a Kawasaki, with help from Graves Motorsports, has suited him.
"They have given us a Kawasaki 636 that's very competitive," Escalante said. "And honestly, after years on the R6, changing to the Kawasaki ZX-6R has motivated me. It's been an extra motivation. It's a motorcycle that's a little more difficult to handle but it has a powerful motor. This is my favorite track and the straight is long, so this track is right for this motorcycle. We will see what happens when we are on tighter tracks. I think it's going to be a little difficult but we'll keep working."
Paasch, who had been racing in Great Britain, joined the Celtic HSBK Racing team at the last minute, with racing still uncertain in Europe. "I just met my crew chief on Friday morning and I met my mechanic on Thursday," Paasch said. Despite that, he finished second in both races but he was disqualified on Sunday after a post-race inspection found his Yamaha YZF-R6 was under the minimum weight.
That gave the second-place finish Sunday to another M4 ECSTAR Suzuki rider who had an up-and-down weekend. Sean Dylan Kelly, a favorite in the Supersport class, suffered a violent highside crash while in second place in Saturday's race when a gearbox problem caused him to downshift to second when he thought he was shifting into third. Despite some hard tumbling, he was able to race on Sunday.
Kevin Olmedo of Altus Motorsports finished third on Saturday and Jason Aguilar of Riderzlaw Aguilar Racing was third in Sunday's race.
Twins Cup and Liqui Moly Junior Cup: Two surprising doubles
Something happened four times this weekend at Road America that only happened once in 2019: Someone beat last year's Liqui Moly Junior Cup champion, Rocco Landers, straight-up in a MotoAmerica race.
Last year, Landers won 14 of 17 races in Junior Cup last year, and one of those losses was due to a mechanical problem and another in a race affected by weather. Landers wasn't supposed to be back in MotoAmerica this year as he made the tryout for the 2020 Red Bull Rookies Cup run in Europe. But with that racing delayed by the pandemic, he is racing stateside in both the Junior Cup and Twins Cup — at least for now, until the future of the Rookies Cup becomes clearer.
In Junior Cup, South African rider Dominic Doyle of BARTCON Racing held off Landers in a one-on-one battle both days, with Doyle winning by 0.078 seconds on Saturday and an even closer 0.007 seconds on Sunday. Both days, they finished nearly half a minute ahead of the third-place rider. On Saturday, that was Sam Lochoff of Celtic HSBK Racing. On Sunday, there was an astounding eight-rider battle for the final podium spot, with positions three through nine finishing within a second of each other. Quarterley Racing's Benjamin Gloddy got that final spot on the podium.
The two Twins Cup races also provided close finishes. On Saturday, Landers was able to pull away from pole-sitter Kaleb De Keyrel and led every lap except the last one. De Keyrel hunted him down in the final laps on his Yamaha MT-07 and used the draft perfectly to beat Landers' Suzuki SV650 to the finish line by 0.002 seconds.
Sunday's Twins Cup race was even better, with the top three finishers only 0.082 seconds apart. De Keyrel and Landers traded the lead several times while Jackson Blackmon caught up on his SV650, which benefited from an overnight engine swap by his Robem Engineering team. Landers would take the lead in the curvy sections of the track while De Keyrel would draft past on the straights and again it all came down to the final corner.
"On that last lap, last corner, I got a big slide, ran off the other side of the curbing," said Landers. That allowed De Keyrel to power past and Blackmon used the double draft to barely take second. Officially, De Keyrel finished 0.081 seconds ahead of Blackmon who was scored 0.001 seconds in front of Landers.
De Keyrel, the 1833CJKNOWS team rider from Minnesota, has now raced in three Twins Cup races — one last year and this round — and has won all three. After his win last year, he was injured in a non-MotoAmerica race and sat out the rest of the season, but in Twins Cup he is undefeated.
A second Ducati joined the MotoAmerica paddock this season as the Celtic HSBK Racing team is fielding a V4 R in the Stock 1000 class for last year's second-place Supersport finisher P.J. Jacobsen. Altus Motorsports' Cam Petersen led the Stock 1000 race from the start on his Suzuki GSX-R1000 but Jacobsen bided his time until he found the right opportunity to pass for the lead and then put in a series of fast laps to pull away to a 4.266-second win. Corey Alexander finished third on his Ride HVMC Racing Kawasaki ZX-10R. There was only one Stock 1000 race this weekend, but those bikes can also race in the HONOS Superbike class.
Petersen, from South Africa, was just one of the riders showing how international the MotoAmerica field is. On Saturday, six of the 15 podium spots went to riders from outside the United States (four from South Africa, one from Mexico, one from El Salvador).
MotoAmerica will be back at Road America June 26 through 28 for a round that will be open to fans and replaces the canceled event originally scheduled for VIRginia International Raceway.