A professional motorcycle racer's career is a fragile thing and it's easy to go from champion to nothing. Toni Elias completed the round trip Saturday, going from 2010 Moto2 world champion to an out-of-work rider with "shit" for prospects to 2017 MotoAmerica Motul Superbike champion.
The win at New Jersey Motorsports Park by 0.039 seconds over his Yoshimura Suzuki teammate, Roger Hayden — the only man with a theoretical chance of denying him the title — was something Elias couldn't have predicted two years ago. While the Moto2 title on the world stage was sweet because it was his first championship, this one is more special for being so unexpected.
"After that [Moto2 championship], everything started to go in a bad way," Elias said. "I was in the bottom and to come back in this way is amazing. The taste is better. It is different but it is better because it is more than a championship. It is coming [back] from shit. I decided to quit between 500 and 600 days ago. And look at how the situation can change, no? Just a phone call."
"When I was at home, I had a lot of time to think, what was wrong, what was my mistake, what was not my mistake. I was retired but I was training, keeping in shape," Elias said. "I think, OK, if I have another opportunity, it will be different. Another opportunity arrived."
The win gave Elias an 84-point lead with three races remaining — race two at NJMP Sunday and the final round at Barber Motorsports Park next weekend — leaving only 75 points up for grabs. If Hayden had been able to pass Elias for the win, he would have prolonged the title fight, at least mathematically.
"I wanted to make Toni at least wait another day," said Hayden. "As a competitor, you don't want him to wrap it up this early.
"I'm somewhat happy because of Suzuki first and second in the championship. I'm happy for the team because all those guys work hard and they put a lot of faith in us and we've been getting beat pretty bad the last few years. It's been a while for those guys to be kind of top dog of the year."
This season's results bring back some of the old glory for Yoshimura Suzuki Racing, which dominated the series a decade ago. The team's last title was won by Mat Mladin in 2009 and the last one-two finish was by Ben Spies and Mladin in 2008.
In some ways, Saturday's race was not as close as the final margin suggests. With defending champion Cameron Beaubier out due to injury at the last round, it was a predictable trio at the front. Monster Energy/Yamalube/Yamaha Factory Racing rider Josh Hayes took the lead early, with the two Yoshimura Suzuki riders close behind and the three soon gapped the rest of the field. Elias passed Hayes for the lead a third of the way into the race. Hayes made a few attempts to retake the lead, but he wasn't able to pull off the moves and only lost ground as a result, with Hayden moving into second place when Hayes had a moment on lap 18.
Hayden said he had problems with the feedback from the front end of his motorcycle early in the race, but as everyone's tires wore out, the difference was less and he was able to stay ahead of Hayes and challenge Elias. NJMP offers few good passing options, however, and Hayden's attempt on the last corner came up a fraction of a second short.
What followed was a raucous victory celebration, with Elias doing a lap carrying a large U.S. flag and a massive burnout in the winner's circle. Elias has made clear that he has enjoyed living and racing in the United States, and the flag-waving looked a lot like a thank you.
"This paddock, since I arrived, treat me like a family," Elias said. He also celebrated the title with his real family, with his mother and sister hugging him in the winner's circle. His sister has accompanied him at many of the MotoAmerica races for support.
There was also a serious side to the celebration. Elias displayed a plate that listed four riders who have lost their lives: Spanish racers Dani Rivas and Bernat Martínez who died at a MotoAmerica race at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in 2015; Nicky Hayden, who died this year; and 13-time (or, as he superstitiously insisted, 12+1-time) world champion Angel Nieto.
Other races, other battles
Behind the top three in Superbike, Genuine Broaster Chicken Honda's Jake Gagne had a great race-long battle with Josh Herrin, who was filling in for Beaubier on the other factory Yamaha. With his usual loose and exciting riding style, Gagne was able to hold off Herrin's many passing attempts until the last lap, when Herrin got by him to finish fourth. Kyle Wyman of YCRS/Cambr/KWR put in a strong race to continue what has been a solid weekend so far for him, finishing sixth.
TOBC Racing's Danny Eslick got his first win of the year in the Bazzazz Superstock 1000 class. M4 ECSTAR Suzuki's Jake Lewis finished second to move into second place in the standings behind Yamalube/Westby Racing's Mathew Scholtz, who finished third in the race and has a 60-point lead going into Sunday.
In the Supersport class, Monster Energy/Yamalube/Y.E.S./Graves/Yamaha rider Garrett Gerloff extended his dominating run with his sixth straight win, finishing 10.611 seconds ahead of M4 ECSTAR Suzuki's Valentin Debise and fellow Yamaha rider J.D. Beach. Gerloff now has a 41-point lead with three races left.
Meanwhile, the two closest of the remaining MotoAmerica titles got even closer. In Superstock 600, Michael Gilbert of Team MG55 won his fourth race of the year and closed to just five points behind Jason Aguilar of RiderzLaw/Aguilar Racing. And in the KTM RC Cup Championship, points leader Benjamin Smith crashed and 15-year-old Alex Dumas won his third straight race to close to within four points of Smith.