Josh Strang, the 2010 Can-Am Grand National Cross Country Champion, already knows that defending a championship may be harder than winning one. The FMF Makita Suzuki rider can look to 2009 GNCC Champion Paul Whibley for proof. While Whibs struggled through much of 2010, Strang went to another level and claimed his first major off-road championship.
The opener of the 2011 Can-Am GNCC tour, the Moose Racing Westgate River Ranch GNCC in River Ranch, Florida, takes place next Tuesday, March 8. Strang understands the challenges, but the 22-year-old Australian plans on facing them head on - with even more fitness and speed than last year. He'll need it, because the competition is stacked.
His closest pursuer in 2010, Charlie Mullins, is back racing for a new team this year. The rejuvenated FMF KTM factory team signed Mullins in an effort to gain back the GNCC Title it held from 2005 through 2008. Mullins led most of last year's River Ranch event before sucking water into his bike's engine, which means he'll be out to avenge that next week. He will ride a 450 XC-F, with two of the strongest young talents serving as KTM teammates. Kailub Russell graduates to the premiere XC1 class after back-to-back XC2 Lites Championships. And Corey Buttrick hopes to build on a solid 2010 rookie campaign that saw him win a race and take fourth in the series. Both Russell and Buttrick will race the new 350 XC-F.
Then there is Whibley, anchoring the Am-Pro Yamaha outfit. After a slow transition to Yamaha last year, Whibley hopped on a YZ450F over the summer and showed up with new-found speed, winning the last two races overall. No one outworks the New Zealand veteran, and he hopes to carry his momentum over from last season. His always-fast teammate Thad DuVall, the 2008 XC2 Lites Champion, hopes to develop the consistency needed to challenge Strang. The speed is already there.
Suzuki's Josh Strang will attempt to defend his 2010 title this year
And even Strang's Suzuki squad has strengthened it ranks, adding Arkansas' Josh Weisenfels to the roster to pursue the XC2 Title on an RM-Z250. There, he will face FAR Husqvarna's Jason Thomas in an expected duel for the Lites title, with talented KTM riders Jesse Robinson and Steward Baylor also in the mix.
Honda is getting into pursuit of the GNCC Title for the first time since Scott Summers' XR600 heydays in the 1990s. The GEICO JG Off-Road squad, which won the 2009 GNCC Title with Whibley, will ride with Honda backing. Veteran Jimmy Jarrett, who won last year's Unadilla GNCC, will race the XC1 class with Scott Watkins fighting for the XC2 title.
Beta debuts a factory effort as well, signing last year's fifth-overall XC1 rider, Chris Bach, to ride their factory machine. With Suzuki, Yamaha, KTM, Honda, Husky and Beta competing for GNCC wins and titles, the field is one of the strongest ever assembled.
The XC1 and XC2 classes will race for three hours on a demanding, whooped-out sand track at the Westgate River Ranch. The race begins at 1 p.m. on Tuesday, March 8, fitting into the Daytona Bike Week schedule. Classes are also available for a full roster of amateur riders.
Spectator passes run $20 for Saturday and Sunday tickets, and $20 for a Monday and Tuesday ticket. Children five and under are admitted free. On both Sunday and Tuesday, youth riders race at 8 a.m., beginner riders race at 10 a.m., and the top amateurs and the pros race at 1 p.m.
The track is located at the Westgate River Ranch in Lake Wales, Fla. From U.S. 27, go south to S.R. 60 (Lake Wales Exit), make a left and head east for approximately 25 miles. River Ranch is on the right.
The 2011 Can-Am Grand National Cross Country Series kicks off this weekend, in conjunction with Daytona Bike Week. Bike practice will take place on Monday and racing on Tuesday. For more information, go to www.gnccracing.com.