The following is a release from GNCC Racing:
When the Japan National Cross Country Series searches for big names to compete in its largest event of the year - the AAGP at the Sugo Motocross Circuit - it looks no further than America's largest off-road series, the Can-Am Grand National Cross Country Series. The AAGP has enjoyed a strong relationship with the GNCC circuit for decades, with Americans such as Scott Summers, Randy Hawkins and Steve Hatch racing in the past. This year three more top American GNCC racers - Rodney Smith, Charlie Mullins and Jason Raines - were presented with trips to Japan.
Five-time GNCC Champion Smith is a veteran of racing and riding all over the world, including past trips to Japan to help test the latest Suzuki motorcycles. Mullins has been dubbed by many as the future of GNCC racing thanks to his advanced results at a young age, and Raines won the AAGP back in 2003.
JNCC President Masami Hoshino provided all-expenses paid trips for the three American racers, and the Japanese fans and racers at the Sugo Circuit appreciated his efforts. A riding school with the American racers on Saturday drew a huge crowd, and the race on Sunday was the largest of the six-round JNCC tour. The Japanese hosts treated their American guests with honor and respect, from packed autograph sessions to a huge media crush all weekend.
Sunday's race marked Mullins' debut with Suzuki, as the 21-year-old has signed with the FMF Suzuki Factory Off-Road team for 2008. He raced a RM-Z250, with Smith on a RM250 and Raines on a Yamaha YZ250F.
The JNCC tour closely mimmicks the GNCC Series only on a smaller scale. Over 200 riders competed on a four-mile track, which is roughly 1/3rd of the crowd and track length of the pro portion on the GNCC schedule. The race would run the full three-hour GNCC length. The course featured a lap of the Sugo circuit-which also hosts a round of the FIM World Motocross Championship GPs-as well as hills, mud and trees out in the woods.
Raines jetted out to the holeshot, using his past experience to master the classic "hand-on-helmet" start technique. Mullins cranked past him on a technical uphill and took the lead, and from there it was smooth sailing for the Ohio pilot-he pulled a sizable gap and never looked back.
"It was fun," said Mullins. "I was very impressed with the Japanese riders and the course was very good. It was very technical, which I didn't expect to see here. Everyone here has treated us very well, and it's an honor to be invited her to represent the United States in front of this crowd."
Raines had a battle on his hands from 2005 All-Japan Motocross Champion Takeshi Koikeda. Koikeda's pits drew a crowd, too, as he raced the full-works YZ450F that he competes on in the motocross series in Japan. Koikeda and Raines are friends, as the Japanese rider even picked up Raines at Narita Airport in Tokyo to bring him to the track. The friendship subsided momentarily as they battled on the track. Raines held second for most of the race, but Koikeda slipped past with three laps to go. Raines put on a strong charge on the last lap to get back to Koikeda's fender, but he couldn't execute the pass.
"I got caught sleeping there by Takesh," said Raines. "It was fun to battle with him-he has improved his endurance tremendously since the last time I raced him here. I thought he would get tired and I could pass him on that last lap, but he was very strong when we got into the ruts. Still, I had a lot of fun. I've been out injured the last two years, but as soon as I knew I would be able to compete this year I knew I would come back, this is a very beautiful country and a very fun race."
Smith finished fourth in what may be his last race. The Californian is retiring from active competition to take team advisement duties with Suzuki in 2008. "It was an honor to come and race here," said Smith. "The fans treated us with great respect, and you can see they have a real passion for off-road racing over here."
Mr. Hoshino then presented Mullins with a check for 100,000 Japanese Yen for winning the race, and the four champions showered the fans and press with champagne. They then headed to Matsushima Island for sight-seeing, followed by a trip to Tokyo. "It has been an honor to my family and the series to see the American GNCC racers compete in the AAGP," said Mr. Hoshino.
With the Americans feeling the same, expect more participation from GNCC racers next year.
The JNCC and GNCC connection continues the recent international growth of the GNCC tour. A month ago the series made a deal to air GNCC television coverage in over 55 countries through MotorsTV, and the series has garnered more international participation than ever, with European riders Juha Salminen and David Knight collecting the last three GNCC Titles.