The hype leading into the FMF Power Line Park Suzuki Grand National Cross Country event surrounded two men battling for world off-road supremacy. But after a dramatic battle, both of them came up short of the podium, and the win went to one of America's favorite off-road racers: Am Pro Yamaha veteran Barry Hawk. The World Champions, Finland's Juha Salminen and Isle of Man's David Knight, did get to battle in a rare face off between them, but Knight ended up fourth and Salminen fifth, while FMF Suzuki's Glenn Kearney and Hawk's teammate Charlie Mullins filled out the podium spots.
"It was so fun and I'm happy to win," Hawk said. "Everyone is talking about Juha versus Knight, and I don't know which one of those guys beat each other, but they ain't up here on the podium!"
Knight ended up fourth and Salminen fifth, as a few incidents held them back. While that duo was charging forward, the battle for the lead raged between several riders, leading to some of the best racing the series has seen in years. Kearney may have run the best race of all, as he led all the way until the final stretch. But he didn't realize it was the last lap, and he effectively gave the win away.
"I had a good lead, but then I got stuck on a hill and Barry caught right up to me," Kearney said. "But then, I feel like the stupidest guy here. I can't believe what I did. I got the two-lap board and my arms started cramping up a little bit, so I figured I had better save something. Barry came past me in a corner and he was really going for it and then I started thinking "Oh no, don't tell me this is the last lap!" Then we came around the last corner and I saw the checkered flag. To ride this well and then have that happen, it's devastating. It's my fault."
"Me and Glenn were back and forth," Hawk said. "There was one really bad hill. Glenn fell near the last lap, and then I got right behind him, but I fell. I heard Charlie was right behind me. Then on the last lap he just barely made the hill, but when he got slowed down at the top, I got stuck behind him and I couldn't make it. Some people had to help me up. I thought that was the race right there. But he pretty much gave it to me on the last corner coming out of the pits. I feel bad for him. I knew once I got in front there heading into that last section of woods, I had it, and I did."
Mullins, the young rookie from Ohio, held on for third.
"It seemed like I was there all day, it just seemed like I was missing just a little bit of speed to be able to catch the front-runners," Mullins said in front of a partisan crowd. "This was a real fast track and you could push really hard. I was third at the start and I felt pretty comfortable there, but then I made a few mistakes. My back brake messed up and I overshot a corner and a bunch of guys went around me. I tried putting my head down and charging and I caught up to those guys, but it seemed like after gas I just needed a little bit more speed to get back with them. I couldn't quite close the gap - I would see them but then I would make a small mistake."
And what of the highly-anticipated Knight versus Salminen battle? For the last two years the European duo has dominated the off-road scene on both continents, with Salminen winning the last two Suzuki GNCC Titles, and Knight notching two World Enduro Championships. But at this race, a few mistakes held the KTM riders back.
"I got a real good start," Knight said. "I was second behind Andrews, and he was holding me up quite I bit. So I got around him and put the hammer down to try to get away. I came into a corner and went a bit wide, so I put the brake on a little early and it stalled. I couldn't get it started and about six or seven guys went past. I tried really hard to make it up straight away. I got arm pump then. Then I stalled here and there, and sometimes I could bump start it, and then other times I would go backwards. I got splashed by someone, and I had to come change me gloves, I couldn't hold on. Then I got going again, I passed Wattsy and I passed Juha. I felt good, and then next lap I felt like I could catch those boys and win this. But then a lapper came across the trail and ran right into me. I smashed my finger, and I couldn't hold on anymore."
Salminen raced a 250 four-stroke bike for the first time, and it was a little overmatched on the wide-open circuit.
"It was not too bad, but the start was not too good," Salminen said. "I just screwed up, and I was too excited and gave it too much throttle. It's exactly the same starting as the two-stroke, but you can't give it gas. I gassed it. After that it was pretty difficult. There was a hill with some lappers and they got stuck and I got stuck. So Freddy and David and the three guys on the podium, they got away. I just did what I can. It was a pretty fast track. I like the bike, but it's not a secret, the track was fast, maybe a little too fast. That was the story of the day. It's okay, though. It's only one race."
Ohio veteran Fred Andrews got plenty of cheers when he grabbed the Racer X Holeshot and rode like the old days, leading the first half of the race. "I really wanted to try and do good, I have a lot of family here and I lot of fans," Andrews said. "I gave it my all, but I just had too many blisters on my left hand. The two lap board came out and I just couldn't hang on to the bike anymore, I was done. Congrats to Barry and Charlie, they definitely proved we're here to stay. I had a lot of fun, that big mud hole there were fans everywhere down there, and that's what makes racing fun."
Andrews has announced he will retire at the end of the season from full-time competition.
Nate Kanney, the winner of the previous GNCC at Unadilla, finished a solid sixth, not far off of Knight and Salminen. Shane Watts was also among the leaders early, and he finished seventh. Eighth went to KTM's Robbie Jenks, with Andrews ninth and Jimmy Jarrett tenth.
The race was taped for an airing on the Versus Network (formerly OLN). The shows air weekly on Saturdays and Wednesdays at 3:00 p.m.
The AMA-sanctioned Suzuki Grand National Cross Country series is America's premier off-road racing series. The 13-round series is produced exclusively by Racer Productions. Cross-country racing is one of the most physically demanding sports in the world. The nearly three-hour long GNCC races lead as many as 1800 riders through tracks ranging from eight to twelve miles in length. With varied terrain including hills, woods, mud, dirt, rocks and motocross sections, GNCC events are tests of both survival and speed. GNCC featured sponsors include Parts Unlimited, Moose, Maxxis, Pirelli, Wiseco, Klotz, FMF, ITP and Tire Balls, and riders compete for over $3 million in series prizes and contingency money. Associate sponsors include Moose Utility Division, Scott, Acerbis, Alpinestars, Cometic, Outerwears, Twin Air, Polisport Plastics, Thor, Motion Pro, Hyper Wheels, Elka Suspension, MotoTee's, Weekend Warrior, Race Tools, Powersports GrafX, EK Chain and Laeger's. Media Sponsors include Dirt Rider Magazine, ATV Sport Magazine, www.ATVRiders.com and Racer X Illustrated. For more information log on to www.GNCCRacing.com.