No one wanted to race last weekend more than Kenny Coolbeth.
The Harley-Davidson/Screamin' Eagle factory rider broke through with his first win in more than a year in the previous Canterbury Mile in Minnesota and was hoping to ride that momentum into Knoxville, Iowa. But with the weather-forced cancellation of the race, Coolbeth now has to wait a few weeks to know whether the magic that earned him the Grand National Twins title three years running, from 2006 through 2008, as well as the Grand National Singles title in 2007, is back.
Coolbeth went from the 2009 Indy Mile to this year's Minnesota mile without a win, an eternity for a rider whose 25 wins puts him ninth on the all-times dirt track wins list between two guys named Merkel and Mann.
Of those 25 wins, 18 have come on half-miles and seven on miles, including the last three. The win in Canterbury wasn't flag-to-flag, as he'd have wanted, but with a steady march through the field that put him out front with plenty of time to stretch his lead over Jake Johnson to over three seconds. But when he was asked how he did it, he simply didn't know.
"You got me, man," he said with a laugh during a phone call from Iowa. "It's just a little bit of everything. We needed some luck. Everybody's fast this year. It's tough. It's been like almost a year since I've won, so I didn't know it was coming. It wasn't because of me, it wasn't because of the bike. It was just racing. A lot of people were fast this year, so it just took us that much longer."
Coolbeth believes that "everybody's really stepped it up. Everybody that goes out there is fast," he said. Joe Kopp has wins on both a Ducati and a Harley-Davidson XR750. Bryan Smith won twice on a Kawasaki. Stevie Bonsey got his breakthrough win. And TT's and short tracks have never been Coolbeth's strong suits. "It's everybody really. Plus the points system that they have for the championship is kinda wacky, with the Dash for Cash, they award points for that also." The winner gets five points, with second getting four, third three, etc. "So we're kinda behind in that. I'm a long run deal, I'm not a sprinter, so the dash is only four laps. I just don't seem to get up to speed."
That was clearly the case in Minnesota, when he made the pass of Zanotti Racing's Jake Johnson for the lead on the 15th of 25 laps. But it wasn't intentional.
"I was planning on trying to get the holeshot and taking off. That's my plan every time," he said. "That's just the way it ended. It's tough for me to get in the first laps as fast as I can and concentrate on the last 20 laps. I concentrate on the last ten laps, for some reason. I don't know why."
There were no omens, nothing to suggest that the drought would end that night. "No, I had no clue. I don't know any of that until it happens," Coolbeth said. "Like I said, guys are on top right now, they've got stuff figured out with their equipment, plus everybody wants to win. We've all got one goal when we go there, to win. There's only one ‘W' there to pick up and hopefully we can win these last two races." That was before the rain out.
Coolbeth is the lone factory rider on the Harley-Davidson/Screamin' Eagle team and there have been some murmurings that he hasn't been getting the same level of support. He insists nothing's changed.
"Everything's good," he said. "I'm the only guy on the team. And they've been working hard, also, trying to make things better and working hard. Like I said, it's not because of the bike or because of me. It's just one of them things, it's racing."
With Ducati winning and Kawasaki winning and KTM, Triumph, and Suzuki in the mix, the natural question is whether Harley will go to a more production-based engine? The XR750 is the most dominant motorcycle of any kind in the history of motorcycle racing, but it's more expensive to build and maintain than the production bikes.
"You know what, I have no clue. I haven't heard anything about it," Coolbeth said when asked if he might be running a modified street engine at some point. "I'm sure Harley-Davidson will be involved in dirt tracking for quite a while still. If you ask me, they are dirt track. They've made dirt track for what it is. They've been a huge supporter and hopefully everything's the same next year."
The question of whether he'll be back in 2011 has yet to be answered, but he's hopeful it will be "pretty soon. It's kind of nerve-wracking. I know what's going on, but I kind of understand their point also. They've got to figure out a bunch of stuff. Hopefully it all works out. They've been good to me and I'm looking forward to staying with them."