The 33-year-old veteran looked more like a 23-year-old version of himself all night long, posting the fastest scratch qualifying heat and the fastest regular heat times as he won both, then breaking away from a talent-laden field of milers in the 25-lap main event to win the race by 1.267 seconds. Atherton led every lap but the first one, and he was well clear of second place just six laps into the race. No question about it, Atherton flat owned ‘em.
“You know, I was on that same motorcycle when I thought I had it won here in ’02,” Atherton said after the race. “We set the same kind of pace all day long like that, where we were a lot faster than everyone, but that time we blistered the tire. We just had a good motorcycle all day, and this track suited my style. Guys like Springer and Parker and me, we’re old school. We like to get it sideways.”
Atherton did just that as he kept the throttle pegged and buzzed around the high line like he was riding a cushion. His tire eventually did start to go away late in the race, and he began to yield ground to the second-place draft, but he still had an honest 35 lengths on them when he crossed under AMA starter Poochie Cox’s checkered flag.
“A win like this is a big deal for us heading into the winter,” Atherton said. “I feel like I can still run with any of these guys, but we need more financial backing. All the mechanical failures we had this year really hurt us.”
The battle for the remaining podium spots was one of the most furious on a mile track this season, involving seven riders, including Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson’s Rich King, Quality Checked Ceritified Pre-owned Ford Racing’s Chris Carr, Bartels’ Harley-Davidson/Corbin’s Jay Springsteen, Coziahr Harley-Davidson/National Cycle’s Johnny Murphree, The KTM/Jones Powersports duo of Kenny Coolbeth and Joe Kopp, and Doc’s Harley-Davidson KK Motorcycle Supply’s Bryan Smith. King, Carr and Murphree did most of the mixing at the front of this group as the laps wore on, and it seemed pretty clear that the second- and third-place honors would be decided among the three. In the end, King led the trio to the line, with Carr coming just short of completing the slingshot pass to take the spot away from the factory Harley rider. Springsteen surprised Murphree with a draft pass for fourth. Murphree was fifth, followed by Coolbeth, Smith and Kopp. Then there was a gap back to SuperTrapp/Moroney’s Cycles’ Mike Hacker, who ran ninth after battling severe traction problems. Bartels’ Harley-Davidson/Custom Chrome’s Shaun Russell completed the top 10.
Also of note was the first Grand National main event start of an Aprilia-powered motorcycle. Dirt tracker-turned-road racer Larry Pegram won his semi aboard the Lloyd Racing-built Aprilia Mille, and he went on to finish a solid 12th aboard the machine in the main event.
Du Quoin State Fairgrounds
Du Quoin, Illinois
Results: September 25, 2004 (Round 17)
GRAND NATIONAL (25 laps; 18 riders): 1. Kevin Atherton (H-D); 2. Rich King (H-D); 3. Chris Carr (H-D); 4. Jay Springsteen (H-D); 5. Johnny Murphree (H-D); 6. Kenny Coolbeth (H-D); 7. Bryan Smith (H-D); 8. Joe Kopp (H-D); 9. Mike Hacker (H-D); 10. Shaun Russell (H-D); 11. Willie McCoy (H-D); 12. Larry Pegram (Apr); 13. Nick Cummings (H-D); 14. Terry Poovey (H-D); 15. Geo Roeder II (H-D); 16. Jared Mees (H-D); 17. Jake Johnson (H-D); 18. Rob Pearson (H-D).
Time: 14 min., 45 sec.
Margin of victory: 1.267 sec.
AMA PROGRESSIVE INSURANCE FLAT TRACK CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES POINTS STANDINGS (After 17 of 17 rounds): 1. Chris Carr (298/6 wins); 2. Joe Kopp (260/2 wins); 3. Kenny Coolbeth (234/1 wins); 4. Johnny Murphree (234/1 win); 5. Jake Johnson (165/1 win); 6. J.R. Schnabel (154/3 wins); 7. Mike Hacker (131); 8. Willie McCoy (127); 9. (TIE) Shaun Russell (118)/Jared Mees (118); 11. Bryan Smith (95); 12. Rich King (91/1 win); 13. Rob Pearson (88); 14. Geo Roeder II (87); 15. Jay Springsteen (81); 16. Bryan Bigelow (79); 17. Kevin Atherton (77/1 win); 18. Terry Poovey (58); 19. Henry Wiles (56/1 win); 20. (TIE) Paul Lynch (50)/Chris Hart (50).