It wasn’t easy, but that might make the victory at the Tire Balls Spartan GNCC feel even sweeter for KTM’s defending Suzuki Grand National Cross Country Champion Juha Salminen. The 10-time World Enduro Champion started nearly dead last and had to fight his way to the front on a muddy track, and when he got there, Am Pro Yamaha teammates Charlie Mullins and Barry Hawk gave him a huge challenge. All three came charging toward the finish line at the same time, but Juha held his ground and took the win in the closest race of the year.
“It was a good race, it was probably the best race we had all year,” said the Finnish-born Salminen. “I was sure we would have the challenge this year, but it looks like I’m ready for the challenge. From the start I was dead last. I had to do a lot of work in the first two laps to pass all of those guys. It was hard. I had to use a lot of energy. I’m satisfied.”
Mullins, the 20-year-old pro rookie who lives just over the Ohio state line, nearly pulled off the first GNCC win of his career, as Salminen was right in front of him as the checkered flag came out. “It was fun, we went back and forth,” said Mullins. “I wasn’t as nervous on the last lap. I was trying to stay calm. I had a couple of spots picked out. There were some uphills and stuff, but it was hard to pass. There was a lot of single track. I tried, but Juha rode a great race. I just want to thank the fans. I had a lot of fans out here and they really helped keep me motivated today.”
Right behind Mullins came Hawk, who had won the previous GNCC in Ohio. “I’m sure this makes it good for the spectators and TV and stuff, but I’m not happy with third,” said Hawk. “I got a pretty good start and I was out there battling with Mullins. It seemed like I was a little faster in the tight stuff, but when we would get to the open stuff he was faster. I wanted to get ahead of him in the tight stuff so we could hold that lead over Juha. But he caught us. Once he did I think we picked up the pace a little bit. We went back and forth. With two laps to go, a lapper stopped in front of me. He made me fall over and I fell into Mullins out, too. I thought, ‘Well there goes Juha.’ But we ended up running him down again. It was fun.
While just seconds separated the front three, another big battle loomed for fourth, and it was ultimately won by Paul Whilbley, the New Zealander who is living in Kentucky to train with five-time GNCC Champion Scott Summers. Whibley took his Parts Unlimited/Moose Honda to fourth while Summers himself came out and raced, finishing 12th overall and winning the Vet A class.
KTM’s Robbie Jenks finished fifth, with Andrews Suzuki’s Jimmy Jarrett in sixth and Justin Williamson in seventh. FMF Suzuki’s Glenn Kearney finished eighth, and amateur riders Jesse Robinson and Thad DuVall rounded out the top ten overall.