Here’s a look back at Nicky Hayden’s first Grand National win on August 2, 1999 at the Hagerstown Half-Mile. The middle child of the Hayden clan had won Formula Extreme road races already, but this was his first GNC win.
By Dave Hoenig
HAGERSTOWN, MD, AUG.2 – Eighteen-year-old Nicky Hayden fulfilled his lifelong dream and the prophecy of most who have seen the youngster race over the last 10 to 12 years by winning the crash-marred Hagerstown Half Mile during the second stop of the season for the AMA Grand National Dirt Track Series at Hagerstown Speedway. The race was red-flagged three times, as half of the 18-rider field was on the ground at one time, or another during the race.
In keeping with the tradition of the 1999 edition of the series, round 13 was hampered by rain. An early afternoon storm moved through the drought plagued area, turning what had appeared to be a smooth track into an inconsistent, rutted oval.
Ironically, it was the series veterans who had the most trouble. Three laps into the 25-1ap main, Dan Butler, while running seventh, slid down in turn two. Mike Hacker could not avoid Butler, and series points leader Chris Carr was also involved. Butler suffered the most severe injuries of the night: a compound fracture of the tibia and also a broken femur, both on the left leg. Both Carr and Hacker would return for the restart.
On the restart, Rich King spun down in turn one, and the race was once again stopped. The third try was not a charm, either. After running one lap, Will Davis lost the front end in turn three. Davis, who had just moved into third, collected Kevin Varnes, Steve Morehead, Bryan Bigelow and Jay Springsteen. Varnes, who was hit by Morehead, retired to his pit for the night. Davis’ bike was hit by almost everyone else, and repairs could not be made in time for him to continue.
Through all this, the BF/LFA/Michigan Harley-Davidson Dealers Association-backed Hayden remained focused and unfazed. It was obvious from the first turn that Havden was determined to turn his recent bad luck around, as he overcame all the challenges placed before him to score his first career Grand National victory.
“I’ve never got a holeshot, and tonight I got five,” the excited Hayden said. “This is the biggest win of my life right here, and I’ve won some pretty big road races. This is it right here. We’ve had a lot of problems this year, just a lot of small stuff, that’s been dragging us down. I’ve really got to thank Tom Cummings and Davey Watts, they’ve been behind me since I was like 15 years old. They’ve put a lot of time and effort into me and I just appreciate it. I thank everyone who has been behind me, especially my mom and dad and all my family and friends. The Hart family, my whole crew – they’ve made it worthwhile.”
Although Hayden would officially lead every lap, he was under heavy pressure from Dave Burks Motorsports/ Harley-Davidson of Missouri/Carl Patrick Racing’s Joe Kopp for most of the race.
“During those long waits, the moisture came up and the track got greasier,” Hayden said. “The first couple of laps, Joe was all over me. He was going above me under me, and I was just doing all I could to hold him off. I kept moving around, trying a bunch of different lines. Finally I found a few.”
For Kopp, the night’s race turned out to be a lot of work, only to be denied what would have been a second career Grand National win, and his first on a 750.
“I got off the line with Nicky on the last restart, but he got away from me the first lap or two,” Kopp said. “I had a good high line going in, both turns one and three. It was nice and high, and I was really making up time in the middle of the corner. He was struggling right there, and I was just waiting for the bobble that would let me get past.”
While the leaders were putting on their show, Corbin Racing/HarleyDavidson Cycle Center of Waterloo/ SuperTrapp’s Rich King got up off the ground and was charging from the rear of the field to take third.
“I just got a little aggressive in turn one on the first restart,” King said. “I came charging in there and Varnes got on the binders, and I had to lay it down to miss him. Coming from last to third isn’t too bad, I guess. Once we started running laps, the track started coming around a little bit (and) you knew your line. It was just so slippery there to start with, I think the moisture was coming up.”
Gee Roeder ran third for most of the race, but gave it up to King on lap 23. Roeder brought his Schaeffer’s Harley-Davidson/ Las Vegas Harley-Davidson/ KK Motorcycle Supply-backed Harley home in fourth.
“I guess we outlasted everybody else,” Roeder said. “I just kept getting better starting positions on the restarts. We were running good. I would liked to have gotten that third, but we’ll take fourth.”
Despite being involved in the turn three pileup, Bartels Harley-Davidson/Real McCoy/SuperTrapp’s Jay Springsteen and KK Motorcycle Supply/F&S Harley-Davidson/Sheperd & Dragoo sponsored Steve Morehead finished fifth and sixth.
“I was pretty happy to finish fifth; I think I started 15th or so,” Springsteen said. “I was going as hard as I could. I had both wheels off the ground sometimes. Some of the spots were shiny and some were ruts. I know in my heat race it felt like I crashed three or four times, but I never went down. It was bouncing and wiggling all over the place, but I just kept it pinned.”
Like Springsteen, Morehead also had to come from the back.
“We had to start on the tail and work our way up,” Morehead said. “If we hadn’t been on the ground, we would have started fifth. The race track was greasy; you had to go slow to go fast: I started behind Jay on the restart, and I just followed him around the rest of the night. If he’d have made a right turn and drove into the parking lot, I probably would have been right behind him.”
Battered and bruised, Harley-Davidson of Sacramento/Phoenix Racing /Big Valley Ford’s Chris Carr limped home in seventh after being involved in the first red-flag incident. It was the first time that the Grand National Dirt Track Series points leader had finished off of the podium all season.
“I just couldn’t avoid Butler’s bike,” Carr said. “I was committed to go below him, and his bike just kept coming down, down, down. Finally I met up with the front wheel and it spit me up over the handlebars. I landed right dead on my hip. I don’t know what shape it’s in. I’ll go get it checked out. My bike was bent up. The front end was bent not only in, but sideways. It didn’t handle very well. To get seventh we’re very pleased. I got good starts on the restarts. I kept going the way everybody else wasn’t, and I was able to pick off a lot of guys. I just tried to keep smooth and ride conservative.”
Dan Stanley stayed out of trouble and brought his Gardner Racing/Springfield Armory/ Walters Brothers Harley-Davidson-backed Harley to an eighth place finish.
“We started off last and moved up through the restarts,” Stanley said. “Once we got going we were passing guys pretty much right and left every lap. I noticed on the second lap -the final restart -that one of my fork tops came unscrewed, and the whole fork leg was sticking out the top of the right side. So I pretty much ran the whole race with one fork. It didn’t really affect me, but I was wondering if the other one was going to come loose. You just had to ride mellow and be patient. There were guys making mistakes all over the place. You just had to be there when they did.”
The USC Racing/Lancaster Harley-Davidson /Marshall Distributing team of Bryan Bigelow had to put a new set of forks on after his involvement in the last red-flag pileup. Bigelow’s troubles were not over, as more mechanical problems hit at the end of the race, dropping him from seventh to ninth in the last two laps.
“My brake pedal broke off and I was downshifting going into the corners, and the transmission fell out of it,” Bigelow said. ‘That’s all we could do. It could have been worse. We got out of it all right, just a little banged up. We were on the move until that pileup.”
Rounding out the top 10 was the USC Racing/Arai/Hap Jones Honda of Terry Poovey. The Texan had been as high as third on the ninth lap, then he started to fade.
“I just didn’t like it,” Poovey said. “I only like good race tracks, and I’m not good on mud race tracks, either. I was running the bottom, and it got bumpier and bumpier, and finally it went away. It was like wheel ruts. I’m okay with that. We’ll have a good race track next week.”
Because of the rain delay, qualifying heats were omitted, and the 42 entries were seeded into the four heats by the points standings and their draw at tech.
Butler led the first heat into turn one over Poovev, Kevin Varnes and Carr. At the end of the first lap, Varnes was leading his Saddlemen/Lancaster Harley-Davidson/Dodge Brothers teammate Butler, with Poovey, Dan Stanley and Carr trailing. The red flag greeted Varnes as he came around the second time because Paul Bergstrom had fallen on the front straight. Bergstrom was able to make it back for the complete restart.
Varnes read the light this time and led Butler and Carr off the line. Varnes slowly pulled to a commanding lead, while Butler and Carr battled over second. Just past the halfway point, Carr captured second. Carr opened a little breathing room on Butler, with Stanley and Poovey closing on Butler. They would have to settle for fourth and fifth.
Carr’s second was not without cost.
“We tied up the bike in the heat race and had to ride the backup in the National,” Carr said. “Fortunately it made it through the race. Coming off the track, it just locked up when I killed it.”
The second heat got off to a rock ’em, sock ’em start. Steve Beattie led into the first turn, with Hacker trying to slash under him. Hacker drifted high5 and got into Beattie’s rear wheel. Beattie continued on, but Hacker dropped to the rear of the field. The Stylemaster Custom Motorcycle/AFAM/Bicycle Works sponsored Beattie was joined by the battling duo of Springsteen and King. Once again the red flag came out, this time on lap four. Garth Bastian was down in the middle of turn two. Bastian returned to the pits, unable to make repairs in time.
Beattie repeated his holeshot on the restart, but it was short-lived, as both King and Springsteen blasted by. They fought it out to the end, with King taking the win. Beattie came home a safe third. Willie McCoy was closing but fell on lap seven. McCoy was able to get off the track as the race continued. Jaime Aguilar moved into a solid fourth. Hacker held off John Nickens for fifth.
Morehead got the start in heat three but wasted it when he got sideways in turn two. Eaken Racing/Rod lake/Racing For Kids’ Davis took over, and Morehead had his hands full trying to fend off Kopp. Lap six saw Kopp drop Morehead to third and quickly close on Davis.
As fast as Kopp was closing on Davis, Jason Sentell was closing on Morehead. On the eighth lap, Sentell pitched it away in turn three, leaving Morehead to an uncontested third. The action up front was really heating up, and Kopp made a last-lap blitz that carried him to the win.
Bigelow got the holeshot in the last heat, but by the end of the first lap, Hayden was solidly in first and pulling away. The race for second quickly turned into a four-rider war. Roeder, Bigelow, Mike Varnes and J.R. Schnabel were all shooting for transfer spots. Hayden was well on his way to setting fast time, as Roeder eased into a more secure hold on second. Bigelow, Varnes and Schnabel fought it out to the end, with Bigelow securing the last transfer.
Three semis would fill the six remaining spots in the National.
Poovey pushed his Honda to the lead in the first semi, while Brent Armbruster, Mike Varnes and Jess Roeder were bunched close behind him. Poovey was able to gain a small lead as Armbruster and Varnes rode wheel to wheel. The Tucker Rocky/ SiIkolene/SuperTrappbacked Armbruster held off Varnes after a racelong battle.
Hacker, Schnabel and Shawn Clark led the second semi into turn one. The 1800-FASTHOG/ Moroney’s Harley-Davidson/Tucker Rocky-supported Hacker and Schnabel opened up a good lead over Clark and Paul Lynch. Schnabel kept his Team Powell/ Sunoco/ MSR Harley right on Hacker’s rear wheel as both moved on to the main.
The last semi was a wild one. Shaun Russell, Dave Rayburn, Aguilar, Larry Pegram, Ken Yoder, McCoy and Sentell made up the huge lead pack. Lap two saw Russell with a small lead over Pegram and Aguilar. Turn three bit Russell, and the race was red-flagged, with a complete restart.
Yoder got the holeshot this time, over Rayburn, McCoy and Aguilar. Sentell had his K&N/ Progressive Suspension/ White Brothers Harley flying, and he took over the lead on lap three. Yoder was still in control of the last transfer when he lost his brake. Yoder’s misfortune almost cost Sentell, too, as Yoder blasted into turn one, just in time to realize he had no brake. As Yoder fought for control, he forced Sentell high, almost into the hay bales. Somehow everyone made it through, but in the confusion, the field bunched back up.
Sentell recovered to take the win, but Stanley shot into second and the last transfer slot. Stanley was scheduled to be on the pole for this race, but was forced to start on the penalty line after he was assigned to his backup bike.
For the second week in a row, Hayden led the field out to pick their starting positions. Hayden opted to start second from the inside. Kopp was on the bottom with Kevin Varnes, Davis, Roeder and King to his right. Row two was made up of Beattie, Butler, Morehead, Springsteen and Bigelow. Carr was also supposed to be on that line, but he was aboard his back-up bike and was stationed on the penalty line. Before the race got going, Carr would have a lot of company. The last row held Armbruster, Poovev, Hacker, Sentell, Schnabel and Stanley.
Varnes got off the line first, but Hayden held it on deep into the first turn to take the lead. At the end of the first lap it was Hayden, Varnes, Kopp, Davis and King. Lap three saw Kopp wrestle second from Varnes.
Butler fell in turn two as they started the fourth lap, starting a chain reaction, with Carr and Hacker also going down. This brought out the first red flag. The long delay to tend to Butler’s severe injuries let the track surface get more and more slick. When the race did restart, King failed to get through the Q first turn, as he spun down in the middle of the track, bringing out the second red flag.
On the third start, Hayden maintained his position, with Kopp leading Varnes, Davis and Morehead. Davis got by Varnes in turn two and was holding third as the tightly bunched pack hit turn three.
“I tried to turn and just tucked the front end,” Davis said. “I hate it, it was me. It was greasy, and I tried to turn too quick, I guess. All I remember was trying to turn it. The next thing I remember was my face hitting the ground. It wasn’t like it started to slide. I turned and hit the ground. That line I was using was definitely working, I just got too excited. It was definitely working. I think we could have raced with them. When I crashed, I think the bike would have been all right. Unfortunately, everyone ran into it and tore it all to pieces.”
Kevin Varnes, Morehead, Bigelow and Springsteen were all collected.
“When somebody falls in front of you like that, there’s not much vou can do,” Bigelow said. “We were just lucky that the guys were able to get everything all changed around.”
Springsteen offered his own observation of the incident.
“I was dodging bodies and motorcycles out there,” Springer said. “I got about three feet from the hay bales, and it felt like I was still going about 30 mph” so I just kicked loose. Let the bike eat those bales, I ain’t eating them. I’ve crashed enough times to know how to get off them. There was just bodies and motorcycles everywhere. You’re just going so fast. It’s like you fall here and everything keeps going higher and higher. I kept trying to go higher to go around it, but I just got gathered up in it.”
Only 15 riders returned after the 10-minute repair break. Varnes was too sore after being collected by Morehead, and Davis could not make repairs in time to restart.
Before the fourth restart, AMA officials Bruce Bober and Steve Faraci admonished the riders not to try and win the race on the first lap and, hopefully, run the remaining 21 laps without incident.
“It wasn’t so much that the track was slick as it was inconsistent,” Carr said. “You could be all hooked up and then all of a sudden you’d hit a hard spot that didn’t have any tack, and it was just like hitting oil. You would just go sideways. You had to memorize where those were. They had wheel-packed the track, and early on, you couldn’t tell what was greasy and what wasn’t. As the race wore on, the lines defined themselves, and you knew where it was slick and where it was tacky. The tacky parts would peel up, and you could see it. The problems were all early in the race. We’re racers, we have in mind to go hard under all conditions. The track just caught some people off guard.”
Hayden had one more good start left in him, and he led Kopp and Roeder into the fifth lap. Hayden’s determination was evident, as he thwarted all of Kopp’s advances.
“Joe passed me a couple of times,” Hayden said. “I was having a little bit of trouble with the throttle. I think all the moisture in the air, they’re [throttle cables] hanging up a little bit. Going into the corners, the thing was idling really high, and I was catching some ruts. I knew this was my chance, and when he went by me, I had my mind made up that pretty much I’d do whatever it took to get back around him. I was definitely going for broke. Up top seemed to be a little bit smoother, and I could keep my momentum up and roll the corner a little bit better.”
Everybody said your first win would be your easiest,” Hayden said. “It wasn’t easy, but in practice I was going fast, I won my heat and I was getting good starts. With about seven laps to go, I looked back, and I couldn’t believe it. I thought he was still right on me. I had a pretty good gap and a grin on my face. I knew I had to keep it on two wheels from there. I’ve been training really hard for this. I’m glad it all worked out. ”
Kopp had to settle for second.
“I felt that if I could get in front of him, I could probably get away or at least stay in front of him,” Kopp said. “I got in front of him a couple of times, but never enough to settle into the lead. Once, he really screwed up down there in one and two. Then he clicked it into another gear (and) it was like, ‘Hey, I know another line!’ I was able to get by on the inside going into turn three, then we were like handlebar to handlebar down the front straight, and he got me back going into the next turn. I just wanted to lead for a full straightaway and settle down. Every time I got by him, I was too far to the inside or too far outside. I never had the lead where I was able to get back to my line. I was able to make some time on the outside, but he picked up on that deal. I never saw him look back. I thought, ‘He’s not looking back, he’s not going to see these lines.”
King was methodically working his way to the front.
“Between being slick and the ruts, you didn’t know when you’d have traction and when you wouldn’t,” King said. You couldn’t rely on the front end at all. I could catch people quick, but I had a little problem passing them. My line was quite a bit different, and it crossed paths with them, especially coming off turn four. They were squaring it off and I was drifting, so I had to be careful not to get into anybody there. That was killing my drive there, but once we got by, I felt more comfortable.”
Schnabel had a good start go bad.
“We were running okay, and after everybody falling off, we were sixth on the restart,” Schnabel said. “The first lap, I went into turn three and almost got into Beattie, and then I had to pull up so I didn’t hit him. Then I went way high and dropped back to 12th or so. We worked our way back up a little bit. There were a few slick spots you had to watch, but I was happy with it.”
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