For today’s edition of “Flashback Friday,” we look back to the return of Supercross to Phoenix after an eight year absence at the new baseball field in downtown Phoenix in 1999. And who else to win it than Jeremy McGrath.
Here’s a look back at that race and how it all played out.
By Kit Palmer
In one fell swoop, Jeremy McGrath not only scored his first supercross win of the year, but he moved into the series points lead after posting a start-to-finish win in front of a sellout crowd of 48,702 at the new Bank One Ballpark in downtown Phoenix.
It was vintage McGrath all over again as he put his Randy Lawrence tuned, Mazda/No Fear/1-800-COLLECT/Chaparral Yamaha YZ250 out in front of the 20-rider pack right off the start. He then sprinted out to a modest but comfortable lead and simply let whatever happened behind him happen. Luckily for him, things couldn’t have gone any better. McGrath went on to capture his 53rd career supercross win while his main series rival thus far Team Honda’s Ezra Lusk, who won the opening two races of the season – was shot down in flames with a couple of -crashes that led to a disastrous 16th place finish.
McGrath now holds the series lead, albeit by one point, with 61 points over Team Honda’s Mickael Pichon and Factory Connection/Jack in the Box/O’Neal/ Honda’s Mike LaRocco, who are tied with 60 points. Pichon and LaRocco finished second and third, respectively, in Phoenix.
“You know, it’s always quite an experience when you get that first win of the year,” said McGrath, a five-time AMA Supercross Champion. “You just never know when or where it’s going to happen, and, when you do get it, it’s a big relief. I feel I”m getting stronger 7-2-1 in the last three races. I couldn’t be happier.”
As mentioned, Pichon and LaRocco filled out the second and third steps on the podium in what was for all intents and purposes a fairly uneventful main event – there were no position changes among the top three throughout the 20-lap race. Even McGrath jokingly apologized to the huge crowd from the podium for it being a “boring” race. Pichon did, however, manage to keep McGrath honest during the opening laps before settling back to remain steady at three to five seconds behind. McGrath locked up the contest late in the race when he got through lapped traffic a little quicker than Pichon.
“I was trying to stay with Jeremy:” Pichon said, “but he was too fast tonight. I made a couple of mistakes and decided to stay with second, especially towards the end, with the lapped traffic. But I’m very happy; I’m happy to be consistent, and that is what’s important right now.”
This was Pichon’s second podium appearance of the three-race-young series.
As for LaRocco, it was his third straight visit to the podium in three races – and all three times he’s been third. No one else thus far has been as consistent as the veteran racer. In Phoenix, LaRocco got an unusually good (for him) third-place start, and he didn’t let it go to waste. He never really got close enough to seriously challenge Pichon for second, but, on the other hand, no one really got close enough to rattle him, either, and he rode to an unchallenged third. But all wasn’t as wonderful as it appeared for the former AMA 250 and 500cc National Champion.
“I actually felt a little stiff out there not real spunky,” LaRocco admitted while showing off the reason for his being “not lively” on the track: a nasty-looking,
deep bruise in the knee area of his right leg. “I got this last week (when he collided with another rider at the San Diego SX) and it (the leg) just felt stiff all night. I’m kind of surprised how things turned out.”
Unlike the top three, Team Suzuki’s Robbie Reynard had a, exciting night.
He started off in 11th but worked his way up to fourth – all before the fifth lap. Reynard then stayed there for the rest of the race, but he could never really relax, because fifth-place finisher Damon Huffman was never too far behind. It was Huffman’s best finish this year.
Reynard’s Suzuki teammate Larry Ward, who was shaking off the effects of the tail end of a bout with the flu and was still feeling a little sore following a run-in with another rider the previous week in San Diego, started off in sixth, climbed to fourth at one point early in the race, and then dropped back to eventually finish sixth.
Team Honda’s Kevin Windham, who admitted he’s still developing his technique on his new Honda CR250, ended up seventh after a 10th-place start. After working his way up, Windham was passed by 16th-place starter and teammate Sebastien Tortelli. But Windham found a second wind late in the race and managed to repass the Frenchman. Ditto for Team Kawasaki’s Jeff Emig, who finished right behind Windham. Tortelli ended up ninth, while Mazda/Chaparral/Yamaha’s Steve Lamson, another rider who is still getting used to his new mount, rounded out the top 10.
Eleventh went to Yamaha’s John Dowd, the rider who inadvertently ran into Lusk early in the race. Dowd also went down in the get-together with the Honda rider and re-entered the race in 13th before finishing 11th.
Team Suzuki’s Greg Albertyn had another tough night, starting off in ninth only to crash on the second lap and fall back to 17th. He then started a steady climb that netted him 12th at the end of the race.
Team Noleen’s Tim Ferry couldn’t really recover from his 17th-place start and finished 13th, followed by a sore David Vuillemin, who had been shaken up in an earlier heat-race crash. Vuillemin was followed across the finish line by Moto XXX-backed Suzuki pilot Phil Lawrence, Lusk, Team Yamaha’s Jimmy Button, Suzuki privateer rider Kyle Lewis, and FMF/Honda’s Brock Sellards, who made it to the main for the second time this series. Plano Honda’s Grayson Goodman was 20th.
Emig let it be known right away that he came to Phoenix to race, grabbing the early lead in the first heat race ahead of Ward, Reynard, LaRocco and Pichon. A few places back came Windham and Tortelli. Goodman was running up front for a while before dropping back.
Emig settled in and looked in control, but Reynard was on the move. The young Suzuki rider first worked on his teammate Ward and passed him, and then reeled in Emig. With three laps to go, Reynard made an inside move on Emig and claimed the lead. Reynard then moved out and ran away for the win. Emig held on for second, while Ward finished a distant third.
The race for fourth and fifth went down to the wire between LaRocco and Pichon. The two Honda riders traded places a few times, with LaRocco passing Pichon over the finish-line jump for fourth. Way back in sixth was Windham, followed by Tortelli.
Elsewhere in the race, Vuillemin was involved in a first-lap pileup that left him walking off the track with a sore shoulder and a mangled bike.
The second heat race featured what many expected would be a prelude to the main event: a McGrath-vs.-Lusk duel. It started out with McGrath powering into the lead, followed closely by Lusk. Canadian Jean-Sebastien Roy was third, followed by Dowd, Albertyn, Button and Ferry.
Up front, McGrath started to edge away from Lusk while setting a blazingly fast pace. Late in the race, Lusk started to close on the leader, but McGrath was up to the task and gained back a few bike lengths before taking the win.
Finishing a distant third was Albertyn, who managed to stay clear of a Dowd-Huffman slugfest. Their shootout went down to the wire, with Huffman passing Dowd right at the finish. Sixth went to Lamson, who was followed by Great Lakes Aviation’s Heath Voss.
It was a French freight train at the start of the first semi, with Vuillemin, Tortelli and Pichon leading the way off the start. Right behind them was Windham, followed by Ohio’s Brock Sellards on the FMF Honda.
Vuillemin led the way for a couple of laps until both Tortelli and Pichon slipped by on the same go-around. Then Windham broke the French chain by getting around Vuillemin for third.
Pichon made it fairly dose at the end, but Tortelli held on for the win, followed by Pichon, Windham and Vuillemin. Finishing one spot out of a transfer was Sellards.
The second semi turned out to be one of the closest races of the night, with Dowd, Ferry and Phoenix’s own JimmyButton mixing it up for the entire race. The three Yamaha rider traded positions back and forth, with Ferry making the final pass for the lead on Dowd through the last turn. Ferry took the popular win, followed by Dowd, Button and Lamson. Phil Lawrence, who led the first lap of the race, finished fifth.
Both Kyle Lewis and Goodman missed out on transferring to the main by one position in their respective semis, but they finally earned a trip to the feature via strong rides in the last-chance qualifier. Lewis came out on top, with Goodman sneaking into the main with a second-place finish. Finishing one spot out of a transfer in third was KTM’s Lance Smail.
Just as he had hoped for, McGrath nailed the all-important holeshot in the 20-lap feature.
“The starts are so important,” McGrath said. “That was my second holeshot of the night, and I’m stoked with that. We’ve been working hard on starts all week -we’ve done some things. We mellowed out the motor a little bit – kind of detuned it – went to a more rounded tire and ran more air pressure. These things really helped. It takes your confidence away if you can’t get the starts.”
Still, Pichon tucked in right behind McGrath and was hoping to mount a I challenge before the Yamaha rider could get away. But just before the end of the the first lap, Pichon clipped a couple of bales that were lining the track. His slight miscue disrupted his momentum just enough to let McGrath get a firm grip on the lead.
LaRocco, meanwhile, settled into third, followed by Huffman, Dowd, Ward, Emig, Lusk, Albertyn and Windham.
Ward quickly made his move and slipped by both Dowd and Huffman; then Lusk got Emig, as did Reynard.
By the fourth lap, a three-way dogfight had developed – involving Dowd, Lusk and Reynard – with the trio sandwiched between Kawasaki’s Huffman and Emig. A couple of laps later, things got a little too close when Dowd and Lusk got together. Both riders went down, with Lusk taking the brunt of the impact – as was evidenced by the black tire marks on his Honda’s right side panel and the large dent in the exhaust pipe. (Lusk would say later that the damaged exhaust pipe did not seriously affect his motorcycle’s performance.)
“I shut down and cut to the inside (of the turn), and I guess John wasn’t prepared and jumped into me,” Lusk said of the incident. “It rang my bell pretty good.”
Lusk would get right back up, but he didn’t have his hand firmly on the clutch lever and dropped his bike again, losing even more time. Moments after re-entering the race, Lusk went down a third time.
“I got up too quick and was not over the first crash,” Lusk said. “I was a little bit short over a double and lost the front end.”
By this point, all Lusk could do was circulate the track and try to salvage as many points as he could. He eventually finished 16th. Despite his performance, Lusk didn’t let the night get him down. He shrugged his shoulders afterward and said, “These things are going to happen, but… this will never happen again.”
Meanwhile, McGrath continued to lead the way – unaware of what had happened to Lusk. He eventually saw the Honda rider up ahead and was surprised to lap his adversary.
“I really didn’t know who was in second, but I knew it was a Honda rider,” McGrath said. “When I saw it (the lapped rider ahead of him) was Ezra, I thought, ‘That’s Lusk!’ There are only a few guys who can go 20 hard laps, so I was surprised to see him, but I was relieved.”
With Lusk out of the picture, McGrath was now able to relax a little bit more and he easily threaded his way through and around slower traffic as the race neared its conclusion. Once into lapped traffic, McGrath all but cemented his victory as he put riders between himself and Pichon, who maintained his lead over LaRocco. McGrath went on to take the win with a comfortable five-second margin over Pichon, followed by LaRocco a few seconds back. Reynard, meanwhile, broke away from the pack just past the halfway point to finish a lonely fourth. An exciting finish it was not.
But well back in fifth battled Huffman and Ward, the pair spending the last five laps in close company. In the end, Huffman managed to hold back the Suzuki rider. After a short gap came a closely bunched group of riders led by seventh-placed Windham, followed by Emig, Tortelli and Lamson.
One notable rider finishing well back in the pack in 17th was Button, who was right in the thick of things, mixing it up with Lusk, Dowd, Emig and Windham early in the race, when he stalled his four-stroke Yamaha coming out of a turn.
But the man of the hour was McGrath, who scored a popular win with the Phoenix fans.
“I just feel great,” McGrath said. “With the track being kind of easy, it was important to get a good start, push, but not push too hard and make a mistake. I was really looking forward to this weekend, but I was disappointed to find the track to be so easy, but it turned out all right. I would be very happy if the tracks were more difficult.”
Another happy rider was fifth-placed Huffman.
“Decent,” Huffman said. “That’s the best word to describe my ride – I just rode tonight, that was about it. I made no mistakes, so I’m happy with fifth. Things are beginning to come together.”
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