In celebration of 40 years of the sport, this weekend’s AMA Supercross round at Angel Stadium will pay homage to its history and champions of the past. So on Saturday night this year’s stars will be racing on a track that mimics the one raced at the 2001 season opener in Anaheim.
It was a time that marked the beginning of the changing of the guard in the sport. Jeremy McGrath still reigned, but then there was this youngster on the scene that would take the torch and run with it – Ricky Carmichael. Here’s a look back at that race between two of the sport’s greatest Champions.
By Kit Palmer
ANAHEIM, CA, JAN. 6 – The last time Jeremy McGrath and his tuner Skip Norfolk joined forces, they were nearly unbeatable, winning all but one round of the 1996 Supercross series. Following that magical season, the two good friends parted company, but McGrath still went on to win three more titles. Four years later, they’re together again and that same McGrath/Norfolk magic appears to be back as well.
Even though McGrath has never really lost his supernatural talent of riding a motorcycle around a Supercross track since the duo split up, his confidence level was certainly raised a notch when Norfolk came aboard the McGrath-owned Mazda YamahaTeam. And that was the last thing the competition needed – McGrath having even more confidence, and that self-assurance was obviously evident during McGrath’s seemingly easy win in front of a sellout crowd of 45,050 at Edison International Field of Anaheim for the opening round of the Speed Stick-presented 2001 AMA/EA Sports Supercross Series.
McGrath was typically dominant – if not especially so – on the challenging Anaheim track. After a brief tussle with Chevy Trucks Kawasaki’s Stephane Roncada in the early going, McGrath pulled out a small lead and gradually built it up to eight seconds over Ezra Lusk, who took second place from Roncada on the fourth lap and kept his Mike Gosselaar-tuned Honda CR250 there the whole way, but never really got close enough to mount a serious challenge on the leader.
Despite winning the series opener and having his trusted tuner by his side again, McGrath is not really expecting another run like he and Norfolk had in 1996.
“By no means,” McGrath said from his new Mazda Yamaha team trailer afterward. “This is just the first race; a lot is going on, and there are the first-race jitters, so this race is not really a good judge [of things to come]. I mean, I felt great tonight, but I know it’s going to get harder than this. That [win] was relatively easy, a little too easy.”
The win was probably easier for McGrath than for Norfolk, who woke up on race day with a full-fledged cold and was apprehensive about his first race back. But it all turned out in the end.
“It’s pretty cool,” a sniffling Norfolk said afterward. “I wrote ‘thanks’ on the pit board when he rode by [after McGrath won], for getting me back into this – it’s the coolest thing in the world, and the fact that my son is up in the stands watching it happen, it’s just so cool. Hopefully, we can pick right back up where we left off four years ago.”
After winning the first 250cc heat race of the night – and the season for that matter – Lusk proved to everyone that he is indeed back after a shoulder injury, which he suffered one year ago at the Anaheim opener, and which sidelined the Georgian for the entire 2000 Supercross series. Lusk turned a lot of heads by jumping right into the heat of battle and pulling off a strong second-place finish.
“I did awesome,” an obviously relieved and happy Lusk said. “I mean; I knew I was ready, but I hadn’t raced in forever. I just knew something was going to go wrong, but I didn’t make a handful of mistakes all night.”
Lusk was put to the test throughout the 20-lap main event, though, having Team Chevy Trucks Kawasaki’s Ricky Carmichael breathing down his neck for most of the race. At one point, Carmichael got really close to Lusk but then was forced to turn the heat down a little bit when arm pump began settling in.
Finishing a distant fourth was Mike LaRocco on the Amsoil/Dr.Martens/Journeys/ Competition Accessories Honda, followed by Team Suzuki’s Travis Pastrana, who was impressive to say the least in his first 250cc Supercross race.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the night was the disappointing ride turned in by Team Yamaha’s David Vuillemin, and no one could say that he didn’t have his chances. Vuillemin took huge holeshots in both his heat race and the main but couldn’t take advantage of those good starts. He went from first to sixth in the main, saying that he just couldn’t figure out the Anaheim track.
After leading the first couple of laps, then running among the leaders for much of the race, and then trading paint a few times with Pastrana, Roncada said he physically ran out of gas, causing him to drop back to seventh after his stellar start.
“I had the speed, but I got a little tense, tired,” Roncada said.
After out-dueling McGrath for an exciting heat-two win, Team Suzuki’s Kevin Windham went flat in the main event. He gated poorly and was unable to mount any kind of charge. Windham ended up eighth, followed by Yamaha of Troy’s Nick Wey and Planet Honda’s Mike Craig.
Yamaha of Troy’s Nathan Ramsey piloted his team’s YZ426F thumper to an impressive 11th-place finish, ahead of Kawasaki-supported Craig Decker, TheEdgesports.com Kawasaki’s Casey Johnson, Fast by Ferracci Husqvarna’s Steve Lamson and Motoworldracing.com/Answer Yamaha’s Damon Huffman. Rounding out the top 20 was
Moto XXX/DGY/ Atomic 22’s Kyle Lewis, Motoworldracing.com/AnswerYamaha’s Isaiah Johnson, The Edgsports.com Kawasaki’s Michael Byrne, Great Lakes aviation’s Heath Voss and Team Yamaha’s Tim Ferry, who suffered a flat rear tire while running up front early in the race.
Unable to take part in the evening’s activities was Team Honda’s Sebastien Tortelli. Earlier in the day, Tortelli went down in a section of whoops during a practice session, injuring his shoulder. Tortelli tried to convince his team manager Cliff White and his trainer that he was okay to ride, but they wouldn’t bite. Instead, Tortelli left the stadium and was immediately flown to Phoenix, Arizona, to have an MRI performed on the shoulder later that night.
The first 250cc Supercross race of the year promised to be a good one, with Vuillemin, Lusk, LaRocco, Pastrana, Lamson and Roncada, among others, on the line. Vuillemin timed the drop of the gate perfectly and pulled an indisputable holeshot ahead of Craig, Lusk, Lamson, LaRocco, Roncada, Ferry and Pastrana.
Vuillemin led the pack around the track for a lap but couldn’t shake Lusk, who didn’t waste any time trying to get by the Yamaha rider. Lusk prodded and poked at Vuillemin until he got by the Frenchman on the second lap. But Vuillemin wasn’t about to give up without a fight and cut to the inside of Lusk and took the lead back. The two riders continued their duel for the lead through the next couple of turns, and then Lusk wicked it up through a whoop section and crept past
Vuillemin, putting the Honda into the lead for good. He steadily pulled away from Vuillemin, scoring a solid win over the Yamaha rider.
Meanwhile, Pastrana was on the move. Competing in his first 250cc race, the Team Suzuki rider was steadily working his way up through the pack. The 250cc rookie slipped past Ferry and Craig, then found himself right behind a familiar face – Roncada, who had lost the 2000 125cc National MX title to Pastrana by a couple of points. It didn’t take Pastrana long to find a way past his old rival, and then Lamson.
Pretty soon, the teenaged Pastrana was rapidly gaining on the veteran LaRocco. Pastrana was badgering his elder foe when LaRocco bobbled just before a spacious double jump that LaRocco was forced to single. Pastrana easily flew his Suzuki by LaRocco’s Honda and into third place. And Pastrana wasn’t done yet.
Pastrana set his sights on Vuillemin and, to everyone’s surprise, the young star reeled in and passed the Frenchman through a rhythm section. A lap later, the checkered flag came out and Pastrana took a very impressive second, and, more importantly, made a statement that he’s ready for the 250cc class.
Third went to Vuillemin, while LaRocco finished out the first heat race in the final transfer spot in fourth, right in front of Roncada. Ferry ended up sixth ahead of Craig, Kawasaki’s Craig Decker, and Isaiah Johnson.
But the big winner of the first heat race of the year was Lusk.
“This is an emotional victory for me,” Lusk said. ”I’m already fartheralong than I was last year. “We [Lusk and Vuillemin] had a little battle there for a while, a little bit more than I really wanted,” Lusk added. “But it was good.”
The second heat race featured McGrath, Windham and Carmichael, and, just as expected, these three riders led the way off the start. Windham nailed the holeshot, but McGrath cut underneath the Suzuki rider, setting the stage for an exciting three-way battle for the lead.
In typical McGrath fashion, the seven-time Supercross Champion tried sprinting away from the field, but Windham and Carmichael stayed right with the champ. Suddenly, McGrath made a rare mistake and briefly bobbled on the third lap. By the time he got back going, Windham and Carmichael had ridden past the former leader. Windham took over but had Carmichael right behind him, and it wasn’t long before McGrath had caught back up to the leading duo.
As the race neared the finish, McGrath began stepping up his attack on Carmichael and eventually out-dragged the 250cc National MX Champion through a section of whoops. Not long after that, Carmichael slid out in a turn and dropped well back but still kept control of third.
With one lap remaining, McGrath made a last-ditch attempt to get around Windham and let everything hang out. McGrath chased the Suzuki rider to the finish but came up short by just inches. Windham took the confidence-building win, followed by McGrath and Carmichael. Ramsey grabbed the final transfer in fourth, followed by teammate Wey, Voss, Byrne and Huffman. Lewis took ninth, and Thousand Oaks Yamaha/Pete’s RV/Reynard Modification’s Robbie Reynard rounded out the top 10.
Impressive as Windham’s win was, it still wasn’t the fastest heat race of the night, as Lusk’s victory in the first heat race was just under a second faster than Windham’s. “It’s only a heat race, but this is the way I wanted to start the season,” Windham said.
In the semis, where the top five riders transfer to the main, Roncada, Lamson, Craig, Ferry and Decker were some of the featured names in the first semi. The win ended up going to Roncada, but he had to work for it early on.
Ferry, on the Yamaha four-stroke, kept the pressure on the Kawasaki rider until about the fourth lap (of eight), when Ferry began losing his grip on the leader. Roncada went on to win the first semi with a big lead over Ferry, who took the checkered flag all alone in second place. The battle for third, however, was anything but lonely for Craig and Lamson. Craig held down third for most of the race until Lamson started knocking on his backdoor late in the race. On the last lap, Lamson cut to the inside of Craig, bumping into the Honda rider, and took over third. Craig ended up fourth, comfortably ahead of Kawasaki rider Craig Decker.
Australian Michael Byrne led much of the second semi, but it was Nick Wey coming out on top when all was said and done. Voss ended up finishing second, while TheEdgesports.com Kawasaki teammates Casey Johnson and Byrne finished 3-4. Making the cut in fifth was Moto XXX/DGY/Atomic 22’s Kyle Lewis. Missing a transfer spot by one position was Motoworldracing.com/Answer Yamaha’s Damon Huffman in sixth.
Huffman, however, came right back to lead all six laps of the Last Chance Qualifier, from which only the top two riders transfer. Isaiah Johnson was the last rider to make the main after finishing a distant second to Huffman.
A few notable riders who went home early included Reynard, Blackfoot Motorsports/Honda Canada’s Jean-Sebastien Roy and Fast by Ferracci Husqvarna’s Jason Thomas.
Just as he had done in the first heat race, Vuillemin shot off the line and beat everybody to the first turn handily, but out of nowhere came Roncada. The 2000 125cc East Coast Supercross Champion threaded his Kawasaki around heavy traffic and came out of the first couple of turns in the lead. But that wouldn’t last for long. McGrath slipped by Roncada and tried to get away, but Roncada didn’t want any part of that. The Frenchman came right back and passed McGrath; so after the first lap, it was Roncada leading the way followed by McGrath, Lusk, Vuillemin, Carmichael, Ferry, Pastrana, Ramsey, LaRocco, Windham and Lamson.
For a couple of laps, Roncada was the fastest rider on the track, but the pressure of being up front and having the master of intimidation right behind him quickly got the best of the Kawasaki rider. Pretty soon, McGrath was on the attack and the inevitable pass was just about to happen.
McGrath pulled alongside Roncada, who promptly brake-checked the reigning champ in the next turn. The two exited the turn side-by-side, and together launched over the finish-line double jump. In mid-flight, McGrath looked over his shoulder and gave Roncada the “I’m-in-charge” stare, then took over for good.
A lap later, Lusk rode around Roncada in a rhythm section and claimed second place. At this point, only three seconds separated Lusk from McGrath, but that would be about as close as Lusk would ever get to McGrath, who steadily pulled away.
Meanwhile, Carmichael was on the move. He quickly forced his way into fourth by passing Vuillemin, and then he powered past his teammate, Roncada, down a bump-free straightaway.
Once into third, he caught sight of Lusk and tried reeling him in. Carmichael had some success, closing to within a few bike lengths, before he started feeling his right arm pumping up.
“I wanted to charge,” Carmichael said. “On lap 11, I closed in, and I thought I had him [Lusk]. I thought, ‘Okay, I caught up to him, I’m going to get him.’ Then my right arm pumped up, so I must’ve been holding on too tightly when I closed the gap. So I had to back it down and try to ride a steady pace, [and I thought] maybe he’ll make a mistake and I’ll luck out and get by him. But he kept his cool”
From the halfway point on, the three podium spots were all but set, as McGrath continued to roll on in flawless form. He had plenty of time to do some on-track celebrating over the jumps on the last lap, scoring the first win of this year’s series and the 71st of his career.
“That was a great, great win,”McGrath said from his team’s new trailer. “Just like every year, there’s a lot of hype going into the first race, and it’s good to get this one over with.
“I think today was a really important tire-selection day. Yesterday the track was excellent; this morning was good, but then they put a little water on it, then it got cold and moisture came back up, and it was slick as snot. It took me a little while [to get the tires dialed in]. In the heat race, I was overly excited and making mistakes and then studied the video. I knew going into the final I was fine.
“It was a night where you could get really excited, and because the track was really slick, I decided that there were certain lines I needed to take no matter if anyone was around me or not; I stuck to my plan. Ezra stayed close to me, and Roncada was there for a little bit. Ezra was five to six seconds [behind] for a long time, and I was having a little problem with [arml pump at first; I was really having to talk to myself a lot out there and ended up working it out. The last eight to 10 laps I was really solid.”
“Things just clicked,” Norfolk said,”We had a few things we needed to work on throughout the day – tires, carburetion. At first, we managed to take some of his [McGrath’s] confidence away that he was trying to build up, but the guy just pulls it out. I mean he’s incredible; he gets out there and figures things out. I think that was a big thing tonight.”
“This was a big win,” said Mazda Yamaha’s team manager Larry Brooks. “The success of this team relies on Jeremy, and when he wins, we all win, and for him to be a team owner and now to win an event, it’s a first – again – for the guy. It’s another milestone.” Lusk was just as happy with his second-place finish. “Awesome,” he said. “It just went very well for me. Winning the heat race really lit the fire; it got me in the groove, got me in race mode.”
Even Carmichael was pleased with third place. “I stayed with Yogi [Lusk] the whole race,” Carmichael said. “I have to congratulate Ezra for a fantastic ride for his first race back, and Jeremy, too. He rode a great race. I just wish we were a little closer to Jeremy at the end, but I know when we get back to a tackier track, I’ll be more comfortable; this track was hard and slippery, and that’s not my best.”
Even though the race up front between McGrath, Lusk and Carmichael played itself out early on, the racing action from fourth place on back got hotter and hotter (especially when Roncada and Pastrana got together) as the race wore on.
Approaching the halfway point, a tiring Roncada was trying to keep control of fourth place when Pastrana came up behind him, and Pastrana got Roncada’s attention right away when he plowed into the side of Roncada in a turn following a whoop section.
Pastrana got by Roncada, but Roncada paid Pastrana back in the very next corner. Pastrana got a bikeside full of Roncada’s Kawasaki, and the two wobbled down the next straight where they tangled again. Pastrana ended up getting the upper hand after those exchanges of paint and settled into fourth.
“He [Pastrana] nailed me,” Roncada said of Pastrana’s first torpedo. “He was a little bit out of control at the end of the whoops, but I got him back, so he knows that he can’t nail me like that. He came afterwards to say he was sorry, so that’s good.”
“I came through the whoops, shifted into fourth gear and thought I could get enough room,” Pastrana said. “We collided pretty good; it tweaked my whole front end. He came back; paybacks are hell, and he paid me back a couple of times. I went over to apologize to him [after the race]; we’re still pretty good friends, but he was kind of pissed. But it’s pretty much settled right now.
“I enjoy racing like that – when he was bumping me I was like, ‘All right, that’s good.’ I’d rather have him like that than come and hit me after he gets done.”
Not long after Roncada and Pastrana exchanged pleasantries on the track, LaRocco moved in for the kill on the now-exhausted Roncada, passing the former leader for fifth. Then Vuillemin would get by Roncada, as well.
“When I passed McGrath,” Roncada said, “I was pretty excited about that, but I got a little tense and tired. Then Travis got behind me and I tensed up even more, because I thought he was going to kill me out there. I thought, ‘Just go.'”
After their little clash, Pastrana began showing signs of fatigue, as well. He couldn’t help but let LaRocco catch up to him and didn’t have the strength to defend his position. LaRocco cut to the inside through a turn and quietly slipped into fourth place, where he would finish out the race, right in front of Pastrana.
“I’m super happy with fifth place,” Pastrana said. “[But] I take a lot of pride in my training, and I was very disappointed that I faded so bad towards the end. For the first time in my life, I got arm pump in a race.”
Well behind Pastrana finished a very disappointed Vuillemin.
“I had a bad time with the track; it was so slick,” Vuillemin said. “I was on fire for the start, but nothing went like I wanted. I made a lot of mistakes the first few laps that cost me a lot of positions. I just could not find my rhythm.”
After Roncada finished another disappointed rider – Kevin Windham. An eighth-place finish was not what he had in mind, especially after beating McGrath in his earlier heat race.
“I just got a bad start and just kind of fumbled around back there in the back and got in on the wrong pace,” Windham said. “Ultimately, I started getting tight and frustrated because I wasn’t up there with the guys up front.”
After getting off to a horrible start, Yamaha of Troy’s Nick Wey kept plugging away and was rewarded with an impressive ninth-place finish, while Planet Honda’s Mike Craig rounded out the top 10 after riding well all night.
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