Toni Elias | 2017 MotoAmerica Superbike Champion
The American Dream
Spaniard Toni Elias came to America with the dream job at a top-level superbike team to become champion again.
Two years ago, former FIM Moto2 World Champion Toni Elias was sitting on his couch waiting for a ride. He had it rock bottom. Then he got the call to fill in for injured Yoshimura Suzuki rider Jake Lewis in the re-envisioned U.S. Superbike Championship—MotoAmerica. It was all up from there as the Spaniard not only found a home with a new team; he also found a home in the U.S. The results followed.
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By Andrea Wilson
PHOTOGRAPHY BY BRIAN J. NELSON AND WILSON
Reversal of Fortune
You would think that securing a World Championship—even if Moto2 is considered a support class—it would pave the way to the top, or at least make it a lot easier. But unfortunately, that was not the case for Elias. As top rides get harder and harder to come by, it’s a tough market out there for racers especially at the world championship level.
Probably the only thing harder to find is patience when the results aren’t forthcoming. So after a string of rough seasons the former world champ found himself in a situation no racer wants to face in their career—Elias was written off and his career as a racer in serious jeopardy.
“It’s amazing because we had a very bad situation, where my family—my parents and my sister and myself—all four of us fighting and working in the same boat, taking jobs like crazy, didn’t matter the job, but working, just to bring some money home. Well, that situation was really bad, right? And also, that negativity doesn’t help things go in a better way; even worse. Then I decided—stop. And start to change directions.”
All that was left to do at that point was sit at home waiting for someone to call. It turned out that first call had nothing to do with road racing, but dirt track. In 2015, Steve McLaughlin was looking for some international riders to come race his Superprestigio of the Americas in Las Vegas and Elias jumped on it. Taking that leap (even though he was still new to dirt track) turned out to be the best decision the Spaniard made in his career. McLaughlin turned out to be the catalyst. He got another call in 2016 for a ride that was a match made in heaven for Elias—a fill-in ride at one of America’s most well-known superbike teams, Yoshimura Suzuki.
“I arrived here with an amazing situation because that was exactly what I wanted my entire career: to have an official bike, official team,” Elias said. “When I was at home and thinking, being critical of all my mistakes, I was like, ‘restart and win in COTA.’ Then I continued with the team and they give me a good situation, and I started to do better and better. It has been amazing.”
Elias’ reversal of fortune in just two-year’s time, was something that was still taking a bit of time to soak in for the former world champion in light of all that he had been through.
“After many days [without a ride] and decide to retire and then to end up MotoAmerica Champion—I never expect that,” he said. “Because when the situation is so bad, it’s impossible to think in two years you will be winning and winning championships.”
Success Breeds Success
There’s nothing like winning to pull a racer out of a slump, and it did just that for Elias. He won the first three races in his MotoAmerica debut, landing him a full-time ride with the Yoshimura Suzuki squad.
After struggling for years, Elias was finally back to top form and it had critics turning their nose down at the championship. From the outside, it would be difficult to explain, but not for Elias. It boils down to the team.
“It helped me a lot to have an official bike and an official team,” he says. “I have experience from MotoGP and Moto2 and other classes, but I felt so blocked many times. For example [with support teams], factories bring you the bike and after that day you never receive any other parts to improve your bike. That is very frustrating. Here [at Yoshimura Suzuki] it is different. All the experience, all the comments and working with the team, they just make the bike better.”
Most racers will tell you that having that kind of support wins races, and the proof is in Elias’ results—16 wins in two seasons. They will also tell you it’s a mental sport. So getting back to winning not only helped Elias’ career stats, it changed his whole mentality.
“When you are in an official team, everything changes and you can improve and that makes you feel stronger and when people around have confidence, everything changes in a good, positive way,” he said. “Plus, positivity helps for doing other things, solves problems, helps you find new ways. It’s very important. When you are so closed, so negative you only find more negativity, more shit. It’s crazy, because the key was the team and the bike; it opened everything.”
At first breaking his win drought in COTA was a big deal, but as the wins followed Elias wasn’t happy until he did one thing—win the championship. He came just short in his debut season, finishing third and seven-points short of the crown.
Elias went into 2017 on a mission. He was armed not only with a new GSX-R1000, but with a change in rules, a proper works superbike. The mission was accomplished and the outcome exceeded even his expectations with 10 wins, 18 podiums (basically he was first, second or DNF) to clinch the title a round early at New Jersey Motorsports Park.
“We expected a good situation because of the new bike,” he said. “Last year we lost the championship by only seven points. Our goal was win, but we didn’t expect to win 10 races and also many second positions, our average of points was very high.”
It’s hard to compare titles earned in one series, let alone comparing a world championship in Moto2 to a national superbike title in MotoAmerica. But for Elias, this moment is the pinnacle of his career.
“I think it’s the best personal moment in my career because I have the experience to set up the bike with the team, the calm to take some decisions during the race and during the practice,” he says. “I did some mistakes last year, also this year, but we work with calm in the race. Also racing with calm—risking when we could risk and don’t risk when we couldn’t.”
The Good Life
Elias not only found happiness at the track, he found happiness in his new home in the U.S. The first season he started making the commute from Europe. He then stayed for four months during the bulk of the race season, before going back to Spain again. In 2017, Elias wanted to have a home base in the U.S. where he could relax in between races. He got a small place on the beach in Southern California not too far from the team, and he was able to bring his sister with him.
“It has been nice because I wanted that for me and for my mind, after everything it was important to be very calm,” he said. “Being next to the beach, some people don’t care, but for me it doesn’t matter if I have to live in a big house or not, next to the beach is what I wanted. And we found something little to be there, and find this calm.”
As a racer from Spain, part of the American dream is not only living on the beach but having a race van for all your moto toys.
“I have a motocross bike, a flat track bike and I’m training, I’m learning,” he says. “I’m so grateful for all these things, because coming from that moment, and now to have this job, enjoying life like this, having results and then to come home and I can surf, train with calm. I’m able to have the rider life—prepare every day and be concentrated. I was missing this.”
Of course, you can’t really appreciate living the dream without living the nightmare. It’s also helped alleviate the pressure of fighting for a championship.
“Now, it’s like wow, I’m super happy, super grateful,” he says. “And when people ask me if I feel pressure for the championship or for the results, f—, I don’t feel pressure because pressure is when you are in a difficult situation. If you are fighting for a championship and you have to fight for the last round—this a welcome situation. Not to be worried, not to be sad. It’s just do it. Let’s do it, and with power.”
The Tiger. The Missile.
His old moniker—Toni the Tiger—at first glance is rather cliché, but not when you factor in that the nice guy off track is absolutely ferocious on track. His latest nickname in the States—the Skud Missile—also suits him, with his aggressive riding style and different lines. But no matter what you call him, like all champions, he is highly competitive and is absolutely relentless. A lot of his wins are come from behind miracles.
“Every move, I try to be very precise. Maybe outside looks sometimes crazy, but I’m working with position,” he said. “My character and my style is always the strongest point is at the end of the race; and maybe the overtakes and fights. I have some good battles at the end. For example, some races I struggle because I lose contact with the lead group, and then I tell myself, ‘don’t give up, don’t give up, continue this pace because they will reduce the pace and after 5-6-7 laps.’ And then that happened and I could come back and win the race.” CN