Garrett Gerloff | MotoAmerica Supersport Champion
The Power of One
Garrett Gerloff proved a point to not just himself but the global racing community in 2017, using the power of positive thought and natural talent to take back-to-back MotoAmerica Supersport Championship titles.
The human brain is one of life’s greatest mysteries. Its power over personal performance is absolute, allowing for mediocrity and greatness all from the same pound of flesh.
Positive thought is the most important weapon in a professional sportsman’s arsenal. The sheer belief you are the best, that first place is yours for the taking, is a devastating tool you can use against your opponents. And for Garrett Gerloff, that belief came from seeing the number one on his motorcycle.
“Every time I got on the bike and I saw the number one on the front, it gave me this confidence like, “all right, you’re the number-one guy. Look at the bike. You’re the guy, so go show them,” Gerloff says.
Gerloff’s mindset had completed a 180-degree switch from midway through the 2016 MotoAmerica Supersport season, when, under the mounting pressure of realizing a childhood dream with his first national championship victory on the horizon, he let his mind get the better of him.
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Photography by Brian J Nelson
“In the middle of 2016 I realized I was actually in a position to win a professional championship,” he says. “I hadn’t even been close to that position in years past. The stress of it affected my riding, but after I got the championship, it was like this huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. Winning the title had been something I’d wanted for so long—it was something that haunted me.”
Gerloff had a point to prove in 2017. The polite, well-spoken 22-year-old from Spring, Texas had a brand-new motorcycle in the 2017 Yamaha YZF-R6 and harbored a burning desire to crack into the European racing scene. But without the MotoAmerica Superbike ride many believed he deserved, his only means of showing his new-found confidence came via another year in supersport against a depleted field but with three staunchly fierce opponents in teammate and former champion JD Beach, Frenchman Valentin Debise and Californian Benny Solis.
In reality, the championship distilled to another year of the Monster Energy Graves teammates trading wins at the front of the field. Debise’s charge ran out of steam by the midway point of the championship after he clinched his final win of 2017 at round five in Utah—ironically when Beach collided with Gerloff while fighting for first place—while true privateer Solis was ultimately never able to crack a win in 2017.
By the conclusion of that Utah round, Gerloff’s march to a second consecutive title was far from assured. Beach was one point clear at 172, and the next round was at one of Gerloff’s bogey tracks—Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.
But for Gerloff, there was something different at Laguna this year—namely the round black things covering the wheels—as Dunlop had introduced their new 180/60-17 KR451 rear tire at the previous Utah round. The new tire was designed to fit the 5.5-inch rim used in supersport, and suited Gerloff’s style much better than the 200-section tire used up to that point.
“With the 200, we weren’t using the whole tire,” Gerloff says. “The tire was rolled over on the rim, which made the contact patch smaller. On the 180, it fit the rim much better so I could use all the tire and carry much corner speed. I could just rip through the corner and I had more feel when I did it. Every time I would be on the gas mid-corner with the 200 tire, it would either have grip or it would snap on me. There wasn’t a lot in between. With the 180 tire, it was a lot more consistent and had a lot more feel. I could play with the throttle, play with the rear, and it wouldn’t just snap on me right away.”
Beach used the new tire to claim race one at Utah and a new track record before his little race-two indiscretion (which, it must be said, displayed Beach’s sportsmanship by waiting for Gerloff to rejoin the track ahead of him), but that was as good as it got for the easy-going Kentuckian. From Laguna Seca onward, Gerloff was in a different league. This is where the mind power comes back into play—knowing you’re already the best, and you’re about to get even better.
“Laguna had been my worst track every year the last four years,” Gerloff says. “But this year, I was just like, ‘This is going to be my weekend. I’m going to win this race.’ I was just so pumped up.
“As soon as we got the bike out of the truck, everything was different. We had to make some adjustments to get the bike there, but once we did I felt like I could do anything on that bike. I felt like Superman.”
With the new rubber and a factory Yamaha YZF-R6 seemingly on rails, Gerloff dropped the hammer in qualifying to record a blistering 1:25.406 lap—faster than the old Formula Xtreme lap record and a massive 1.069 quicker than second-placed teammate Beach.
In the 19-lap race itself, Gerloff and Beach were so much faster than the rest they finished 35 seconds ahead of Solis in third place, with Gerloff taking a one-second win and crucially, a new mindset heading into round seven at Sonoma.
“From there I just felt like, ‘I’m not losing this thing.’ The beginning of the year I wanted to defend my championship—I knew I wanted to ride the superbike—but I didn’t really have a complete direction. After the first three or four rounds, I think Road America, I was really focusing on what I had to do. I’ve been a 600 guy for forever. I don’t want this to be the rest of my life. I needed to do something. Sometimes you just need to get your head on straight and realize what you want, where you want to go, and get your goals together. That’s what happened halfway through the year. I kicked myself in the ass and was like, ‘I got this. I can do this. I believe in myself.’ I knew where I wanted to be one day, so I had to prove it to myself. At the same time, the bike was working great. The team and I were working really well together, we had a lot of positive energy, so it was a combination of a lot of things. And the new tire. I liked that tire a lot.”
From Laguna Seca onward, everyone else was fighting for second place. A look at his winning times confirms Gerloff’s domination. Between Sonoma’s race one and Barber Motorsport Park’s race one, Gerloff never lost a race by less than three seconds—including a crushing 19.1-second victory in race one at Pittsburg. It was seven straight wins until we saw a second title sealed with a third place in race one at Barber, but not before a brain fade saw him run off track on lap one at the downhill Charlotte’s Web corner, which dropped him to the back of the pack with race winner Beach clearing off into the distance.
Despite that little mishap, Gerloff used the opportunity to show just how fast he really is, taking the fastest lap of the race as he scythed his way onto the podium and into a date with destiny.
“The way it worked out, I just made that mistake, braked too late,” says Gerloff. “So, the whole race I was fighting to get back up on the podium. There was no way I was going to win the championship and not be on the podium. That wasn’t the way I wanted to do it. I busted my ass the whole race and tried to get perfect, clean laps and have fun. It was nice because I knew I wasn’t going to win the race, so I just had fun and enjoyed it, knowing I couldn’t do anything wrong except not finish.”
And in much the same fashion as Kenny Roberts Jr. did at Motegi in 2000, with the championship in the bag, Gerloff showed them who’s boss in race two with a 4.787-second win over Beach with Debise a massive 24 seconds back in third.
“That race I was like, ‘I’m winning this thing or crashing.’ It was cool to have that mentality. I’ve never won a championship a race before the last race, so to know that race didn’t matter, and I could just go for it, was a great feeling.”
With two titles in the bag, Gerloff was able to reveal that he will finally be getting his superbike shot in the factory team—replacing veteran Josh Hayes.
“It’s kind of strange to think I’m getting Josh’s bike,” Gerloff said sheepishly. But the Texan knows this is his big chance, taking on a two-year contract with Yamaha that he hopes will be a stepping stone into a full time gig in Europe.
“Keith [McCarty, Yamaha Motorsports Racing Division Manager] knows Europe is where I want to go but I have to prove myself first. The superbike grid is going to be stacked next year—Cameron [Beaubier] is going to be fast, Toni Elias and Roger [Hayden] will be up there and I think Mathew Scholtz will be a surprise, but my goal is to be right there from the first race fighting for podiums and wins. The R1 is an animal, so it’s a matter of being calm on the bike and making it work for me. I’m super pumped—I can’t wait for the season to start.
Gerloff has matured into who many insiders believe is America’s next great hope for world-championship success. His rise from a top-five Supersport rider to near unbeatable champion shows he’s got the talent alone to make it happen, but he also possesses the drive and mentality and doesn’t want to get too comfortable racing at home when he knows his ultimate goal will only present itself a couple of times in his career, if he’s lucky.
Next year will be big one for the Texan. Watch this space.
“We’ve been helping him since he was 15.”
Team Y.E.S./Graves/Yamaha team principle Chuck Graves has worked with some of the best and brightest American racers of the past 15 years, but he sees something special in his double Supersport Champion, Garrett Gerloff.
Graves and his organization have been working full time with Gerloff since 2012 but Graves was helping him throughout his rise to the pros as a teenager, and has seen Gerloff mature into an intelligent but ultimately tenacious racer who is beginning to understand the value of self-belief.
“When you’re able to win a championship and put that behind you, you’ve reached this goal and a lot of weight comes off of your shoulders,” Graves says. “As an individual, it’s then easier to let your real talent come out. Each year Garrett’s improved his rider plan and how he attacks a championship, from the first day of a test to the first day of a race weekend. He’s been able to develop as an individual. Winning that first championship really makes a big difference, I think, from a rider’s standpoint. This year he knew his opponents, his machine and his crew. It made things really start to click.
“He’s growing up as a young man, too. Your confidence builds and builds as you age, too. He’s just starting to come into his own. He’s just scratching the surface.
“Communication-wise he’s strong in a lot of areas,” continues Graves. “He only picks out the things that are really necessary to deal with in terms of feedback on the bike. If you can give him a better bike with more grip, he’s going to get around the racetrack faster. This year he proved that with the new tire. I think it gave him more confidence in that mid-lean area, which is a big improvement on Dunlop’s part.
“Garrett’s real strongpoint is he doesn’t know his limit. He’s got a long way to go to find that.” CN