In my mind, I had the momentum; the win was within my grasp. We were both holding the throttle wide open, the adrenaline pumping through our veins, as we raced each other for the lead. I was right behind Gary, waiting for the opportune moment to strike, when suddenly I lost all control; the bars flew out of my hands, and in an instant I was sent tumbling across the earth. My chance at taking victory was gone.
The sight of the fifth round of the 2015 WORCS grand prix series was Sand Hollow, Utah, a place known for its picturesque mountains and deep, sandy terrain. The Sand Hollow round seems to have a special grandeur about it, likely because of the unique challenges the sand offers, and also because of the length of the circuit- this year’s lap times were right around eighteen minutes long.
After missing the previous two rounds with a broken wrist, Gary Sutherlin was making his return to the series, and remembering back to his dominating performance last year at Sand Hollow, he was undoubtedly hoping to mark his comeback with a win.
The start would be dead engine procedure, and as the green flag waved, my bike instantly responded to my first kick, firing to life. I was a little off balance accelerating through the deep sand the start straight offered, and a couple riders to my inside began to pull ahead of me as we entered the first turn- a left handed corner. Ryan Reina was just ahead of me, to my inside, at the apex of the corner, and I began to lean into him as I expected Ryan to start to turn. I miss-judged the situation, as Reina swept a little wider than I’d expected, and my momentum carried me into the back of him; my front tire hit his rear end and I lost my balance, low-siding to the ground (I believe Reina actually hit the back end of Yorba, as he went down in the first turn along with me). I took my time getting up, adjusting the clutch perch, and made sure to take a deep breath as I got going again- I figured my work was cut out for me to get back up to the front of the race.
I was pretty surprised how quickly I was able to catch up to a few of the riders, making several passes in the first couple miles of the twelve-mile loop. Before the halfway mark of the first lap I had made it up to the back of a three-rider battle comprised of Dylan Schmoke, Justin Jones, and Travis Coy. The width of the racecourse made for quite a few options when deciding line-choice, and through the use of alternate lines I was able to make my way by the trio within the next mile or so.
Before too much longer I had caught up to the back of Justin Seeds, who was running fifth, and as I closed on to his rear wheel we both passed Blayne Thompson- Blayne had crashed while leading, breaking his wrist in the process, which was so unfortunate for him. As the course headed down a slight, rocky decline, I moved to the right of Justin, carried more momentum by him, and moved into fourth place.
As the first lap began to wind down I had made it up to Ivan Ramirez. We had a lively back-and-forth battle for about a mile or so before I was able to make the pass stick down another slightly rocky downhill. Only Eric Yorba and Gary were left ahead of me as the first lap came to a close.
It took me nearly two-thirds of the next lap to catch up to the back of Gary, in second, and, as our lines diverged, I had a better choice to the right, pulling ahead of Gary and into second place. I carried that momentum up to Eric out front and after nearly making the pass on a couple occasions, I maintained more momentum around a sweeping, whoop-filled left-handed corner and took the lead.
Before the race began, my pit crew and I decided we would commit to pitting for gas every two laps; since my gas tank is slightly smaller than the tanks my competitors run, we had reservations about going three laps. As the race would be six laps in length, this meant I would pit twice compared to my competition, which would only have to pit once. Upon reflection, I had more than enough of gas to make it three laps, but we weren’t to know that before the race, and we decided to play it safe.
After taking the lead, I came in to the pits at the close of lap two and relinquished the first two positions, as Gary (who had passed Yorba) and Eric stayed out of the pits and overtook me. I caught back up to Eric pretty quickly and was able to make the pass through a slower-speed sandstone section, and from there I slowly reeled Gary in, catching right up to his rear wheel as the third lap neared its conclusion. I was able to make the pass down a high-speed decline, but just before the finish, Gary had a better line choice and reclaimed the top spot. Of course, Gary had to dive into the pits this lap, so I was able to take the lead once more.
Over the next lap I had stretched out a bit of a lead- around thirty seconds- but I would have to pit once more, and as I came out of the pits, my lead was down to less than ten seconds. I pushed to try to extend the gap once more, but unfortunately my progress came to a sudden halt with a single decision regarding my line choice. Through a fast section of sand dunes, there was a steep drop-off on the backside of one dune and I decided to change my line slightly to avoid the drop. As I veered to the left, where the drop was less severe, I must have hit a rock that was buried in the sand because my rear end instantly shot out to the side; before I knew it, I was on the ground, facing the wrong direction. It wasn’t a hard fall, but I imagine it may have looked that way to Gary, since I was facing backwards, and as he took the lead back he was gracious in making sure I was ok by way of a questioning thumbs up.
I re-fired my bike and got going again, probably around ten seconds behind Gary, but with the speed I had shown, I was confident I could catch him and make it a race to the checkers. Indeed, as the white flag came out, I had caught Gary once again and we headed out for the final lap separated by mere seconds.
Not log into the final lap there was a split-line section and Gary took a line to the right, which I knew to be slightly slower than my choice. I held the throttle on to Gary’s left, and as our lines merged I had enough momentum to make the pass and take the lead. I wanted to stretch away, but as we neared the site of my crash from the previous lap, I played it rather cautious to avoid making the same mistake twice. This was all the invitation Gary needed; this time he had chosen a better line and accelerated back by me as I tentatively hit the steep drop-off I had chosen to avoid one lap prior.
I still felt I had the momentum in my corner, and that the win was well within reach, as I was all over the back of Gary. Our lines would diverge, and as they would unite I would be, quite literally, within a few feet of Gary’s rear wheel, so close to making the pass. It was a fantastic race, and we were having a blast, Gary and I; I’m pretty sure I was smiling under my helmet, and he was fist-pumping me as we battled each other for the lead. Then, in one instant, it was all over.
The course entered a high-speed (fourth and fifth gear) sandy straightaway that was littered with partially buried, embedded sandstone rocks. I was just a matter of feet behind Gary, probably too close in hindsight because I couldn’t quite see what I was hitting, and in an attempt to peer around Gary, I moved just a few feet out of the main line, to the left. That’s the moment when I hit a section of buried rocks and felt the bike violently twitch left, then right, ripping the bars out of my hands and sending me hurtling to the earth before I could react to what was happening. I was quick to get back up, and my greatest fortune came in the fact that I was past all of the rocks and had landed in pure dune-sand, cushioning my fall. One look at my bike and I knew my chance at the win was gone; the throttle tube was broken- causing the throttle to stick, which is just plain annoying- and the bars were twisted beyond any repair I could quickly make on course. I picked my battered bike up and luckily had enough of a gap on third place that I was able to cruise the bike to the finish in second.
I was definitely disheartened at the checkers that I had let the win slip away, but more than that, I was rather disappointed that I couldn’t continue the battle with Gary; in a strange way I felt like I had let he and myself down because we were both so anticipatory of a battle to the finish. Looking past those feelings, I was very proud of my own ride; I charged the whole way, through some adversity, and showed myself I possessed a fire and desire to achieve.
I’d like to thank all of my personal sponsors for their continued commitment: Precision Concepts, MSR, Shoei, Sidi, Spy, EVS, USWE, Focus apparel, FMF, BRP, RAD custom graphics, GoPro, A’ME grips, IWC motorsports, ATP mechanix, Northland motorsports, Rekluse, CryoHeat, and the MotoXerciser. I definitely have to thank my mechanic, Phil, as I gave him a bit of work to do with the damage to the bike my crash caused. I also want to thank my wife, family and friends, all of the team sponsors, and the WORCS crew for laying out a course that offered the opportunity to have such fantastic racing.
Next on my agenda is the Best in the Desert Silver State 300, a three hundred mile race through some of the most enjoyable and scenic roads that wind through the mountains of Nevada. I’m looking forward to the challenge of racing the event solo (since the race conflicts with Ricky’s Hare and Hound); last year I nearly won the event riding solo, finishing second by less than half a minute, so this year I’ll be looking to improve upon that result.