Saturday’s MotoAmerica action at VIRginia International Raceway could be re-named “bump day.” While the racing in all three MotoAmerica classes features close battles, all three races were defined by multiple incidents of riders banging bars to the point where one or more of them left the racing surface. Banging bars can be a sign of good or bad racing. However, when bar banging results in more crashes than close battles it begins to cross the grey area between bravery and recklessness.
Not helping the bar banging was the weather. While the rain stayed away and the sun came out for good around 11am, the heavy rains that fell on Friday continued to define track conditions throughout the day. The morning was cold, humid, and overcast, and the track dried slowly as each of MotoAmerica’s classes took their turn on track. As the sun came out, the track dried more quickly and lap times began dropping. Xavier Zayat, who was among the top three Superstock 600 riders in dry conditions at Road Atlanta a couple weeks back led the Group 2 qualifying with a 1:39.228. Michael Gilbert was the fastest Superstock 600 bike in Group 1 (which went out after Group 2) with a time of 1:31.746. Later on in the race water began seeping up from the track in areas, including a small river running across the last turn. I chatted with Hayden Gillim, who was our guest on the TWPH a couple weeks ago. He told me water coming up out of the track after a heavy rain was not unusual, but the amount of water at the last corner was very unusual. More on the impact of the water coming up can be found below.
Unfortunately, a couple buckeyes were on the losing end of the bar-banging. OMRL product Gavin Anthony was forced wide at the last corner by another rider and went down. Gavin remounted and was able to finish the race a lap down in 13th. I caught up with Gavin after the race. He was disappointed but was physically okay. Gavin had put in an incredible effort in qualifying. He came into the pits with about four minutes to go with a front brake fade problem. His dad sent him back out since there was just enough time to get in a out lap and a hot lap in before the session ended. On the hot lap the front brake fade problem came back, so Gavin had to finish the hot lap using only rear brake and backing the bike into corners. Despite having the ride the bike very unorthodoxly, Gavin jumped from ninth to sixth. While Gavin’s race did not go as planned, he will have another chance tomorrow. Gavin will again line up on the second row of the KTM RC390 Cup grid, where he should have a good chance to getting to the front again. The twin buckeyes of Ryan and Tyler Wissel also had bummer days out on track. Tyler, who told me before the race he was a big fan of VIR, was another bar-banging victim. He started the race fourth on the grid and slipped back a few positions at the start. Tyler was then forced off track at the top of the roller coaster section and crashed heavily. I swung by the Wissel Racing paddock set-up after the race and caught up with Tyler. He reported that he is physically fine despite the spectacular-looking crash, and that the KTM RC390 is repairable and will be ready for tomorrow’s race. Tyler’s identical twin brother Ryan, who reported not being a big fan of VIR, finished ninth after starting twelfth.
The Supersport/Superstock 600 was also the scene of more bar-banging. The relatively clean first lap featured another three-way battle between the Y.E.S. Graves Yamaha R6s of Garrett Gerloff and J.D. Beach and the M4 Suzuki GSX-R 600 of Valentin Debise. Debise did stand Gerloff up in turn 1, but Gerloff managed to get around Debise and Beach to take the lead. As they began lap two, Debise clipped the left rear of the Gerloff’s bike at the end of the front straight and ended up going down in the muddy turn 1. Debise was uninjured but the rider and bike were covered in a thick, wet layer of mud and grass. The remainder of the race featured a close battle between Gerloff and Beach, with Gerloff eventually breaking away and taking the win. With Debise out, Honda’s factory-supported Benny Solis was able to bring his CBR600RR home in a lonely third place for his first podium of the season. TWPH friend Caroline Olson crashed her Meen Motorsports Yamaha R6 at turn 1 on the last lap. I did not have a chance to catch up with Caroline after the race but will try to find her this morning. Despite the use of the last chance qualifier pre-race to limit the size of the Supersport/Superstock 600 grid, Gerloff and Beach began lapping riders around lap 12. That caused the gap between the leaders to change and created some close calls between the faster and slower riders on the mostly one-line VIR track. MotoAmerica may need to look at ways to shrink the middleweight grid even more the rider safety.
The Superbike/Superstock 1000 race was spectacular with its deft riding and amazing comebacks by the Graves Yamaha riders. However, the race was ultimately defined by bar-banging between Yoshimura Suzuki’s Toni Elias and Meen Motorsports’ Josh Herrin. Graves Yamaha’s Josh Hayes and Cameron Beaubier, along with Herrin, secured a Yamaha lockout of the front row. Herrin, Elias, and Yoshimura Suzuki’s Roger Lee Hayden got off to good starts while Beaubier made a mistake in turn 1 and Hayes was forced off track at the top of the roller coaster section. Herrin battled with Hayden for the first part of the race with some aggressive passes and defensive riding before Hayden’s Suzuki was able to get in front and pull away to a comfortable lead. Herrin began drifting back toward Elias while Hayes and Beaubier were trading fastest laps between them. Elias caught and passed Herrin, and Herrin attempted to make a bold pass he had completed successfully several times earlier in the race at the top of the roller coaster. That time however he lost control and crashed straight on, taking Elias out with him. Hayden was then able to cruise to a win, while Beaubier has ridden all the way back to second and Hayes back to third. Hayes, however, was piped at the line by Latus Motors Kawasaki’s Bobby Fong, who took his third Superbike podium and third Superstock 1000 win of the season. Fong reported in the post-race press conference that Hayes lost drive after running over the aforementioned river at the last turn and that is why his Superstock 1000 Kawasaki ZX-10R was able to out-drive the factory superbike to start finish. I spoke with Hayes after the race and he did not feel that the “river” slowed him down. He thought he had gone around it and just did not get a good drive out of the last corner.
There was a mixed response in the press box and the paddock to the Herrin/Elias incident. During the press conference, Fong and Hayden heavily criticized Herrin’s riding. They felt he was trying too hard and was seriously overriding his bike to pass other riders for pride rather than positions he would be able to maintain. When I asked Roger how he felt Herrin had raced him earlier in the race. Hayden responded “Clean, but dumb.” Several people in the press room also felt that Herrin had tried to come from too far back to out-brake Elias, who is renown for being strong on braking. Other members of the press and Josh Hayes felt that it was a racing incident and that Herrin had not done anything any other racer would do, or that Elias would not have done to him. Personally, I always go back to the Ayrton Senna quote, “If you no longer go for a gap, you are no longer a racing driver.” Herrin had made that same out-braking maneuver several times earlier in the race. I think he probably tried to out-brake someone he could not out-brake and got in too deep. Racers are going to make aggressive moves. They are not out there to complete the world’s fastest parade on two wheels. To me, it was not a dirty pass and did not deserve to be penalized. Instead, Herrin has been dropped three grid positions for Sunday’s race.