Jake Johnson in full attack mode exiting the final turn at Yavapai Downs in Arizona for the final round of the AMA GNC Series.
Dedication. If there’s one word that comes to mind when attending an AMA Grand National Flat Track, this is it. Dedication from the mechanics to work into the wee hours of the night for no money; dedication from the truck drivers for their countless miles driving to all 17 rounds; dedication from the families of those involved, supporting a lifestyle of constant travel for very little monetary reward; and, of course, dedication from the riders that make up this amazing sport, many of which who do all of the above on top of the riding!
Because, you see, even on the professional level, the term privateer takes on a whole new meaning in this grassroots sport. In fact, every rider in the paddock is technically a privateer, minus the sole factory Harley-Davidson of Kenny Coolbeth. Yet even he doesn’t show up in a semi-truck – a good race hauler-style RV is as ‘big money’ as it gets. But what these guys have in spades that some of those other two-wheeled disciplines sometimes lack is heart. Watching it firsthand, especially around a high-speed Mile, is truly an inspirational and action-packed experience; and that’s exactly what we did this evening in Yavapai, Arizona, soaking in the final round of the AMA GNC Series, the action still running through my brain as I sit here and attempt to put the night’s action into words. The best part? The championship was still up in the air entering the final round of the series at Yavapai Downs, it all coming down to two of the sport’s best: Joe Kopp and Jake Johnson.
Kopp came into the final round 10 points behind Johnson in the quest for his second-career Grand National Championship.
Kopp came into the weekend 10 points adrift of Johnson, so the Ducati-mounted rider had to win and hope Johnson would fall back outside the top-five to have mathematical shot at his second-career title, the first coming a decade prior. Johnson, gunning for his career-first championship, just needed to aim for the podium and no matter where anyone else finished that elusive crown would be his.
But before the Expert Twins crowned their champion, the Motorcycle-Superstore.com Pro Singles riders had their turn to show what the sport’s next big up-and-coming riders were capable of. With Jeffery Carver wrapping that title up at the previous round in Minnesota, this final round in Yavapai was all about bragging rights and who had the speed to stand atop the podium in what would surely be another hard-fought battle.
Heat 1 saw Carver and his Yamaha top Honda-mounted Michael Martin and Kawasaki’s Chaz Springsteen in a battle separated by 0.137 seconds at the line, while Brad Baker and his Honda topped fellow Red Rider Michael LaBelle by a mere 0.030 seconds to win the second heat. Lancaster Harley-Davidson’s Shayna Texer took the LCQ victory on her Honda, a race which had the stands on their feet as the female rider was quite a fan favorite.
This set up what most thought would be another classic Carver verses Baker battle, the just crowned champion against last year’s series victor. Too bad LaBelle has other plans. After getting through a pair of red flags for downed riders (all were okay), the final came down to a classic Pro Singles drafting battle to the line, with the young Canadian sensation coming from a top-five start to take his first-career AMA Pro win, doing it in style with a fist-pump as he crossed the line despite only having a 0.012-second gap over second-place Martin and 0.071 seconds over Baker in third. In fact, the top-six were separated by 0.773-seconds, providing exactly what the fans wanted: Action right to the line on the final lap.
LaBelle the dedicated the win to his fallen countryman, Jesse Phibbs. “I wanted this so bad. It’s all for Jesse after we lost him earlier this week,” said LaBelle from the podium in what was a very emotional victory celebration.
With one of the year’s closest Motorcycle-Superstore.com Pro Singles main events in the books, it was time for the big boys to come play – the Grand National Twins Expert class (why the big boys are called Expert and the up-and-coming kids Pro, we have no idea). Either way it was time to crown both the Expert Twins class champion as well as the daddy – Grand National Champion. This combines the Expert Twins and Expert Singles championship points to crown one overall winner, a practice the series has just returned to this year after a long hiatus where the Twins champion was automatically awarded the GNC champion (don’t ask – we have no idea, either).
Slammin’ Sammy Halbert topped the Dash for Cash in Yavapai, a race he has won at several tracks this season.
In Heat 1 it was Jared Mees, last year’s GNC Champion, drafting Expert Rookie of the Year P.J. Jacobson at the line, winning by a scant 0.001 seconds – so close the timing and scoring system can go no lower; any closer and it would have been a photo-finish. Young road racer Stevie Bonsey took top honors in Heat 2, topping Sammy Halbert by 0.073 seconds. The third and final heat was a Johnson and Kenny Coolbeth breakaway, the two clearing off by a couple seconds and dicing right down to the wire, Johnson winning by 0.068 seconds.
The mid-day Dash for Cash featured the top-six GNC qualifiers in a four-lap shootout worth five championship points and a cool $1000 to the winner. With Kopp not making the Dash, Johnson was capable of adding to his lead in the standings prior to the final round. However, Halbert, Mees, Jacobson and Coolbeth had other ideas, dispatching Johnson to fourth and only gaining a single point on Kopp. The entire pack traded places constantly for the first two laps, until Bonsey got high and out of the groove. He came back in, holding up Coolbeth and Johnson enough the let the lead trio to get a small gap going into the final lap. In what was one of the best finishes of the night, Halbert, Mees and young road racer Jacobson engaged in a three-way draft to the line, Slammin’ Sammy coming out on top and pocketing the loot.
With Ducati rider Kopp winning the GNC Semi over Chad Cose, everything was set for a championship-deciding main event. But Kopp’s only hope of the title was to get out front and breakaway, then hoping Johnson would suffer some bad luck or have an off-night. It would be an uphill battled for Smokin’ Joe, starting multiple rows behind Jersey Jake after having to go to the Semi.
Even though he didn’t need to, Jake Johnson laid it all on the line to win the final race of the year at Yavapai Downs, wrapping up both the AMA Expert Twins and AMA Grand National Championships with the victory.
And this proved to be exactly that, just too much to overcome for Kopp, as Johnson not only stayed in front of Joe, he jumped off to a lightning start and was immediately part of the leading pack. A red flag due to Jacobson falling on the second lap saw things brought to a halt rather quickly, Jacobson okay and on his back-up bike for the restart shortly thereafter. Again Jake was up front and not holding back whatsoever, despite two championship titles on the line.
In a ride that defined the words courage and tenacity, Johnson duked it out tooth and nail with reigning champ Mees, Halbert and Coolbeth, the four trading positions multiple times a lap. As the last five laps wound down it was Mees, Johnson and Halbert gapping Coolbeth ever so slightly. Halbert would stay close right to the end, though never in a position to challenge for the win. That came down to Jake and Jared, with a final-lap, classic drafting battle deciding the race by 0.004 seconds, Johnson coming out on top, the East Coast native clinching both titles in near-perfect fashion with a season-ending victory, his third of the year.
“We were rubbing and bumping and I thought about dropping back to around fifth and then try to work my way back at the end, but in the past I’ve never been able to make that work,” said Johnson. “I knew I could double draft them, but nobody seemed able to do that to me. I wasn’t sure where Joe was, so I just decided to go for it. I thought I might as well lead if off turn four and see what they could do. Jared just came up inches short.”
The victory gave Johnson a season-ending total of 289 points. Coming into the event Kopp held a several-point lead on Mees in third, but with his second-place finish on the night, Mees was able tie Kopp in the final standings at 269 points each. By virtue of Kopp’s three more victories than Mees on the season, Smokin’ Joe was able to hold onto second in the final standings.
Motorcycle-Superstore.com Pro Singles Yavapai Results
1. Michael Labelle (Honda)
2. Michael Martin (Honda) -0.012 seconds
3. Brad Baker (Honda) -0.071 sec
4. Jeffery Carver Jr. (Yamaha) -0.131 sec
5. Chaz Springsteen (Kawasaki) -0.312 sec
6. Michael Toon (Honda)
7. Michael Avlia (Honda)
8. Wyatt Maguire (Yamaha)
9. Corey Crawford (Honda)
10. William Cato (Honda)
K&N Filters Grand National Expert Twins Yavapai Results
1. Jake Johnson (Harley-Davidson)
2. Jared Mees (Harley-Davidson) -0.004 seconds
3. Sammy Halbert (Harley-Davidson) -0.160 sec
4. Kenny Coolbeth (Harley-Davidson) -0.469 sec
5. Joe Kopp (Ducati) -2.582 sec
6. Bryan Smith (Kawasaki)
7. Stevie Bonsey (Harley-Davidson)
8. Chris Carr (Harley-Davidson)
9. P.J. Jacobson (Harley-Davidson)
10. Jeremy Higgins (KTM)