“Fifty is the new forty…” that seems to be the phrase these days. As motorcycle racers it seems we chase eternal youth through two wheels. So after turning 50 earlier this year, and with my family and friend’s support, I made the decision to return to the AMA/Loretta Lynn’s Amateur Nationals and compete in the Senior +50 Master Class.
If you are an MX racer you have likely heard about Loretta Lynn’s or even had the opportunity to race there. If you want to race the fastest guys your age on a challenging track with everything from rich loamy soil to axle deep mud, in equally as tough temperatures ranging from 70 degrees to near triple digits and almost 100% humidity, this is the place. Being a racer for most of my life I have had the opportunity to ride many events from local races to AMA Pro Nationals and in my experience this course is the closest one can come to riding an AMA Pro MX National. Huge braking bumps, multiple line corners, footpeg deep ruts, it is all here.
And has been since it began. I can recall the first Loretta Lynn’s in 1982 when the local hospital filled up with heat prostrated riders. One in particular, who went on to a very successful pro career abandoned his motorcycle on track, with his rear wheel buried up to the seat into a mud hole up and his front wheel sticking straight in the air.
The qualifying process begins in the spring all across the country as thousands of riders attend area qualifiers in an attempt to advance to their regional race. From there, depending on the region, only the top-four or five riders advance to the National. For some the process of qualifying can take years, or not happen at all. When I first attempted to qualify I was a competitive local expert with high hopes and was lapped at my Regional race… talk about a learning curve. After two years of trying I finally qualified and my first appearance was at the first race held at Loretta Lynn’s.
Good Friends at the Races: (from left to right) David Lovell, lifelong racing friend, Ed Krass, great friend and my mechanic for the week, myself, Bob Weber, owner 6D Helmets, and Scott Lindley, Attorney to the Stars and plus 30 & plus 40 racers.
In the big picture my goal this summer was to win as I have succeeded in ‘83, ‘93 and 2003. Although the number of titles won by a single rider is always changing I wanted to be the first rider to have won titles over four decades. However as I have learned many times in racing and in life, things typically go best if you can have some fun while doing them. Making it fun for me is having good friends around to share in the experience.
With family responsibilities I find myself similar to most vet riders: trying to balance life and a limited schedule of racing. The question for this year would be: is my level of speed at 50 enough to win? There would only be one way to find out so at around 120 days before the race I began my physical plan of preparation that has served me well over the years. It is not elaborate or top secret, just basic physical activity tailored to motocross.
Although riding is the best preparation, for me it is just not practical with the time it takes to load up, drive to the track, ride and return. In the past several years I have grown to love both mountain bike and road cycling, but have learned that while they have a place they are a poor fit for the muscle groups needed to race MX. Running, and specifically running for time, always works best. This time I also did more basic core strength work, focusing on that rather than running. As the race got closer I lowered my 5K times and diligently completed the core workouts, preparing myself to be ready to race the entire 18 to 20 minutes that would comprise our motos. Another goal was to train as late in the day as possible, to replicate the high temperatures of a race, though in reality this is not really possible here in California (it never gets really hot here!). For the last week of training I traveled to my dad’s home in Florida to acclimate as best as possible to the extreme temperatures encountered during the event.
Being able to draw from the proven training playbook was helpful so the next step was to select a bike to ride. I have been fortunate to have success on many brands at this event over the years and with the all of the factors in play I needed something easy to ride. Good turning, lightweight and smooth power are the attributes most important to me. From what I had read in magazine reviews Honda’s new-for-2012 CRF450R was that motorcycle, so I went about the process of getting one.
Once I got my Honda, I rode it unaltered at one practice day with some friends and raced it one time at the weekly REM Glen Helen MX two weeks before the race. These two rides confirmed what I suspected: great turning and excellent, user friendly power. While I do feel confident on flat, rutty turns, one of my weaknesses over the years has been corners that require you to be aggressive and attack berms and this machine was noticeably better in those types of turns. I had last won at the Ranch on a Honda in 1989. Could it happen again 24 years later?
With the bike choice and physical training underway, it was necessary to tend to all the details that are part of this race. Do I drive or fly? Use the family RV or a hotel? Can I pool resources to accomplish all the above? In the end, and after much research, the best solution was to fly and rent a small camper for the week. This is when it’s nice to have friends and none are better than Ed Krass, owner of Mid South Motoplex in nearby Clarksville, Tennessee.
Ed and I first met in the mid-80s when he worked (and met his wife!) at Downers Grove Yamaha prior to having his own dealership. Since then he has been an ardent supporter even supplying a motorcycle for me to race while in in college following my pro career.
After compiling several lists and checking them twice we now had local transportation, a camper, a generator, spare parts and camping gear. To get the bike to the race my friend, Jim “Bones” Bacon at Pro Circuit was able to arrange transport through his nephew Jack, who is stationed at Beale AFB in Northern California and was also traveling to Loretta’s to compete for his first-time in the Plus 25 Class. We were now gaining momentum.
At this point I had a completely stock motorcycle had been ridden most of the year by its previous owner and it needed a little TLC. The first order of business was replacing the chain and sprockets with a set from Renthal. Following my two rides I liked the stock gearing so I left it unchanged. Next, I mounted a pair of Dunlop Geomax MX51 Intermediate terrain tires. From there I asked Bones at Pro Circuit for suspension help as he has been gracious enough to support my racing for the past 15 years. He knows more about suspension and set-up than anyone I have ever met. Where else can you have the same person who builds their team’s Championship proven suspension build your pieces too?
This was my first opportunity to use the Kayaba air fork that comes standard on the Honda and I was curious how they would work. At my initial rides they functioned well and overall seemed balanced—though it was a little on the soft side for my weight and riding level. Bones worked his internal valving and oil level magic on the fork and shock and added the correct shock spring for my weight. He also installed very trick-looking Pro Circuit fork caps and a red anodized bladder cap for the shock to slightly increase the oil volume. Other cool parts were the dual pipe Pro Circuit titanium exhaust system, shock link, clutch spring kit and clutch cover. A Pro Circuit graphics kit and seat cover was also fitted as was a brake snake to keep the rear brake pedal from being damaged in the deep Tennessee ruts. All of these parts came straight from their catalog and added to the cool factor.
I sat on the bike for the first-time at Loretta Lynn’s and the sag and overall feel was perfect right off the stand. Following our 20-minute practice on Monday there was no need to even touch a clicker -– the suspension was spot-on. The recommended fork pressure of 32 psi provided the correct ride height while the new valving and stiffer shock spring made the rear end plush enough for the many braking bumps yet stiff enough for jumps. Aside from rear sprocket swap to lower the final drive gearing (thank you, Dave Kaiser) and tweaking the position of the handlebar, I was ready to go.
One thing I have learned about this race over the years is to never underestimate any of your competitors. Prior to my arrival I had perused some of the results from the various qualifiers around the country and had ideas of who was my toughest competition. Thumbing through the entry list the night before I saw some well-known competitors like Dave Hand and Kreg Bigelow; fast guys I had raced before and who had quite a bit of National level experience. Dave and I competed as professionals together in the ‘80s and it was cool to see him using the familiar number-42 which he earned as a AMA pro. Kreg is one of the original Michigan Mafia members who along with brothers Kip and Kris wreaked havoc on the motocross scene in the midwest. Similar to the race, our practice was combined with the plus-45 class so it was tough to see who was really going fast and who wasn’t. Transponders did provide a few clues, but in my experience you never really know who the competition is until the gate drops. The best you can hope for is to be in the fight at the front. I knew it wouldn’t be easy – it never is.
Our first moto was Tuesday of race week. We were scheduled later in the day with a 3 p.m. start time. Another great thing about this race is how it goes off like clockwork with the schedule crafted days before the racing begins. My friend Ed and two of his friends arrived about one hour before my moto so we could begin final preparation and head to the staging area. New for me this year was that my class would be reduced from 40 riders to 30 but would be combined with the plus-45 class, meaning there would be 60 motorcycles on the course at the same time. We did have a staggered start (i.e second gate) but I was curious as to how that would work out during the race.
Following our “hot lap” I was pretty excited to start as the track was in very good shape with multiple lines, even though the bumps were bigger on this first day than any other time I had been here. For the first moto everyone draws their start position from a bucket and we would up with a high-teens gate pick. I was able to find a good spot right next to the inside of the starting box. This position always works well if you don’t get the best jump from off the gate. When the gate dropped, I wheelied a bit more than I should have but still had a good launch and rounded the first turn somewhere inside the top-five. From here I was patient for the first half of a lap and began getting up to speed and trying to hit my marks. I was amazed at how quickly we got into traffic and soon was lost as to what position I was in. I had not prepared a pit board for Ed thinking that simple hand gestures would work but that was obviously not the case. I did have a friend on the opposite side of the course who was watching and on the last lap I thought he was telling me I was in first but I couldn’t be certain. I did feel pretty comfortable with no big moments and no one passed me—which is usually a good sign. Once the checkered flag was waved, I was ushered into the finish area (another good sign!) and was ecstatic to learn that I had won. A very familiar competitor, Dave Hand from Ohio, finished second and I knew it would be likely we would be close together the rest of the week.
The next day was a scheduled off day for my class but my pal, Scott Lindley was riding the plus-30 and plus-40 classes so I wanted to help. One of the things that makes this event tough is the weather which often includes rain. Unfortunately the skies opened up big time in the morning. The schedule held as long as possible but eventually the weather suspended the racing for the afternoon with an approximately four four-hour delay due to the track being waterlogged. Scott’s motos went off but the conditions were terrible and everyone struggled with vision and heavy mud-packed motorcycles. At one point a portion of the course was temporarily re-routed to minimize the damage to the track and bikes. Scott’s second moto, scheduled for later that day, was part of the cancelation and he would be the first race the next morning. You can normally count on at least one of your motos being run in these challenging conditions and we were hopeful this would be it for the week.
As the day ended the track crews were moving dirt and doing what they could to re-build the course. Having worked this chunk of land many times the crew is quite experienced. If you saw NBC Sports coverage of the motos live that Saturday, you’d have seen how they plowed the wet dirt to the sides to get underneath to dry soil.
When the sun came up Thursday, the course was much better but the schedule was about a half a day behind. Even still, Scott’s moto went off without a hitch. But during the race the track’s surface was still muddy and by the second lap many guys had tossed their goggles and their bikes were jammed with mud.
My second moto was scheduled for 6 p.m. that day and there were doubts we would fit it in. However, by minimizing track prep time and re-arranging the 50cc races, our moto would go off as scheduled. For the next gate position I had the luxury of having the number one pick because of my first moto finish. I found a good position again near the center of the starting box. Lined up next to me was four-time National Motocross Champion Gary Jones, who also came from Southern California.
I got another good jump off the gate with Gary next to me as we headed into the first turn. As we exited I was again in the top-five. I was able to make some relatively quick passes and made it to the front by the end of the first lap. For this moto Ed had a pit board. As we settled into the next three or four laps it didn’t seem there was anyone close behind me, but I never saw the board, and wasn’t entirely sure. At the beginning of the fifth lap I did see a “+ 5 sec” cue on the board which made me relax slightly until the next corner when I saw Dave Hand’s front fender! Ed was able to use the transponder timing and scoring board in the mechanic’s area but by the time I made it around to the designated signal area Dave had erased that gap. At this point my hands were full and I tried to just keep riding my race. Just before the finish line and heading into the last lap Dave made a clean, well-executed pass which changed the whole moto and brought with it huge implications for the week. I initially overreacted and immediately made one or two mistakes in the next few sections. However, by half way into the next lap I had recovered somewhat and was not going to give up. Winning the second moto is key at this race as you can avoid a potential must-win situation going into the final race. So I concentrated on hitting my corners perfectly and trying to close the gap.
(Top) Racer and arch-rival Dave Hand makes a pass on the author as they being the final lap. (Bottom) The author charges back, passing his rival with only a few turns left in the second moto at Loretta’s.
Heading into a fast sandy sweeper he chose a wide outside line as I upshifted and rode the rougher, shorter inside line all the way down the straightaway into the next left hander. It took him more time to change direction and by then I had closed the gap and was dead even with him. I don’t think we touched in the next turn but it was close and I made the pass. With three corners to go I concentrated again on not making any mistakes and was able to hold him off at the finishline by less than a second. I think he was surprised I was able to catch back up. Those are the opportunities you replay in your head over and over through all of the training and I’m glad my preparation paid off.
For Friday’s third and final moto, I only needed to finish second to Dave. However, I couldn’t finish third since we would theoretically tie on total moto scores and he would win based on the final moto tie breaker. Our race was scheduled for 5:30 p.m. but because of the prior rain delay the start time had shifted to after 6:30 p.m. It was a very nice gesture on the race staff’s part to poll all the rider’s to see if we felt there was enough light for the race. Following a thumb’s up from the group we did our hot lap where again I felt very good and ready to race. This time the track was absolutely perfect with multiple lines, plenty of bumps and excellent dirt. For this start, I migrated further down the gate toward the inside. Again, I got a good jump and came out in the top-three or four positions.
The goal for this moto was to manage the race and I spent the first two laps following Dave as he had done with me in the earlier motos. I remember feeling pretty good in second and decided it would be best to go ahead and race rather than follow. I was able to make a pass and believe I led laps three, four and five before being re-passed. I will say I was very comfortable racing with him as we have competed together over the years with some very tight and hard racing but no incidents. This one was exactly the same as he put a couple of very good, hard, fair passes on me and I was able to respond at least once. I do remember coming into the finish line corner at one point literally side by side and banging into each other a couple of times prior to us making the corner. At this point I saw the two lap board and was satisfied to let him go, which I did. I had a good view of third at this point and just maintained the gap to finish in second place in the final moto and get my 10th National Championship.
Look at that grin. It’s all smiles for the author after he captured his 10th Loretta Lynn’s Championship.
Other highlights of the week were seeing many old friends that I run into only once a year and making new ones in the process. The week of racing could not have been possible without the support of my wife Allison and our two daughters, Emma and Abby, our close friends and longtime sponsors. Many of you have asked how our oldest, Emma, who suffers from Rett Syndrome is doing and we are happy to report she is well and there are some great photos of her over at her site www.Race4Rettmx.com. To my friends at Thor, Oakley, Shoei, Dunlop, Renthal, Pro Circuit Racing, Mid South Motoplex thank you for the support and my chance to tell my story!