The Springfield Mile is one of the most popular venues in the entire Grand National Championship and was nearly cancelled this year due to weather.
The Indy 500 dominates Midwestern sports pages over the Memorial Day weekend, but if you're a motorcyclist in the heartland, the last weekend in May is all about the Grand National Championship, and the return of the Twins class to the 'Mile' track at Springfield. This year - again - the weather played havoc with AMA Pro Racing officials and the promoters, the Illinois Motorcycle Dealers Association.
The Mile ran on an abbreviated and delayed schedule, and the TT which had been planned for Saturday evening ran Monday afternoon. But the rains didn't just influence the timing of events. It's said that Eskimos have 50 words for snow. Well, Flat Track
racers have the same nuanced appreciation for dirt. Even though they don't race dirt track in the rain, rain changes the course, strategy and outcome.
Saturday morning, at the picturesque multi-use stadium at the Illinois State Fairground, teams set up their pit awnings and unloaded their single-cylinder TT bikes under leaden skies. It looked pretty threatening, especially after a couple of weeks of really wild weather in tornado alley, but the rain held off until just before the scheduled riders' meeting.
That's when, stupidly, I looked at the sky and said, "Maybe it won't rain."
The 2011 running of the Springfield Mile had to be rescheduled to Sunday, but even then rain still threatened the event. Flat track racers and mud are not a good combo.
Within a minute, the first drops began to fall. Big, heavy ones that landed with an audible 'thwack' at first, until the clouds unleashed a roaring torrent, complete with lightning and, finally, hail. Since the TT course at Springfield is laid out in a natural bowl, the track and pits were soon under water. Over the P.A., an AMA Pro official announced the obvious: there would be no racing this day. The disembodied voice told us that the Mile would go as scheduled on Sunday, and we'd get more information the following day at the big track. Those were the words; the tone was more like, I'm getting the heck out of here ASAP.
That prompted a rush to load bikes and break down awnings that had just been erected, and trucks trying to get in to load-up blocked the exits of vehicles trying to leave. It was chaos.
Sunday morning broke under heavy cloud again, although the forecast called for only a 20% chance of rain. The paddock looked like a club race because only vans and pickup trucks could fit through the tunnel into the infield. The larger teams' big rigs and motorhomes couldn't cross the track because it was far too soft.
They'd been rolling the track all the previous week, and the theory was that the surface was packed down, and had not taken on too much water during the storm. Still, it was gumbo. AMA Pro Racing officials had to make a tricky call; they could run the harrow over track and break up the surface, which would help it dry out - but if they did that and it rained, it would absorb even more water. Late in the morning they sent out tractors to break up the surface, and then they started rolling it again. Some time in the afternoon, it was solid enough to bring the big rigs across.
Rain flowed down the banked turns, creating puddles along the rails where grooves would normally form.
Meanwhile, in ones and twos, riders slogged through the soaking infield to look at the track down in Turn 4. At any flat track race, you'll see racers wander out to look at the dirt. They'll kick it to see how firm and/or tacky the surface is, feel it to see if it's cool and damp or warm and dry. I've seen Chris Carr pick up a bit of it and crumble it through his fingers like a farmer deciding if it's time to plant. Riders will do almost everything but taste it. But early in the day on Sunday, the inside of the turns still looked too soft to even step on. Riders stood in the infield grass and just looked at it.
I asked one of the young Pro Singles riders what he thought it would be like and he told me, "I've never ridden a rough Mile.” Springfield is intense that way, since the corners can be ridden wide open right along the rail. Joe Kopp once mentioned that he always took his wedding ring off at Springfield because when he was a young racer, some guy rubbed his hand on the rail in one of the turns, and his wedding ring caught on one of the big rivets that hold the guardrail together. It tore off his finger.
Because the turns at Springfield are pretty banked, the rain flows down towards the rail. Where the groove would normally form along the rail, it was really wet, and further out into what would have been the 'cushion', the track was visibly drying. With little to do but stand around and speculate, everyone had a different opinion on what the riders would find when they were finally allowed out on track. Bryan Smith told me that he thought the wet surface would ball up and create more of a cushion than we usually see at Springfield. I asked him if that was an advantage or a disadvantage for him. "Probably an advantage," he replied. "I like to hang it out on the Miles."
The vastly experienced Bill Werner, who is tuning J.R. Schnabel's Kawasaki
this year, told me that because they hadn't gotten any calcium carbonate mixed into the top layer, it would have a wet base but that the actual surface would be even dryer than normal. AMA Pro official Steve Morehead, who was in a position to actually influence the outcome, told me that he couldn't start practice too early, because Springfield's spongy base was prone to forming ruts.
Rob Pearson told me, "I like ruts.” Rough. Deep. Fast. Almost every Grand National Championship rider I've ever asked has told me that the gnarlier the track, the better he likes it.
Lloyd Brothers Motorsports' Brad Baker (#12) was looking sharp during practice and sticking it to the rail.
It was about 3 p.m. before they finally called a rider's meeting to announce the shortened program, with time limited by the fact that if it stayed cloudy, it would be too dark to race by 8 p.m. The plan was to run practice and qualifying, then take the top-six riders in each heat straight to the Mains, with no Semis. With an eye on skies that still, at that point, threatened rain, the Experts would run before the Pros, and the Dash for Cash would be pushed to the end of the program.
Riders clanked around in the pits in their steel shoes as their teams made final preparations on bikes. I slogged back down to Turn 4, and saw that most of the Experts were running about 10 feet off the rail, on dirt that looked damp. Nichole Cheza and Lloyd Brothers Motorsports' Ducati
-mounted rookie Brad Baker were two who were lapping fast right down along the rail. The surface looked like mud, but it was providing them with plenty of grip.
For the first hour, the track was tacky as anything. The abundant grip probably contributed to the relatively strong showing by the metric bikes, and in the first Qualifying session Baker (on Lloyd Bros.' HurtbyAccident.com Ducati) was nearly half a second clear of the field. His 103-mph lap speed must have been one of the fastest ever laid down under the current technical rules. God only knows how fast he might have gone if he hadn't struggled with a scary speed wobble. Willie McCoy was the fastest Harley-Davidson
rider; XRs still accounted for more than half of the top-10 times in Q1, but Aussie Michael Kirkness stood out; his Suzuki appeared almost devoid of sponsorship in third place. Another Aussie, Luke Gough, made a good showing on a very tidy Kawasaki put together by his sponsor Skip Eaken. (Skip built Ricky Graham's and Bubba Shobert's Honda RS750s back in the day; the frame and exhaust on the #62 Kawasaki were built by Ricky Howarton, whose primary business is making exhaust systems for Indy Cars - so you may guess that he knows something about fabrication.)
Lap times began to gradually slow as track conditions worsened, and gearing became a major key to winning.
As the rain held off and the track wore in, it slowed down a little. Of the top 20 qualifiers, 13 put in their best laps in Q1. I don't think it was a coincidence that of the seven who improved in Q2, six were on XR-750s. Baker handily won the first Heat, and conforming to the day's trend, each subsequent heat was slower. Smith won Heat Two, and Carr - who rode much harder than his results showed all weekend - won the final heat.
One of the keys to winning the Main would be gearing. "There's a two teeth difference between the front straight, which has a headwind, and the back straight, which has a tailwind." Carr told me. "The key is going to be finding the right compromise. You have to shade it towards the front straight, for the run to the flag."
Brandan Bergen, who failed to make the Main, told me that it was rutted and gnarly down along the rail, but at least there was grip to be found. "A few feet up it's smooth," he added, "but it's slicker than pig snot."
By the time the Main event rolled around, it was a perfect evening. Although the previous day's weather seemed to put a damper on attendance, there were acres of Harleys parked over on the paying-customer side of the Grandstand. I noticed the usual 'If you can read this, the bi#%* fell off' T-shirt and noticed a group of bikers in colors. One member was identified by the embroidered nickname 'Slugger' and was followed by a woman whose vest proclaimed her to be, "Property of Slugger."
The stage was set for an epic conflict between Baker, the rookie on the potent Lloyd Bros. Ducati, and about five ex-GNC champions on XR-750s. The question wasn't whether Baker and his Duc could outrun those guys, it was whether he could outwit them. Springfield is perhaps the most technical track on the circuit. As it dried and slicked up, it was coming back to the Harleys and it would continue to do so during the 25-lap National.
Jared Mees (#9) timed a draft perfectly on Sammy Halbert for the win by just 0.016 seconds.
The first 24 laps are usually just feinting and posturing, but the old pros at the sharp end of the grid had to be posturing a little before this race even started. I don't think anybody was confident they had anything for Baker, who'd spent the day routinely breaking the draft on the straightaway. I was only half-kidding when I told him, before the race, not to make it look too easy. I found myself wondering when, if ever, anyone's won a GNC Mile race on his first attempt.
I didn't have to look that up, because Baker made his only misstep of the day when he bogged the Duc on the start. He entered Turn 1 about mid-pack. Then, he set his hair on fire. Within a couple of laps he'd passed several riders and worked his way back up to the tail end of the lead group.
The Ducati had been plagued with a nasty headshake on the front straight all day. The Lloyd Bros. chased the problem between every session, and wapped the front fork before the race. They thought they were getting a handle on it, but they certainly hadn't cured it.
As Baker pushed harder and harder the bike wobbled alarmingly all the way down the straight until he laid it over in Turn 1. The kid showed what he was made of by not backing off. He rode lap after lap, pinning the throttle despite a speed wobble that, if it happened to me for even a few seconds, I'd immediately stop, park my bike, shut it off, and take a good few minutes to collect myself before walking back to the pits to turn in my steel shoe. Suffice to say that HurtbyAccident.com could have become a mighty ironic title sponsor at any moment. In the final few laps, exhausted by the effort, Baker finally let Kenny Coolbeth past and settled for fifth - still a great showing.
The four guys in front of the rookie all had single-digit plates; Jared Mees timed a draft pass perfectly to eke out the win over series points leader Sammy Halbert and #1 plate holder, Jake Johnson. For Mees, the rain also heralded the end of a long personal drought.
It's insane just how close these riders get to the rail as they try to shave extra milliseconds off.
So at the end of the day, either the track had come back to the Harleys and that was the machine destined to win it, or it came down to experience. The wily veterans managed to balance the ruts, the slick surface, the headwinds and the tailwinds all while playing a high-speed checkers game, jumping opponents in the draft for about 24 and 3/4 miles in order to be in position to lead across the stripe. Mees' margin of victory was .016 seconds, so it was a vintage Springfield Mile.
There were great stories up and down the field and also in the Motorcycle-Superstore.com Pro class too, but I'll save those for another day. I just want to close with a shout out to Nichole Cheza, who put herself solidly in the Main, and looked more comfortable running in the draft than I've ever seen her. She finished 12th and looked happy after the race, despite the fact that she was icing her left hand.
The next day, I saw her dad at the TT, and I asked him what had happened. He told me she'd rubbed the guardrail with her hand, and it had ripped a chunk of flesh out of her middle finger. "It was right to the bone," he said with a grimace.
I didn't see her hand, because she was wearing her riding gloves every time I was around on Monday. I asked her about her injury, and she totally brushed it off: "It was just a little patch of skin, just down to the meat," she said almost cheerfully. She was struggling with the TT course, as usual, but she was still pumped about the day she'd had on Sunday. The better I get to know her, the more I'd like to see her on a GNC podium.