David Knight's return to Europe for the 2009 season puts the Can-Am Grand National Cross Country Championship up for grabs, and next week a huge pack of factory-supported talent will begin the fight for it. The Parts Unlimited River Ranch GNCC in Lake Wales, Florida, takes place on Tuesday, March 3, and the best off-road talent in the world knows that race kicks off their best chance ever to conquer America's largest off-road series.
Knight's departure creates a big hole for the Red Bull KTM team he rode for, but the squad will remain in contention thanks to two well-proven talents. California's Kurt Caselli, the 2007 WORCS Champion, switches to the GNCC Series this year. The sandy GNCC opener in Florida will lend itself to Caselli's skills. Two years ago, he finished fourth overall at the Florida GNCC riding a 250 four-stroke, and this time he will have his KTM 250XC two-stroke aimed for a win. His teammate, New York's Nathan Kanney already knows what winning feels like, as he took a dominant win at the final GNCC round last season.
The FMF Suzuki team sharpens their attack in 2009 with two riders, Charlie Mullins and Josh Strang. "Hot Rod" Mullins' 2008 season included ups and downs, but the man many have dubbed the future of GNCC racing won't be satisfied unless he lands this year's title. His Australian teammate Strang was voted "Most Improved Rider" for his breakthrough 2008 season, where he won a race, collected seven podiums and took third in the final standings. The 20-year-old spent this off-season training with five-time GNCC Champion Rodney Smith.
The Am-Pro Yamaha team will run a unique strategy for the 2009 season, deploying the oldest contender in the XC1 Pro Class, 2003 GNCC Champion Barry Hawk, as well as the youngest, 19-year-old rookie threat "Bad" Thad DuVall. Hawk, who also notched seven GNCC ATV Championships in the 1990s, is the most accomplished rider in GNCC history. His experience and determination should make him a threat as he switches to a Yamaha WR450F this season. DuVall, the 2008 GNCC XC2 Lites (250F) Champion, enters the XC1 class with more hype than any rookie ever. The two-time GNCC Youth Overall Champion is the son of former GNCC pro contender Chad DuVall. He nailed a podium at the final GNCC race last year after switching to a 450, and he also challenged Knight for a win at the Snowshoe GNCC while riding a 250F.
Last year's GNCC runner up, Paul Whibley, switches to the GEICO/JG Racing Kawasaki squad. The "Axeman" from New Zealand made a habit of wearing down his competition on his way to taking three wins last season, and he hopes to turn his incredible work ethic into a championship. Jimmy Jarrett will also race for the team. The former GNCC amateur standout hopes the new team will give him the focus needed to break through and win more races.
The rejuvenated Husqvarna factory effort broke through last year when Australian veteran Glenn Kearney put his red and white machine on the podium. Kearney will now switch from a 450 four-stroke to a WR300 two-stroke in search of a victory.
Husaberg will also head to the front lines of GNCC competition with last year's XC2 runner up, Dustin Gibson, at the controls of their radical new FE450.
Even Gas Gas has gotten into the fray this season by signing 2007 GNCC XC2 Champion Justin Williamson to race the XC1 class on their 300EC two-stroke. Williamson, who has already finished on the podium in the GNCC XC1 class, will put his work ethic to the test after two solid seasons with KTM.
With DuVall and Gibson out of the XC2 Lites class, that championship is up for grabs, too. KTM has two contenders in former GNCC amateur standouts Kailub Russell and Cory Buttrick. Scotty Watkins spearheads the effort for the GEICO/JG Racing team in XC2, and the Monster Energy/Andrews Yamaha team features Welsh rider Jason Thomas, who won a race last year, and Arkansas veteran Josh Weisenfels.
The bikes race as part of a full four-day GNCC weekend, with ATVs practicing on Saturday, February 28, and racing on Sunday, March 1. Bike riders practice on Monday, March 2, and race on Tuesday, March 3. On race days, the pro-events begin at 1 p.m. Two-day passes, which included full pit access, cost $15, and tickets are available at the gate. For more information on the event, go to www.gnccracing.com