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Chasing David

Published January 23rd, 2002





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Chasing David - Photo 1 of 9
Taking it all in …



The crowd is lit by fire. Faces tremble and glow in the inconsistent light, every one of them fixed on the stadium floor below, where the top-ten ranked 250 Supercross riders in the world are being introduced.





It’s the Metrodome, Minneapolis, Minnesota. At one end of the stadium, an aluminum stage sits in a flood of light, back-dropped by huge aluminum doors. Its gleam reaches through the frantic designs of green lasers and speeding spotlights, and the lifting smoke of fireworks. A deep voice rings through the air, over the din of the crowd: please welcome your series points leader, David Vuillemin!





The aluminum doors open wide and from the darkness within, David Vuillemin wheelies onto the stage, his Oxbow gear brilliant blue as he maneuvers his factory Yamaha. He sets his wheel down and waves to the crowd. Then he takes his handlebars with both hands again, rides down the ramp off the stage, puts his feet on the back of his seat, and rides a wheelie down the start-straight, standing on the top of his bike.






Chasing David - Photo 2 of 9
Your points leader, David

The crowd is still cheering when the voice, deep and dramatic reaches out once more, and Jeremy McGrath bursts onto the stage, waving with both hands over his head. The sheer volume of the applause proves how Minnesota feels about him. He’s never finished off the podium here once in his career.





Inside the main corridor, the one that leads from the pits to the stadium floor, the East Coast 125 riders look out upon the spectacle. Sheltered by the tunnel, the roars of the crowd and the boom of the fireworks muffle and echo past them as they stand in their gear, helmets on, goggles in-hand. There’s one more rider to be introduced and everyone knows who it is.





The suspense is thick in the air, like the smoke that gathers with each additional explosion of spark and flame, distorting the light as it circles and zigzags through the dome. How will the crowd receive him? No one knows for sure, and after last week, the anticipation is high.





It’s the perfect setting for the introduction of a champion. Please welcome, the announcing voice rings, your defending 250 Outdoor National Champion, your defending US Open Champion, and your defending 250 Supercross Champion, Rickeee Caarrrmichael!





The cheers are already pouring down as Ricky bursts out of the sliding metal doors. Rider Number Four comes to a stop center-stage, puts both feet on the ground and lifts his fist in the air as silver sprays into the darkness on either side of him. The crowd strobes red in the light, applauding. The moment is brief, but significant. Ricky is already riding across the track under a spotlight, the spectacle of Indianapolis at once and definitively, behind him.





At the other end of the stadium, under the crowd and lit in weak fluorescent light, Steve Boniface stands at the top of a concrete stairwell, leaning over the rails, hopping up and down, warming up. Below him, Mike Brown stands on the tracks of a tractor not far from where Rider Number One-Eleven stands, Grant Langston. Buddy Antunez is there, standing in a dark corner, to one side of all twenty-two qualifying bikes. Up the center of the corridor in a line, they glimmer in the faint yellow light, each one held by a team mechanic. The rest of the riders are scattered throughout the room, their competitive spirits separating them as the reverse poles of a magnet would.





That’s what the feel in the air is like now. Magnetic. Charged with an inexplicable energy. When the feeling of fate is near-at-hand, it prickles your skin, and heightens your senses. The riders and their mechanics are ready for anything, but focused on only one thing. Winning.





The lights go up again and the track lifts out of the darkness, huge and repeating itself peak after peak. It’s time for the 125 main event and the AMA official waves to the line of mechanics. They wheel their machines out into the light, the sound of chains clasping sprocket teeth, soft but close-by, the murmur of the crowd, broad and expansive beyond.





When the gate drops, fate shows its hand early. Boost Mobile/Yamaha of Troy’s Chad Reed stays forward and centered over his YZF250 as his rear wheel spins and his front wheel lifts. Where other riders lose forward momentum, spinning out of the gate sideways, no matter how slight, Chad doesn’t. His gate has fallen, and all there is for him now, is a straight line from his front fender to the first corner.





The pack funnels in behind him as he leans into the track’s first left-hand corner and carves a wide, high-speed arc. Rider Number One-Hundred-and-Three has the Powerade holeshot award as he rounds the apex and aims for the track’s first vertical face, followed by Red Bull/KTM teammates Steve Boniface and pre-season favorite, Grant Langston.





Mike Brown exits the first corner behind Grant as Chad lifts off the face and into the air, his AST jersey pressing flat against his chest, his suspension rebounding beneath him.





Steve hits the jump-face as Chad reaches the peak of his leap, Grant as he begins his descent, and Mike as he lands, his suspension bottoming under the force of his new direction. Each one of them compresses his suspension with his legs straight at the base, chest over the bars, bending at the knees and elbows as the bike lifts up the face, nearly hitting the crossbar pad with his chest at the exact moment of lift-off.





And they do it at full throttle. Behind them, the pack churns. Cernics KTM’s John Dowd is just outside the top five behind National Number Ten, Larry Ward and Moto Triple X teammate, Kelly Smith. Defending Arenacross Champion, SoBe Suzuki’s Buddy Antunez is nearly last.





Chad rides smoothly out in front. So smooth, it looks as if the track is something that simply happens to his motorcycle and not to him. The whoops. The stadium-long rhythm sections. The Dragonback. The huge triples. He handles them all the same way. Like he were managing his bike rather than riding it; aiming and planning, timing and balancing. He executes his technique with a quickness and ease that masks the true effort he exerts-especially remarkable, considering he’s riding injured.





“I was out at Elsinore riding around and just trying to do some different sections of the track. I came up short and it just threw me over the handlebars. You know, just three weeks ago I had a crash at Elsinore on a Monday, and hurt both my shoulders. I didn’t really want to hurt my shoulders again, so I chose to do a bit of a flip, and I landed on the bottom of my back. I straight away got on a plane and went to Phoenix to see Jeff Spencer. You know, he’s the real reason I’m here this week. I trained with him every day and Wednesday came around and I still couldn’t walk. So I kind of jumped on a plane and thought there’s a fifty/fifty chance I can race. (I figured) the worst that could come of it was, you know, I come out of this race even on points with Grant.”






Chasing David - Photo 3 of 9
2 for 2, 50 points, Chad Reed

Chad won’t come out of Minneapolis even on points with Grant. He’ll come out with a bigger lead than he had going in. Mike Brown, Simple Green/Pro Circuit Kawasaki’s defending Outdoor National Champion and second-place series points-holder, attacks the track in fourth, but without the fury he is capable of. His long-time nemesis, Grant Langston is dead in his sights. But he knows Grant is down zero points to his twenty-three. He doesn’t have to force anything tonight. Mike knows only too well how unpredictable racing can be. He’s riding for points.





Grant is attacking Steve Boniface and Steve is countering Grant’s attacks. Corner after corner, the KTM’s come together at the apex, Grant closing in on their approach, and Steve pulling out as they exit. Out front, Chad rides with an open track and a widening lead. Grant is growing impatient and Mike can see it.





The race is nearing its mid-way mark when Steve Boniface sets up wide going into a left-hander in the middle of the track, using the berm to carry his momentum instead of finessing the flat slippery line to the inside. Grant dives in underneath him, turning his bike with the brakes on as Mike approaches in the distance. Steve has more momentum to blend with his acceleration and exits the corner cutting low and fast to the inside to block Grant. But Grant has already completed his turn and is under hard acceleration coming out, heading for the same line as Steve. Mike is leaning into the corner when they collide.





The middle of Steve’s bike stops Grant’s front wheel like a wall, his forward momentum shifting in the only direction it can; forcing him and his bike over the high-side. But Grant won’t go down, and he won’t lose his position to Mike. Scrambling, Grant counters his fall with the one thing that will save him. Heavy acceleration.






Chasing David - Photo 4 of 9
G. Langston, rebounds from last week in Indy

No one will stop Chad Reed tonight. He’ll ride on average, over a half a second a lap faster than Grant, who will mount one final charge on Steve to take second-place, two laps from the finish. Chad’s margin of victory? Ten seconds, leading from start to finish, something that, in his own words, “I haven’t ever done before.”





“Even with Chad and Michael Byrne in the 250′s you saw they were competitive. They were front guys and it just shows you that 125 East Coast has a lot of good guys. I think it’s going to be a tough, tough championship.”– Grant Langston.





That’s exactly what Universal Studios/Honda’s Ricky Carmichael thinks. After another convincing win, he’s made his way to the post-race press conference. It’s a small locker room with a long banquet table for the riders at the far-end, a speaker system and a large EA Sports backdrop behind it, a number of portable chairs arranged in rows that reach back from the middle of the room, and a doorway at the near-end where photographers and media personnel are still filtering in.





Ricky sits with Chad to his left at the center of the table. To his right, sits David Vuillemin and on the far side of Chad, Ernesto Fonseca. After a race-long battle on the track, Grant and Steve sit on either far-end of the table.






Chasing David - Photo 5 of 9
125 Podium (Langston, Reed, Boniface)

The race is still damp on Ricky’s hair. He tips back his hat as the murmur in the room dies down, and everyone gets set to talk about racing.





When the conversation begins, the race comes to back to life, careening from person to person the way it did only moments before. Like every round this year, the race is forged in chaos, the battles playing out in sudden explosions of emotion and grit, collecting and churning around the track, the pack expanding around itself, leaping and landing, the sounds of the motors rising and falling, screaming out like the loudest, most extreme boast of life over the unknown, the very fate that each and every rider explores, drawing in close the thousands of people who are here to see it. And it all happens with the illusion that it occurs in linear time, the way rock and roll seems to be one melody at first, when the closer you listen, the more it breaks apart into intricate melodies and driving rhythms, each one pushing through the soundscape on its own, each one at the others expense, creating this wonderful chaos, thrilling, sweet and fleeting without thought, that dancing feeling of being young, of being old while still feeling young, of being young but old beyond your years, closing in on that singular proving ground, that one magnificent feat that will prove your character once and for all. That’s what the pack evokes as it clashes and flows with itself over the killing shape of the ground, over each straight, and through every corner, each battle, a victory in and of itself, or a crushing blow.





In this way, each ride is one for dear life, for a way of life, for the pursuit of excellence, for the faith in an inner vision, an ability to reinvent oneself in the image of perfection, to become champion.





That’s the way Sebastian Tortelli rides, after missing the first half of the season. He nails the holeshot his first race back, and leads for the first four laps. He leads it with heart, and when he begins to fall back, he rides with the same sheer heart, helpless to stop the onslaught of Ernesto Fonseca, Jeremy McGrath, Nathan Ramsey and Ricky Carmichael. Within two laps, they’ve all blitzed by him, and Ezra Lusk, Stephane Roncada and Kevin Windham are bearing down fast.






Chasing David - Photo 6 of 9
250 Start – Tortelli!

Jeremy McGrath has moved up from fourth and Ricky has moved up from eighth. Both are in the top four now, and the crowd is alive with their approaching battle at the front.





Jeremy is on fire. He passes his opponents with aggressive, concise moves, taking the lead from Ernesto with a block pass that leaves Number Twenty-Four shaken and wobbling at the top of the berm. Jeremy now leads virtually all of team Honda. Running order: McGrath, Fonseca, Ramsey, Carmichael, Tortelli, Lusk, Roncada, Windham, Vuillemin.





Will Jeremy McGrath, the troubled champion, be able to single-handedly dismantle the Honda machine? No. Not in Minneapolis. The Minnesota crowd thunders with excitement as Jeremy begins to pull away and Ricky begins to probe Ernesto, with Nathan right behind him.





But Nathan is riding too close to Ricky, and when Ernesto bobbles, forcing Ricky to stab his brakes mid-corner, there’s nowhere for Nathan to go. He loses his front-end and goes down, handing fourth to Ezra.



The laps add themselves together and Jeremy is stretching his lead. The crowd loves it. Ricky is timing his leaps over one of the track’s perimeter rhythm sections, just over Ernesto’s shoulder as Jeremy enters the ninety-degree left-hander at the section’s end.






Chasing David - Photo 7 of 9
J. McGrath bobbles

Maybe he’s hit the tuff block on the inside of the corner. Maybe the three-foot-high jump leading into the corner has kicked his rear wheel to one side. But something has knocked Jeremy’s bike out of its lean to the left and he’s aimed completely off the track, headed over the top of the outside berm. It’s all he can do lay it over to his right, and begin spinning it around 270 degrees, completely at odds with the sweep of the corner.





Like Travis in Anaheim, Jeremy can see his lead vanishing as Ernesto and Ricky dive down through the air, closing in. Jeremy finishes his spin as Ernesto enters the corner, tucking inside of him as he lets his clutch out, front wheel lifting.





But from a standstill, no amount of acceleration can match Ernesto’s momentum, and while Jeremy comes up to speed through the next rhythm-section, he loses his lead to Number Twenty-Four, and second-place to Number Four.





Ricky will go on win the race, passing and pulling away from his teammate. Jeremy will fade to sixth, a finish that doesn’t tell the story of his promising rise, and unexpected fall. Sitting in the small room with reporters and photographers, Ricky Carmichael tells the tale of his fantastic night, and to his right, David Vuillemin talks about his amazing ride through the pack.






Chasing David - Photo 8 of 9
RC celebrating his win, Ernie and David take it in

As the conference comes to a close and the riders rise to leave, they start to talk among themselves, making their way through the door and out into the corridor beyond.





“Hey, what happened to LaRocco?” someone asks.



“I heard he broke his hand.”



“Yeah, I heard he and Pastrana were yelling in each other’s face.”



“Really?”



“Yeah, Pastrana landed on him or something.”



“No way.”



“Yeah, was holding up his hand and saying look what you did to my hand!”



“I heard they almost swung on each other.”





A little post-race gossip, or an insider observation? Probably a bit of both. But the official word is that Mike LaRocco has a broken right wrist, and approached Travis about the safety of his riding.


Chasing David - Photo 9 of 9
LaRocco, Pastrana, harsh words?



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