Travis lifts through the night pumping his fist over his head, his SoBe Suzuki’s wheels leaving brief silver streaks before walls of cheering people. The track is far below him, but it’s coming up fast. He takes his bars with both hands again, hits his landing perfectly, and sets up for the left-hander ahead as his suspension rebounds. Beside him is the roar of the crowd. In front of him, an open track. Behind him, David Vuillemin. For the first time in his career, Travis Pastrana is leading a 250 main event.
It’s round two, lap one of the 2002 EA Sports Supercross Series and sixty-eight thousand people are climbing over one another to witness the moment. David Vuillemin is settling in, setting his sights on the big number one-ninety-nine in front of him. He enters a left-hand corner just behind Travis, rises high at the apex, and rips his line in a downward arc across the face, his rear wheel leaving an explosion of tuff blocks, each one flipping through the air as Kevin Windham leans through the corner with Mike Larocco and Ricky Carmichael.
There aren’t any seats left at Qualcom Stadium. So the sound is tremendous. The applause follows Travis, David, Kevin, Mike and Ricky around the track, loudest on the side they’re closest to. Together, they stir the excitement inside the bowl of the stadium.
That’s how it was earlier, with Chevy Trucks/Kawasaki’s James Stewart in the 125 West main-event. After only one professional race, Rider Number Two-Five-Nine has already reached legendary status. His strategy is simple. Attack at all times. He starts the race just inside the top five. Boost Mobile/Yamaha of Troy’s Ivan Tadesco leaps through a long rhythm section that leads into a high-banked 180 degree corner. The race isn’t a lap old. He sets up for the corner, braking heavily as he throws his bike sideways and begins drifting up the face, gas back on. But behind him, James Stewart has held his bike low over the last obstacle, and isn’t setting up for the corner at all. He pins his Kawasaki wide-open and aims for Ivan, coming up sideways in a power-slide underneath him. They collide. The crowd is going crazy. Ivan is threading the last line of track left to him before his front wheel drops over the top of the berm and into the tuff blocks. James brings his bike around at the last second and aims for the next jump, the first of two seventy-foot triples.
James Stewart hits the face of the first jump in sole possession of third-place. But that’s not enough for him. As his suspension rebounds off the face, lifting him into the air, James turns his body around and stares at Ivan. He stares all the way through his upward arc. When he begins diving down again, he’s put Ivan behind him entirely, and set out after Red Bull KTM’s David Pingree.
One lap later, they carve arcs around a sweeping left-hander that opens up into a long whoop section, James just off of David’s outside shoulder. James has the momentum but he doesn’t need it. David goes down before he completes the corner. Now only one man stands between Rider Number Two-Fifty-Nine and his first professional win. Yamaha of Troy’s Rodrig Thain.
Further back, last week’s winner, Travis Preston is carefully picking his way through the pack. By the race’s end, the Amsoil/Dr. Marten’s Honda rider will have moved up to fifth. But by then, James Stewart will have already begun his victory lap, stopping on the peaks of the biggest jumps and pumping his fists in the air. Each pump will send thunder through the crowd. The voice will be giant and singular. But where it comes from won’t be seen. It will come from everywhere at once.
That’s what it sounds like now, as Travis Pastrana begins his fight for his first 250 Supercross victory in earnest. David Vuillemin is riding his YZ250 using every inch of it to his advantage. If he sets up over his handlebars to take the inside line around a corner, he doesn’t just get his chin and shoulders over them, he gets his whole chest and solar plexus over them. Elbows up or down, feet dragging or on the pegs, Rider Number Twelve exits every corner with ferocious acceleration.
Travis is coming under heavy pressure and his teammate Kevin Windham is right behind the both of them. They fan out as they hit each whoop section and ride through them together, setting down on the far side just as Mike Larocco gets his front wheel up and begins his attack on the section with Rider Number Four, Ricky Carmichael on his flank and Team Yamaha’s Tim Ferry right behind him.
Ricky and Mike ride so close together that they hit the faces of the biggest jumps at nearly the same time.
Travis is finessing his RM250 around a flat, slippery corner, staying as far back on his seat as he can while getting his upper body as far out over his bars as he can. He’s trying to keep his wheel-spin down without sacrificing his front-end traction. He weights both ends at once. His bike swings rear-end outward as he drifts from his tight inside line and hits the first of ten whoops that escalate into a step-up rhythm section. His front-end lifts over the second whoop as his rear-end hunkers against the face of the first. He’s airborne as he puts his cornering leg back on the footpeg and maneuvers into the attack position.
Travis shifts over his motorcycle, back-to-front as it bucks and leaps over the section with increasing difficulty, his momentum suffering from the brutal shape of the ground. He’s almost through the section when David Vuillemin blitzes by on the outside, hanging off the back of his Yamaha.
David goes by Travis so fast in the last third of the section that by the time they reach the sharp right-hand corner that follows, Travis can’t even challenge him. David Vuillemin exits the corner with a one bike-length lead.
The leaders round the ninety-degree corner following the track’s first big triple, with David and Travis turning at the same time, Kevin just after them, and Ricky just after him. Mike Larocco has lost his position to Ricky Carmichael.
One lap later, Kevin challenges for second-place. David isn’t far out in front. If Kevin can get around Travis, he’ll have David right in his sights. But he can’t. Lap after lap, Travis disappears behind the over-and-under jump, and reappears through the tunnel in second-place, accelerating hard across the start-straight and braking past the mechanics with their pitboards and hand signals.
Their battle is letting David get away and the laps are adding up. Rider Number Fifteen has begun to fade. Tim is coming off of knee surgery, and will eventually finish twelfth.
The race enters its middle stages and now it’s Rider Number Fourteen who’s under attack. Who from? The defending Supercross Champion. Ricky drives inside of Kevin, coming up from underneath him through a high-banked corner. But as he drifts up and out, Kevin dives down and in, and uses his momentum to shoot past Ricky and hit the following rhythm section with greater speed.
But Kevin can’t hold Ricky off. And when Mike Larocco sees Kevin succumb, it isn’t long before Mike has moved up another position, and set his sights on Rider Number Four once more.
Ricky is riding with a broken hand, and with Mike diving inside of him at every opportunity; he can’t gain any ground on Travis. As the race enters its final stages, the crowd’s attention is divided between two battles; the battle for third, and the battle for first.
David and Travis have entered lapped traffic and Travis is using it to his advantage. The crowd is rooting for Number One-Ninety-Nine as he pulls within striking distance when the announcer’s voice shoots through the loudspeakers, “Mike Larocco has passed Ricky Carmichael!”
The volume of the crowd is rising and falling as Travis draws near the lead in the tight sections of the track, and falls back in the wide-open sections. But throughout the din, there’s someone else the crowd is rooting for. You can hear it if you sit still and pay attention. The sheer mass of sound breaks down and one by one, you can hear the individual voices of the fans. Everywhere throughout the aisles, you can hear one request ringing out, “come on Jeremy, go!”
Jeremy McGrath, wearing a jersey that simply says “MC” across the shoulders, is pulling over and turning his head to look at David Vuillemin and Travis Pastrana as they shoot through the over-and-under tunnel and slip by him in one fluid motion. Together, the leaders have lapped eleven of the best Supercross riders in the world, leaving only ninth place on to finish on the same lap. Wondering who the next group of riders was? Nathan Ramsey, Ezra Lusk and Kevin Windham.
David Vuillemin shoots across the finish line just the way he did one week ago; his fist raised in victory, his body leaned out off the side of his bike, backdropped by twin red flames.
Still not convinced that the Cobra is for real in 2002? Travis Pastrana is in a position to know. In his words, “David gave me a riding lesson tonight!”