Round 4, Phoenix Feature
|MC on the defence|
Ernesto floats with his CR250 above the jagged stadium floor, shifting his body over his handlebars as he begins his downward dive. He disappears amid the thrusting, diagonal layers of the track, turns the abrupt demand on his arms and legs into lift and forward momentum, and reappears above it once more, visor down, body relaxed, factory Honda rising up beneath him.
Ernesto Fonseca, Rider Number Twenty-Four is leading the 250 main-event at Bank One Ballpark, host to round four of the AMA/EA Sports Supercross Series. It’s his first race back after injuring his arm at round two in San Diego. It’s the first lap and he’s just taken the lead from Bud Light/Yamaha’s Jeremy McGrath. It’s the beginning of a twenty-lap battle between the two.
Ernesto leads the pack to the right. He spins his bike around and leads the pack to the left. He’s out in front as the track opens onto its longest whoop-filled straightaway. He shifts several times under heavy acceleration before he makes his first leap. He stays low through the air, his suspension fully rebounding before his wheels begin hammering up and down. He seems to float over the top of it all, but his suspension is steadily dropping in its travel. There isn’t enough time for it to rebound between each hit and now Ernesto has reached his high-compression dampening. Each whoop he hits is like a wall, robbing him of his forward momentum. He’s nearly through the section. He’s looking ahead, choosing his line around the high-banked left-hander right in front of him.
Forty-nine thousand fans are on the edge of their seats as Ernesto sets up to the outside and drifts up high on the berm-face, his rear wheel at the base of the tuff blocks. The crowd hangs in the balance because they can see what Ernesto can’t. Rider Number Twenty-Four has chosen his pivot-point and is focusing on it, gauging the distance between it and his front wheel. He throws his Honda into it and begins looking up again, feeling the hunker of acceleration when he sees Jeremy.
The crowd is roaring. Jeremy McGrath is focusing, head down. He slides his Bud Light Yamaha up underneath Ernesto’s Honda. By the time Ernesto has time to react, their front wheels are only feet apart. There is literally nowhere for Ernesto to go. He lifts out of his lean to widen the arc he’s cutting. Jeremy is back on the gas, drifting the rest of the way across Ernesto’s line, lifting his head toward the open track in front of him. Ernesto is trying to save his race. If he goes down now, he’ll never catch the leaders again. That means thread a line between Jeremy and David.
The crowd is roaring because Jeremy McGrath is back. They’re roaring because the race is still so young that their anticipation of battle bumps and muscles against the delivery of the battle itself. They’re roaring because David Vuillemin is squaring off earlier in the corner than both Jeremy and Ernesto, and Travis Pastrana is squaring off just underneath David.
First through fourth in the same corner at the same time. Three riders trying to capitalize on even the smallest opening, and one rider trying to survive his vulnerability. They accelerate down the face as two more riders brake-slide up it – Chevy Trucks/Kawasaki’s Stephane Roncada, and the defending Supercross Champion, Ricky Carmichael.
|David Pingree’s bike|
Amazingly, Ernesto holds on to second-place. Jeremy has taken flight, maneuvering over seven jumps down the length of the following straightaway in two gigantic leaps. Ernesto, David, Travis, Stephane, and Ricky all follow his rhythm.
Their first leap sends them high over three six-foot jumps. The second sends them low and out over four more, each one, chest-high. The section is so formidable that all but the very best 125 riders have taken the section in three leaps, and in traffic, four.
While leading his qualifier, David Pingree has snapped his Red Bull KTM in half here. Coming down from so high, he’s lost nearly all of his forward momentum. The entire force of his landing is sent straight-down through his frame and steering stem as he lands short on the third jump. As his bike crumples beneath him, David is thrown to the ground. He stumbles off the track, coughing up blood. Rider Number Thirty-Nine won’t compete in the main-event tonight. He’ll go to the hospital for testing. As he rides around the perimeter of the stadium on the back of a medical vehicle, the Arizona crowd stands and applauds him. It will take three KTM mechanics to get his bike off the stadium floor.
|James ‘Bubba’ Stewart|
The door is wide-open for James Stewart in the championship points-race. He’ll take full advantage of it. Rider Number Two-Fifty-Nine will ride almost flawlessly. He’ll take his Chevy Trucks Kawasaki to the front early, and never relinquish his lead. He’ll be so far ahead of Factory Connection/Dr. Marten’s/Amsoil/Honda’s Travis Preston in second, that when he goes down at the mid-way mark, he’ll has time to pick himself up and re-enter the race with three seconds to spare. By the end of the race, he’ll have re-established his huge lead, and jumped every rhythm-section that the 250’s are now.
Travis Pastrana, David Vuillemin, and Ricky Carmichael have all moved past Ernesto Fonseca. Stephane has lost his front-end while driving inside Travis for a block pass, and is working his way through the pack with teammate Ezra Lusk.
Jeremy holds on to the lead. Travis is riding with a sore knee he dislocated earlier in the week. David has actually flown back to France during the week to have his knee operated on. Ricky is riding with a broken hand. Still, RC doesn’t waste any time. He gets by them both. And when he does, Phoenix, Arizona is staring at the showdown everyone has been anticipating since round sixteen, Las Vegas, 2001.
|MC & DV|
So when Ricky Carmichael comes up underneath Jeremy McGrath and makes contact, it sends a shock through the stadium; one word, fifty-thousand voices, all at one time; ‘Oh!’ Ricky doesn’t make the pass. But with the force of his move, he splinters the four-way battle for the lead into two separate battles; the one for first, and the one for third.
Travis is next to bring the crowd up in their seats. Putting his front wheel inside David through the whoops, he absorbs each hit, handlebars in toward his chest just as David shifts over his rear fender, half-a-step ahead of him. They ride side-by-side for the next half-a-lap before Travis can complete the pass, and by the time he does, he isn’t looking at Ricky’s jersey, he’s looking at Jeremy’s.
Ricky has taken the lead and begun his sprint. Jeremy is losing contact with Number Four, and coming under increasing pressure from One-Ninety-Nine and Rider Number Twelve, David Vuillemin. He won’t be able to hold off Travis or David. Ernesto will slip by him again. Then Mike Larocco. He’ll watch as Rider Number Five continues past Ernesto, setting the stage for one last battle in the race’s closing stages.
But the battle won’t be Mike’s. He’ll ride uncontested to a fourth-place finish. This battle will belong to Jeremy. Sandwiched between Ernesto Fonseca and Nathan Ramsey, Jeremy will fight for his first top-five finish of the season. All three will ride so close together, they’ll be airborne at the same time over track’s biggest triples.
Jeremy will pass Ernesto. Ernesto will pass him back. One lap later, Jeremy will pass Ernesto. Ernesto will pass him back. In another lap, Jeremy will pass Ernesto for good.
Ricky Carmichael wins for first time in 2002. He’s ecstatic, taking a full victory lap, whipping his Honda at every opportunity, shaking his fist and pointing out his finger in a number one.
Travis and Mike wait for him on the podium. Jeremy too, for winning the Powerade Holeshot Award. When Ricky arrives, the ceremonies begin, and the chase for the 2002 title in earnest.