Round 6: David Vuillemin Takes a Chance
The gates haven’t dropped yet, but already, the race has begun. It can be seen in how the riders toss their heads, swing their arms, and shake out their hands. It can be seen in their machines as they shine and gleam, hunkering and lifting beneath them and heard in the growl and bark of their motors. It can be felt in the last pats for luck from their mechanics and anticipated in the shine down their visors as they lean forward and down in unison, faint, white exhaust gathering behind them. The metal gates shine as they drop and the ground glows dim across the line as twenty-two front-wheels lift and hang in the air.
Round one of the EA Sports 125 East Supercross Championship is underway and twenty-two riders are leaving the haze behind them expanding in a cloud, shot-through by the sudden spray of dirt as their rear-wheels get past the gates, and they grab for the next-higher gear.
Kelly Smith has the holeshot after a last-minute wheel change on the line. Grant Langston, Rider Number One-Eleven is just inside the top-five, attacking traffic. The rider in front of him sets up to the inside so Grant carries his speed deeper into the corner and sets up to the outside. That’s when Boost Mobile/Yamaha of Troy’s Chad Reed dives inside and passes him in one decisive moment. The move unnerves Grant. He wants his position back so bad he can’t wait for it.
Less than a lap later, he runs into Chad’s rear wheel coming out of the whoops and begins the kind of journey sketched in the plot of a novel. The sort of novel where the protagonist must accept an immediate fate he rails against with all of his heart.
Grant knows a win is now all but impossible. Stunned, he stands, running his hands over his goggle straps. He picks up his Red Bull KTM and throws his leg over the seat, reaching for the kickstarter with one hand and his clutch with the other.
That’s when it hits him. There is no clutch lever. It’s lying a few feet from him in the dirt. His hands suddenly open wide as he struggles to accept the situation. His mind is reeling through his options. Something. Anything that will allow him to continue. It’s not about the race anymore, it’s about the championship. He bends down and reaches for his shift-lever while he reckons with the inevitable fact: he can’t ride a track like this without his clutch. As his mechanic arrives, he steps off of Number One-Eleven, passes it over to him, takes off his goggles, and walks slowly off the track toward the starting line. What was so vitally important to him just a split-second ago, is no good to him now. He leaves it behind him, in the dirt where it lies on the inside of the corner.
Mike Brown is attacking the track on his Simple Green/Pro Circuit Kawasaki. He’s muscled his way past Kelly Smith and is pulling away. He handles the indoor track the same way he does an outdoor one; with abandon. But riding that way has a price. Right now he’s strong and his lead is growing. But behind him, Chad Reed is moving past Buddy Auntinez and taking over second-place. The race for the lead will go down to the checkers.
Buddy is under heavy pressure from Michael Byrne. The race is only a few laps old when Michael takes third from Buddy. He can make a run at the leaders–but less than a lap later, Buddy skims over the whoops past him to reclaim third-place. They enter the high-banked left-hander where Grant’s race has just come to an end. They hug the inside and head back the other direction toward a massive rhythm-section. Buddy will later say, after the race, Michael’s bike began to sputter and I was able to pass him back through the whoops–I was surprised he tried that triple.
Michael Byrne’s Factory Connection Honda has lost power on the face of the launching jump and it’s begun to nose-dive even as it rises higher toward the stadium lights. Michael has go of his handlebars and is stepping out over them. He’s free-falling straight down from some twenty-feet up, hands straight-out over his head, feet straight-down toward the ground. His bike is flipping wildly behind him. Both disappear behind the vertical profile of the track as yellow flags begin to wave in frantic figure-eights.
The medics rush to where Michael lies face-down, his chest heaving in irregular rhythms, the rest of his body, completely still. Everywhere else he lies limp against the ground, arms at his sides, legs together, his feet, pigeon-toed against the ground.
Slowly, they roll him over. Mike Brown rolls over each jump in the section until he gets past the knot of medics around Michael and every lap, Chad Reed rolls over the section visibly closer to Mike. Michael Byrne is strapped to a plastic stretcher with his head immobilized. He stares straight up as they carry him off the track.
Michael has hit the ground feet-first, driving his knees up to his chest with such force, it has collapsed both of his lungs. Amazingly, his injuries aren’t as severe as they first appear. While one lung will show up slightly larger than the other under hospital testing, the amount of collapse is minimal. Even the break in his ankle is miraculously minor; a hairline fracture.
Mike Brown has begun his battle for the win in earnest. His arms are getting tight with fatigue and his muscles are filling with blood, slowing his reactions, weakening his grip. He’s losing ground to Chad steadily. Will he be able to hang on long enough? No. Chad Reed will come from behind on his YZF250 and put it into the winner’s circle. While Chad, Mike, and Buddy stand on the podium, finishing their interviews and lift their awards overhead, the 250 class takes to the track.
Twenty-two riders spread out, riding slow, looking carefully at how the lines have changed since their qualifiers. There is much to study. Parallel grooves have formed up the faces of the track’s biggest jumps, and singular, narrow ruts have cut down through the tops of the whoops.
The creation of one fast line through the track’s most technical sections make it impossible for a rider to miss his line without being passed. And without alternative lines, the riders become even more aggressive in the corners, forced into physical passing to make their way through the pack.
But of all the worn jumps and lengthening ruts, one will stand out as the key to perhaps the most stunning developments in recent Supercross history. It’s a small rut, just a few feet long as it cuts through a single whoop placed radially out from the apex of a ninety-degree left-hand corner. The obstacle is meant to create a trade-off in value between the inside and the outside line through the corner. Dive inside and be slowed by a whoop. Carry your speed to the outside, but be forced to make two corners through the chicane when the inside line allows a near straight-shot through to the finish line jump.
The value of the inside line is so high that almost no one takes the outside. The result: a single deep groove around the tight inside of an off-chamber corner. It holds the riders’ rear wheels like a rail as they accelerate hard out of the section, making any other line around the inside a distinct disadvantage in traction.
The gate has dropped for the 250 main event and the pack is wedging itself into the first corner, led by Universal Studio/Honda’s Ricky Carmichael. The RCA Dome is sold-out. It’s the sixth consecutive race on the EA Sports tour to do so. The roars of the pack and crowd mix together and bounce from the ceiling back to the floor as Yamaha’s David Vuillemin and Sobe Suzuki’s Travis Pastrana dive underneath Ricky and send him back to third.
The pace is frantic at the front. The top three ride as though the race will be won or lost on the first lap, when this race will go down to the last. David has just stolen the lead from Ricky as he rounds the far side of the track and attacks the ten jump rhythm-section, featuring a dragon-back obstacle in the middle. The race is too young for David to have anything to gauge his speed against, and Travis uses it to his advantage.
The section is so dynamic, built with such an assortment of jumps, no two riders seem to take it the same way. As David nears the end of the straightaway in four huge leaps, Travis flies by him in just three. There’s nothing David can do but turn his head in alarm and watch Travis take over the lead.
Moments later, Ricky has put David back to third again, with Chevy Trucks Kawasaki’s Stephane Roncada closing in in fourth, and the race isn’t even two-laps old. The crowd is on its feet as Travis and Ricky begin what is sure to be the first of many head-to-head battles. The battle is breathtaking, and what fans everywhere have waited years to see.
Travis and Ricky hammer on one another. They trade positions back and forth, each one capitalizing on the other’s mistakes, the other, regrouping, and closing in on the lead position once again, and behind it all, diving and accelerating, leaning and sliding, is David Vuillemin, hunting the both of them, never farther back than two bike-lengths. The defending 250 champion, the series points leader, and the defending 125 champion are running fifty-thousand plus people ragged. It’s a thrill to see.
The battle for the lead is so epic and absorbing, all the other battles simply fade away in comparison. Bud Light Yamaha’s Jeremy McGrath, after beating both David and Travis, enroute to his first heat race win of the year, has gated in the top five, and has closed in on Stephane. Behind him, team Honda is on the move. Ernesto, Nathan, and Mike are all closing in. But no one really notices.
The announcer doesn’t even notice when Ernesto Fonseca, past Jeremy, takes Stephane to the tuff blocks in a wide sweeping berm, to take over fourth. It’s just as hard to find him standing on the side of the track less than half a lap later, his mechanic, Kenny Germain, holding his Number Twenty-Four Honda. Ernesto is so upset, he can’t look in any one direction for long, before he has to turn his head and upper-body somewhere else, shifting over his feet. But it’s no good. Everywhere he looks, it hurts. He pulls off his goggles, and begins the long walk around the stadium to the pits.
Meanwhile, Travis has settled into the lead, fending off Ricky’s attacks. They come in waves. Ricky chooses the place a lap ahead of time, and falls back just outside of Travis’ earshot, so his attack will come as a surprise, and carry with it, maximum impact.
But there’s nothing he can do about the crowd. Every time he closes the distance on Travis in a sprint, he sends shrill applause through the crowd, and Travis is ready for him. Rider Number Four falls back once more, to regroup.
It’s midway through the race and Rider Number Twelve, David Vuillemin is still right on the leaders, watching, studying. The crowd is still standing. They don’t want to see a test of shrewdness now. Or strategy. They don’t want to see who is willing to win at any cost. They want to see the limits of Travis and Ricky’s courage as they pit themselves against one another. They want to see Travis win his first-ever 250 Supercross.
But it is not to be. Travis comes down from his last rhythm-section leap too wide to protect his line as he steers over to where the rut begins to wrap around the corner. Ricky is already there, capitalizing on the opening. The two collide there on the inside of the corner and the yellow flag shoots up into the air. Travis is down on the ground and Ricky is riding away with the lead with David Vuillemin in tow. The boos begin to rumble through the cheering like distant canon fire. The booing spreads as more fans realize what has happened, until all around the stadium Ricky Carmichael, the defending Supercross Champion, is surrounded on all sides with a deep, ominous, reverberating sound.
Travis is picking up Number One-Ninety-Nine, once again facing the wrong way down the track, but this time, a man in a black shirt with a big black camera on his shoulder is standing in front of him. Travis on ABC television. He pulls back out into the track, right behind Ezra Lusk and Jeremy McGrath as they battle for sixth-place.
Out in front, all eyes are on David Vuillemin as he stalks the defending champion. The laps count off and the fifty-eight thousand people are still on their feet cheering when David draws in on the leader, and quiet down when Ricky pulls back out.
The white flag comes out. It’s do or die time for David. Ricky sets up wide going into a high right-banking berm. David sees his chance and he takes it.
The volume in the RCA Dome soars as David takes his Yamaha underneath Ricky’s Honda, cutting a smaller, sharper arc up the face of the turn than his opponent, blocking his line out of the corner. Ricky has no choice but to ride the line David leaves for him as they inch closer to the tuff blocks: the one behind his rear wheel.
The 250 podium ceremonies are usually played out to an emptying stadium. Not tonight. David Vuillemin, who was booed in the introduction ceremony, has ridden his last half-a-lap to a standing ovation and a deafening roar. Tonight, nearly sixty-thousand people are waiting for something.
David rides up the victory circle yelling “Woo-hoo!” through his helmet. His fiancÃ©e is the first to embrace him, yelling, “I knew you could do it!
Stephane Roncada gives his interview for third place, his second podium in as many weeks, and the microphone passes to Ricky. The stadium erupts with booing. Stephane looks at Ricky, shaking his head as the announcer tries to talk over the crowd, defending the champ. But the crowd is so loud, it completely overwhelms the loud speaker system. The booing lasts the entire length of Ricky’s interview. You can’t hear a word. The mic passes to David and crowd roars with applause. David is all smiles, taller by a head than Ricky and Stephane, waving to the crowd on all sides.
The impact a blow like this will have on Ricky Carmichael remains to be seen. But one thing is certain. Don’t mess with Travis. Even if you win, you still lose. His fans love him that much.