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Through the camera lens, the distance looks creamy and bright. The optics don’t just magnify the distance. They magnify the moisture in the air as well, and the light as it refracts through it.
Everything in the frame is slightly fictional. It takes on the quality of the emotion you bring to it, and right now the distance is thick with the promise and anticipation of battle. Contrasting colors overlapping and shimmering, the far reaches of Daytona International Speedway take on the quality of mirage, of illusion, of the surreal.
Outside the lens, the sheer size of the stands towering over the sweep of the racetrack dominates the scene. The Daytona Supercross presented by Honda features a track within a track. Nestled between the speedway’s finish line and pit row, the Supercross track is much longer than it is wide, and the asphalt that runs down its length rises up like the face of a wave, its rough surface gouged and streaked with tire marks.
Stand on that slope and look down its length in either direction. The concrete wall, four-feet high with thick white paint over its scars, runs shrinking with the speed of your eye as you follow it. The downhill edge of the track begins to converge with the uphill edge and the wall becomes a thin white accent along the top of a dim narrow bank that finally disappears, curving out of sight.
A late afternoon shadow has begun to stretch from the top of the stands down. Much of the crowd is already in shadow. Still, the air here in Daytona is heavy and damp with heat. It settles against you and begins to press, seeping through your clothes and into your pores.
The magnitude of the distance you just witnessed begins to sink in. This place was built for those who live in a different world. Like the humidity, even in complete stillness, Daytona International Speedway is overwhelming.
It takes speed as great as the distance between these corners to bring them into perspective, to make them relate to one another. It can be seen, hovering just over the porous surface of the asphalt, banked at a three-to-one slope down to the infield where pit row stands below, and the 250 Supercross main event is lined up behind the gates.
Thirty riders instead of the usual twenty-two face down the short start-straight. Sitting elbow to elbow, they form a rainbow of color, shifting and recombining as each one turns at the waist to talk to his mechanic or another rider. The umbrellas above their helmet-visors twist with each slight movement and glow brightly in the sun, their smooth, recurring shapes contrasting the jagged green palm trees behind them.
Through the camera lens, Travis is squinting into the distance, his face cast in shadow. There’s a damp towel draped around his neck and his vented No Fear jersey isn’t tucked in. Next to him on his right, Ricky sits with confidence, his Oakleys already strapped into place. Zooming-in, Johnny O’Mara is talking to him through the side of his Fox helmet, his jaw muscles flexing with each word. Refocusing to the left, Tim Ferry sits, blue and white, looking down at the ground in front of his fender, his arms falling relaxed from his shoulders to his handlebar grips, his gloved-hands squeezing the levers.
All three have won their respective heat races. And from where I’m standing, all three have chosen gates to the far right-hand-side, so they’ll have the inside going into the slight left-hander that opens up to the rest of the track.
Filling out the gates before the starter’s doghouse, are the runners-up. Ezra has lined up inside of Travis and panning left, Sebastien sits between Ricky and Tim, with Stephane just beyond. Ernesto and Jeremy nod their heads in conversation beyond Stephane, each one earning third-place in his heat. Scanning past the mat-red doghouse, the line of factory-support riders come and go, names like Damon Huffman and Nick Wey. Nathan Ramsey is there on his factory CRF, forced to qualify through a semi. And all the way to the outside, with the last picks on the gate, the privateers finish the lineup, triple digits on each number-plate.
But there is no number twelve. The current points-leader, David Vuillemin isn’t on the line. Why? A shoulder injury suffered just after round nine in Atlanta during a photo shoot. Hoping the injury to be minor, he hasn’t sought medical attention. But after riding practice off his pace, he’ll have to. David has decided not to compete. He’s ridden through knee injury and even surgery and still managed to podium at every round this year.
But today, David Vuillemin won’t score a point. Instead, he’ll be forced to sit on the sidelines and watch his arch-rival, Ricky Carmichael lean over his handlebars, drop his right elbow as he opens his throttle to the stop, and holeshot the 2002 Daytona main event.
Everything disappears and reappears in flashes as the camera-shutter closes and opens. The Number Four front-wheel lifts. Ricky maneuvers his upper body. The front wheel sets down. He slides to the back of his seat, roost shooting low and straight out behind him.
|RC & Travis take off|
Outside the camera, Travis and his Michelins have lost the battle to Ricky’s Dunlops. Crossing the gates, the One-Ninety-Nine Suzuki has thrown a huge roost, and lost critical forward momentum. Rider Number Four hasn’t thrown a roost at all. He’s turned all of his horsepower into forward acceleration, and bringing the top of his foot up underneath his shifter, banged it into the next gear under full-throttle without even putting his foot on the peg.
They streak down the short straight leaning over their bikes, Travis and Sebastien swerving in behind Ricky as he picks up speed, just ahead of Tim and Stephane.
The start is over in an instant, clouded in dust as the motors rev into the distance, warble as the riders shut off at different times for the first major corner, and come in a gathering roar back again. Somehow, Travis has come through the pack down the long, wide-open sections of track, and is in third place, just over Ricky’s shoulder, side-by-side with Tim Ferry and his factory YZF.
Through the camera, the riders jump in size and the light flares across their helmets and fork-legs. The pack is still tight and edgy as it begins diving into the second corner of the track, a 180 degree right-hander that leads into an immediate rhythm-section. Ricky has set up to the inside of the corner, but Travis is coming in harder. The frame begins to flash. Black and then color. Travis has bumped Ricky out of his line. Black and then color. Ricky and Travis have hit the first jump together. Black and then color. Ricky is higher in the air that Travis, clearing the second obstacle. Black and then color. Travis has launched off the second obstacle and is flying over Ricky as he lands.
But not only will Ricky hold off Travis, Tim will leap past Travis, who, in his attack, has missed the good rhythm over the jump-section.
The race has leapt and weaved itself steadily out of sight, toward one end of the speedway and the roar of the pack has dropped to a low rumble, blending into the general murmur of the crowd.
|Tim Ferry, second place|
Then the grandstands, towering overhead, explode with applause. Like Ricky Carmichael, Tim Ferry is from Florida, and this is his hometown crowd. He’s just stunned both Ricky and everyone else, by taking the early lead. This is his first race back after bruising his lungs in Phoenix. In fact, this is his second comeback of the season after missing Anaheim One due to a knee injury, and the crowd is on its feet for him.
The pack can still only be seen in glimpses, but its growl is growing, steadily rising over the last of Tim’s cheer when the Grandstands erupt once more. Has Travis passed Ricky for second? Has Jeremy moved up from his fourth-place position? No, a roar like that can only mean a change in the lead, and this time, the cheers are for Ricky as he reclaims his position.
And the lead does belong to Ricky. He won’t be challenged again. For the next eighteen laps, each one over a minute-and-a-half, Ricky Carmichael will push through the hottest, most grueling conditions of the season, setting a brutal pace. It will take him over a half-an-hour, nearly twice as long as some of the other rounds in the series, but in the end, Ricky Carmichael will roll his Universal Studios CR250 over the finish-line-tabletop, steer his way to one end of the speedway, take off his helmet and climb the asphalt slope, and ride through the shadows of the grandstands standing on his pegs, his one hand raised in victory, waving to the crowd.
It will be his third-consecutive win in Daytona. In his post-race interview, he’ll praise his competition. He’ll say he isn’t concerned about setting records. And perhaps, everything he says is true.
But to see him on the track is to see him betray those words, and reveal his one true desire. To annihilate the competition.
He’ll ride every corner and every whoop with the same relentless drive. He’ll attack the peak of every jump with the same focus and fury. Like it simply weren’t enough to win, but that it had to be driven into the very psyche of his competition: I don’t want to just beat you. I want to beat you by a wider margin than the greatest riders of all time.
Through the camera lens, the track can be seen reaching up through Ricky’s Honda and collapsing its suspension, leaving explosions of dust behind him, settling down over the top of every other whoop. He’s still small and his bike can’t really be heard but he’s getting larger. Behind him and even smaller, Tim and Travis appear, growing in size at the same time. The roar of the crowd begins to spread from the direction of their approach, its leading-edge surging past the camera before Ricky can fill the frame and disappear, his body thrown over the back fender, his CR250 pitched to one side.
The camera shutter flashes and Tim is airborne, correcting the sideways kick of his Yamaha and Travis is right beside him, chest over the bars, absorbing the hit of the same sandy whoop, elbows up. Another flash and Tim and Travis fill the frame, side-by-side, their bodies thrown into unique positions. Another flash and they can only be seen from the chest up, out and over their front number-plates as they preload their suspension. Another flash, and the backs of their jerseys are blurred, and out-of-center as they fly through the air.
Outside the camera, Travis completes his pass. It takes him the entire straightaway, the longest one on the track, a whoop filled, triple-jump rhythm-section strength-robber. He just grips his Suzuki with his knees, and takes the abuse better than Tim does. The pass takes such a long time to play out, that by the time Travis takes over second, they’re both small in the distance once more, Ricky already out of sight.
|Grandstands, Travis, and Tim Ferry|
Jeremy McGrath blitzes by, big number two across his back. Then Number Eleven, Chevy Trucks/Kawasaki’s Ezra Lusk. Their motors don’t leave an echo like they usually do. They rise up out of the distance, faint and then urgent and then threatening as they explode by, bike kicking across the ground, ground shaking with each kick, shuddering from the speed and inertia of their wheels.
Watching Ezra close in on Jeremy is more like watching an outdoor national than a Supercross. Every obstacle seems to affect them like a surprise, and they must correct for the new direction their bikes taken-off in. Not at all the style of Supercross, where everything is so quickly and smoothly executed, lap after lap.
The sun is dropping down behind the stands and the deepening ruts throw shadows over their depths. The race is half-over, and Travis has just dropped out while running alone in second-place. Whether he fell or just pulled off and collapsed is unclear. But he’s down beside the track, just on the far side of a hay bale on his back, and he’s not moving.
|Florida riders, Florida track|
Shadow has crept down the slope of the speedway and is slowly reaching across different parts of the track.
Ezra has passed Jeremy, and Sebastien has passed both of them, but only managed to stay ahead of Ezra for a lap. For the first time in 2002, Ezra will finish on the podium, and move into third place in the points. Jeremy will finish fifth, behind Sebastien and move into a tie with Stephane for fourth-place points.
After lying on the ground, suffering from symptoms of heat exhaustion for several laps, Travis will slowly come back to himself. His arms will loosen from their muscle-locked position, and slowly, awkwardly he’ll take off his gloves.
Beside him and his father, and the small knot of medics around him, the other riders go from shadow into light and back, slamming over the rough, rutted surface of the track. Lying him in the shade behind one of the biggest obstacles, the medics will place his legs on a hay bale, and let him rest for while longer, before putting him on an ambulance vehicle, and driving him back to the pits.
It’s the last lap and Ricky is nearly finished lapping over two-thirds of the field. Up to ninth place. His Honda shines red as he throws it into corner after corner, briefly gleaming white when he turns into the direction of the setting sun, and when he crosses the finish line, some fourteen seconds ahead of second-place Tim Ferry, he’ll have illustrated why this speedway was built.
To showcase those who come from another place, and live in a world of extremes.
|RC is King of Daytona|