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Speed comes red through the distance below, wheels kicking and clawing at the ground, the machine-sound behind it, crazed and rising in pitch. The figure is growing in size, lifting off the ground and setting back down, the arms and legs working back and forth, shoulders steady, the helmet now, white and orange, gleaming, the sound of the machine, warbling, and just ahead of it, a thin, fleeting glimpse at glory.

Ricky Carmichael is on the war-path at Hangtown. He has two weapons. One, he holds in his hands. A Universal Studios Factory Honda CR250. The other, he holds in his heart. It’s something thousands of people are here to see. They line the fences around the track and feel the ground shudder as it blows by them.

The ground rises up in front of Ricky and he disappears. But the sound of his motor doesn’t drop. Not in volume or pitch. He hasn’t chopped the throttle. He hasn’t changed his plan of attack. His motor keeps climbing, to a wavering, frantic pitch as he bursts into view once more, airborne, flying.

Rider Number Four has just lost the lead and gained it back. It’s the first moto, and it isn’t even two laps old. The sun is shining bright overhead, but beyond the masses of people dressed in summer clothes, beyond the hills of the park, all along the horizon, dark clouds roll.

No one seems to notice. Stephane Roncada, Rider Number Twenty-One is coasting, high on the hill, letting his competition by. The crowd shifts and stands tall, peering as he rides past, just beyond the fence. He lets newcomer Sean Hamblin by for second. Then Travis Pastrana. Team Yamaha’s David Vuillemin and Tim Ferry. Sebastien Tortelli. Word begins to spread. Stephane’s front brake lever is gone. Broken off in one brutal hit by Rider Number Four.

Everyone has seen it. It’s played out just before the finish-line tower. Maybe Ricky is returning the favor. Maybe Stephane rammed him when he took the lead half-a-lap earlier, at the top of the hill. Maybe he didn’t.

Stephane has aimed his Chevy Trucks Kawasaki into a deep right-hand rut just before the finish-line, and lost momentum. He’s made a mistake, mid-corner. Ricky has leaned into the same rut, his Honda hunkered down under heavy acceleration. The distance between the two vanishes and Ricky collides with Stephane, full-throttle, from the inside. The blow is struck so hard, it sends Stephane’s KX250 forward in a leap.

Stephane still has the lead as they exit the rut. Together, they square off to the inside of the next corner, a left-hander that leads into the finish-line table-top. Kawasaki sound mixes with Honda sound, a deep chorus rising as they accelerate through the gears, the ground lifted up into the air behind them, rear wheels spinning faster than their bikes can pull them forward.

The corner begins as an uphill off-camber. Ricky holds a line just inside of Stephane. The two of them are joined together by the demand of the track. They’re approaching the apex of the corner, where the ground shifts in camber and begins diving back down the hill. They have become one synchronized lean, inside legs leading the front wheel, arms relaxed, chests over the bars, outside legs weighting the outside peg for traction.

What begins as two concentric arcs becomes one, high in the corner, at the hay bales. The track is wide-open in the middle, and down low on the inside. It’s empty.

It’s empty because Ricky is taking Stephane’s line from him, and he’s doing it in slow motion. It looks like slow motion because the sweep of the corner is so wide and long. There is room for their speed, and the speed of their controlled slides is nearly identical. Ricky and Stephane are simply floating around the track, Ricky steering Stephane higher and higher toward the hay bales.

By the time Ricky rails the hay bales in front of him, Stephane has had time to think about the impossibility of defending his position. All Stephane can do is shake his head and take off after Number Four up the biggest hill on the track, a weaving straightaway that ends with a sharp left-hand corner, and a thirty foot drop on the other side.

Ricky stays on the gas too long. Stephane is right behind him. Both riders lose their color, silhouetted black against the metal-gray sky at the top of the hill. Number Four has missed his line to the inside. Number Twenty-One dives in, gas on, front-wheel lifting, inside leg dragging and stabbing at the ground. For a moment, they are side-by-side.

But the Number Four Honda turns red before the Number Twenty-One Kawasaki turns green, back dropped by the mountain once more. Stephane can’t make the pass. He begins to slow. Sean Hamblin, Rider Number Ninety-Nine is the first to pass him.

The announcers see his number and mistake him for Travis. It takes them two laps to figure out that Travis is running in third, about a straightaway behind Sean. That’s about five seconds at Hangtown. Rider Number One-Ninety-Nine can’t make any ground on Ninety-Nine in front of him, but Rider Number Twelve, David Vuillemin can’t make any ground on him.

And Ricky Carmichael. The way his motor revs without interruption, lap after lap, no matter what lies in his way. The way he drives his suspension down, speed so great, it doesn’t have time to rebound before the next gnarled section. His works Honda shudders against each impact, tires to the fenders, frame taking the abuse and gleaming, flexing itself when there is no suspension left, the motor spinning gear-teeth inside, sending one shrill, prolonged note from his exhaust pipe. His intention, visible in his stance, chest over his Renthals, no matter how his Honda kicks or pitches; it’s easy to imagine, the snarl on his face, the hunt, sharp in his eyes, the hunger drawn high across his cheekbones.

The moto is half-over and Travis is fading. He’s in the middle of the track, accelerating toward the first of a series of low jumps spread wide at awkward distances. The section is difficult to time.

Travis doesn’t jump them at all. He stays forward and lifts his front wheel over each one, front fender coming up under his chin as he hits each jump-face with his rear wheel. Then, pulling back on the bars, his knees covering his side-plates, he uses his rear suspension to absorb the upward lift, and transforms it into forward momentum. His front wheel touches down on the far side and his rear wheel rises and falls with the shape of the jump. He accelerates through the section like it was flat ground.

But it’s not flat ground. Each jump is over two-feet high, and Travis is hitting them in high gear. Reaction time is critical. Maybe Travis doesn’t have the strength to pull himself back into position over the bars at full-throttle. Not in time to hit the next jump with the precision the technique demands. Whatever the cause, the mistake is over with quickly, and the crash hangs in the air, before tumbling toward its end down the track, where Travis is scrambling to his feet and running in panic-circles.

He’s looking for a safe place. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s instinct. He’s holding his arm in close to his body, he’s slowing down, doubling over in a protective cradle, one arm folded over the other. But he can’t protect himself from the damage already done. The crash has slipped inside of him, it’s in his body, swelling against his nerves, forcing him to acknowledge it on its terms.

Travis drops to one knee, then to both, drops his head and doubles over completely. His wrist is broken. His troubled season, effectively, over with.

Ricky Carmichael crosses the finish line in a cool gusting wind, shaking his fist. He pulls into victory lane, kills his motor, takes off his helmet and catches his breath. Photographers converge around him, friends and teammates patting him on the back and smiling. By the time Tim Ferry and David Vuillemin arrive, Ricky has begun talking to the media.

That’s the kind of lead James Stewart has amassed in the first 125 moto. Dressed in blood-red Fox gear, Rider Number Two-Fifty-Nine attacks Hangtown at a full-sprint from the moment the gate drops.

No one else even has a chance. Not Grant Langston. Not Buddy Antunez. Not Chad Reed or Ernesto Fonseca. Not even the defending Champion, Rider Number One, Mike Brown. But the battle between them is epic.

First it’s Universal Studios Honda’s Ernesto Fonseca on the move, passing Blimpie Suzuki’s Buddy Antunez for third. Then Boost Mobile/Yamaha of Troy’s Chad Reed closes in and takes third from Ernesto. All the while, James is pulling away, and Mike is cutting through the pack. Chad begins closing in on second place, Red Bull KTM’s Grant Langston. But Chad can’t pull away from Ernesto, and Ernesto can’t pull away from Buddy.

It’s late in the race when Mike Brown arrives to challenge the lead group. They’re so close, all five corner through the track’s big sweepers at the same time. Grant looks like he’s about to fall to another of Chad’s late-race charges. The two of them ride side-by-side repeatedly.

Mike looks like he’s reached the end of his charge. It’s brought him to the rear wheel of Buddy Antunez, but lap after lap, he can’t gain any ground, and time is running out.

How long could he have kept that pace before he ran out of strength and sheer aggression? Answer: thirty minutes plus two laps.

With the two-lap board out, Mike Brown shows why he’s running the Number One Plate. The pack has split into two battles, one for second-place between Grant and Chad, and one for fourth between Ernesto, Buddy and Mike.

Mike pushes Buddy right up against Ernesto, and when he passes Buddy with one lap to go, Ernesto is dead in his sights.

Now, if you were a casual fan, and went in for watching the battle for the highest position, you’d watch Grant fight Chad for second. What else could you do? You have to pick one, right?

You would have picked wrong.

Grant Langston will do anything to keep his position late in the race. He’s extremely hard to pass, he rarely makes mistakes, and isn’t intimidated by anyone.

Similarly, Mike Brown will do anything to make the pass late in the race. Anything. If the white flag is out and Mike is charging, always watch Mike. You won’t be disappointed.

Ernesto is no stranger to what is about to happen. He’s had run-ins with Mike before. There’s less than half-a-lap to go. Ernesto is approaching a sweeping right-hander with a gradual climb and a slight bank to the outside. The corner can be exited at full-throttle, with little chance for losing the rear-end.

Ernesto enters it first, and begins drifting wide toward the bank on the outside. But Mike has charged in deeper, thrown his leg out and his Simple Green/Pro Circuit Kawasaki over, and is cutting a sharper line up and to the inside of Ernesto. (See Ricky Carmichael’s block pass on Stephane Roncada find out what happens next.) But take note: a 125 motor has to be finessed. Even a works 125 motor. By the time Ernesto gets his bike back on the track, Mike has three bike-lengths on him and is in little danger of a counter-attack.

James Stewart will earn first pick on the gate for the second moto, a right reserved for the winner of the first. Rain has begun to fall and no one else is at the line. Just James, his mechanic, Jeremy Albrecht, and his Number Two-Fifty-Nine Kawasaki. James stands under an Oakley umbrella as the downpour begins, tear-offs taped to the tip of his visor, looking into the distance of the start straight.

The other teams are frantically changing tires and stuffing foam around their motors. Mechanics shout out instructions on how to properly tape foam to the tops of their riders’ helmets because they’re too busy to do it themselves, while others are slipping into rain slicks and getting hand-towels for their riders to tuck into their riding pants.

It’s raining so hard, the water isn’t sheeting off of the awning-shelters that slope down across the factory work-areas. It collects too quickly, gaining weight as it comes down, bowing the fabric in low-hanging bellies between the alloy supports, pooling against the unintended lip of the last alloy cross-member. Crew-members must reach up with broomsticks and poke at the pools from beneath the fabric. Sheets of water crash down over the edge, sounding like raw meat hitting a hot pan.

On the starting line, the AMA officials are barking out orders. James Stewart is the only one ready to race. No one else has lined up against him. All around him in the distance, the fences are emptying of spectators. Only the die-hard fans remain, opening umbrellas, and erecting EZ-Ups.

The sky is dark brown and the light is dim. The colorful gear of the riders as they arrive on the line at is muted, and masked by the rainfall. The Simple Green/Pro Circuit Kawasaki’s have special fabric covers wrapped around their Dunlop tires to keep the knobbies free of mud for the impending leap off the line.

That leap is more important than ever. Under these conditions, it means the difference between having clear vision and an open track, or having to race the next thirty-five minutes without goggles through the mud spray of the pack.

The team mechanics spread towels over the concrete beneath their rider’s bikes. Anything to gain an edge, to keep the concrete as dry as possible, until the last possible second. The thirty-second board goes up. Motors rev amid the sizzle-sound of rain.

When the gate drops, the pack funnels through the first corner, glistening brown. What follows is the first race of two, identical in nature: a display of dominance. Just switch the name Ricky for James, and you’ll have the story for both.

The water sheets down the hillsides and puddles everywhere around the track. Steam trails away from the motors behind the riders’ boots as they stand on their pegs down the long wandering straightaways, brown, runny mud lifting in curls around their tires.

The rain doesn’t stop until the racing is done, and by then, it’s clear who the men to beat are for this year’s Outdoor Titles. In Hangtown, holeshot or no, sunny and cool, or the worst conditions in years, no one can stop the Carmichael and Stewart show.

Things are looking pretty good for the team at Fox Racing.

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James ‘Bubba’ Stewart

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This is a very cool photo of Stephane

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Pastrana – before the broken wrist

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RC and Chad on recon

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Langston prepares

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Vuillemin & Ferry after muddy second moto

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Sean Hamblin is looking good for Suzuki

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Ernesto Fonseca – second 125 moto

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Very cool photo of RC

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125 National Champ Mike Brown

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Langston and Reed had good battles

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Ferry chasing Hamblin

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Ferry chasing Vuillemin

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Buddy Antunez

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Matt Walker

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DV again

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James Stewart

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Sebastien Tortelli

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James Stewart

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Pastrana’s arm after crash

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Foam protection from mud

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Travis Pastrana


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