What to make of this Yamaha domination? Last week I wrote that the opener of the Nationals are always a little crazy, but these Yamalube Star Racing boys are not one hit wonders. This was like Justin Timberlake getting a solo hit with “Cry Me a River” with the caveat that A) everyone already knew him from ‘N’Sync and B) they were just pumped that the song tore Britney Spears apart. Those were just gimmicks—no way the ‘N’Sync guy really had the stuff to keep it going, right? Oh, he’s now one of the most successful artists of all-time and has actually surpassed Britney in historical significance….
Yeah, well, the improbable Yamaha dominance of the 250 Class at Glen Helen happened again at Hangtown—in fact, they were more dominant. This time other riders were ready to battle instead of just “seeing where they fit in at the opener.” It didn’t matter. Heck, Justin Bogle really tried to make a run in the first moto. He even knocked Cooper Webb down and still couldn’t stop him. Then Christophe Pourcel finished third to make for a Yamaha sweep and take third in points! What’s next, Justin Timberlake starts an acting career?
(Before we go further, I’m aware Red Bull KTM is crushing the 450 Class in a similar manner but Josh Grant (Yamaha again!) did get a moto win and is anyone shocked that Ken Roczen and Ryan Dungey are good? Those two riders have pretty much never not been good).
In contrast to the KTM guys, Star’s success is intriguing by way of shocking (funny how quickly things flip—imagine saying five years ago that KTM wins are expected and Yamaha wins are surprising). Let’s look at the surprising aspects: Star Racing has been around forever without experiencing anything close to this kind of success; you have Martin and Webb who looked good as rookies but not good enough to portend this; you have Martin and Webb doing most of their training and riding apart from each other and essentially stumbling on the same magic dust on two different coasts at the same time; you have Martin not even qualifying for the first two supercross races just three months ago; you have Yamaha in general struggling to turn things around; and then you suddenly have all that flipping around practically overnight. And we haven’t even gotten into Pourcel yet, which speaks volumes. We didn’t know how Pourcel would do this year but win lose or no-show, he was set to be the story of the summer. He is not! He’s back in the 250 Class in the U.S. for the first time in four years and riding for Valli Motorsports (which didn’t even race last year) and that is not as surprising as the Star Racing kids.
So how did we get here? Let’s look.
Team and Timing: I chatted with Star Racing owner Bobby Regan after Hangtown and he put some simple steps down. For starters, the team started their outdoor prep much, much earlier than ever before. For that, I think you can actually credit J-Mart’s supercross struggles. He was out of the 250SX East title chase by the end of February, so from there the team kidnapped him from the Carmichael Farm in Florida and put him to work testing in California. Martin’s supercross story presented a strange combo of an East Region favorite being out of the points chase but not being hurt. He was free to test, race the California Classic amateur/local pro race at Glen Helen, and even get time to go back to Carmichael’s place in Florida before the Nationals began. Few get to go back east before Glen Helen, but he was so far ahead on testing that he could. Sadly it took sucking early in supercross to end up on that schedule but he’ll take it right now. And by the way, Martin’s a workhorse so if you give him the time and tools, he’ll take advantage.
Suspenders: The all-new engine on the 2014 YZ250F is going to get praise but Regan was quick to point to out their revamped suspension program as a factor. I’ll sum up recent acts like this: KYB and Showa used to roughly split the factory pits, but Showa really started upping their game and stalwarts like Monster Energy Kawasaki switched to them, as well as JGR Yamaha, which is obstensibly Yamaha’s factory 450 team. Credit KYB, then, for responding with a revamped effort this year. They’re back with JGR and helping Star at a new level. “We never had a KYB guy at the races just for us before, and now we have two of them,” explained Regan. “Two guys there all day just for us. That’s been a big change.”
The bike: Okay, so, that new YZ250F. The old motor actually drew on the basic blueprints of the original 250F from 2001, and it wasn’t fuel-injected. Now you’ve got the horsepower building principals behind the reverse-cylinder YZ450F working for the 250, and while the 2010-2013 450 wasn’t praised for handling, no one ever said it was slow. Power is a bigger factor in the 250s, and this bike must have it. However, no one involved has used this as a sales pitch. I talked to plenty of Yamaha guys over the last two weeks, including factory team manager Jim Perry and engine builder Bob Oliver, as well as Regan, Webb and Martin. Yes, they all say the bike is faster than last year, but I haven’t heard ridiculous claims like “10 horsepower” or “five seconds a lap.” Oliver did tell me that from an engineering standpoint, it’s a sound design, but we all know blueprint-to-race-track is a tough transition. He did say the motor was better, but he didn’t go nuts on it. Even Cooper Webb was quick to say his program is better all around this year and it’s not just the bike. C’mon, Cooper, help Yamaha sell some bikes!
Supercross versus motocross: We should remember that Webb just came off of his first season indoors, but this is his second season outdoors. He’s on that Barcia/Tomac turn-pro-at-the-first-National schedule. He was also facing an all-time stacked 250SX West pack for his rookie year, and remember most kids take to outdoors more quickly because that’s what they grew up riding. Webb did pretty well but he didn’t win a race so no one raved. Maybe we underestimated his performance? He was pitted against some experienced riders and battled them. Next year he could be much better and we’ll all say, “Oh, yeah that’s right, he was a rookie.”
As for J-Mart, he did win the Vegas East finale but it was overshadowed by Bogle’s title and the general decimation of the East with injuries. Like I said last week, maybe we should have appreciated his win more. Or… maybe he’s just way better outdoors?
The 250 landscape: 2012 was a high water mark for action in the 250s, with Blake Baggett, Eli Tomac, Justin Barcia, Ken Roczen and Marvin Musquin making up a bad-ass group of front runners. No one else had a chance, and they were the only riders to win 250 Nationals in 2012-2013. But where are they now? Roczen and Tomac have graduated. Musquin and Baggett (and Dean Wilson) can’t get healthy (Baggett told me he wasn’t even disappointed with his 8-3 at Glen Helen because he had barely ridden before the race with an eye injury). Those five riders are just ghosts now. Now, take a deep look back at the last few races of 2013. Martin really found a groove around (not shocking) his literal home race at Millville. If you remove Tomac, Roczen, Baggett and Musquin from last year’s results, here’s where Martin would have finished in the final eight motos: 1-3-1-1-DNF-3-2. Further, Webb was on the overall podium at Elsinore last year. The Star kids were making big strides late last season, but they were mostly behind the likes of Tomac, Roczen and Baggett, so we didn’t really notice. With last year’s top two graduating, someone had to step into the void and these kids did it.
Now, lets not take anything away from the performance. No team goes 1-2 in the first four motos on luck, and if you watch J-Mart riding, it looks like the tape is in fast forward. There are a number of factors that got them there, but now that they’re here, it won’t ever seem so surprising again.