AURORA, Ill. – Fans of the AMA Arenacross Series are used to seeing red bikes at the front of the pack over the past few seasons, thanks to the unbelievable resume Tuf Honda has put together in 2007, 2008 and now 2009.
Back in 2007, Team Manager Dave Antolak was able to lock up veteran competitor Danny Smith to lead the way for the team. After a tremendously successful season, Smith captured the AMA Arenacross Series title for Tuf Honda. The following season, Smith returned and fellow veteran Chad Johnson joined the Tuf Honda stable. Johnson endured a highly competitive season to come out on top in the end and score his second career title. Coming into this season, Smith and Johnson were gone but the team that acquired the attribute of picking up highly skilled veteran riders continued with that trend to sign series legend Josh Demuth and experienced supercross racer Jeff Gibson, instantly making the team a favorite to claim yet another title.
The season kicked off just past New Years in January and now, just under 10 weeks, nine rounds, and 13 races later, Tuf Honda is once again in the position to earn a new, Yankee-esque moniker with Gibson sitting comfortably atop the standings with four races remaining. The Ohio native blazed through the first seven races of the season, picking up four wins and finishing no worse than third, establishing a considerable points lead along the way.
With unpredictable nature of the AMA Arenacross Series, Gibson eventually found misfortune and let the field draw closer to him. But thanks to the strong points lead, he rebounded without taking a significant hit in the standings, thanks in large part to a rebound victory. Now, as the finale approaches, Gibson is doing what he needs to do by riding smart and putting his Mahindra Tractors/Tuf Honda team in a familiar position.
Dave, Tuf Honda is on the verge of capturing its third AMA Arenacross championship in a row with its third different rider. That is a unique accomplishment. What are your thoughts on the achievement?
Well, we’ve just had a good team. We’ve pretty much put everything together to give the riders what they need to win. I guess that’s really about it. You can’t buy a championship, you have to earn it.
What goes into your selection process for riders the past few seasons? Obviously you’ve made some good choices.
Let’s see. Some of these riders, like Jeff Gibson for instance, we’ve been trying get for a while. We’ve been trying to get Jeff to ride for us for five years. It just worked out this year. He was available. We’ve been doing (AMA Arenacross) for 11 years and we’ve only won a championship in four, hopefully five years so we’re not picking the right rider every year, but it’s worked out well the last few years. If it wasn’t for one point we would have a chance at winning the past four. Brock (Sellards) finished second to Chad (Johnson) in 2006.
Given the nature of the series and its high level of competitiveness with veterans and young riders alike, Tuf Honda’s methodology of rider selection over the recent years is pretty impressive.
You know if I think you look back at us, I think we go more with the veteran guys. I think with the AMA Arenacross Series especially, a lot of the young kids are fast, but there are 17 main events this year. To be able to put 17 main events together is hard for a new guy. In fact even with Jeff this year, he was on the podium for the first seven or eight times and then he got a bad start, tries to force the issue and crashes. I had to tell him, ‘Hey, nobody remembers how many races you win. They just remember the guy who wins at the end.’ I think he’s kind of stepped it down a little bit and he’s doing what he needs to do to take the championship. A veteran guy can understand that I think a lot more than a rookie.
What are your thoughts on Jeff? He started the year off on fire and he’s got five wins to lead the series.
I couldn’t be any happier with the way he’s ridden this year. I kind of expected it out of him. He rode for us I think back in 2000 for a few races. He filled in for somebody. And in those few races I knew he could win this. I’m just really happy to be able to have him back.
How has this season as a whole compared to the last two years with Chad (Johnson) and Danny (Smith)?
I don’t know if it’s that much different. Danny, again, was a veteran. We had Brock the year before that lost by one point. He’s definitely been a veteran. Danny had been around. Chad already won a championship. Those guys know what it takes to win. We just need to make sure that they don’t have to worry about anything else but riding. If we can do that for them then we expect them to be able to win. And that’s what our team is able to do that some of the other teams aren’t. There’s no drama, there’s no bike problems. There are no excuses, basically. We give them everything they need. They don’t have to worry about anything else and I that’s probably our secret.
Say you get three in a row. What does that mean to the team?
Actually now it just means that we’ve done a good job; it’s really not as exciting as the first one. But every year it’s still great and its kind of what we expect now though and we work hard to get it. I think it’s a good example of our mechanics working hard and everybody puts in their work and this is what happens when you do it.
Well with only two rounds remaining in the season, Jeff is looking like he is in a good position. What do you think his mentality is going into the final four races?
Just keep doing what he’s doing. Brock (Sellards) is running strong. He’s run second (in the championship) probably more times than anyone and he really wants to win this thing. This is the AMA Arenacross Series and anything can happen.
This weekend the series heads to the penultimate round of the 2009 AMA Arenacross Series in Wilkes Barre, Pa. and Wachovia Arena. Gates drop on Friday, March 13 at 7 p.m. followed by a second night of racing on Saturday, March 14 at 7 p.m. The exciting weekend concludes on Sunday, March 15 with amateur day beginning at 10 a.m.
Just one week later, the 2009 AMA Arenacross Series season will draw to a close and a champion will be crowned at the series’ debut in Highland Heights, Ky. and the Bank of Kentucky Center, March 20-22.
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