By: Shan Moore
Morganton, NC - After three hours of intense action, the FMF Steele Creek GNCC was decided in the final turn. And it couldn't have been a crazier finish.
With spectators crowding the barriers to get a better view, Charlie Mullins led Josh Strang into the final stretch of winding trail that led to the finish. As the two riders got closer to the checkered flag the intensity picked up, with Strang showing Mullins a wheel at every turn. Mullins guarded his lines and held Strang at bay, looking clearly to have his second win of the season in the bag. That is until the final turn when the FMF/KTM rider fell down. At that point a stunned Strang cruised across the finish line to take his first win of the year. The win was the FMF/Makita Suzuki rider's third straight at Steele Creek and it gave him the series points lead to boot. To top things off, Strang also won the $250 Motosport.com Holeshot Award to start the r ace.
"I got pretty lucky there when Charlie went down," said Strang. "It was unfortunate for him but I'll take the win for sure. I went down myself on the last lap so I had to ride hard to catch him. When I caught him I had to try to get by him as quick as I could because we were close to the finish. I tried to go inside him in a corner and after that I was ready to settle for second, but then he went down. I was shocked and a little bit relieved."
Charlie Mullins lost a close one."It was a great race and I felt like I rode a good race," said Mullins. "The only mistake I made all day was right there at the finish and it was a big one. I'm kind of disappointed in myself and I don't know what to say. I've never thrown away a race like that."
Cory Buttrick rode his strongest race of the year and battled early on with Mullins, Strang and Am Pro Yamaha's Thad DuVall. At mid-race the FMF/KTM factory rider settled into his own private race in third, after Mullins and Strang picked up the pace and DuVall crashed out of contention.
"I got a pretty good start, which I'm happy about, and I was right behind Strang and Mullins," said Buttrick. "I made one little mistake and DuVall got around me, but then he went down and I moved back into third. After a while, Charlie dropped the hammer and then Strang started inching away. After DuVall went down I just rode hard to stay where I was."
Kailub Russell finally put things together after suffering problems at the first two rounds of the series. The FMF/KTM rider finished fourth despite taking a couple of laps to find his rhythm on the rough North Carolina course.
Round-two winner Paul Whibley had what he called an "off day", finishing fifth on his Am Pro/FMF/Yamaha. The 2009 series champ got a bad start and was last into the first turn, but managed to work his way back into the top five.
Meanwhile, Finland's Simo Kirssi is gradually acclimating to the series and had his best finish to date with a sixth on his FAR Husqvarna.
Jimmy Jarrett put his JG Off-Road/GEICO Powersports/Honda into seventh, finishing ahead of FMF/KTM's Russell Bobbitt and WMR/Planet Fitness/KTM's Nate Kanney.
Eight-time National Enduro Champion Michael Lafferty rounded out the top 10 on his factory Husaberg.
Jason Thomas was not happy at all with his first two races of the season, but he seems to have his house in order and took a dominating win in the XC2 class at Steele Creek. The FAR Husqvarna-backed rider ran as high as third overall at one point in the race, but ultimately settled into a pace that carried him to a nearly six-minute margin of victory over second place. The victory also gave Thomas the XC2 points lead.
"The first two rounds didn't go too good for me, and we knew why they didn't go good, and we straightened that problem out," said Thomas. "I was confident today and I got out front and just picked good lines, that's all it took."
Thomas shared the podium with a pair of newcomers to the series, Andrew DeLong and Brad Bakken, both top National Enduro riders. DeLong took the runner-up sport behind Thomas, while Bakken finished third.
"I was mid-pack on the start and I just kept moving up," said DeLong. "I was sitting third near the end and then Jordan Ashburn had problems and that moved me to second."
In addition to his podium finish, Bakken was celebrating his 21st birthday on race day.
"This feels really good to be up here and I'm excited," said Bakken. "I got a good start and ran up with Chris Bach for a while and I just gutted it out and finished third."
JG Off-Road/GEICO Powersports/Honda's Scotty Watkins got his best finish of the year with a fourth, beating out round one winner Steward Baylor Jr.
Meanwhile, KTM rider Zachery Smith was sixth ahead of $100 Motosport.comHoleshot Award winner Shane Obanion, who was seventh on a KTM.
AJ Stewart (Yam), Shane Hufford Jr. (KTM) and Morgan Moss (Hsq) rounded out the top 10.
After three rounds, Thomas leads the XC2 series standings by five points over Steward Baylor Jr. (76 to 71).
In the A.M. race, William Gilleland claimed the overall win, beating out fellow Yamaha rider Andrew Millier by a four-minute margin. KTM rider McKinnon Welborn was third overall, another two minutes back. Gilleland, Millier and Welborn were also the top three finishers in the Sportsman A class.
In the Women's division, KTM's Maria Forsberg took her second win of the year, beating out Yamaha rider LeeAnn Bange and Honda rider Ashley Crouch.
Tim Olson (Yam) won the Sportsman B class and Dennis Decker (Suz) won the Super Senior A division.
In the Youth race, KTM rider Levi Keller took his first-ever overall win, beating out Yamaha riders Gary Myers and Ryan Slopko in the process. Keller led every lap of the race and took the win by five minutes over Myers. "I'm from Ohio and it rains a lot there, so I'm used to this," said Keller.
Keller, Myers and Slopko also filled the top three spots in the Super Mini (14-15) division.
In the Super Mini (12-13) class, Mack Jones took the win on his Yamaha, beating out Austin Lee (KTM) and Boston Evans (Yam).
In the 65 (7-9) class, Bryce Merrill topped fellow KTM riders Colby Burks and Matthew Harris for the win.
The 2011 Can-Am Grand National Cross Country Series heads to Union, South Carolina for the Pirelli Big Buck GNCC April 9-10. ATV racing will take place on Saturday, followed by bike racing on Sunday. For more information, please visit www.gnccracing.com.
1. Josh Strang (Suz)
2. Charlie Mullins (KTM)
3. Cory Buttrick (KTM)
4. Kailub Russell (KTM)
5. Paul Whibley (Yam)
6. Simo Kirssi (Hsq)
7. Jimmy Jarrett (Hon)
8. Russell Bobbitt (KTM)
9. Nate Kanney (KTM)
10. Michael Lafferty (Hsb)
1. Josh Strang (73/1 win)
2. Charlie Mullins (70/1 win)
3. Paul Whibley (58)
4. Cory Buttrick (54)
5. Nate Kanney (44)
6. Garrett Edminsten (37)
7. Michael Lafferty (35)
8. Chris Bach (35)
9. Kailub Russell (32)
10. Jimmy Jarrett (31)
1. Jason Thomas (Hsq)
2. Andrew DeLong (KTM)
3. Brad Bakken (KTM)
4. Scotty Watkins (Hon)
5. Steward Baylor Jr. (KTM)
6. Zachery Smith (KTM)
7. Shane Obanion (KTM)
8. AJ Stewart (Yam)
9. Shane Hufford Jr. (KTM)
10. Morgan Moss (Hsq)
1. Jason Thomas (76/1 win)
2. Steward Baylor Jr. (71/1 win)
3. Andrew DeLong (58)
4. Jesse Robinson (58/1 win)
5. Brad Bakken (54)
6. Shane Obanion (40)
7. Scotty Watkins (39)
8. Jordan Ashburn (36)
9. Morgan Moss (35)
10. Shane Hufford Jr. (35)
MotoSport.com $250 XC1 holeshot - Josh Strang
MotoSport.com $100 XC2 holeshot - Shane Obanion
About GNCC Racing:
The Can-Am Grand National Cross Country Series is America's premier off-road racing series. Founded in 1979, the 13-round championship is produced exclusively by Racer Productions. Cross country racing is one of the most physically demanding sports in the world. The grueling three-hour GNCC races lead as many as 1,800 riders through tracks ranging in length from eight to 12 miles, competing for more than $3 million in prizes. With varied terrain, including hills, woods, mud, dirt, rocks and motocross sections, GNCC events are tests of both survival and speed. For more information, please visit www.gnccracing.com.