“Aim for the dry spots, Aaron!” someone yelled at me as I was leaving the pit area Sunday morning and heading out for another punishing lap at the 25th running of the Ironman GNCC. I couldn’t tell if it was serious advice or if it was just a joke—after heavy and extended rainfall the day and night before the only thing dry in Crawfordsville, Indiana, was the champagne battles after the day’s eventual winners would pop them. Either way, the advice didn’t seem to matter, as I promptly pushed the front end in the slop two turns later and found myself swimming in mud soup for what seemed like (and probably was) the 30th time that morning. So much for the fresh goggles and gloves I’d just received.
Several weeks before, when my editor first asked me if I would be interested in racing the Ironman GNCC, I quickly responded with an emphatic yes. Being from California, I’d never even been to a GNCC before and was eager to see what they were all about. Getting to actually race was the icing on the cake, and when I learned I’d be aboard a brand new 2020 Honda CRF250RX and would be pitting out of the Phoenix Racing Honda semi, it seemed like a dream come true. It was too, just not the good kind.
When we arrived at Ironman Raceway I was surprised to see just how big the turnout was. I’d always known GNCCs were big, but I hadn’t fully grasped the scope. There were thousands of people there, with factory teams in attendance competing for the win. It felt a lot like a national, but instead of coming to watch, people were there to race. I heard on the loudspeaker that roughly 800 quads had registered to race on Saturday, and on Sunday there were over 600 bikes racing…at the same time as me in the morning race. Then another 250 bikes would race later in the afternoon race for A riders and pros. Grand total for the weekend was just short of 2,000 entries. That’s nuts, and with that man people ready to battle, there was an electricity in the air I’d never felt before. I found myself walking with a spring in my step, which turned into a literal hop when we arrived at the Phoenix Racing Honda pits.
As I walked under the awning the grin on my face widened as I saw three CRF250RX bikes lined up, ready and waiting. I bee lined it toward the one that had HANSEL written on the side with the same enthusiasm of a six-year-old jumping out of bed on Christmas morning. I immediately started snapping pictures and uploading them to social media, pausing just long enough to happily inspect the Moose gear we’d been supplied with, complete with my name emblazoned on the back. I looked over at Cycle News’ Jesse Ziegler, who was also part of the factory-for-a-day program, and he seemed to be experiencing the same level of enthusiasm I was. It wasn’t even nine in the morning yet and I already felt drunk with happiness. It didn’t seem like the day could get any better!
After meeting some of the team staff, as well as team owner David Eller, who were all genuinely friendly, we chowed down on some lunch before heading out to watch the start of the afternoon ATV program. By the way, if anyone from Phoenix is reading this, I’m sorry about the gigantic jug of cashews. Just like the coffee I spilled all over myself at breakfast, I ham-fistedly dropped that huge tub of nuts, spilling them all over the ground. The Racer X staff calls this #lifeofhansel.
The rain was falling in earnest as we trudged out to the wide-open starting field, and I started feeling some concern as we waited for the quads to get underway. Chris Cox from American Honda later explained that conditions had been super dry and the course would be prime in the morning, which equipped me with some optimism. Turns out he’s a sadistic liar and in my opinion, should be punished to the full extent of the law.
The next morning was race day and as we downed our breakfast, I started feeling those race jitters slowly creeping into my stomach. It’d been a long time since I’d been in an actual race and I was excited! So much so that it didn’t even bother me when I split the back of my pants wide open an hour later while stretching at the Phoenix rig. #lifeofhansel Hey, it was time to throw on our Moose Racing gear and get ready to moto down anyway, right? My enthusiasm was boosted even more when I saw the Phoenix technicians working on our bikes and getting them ready to go. I literally didn’t have to do anything. I didn’t even set my own tire pressure! It was a cool feeling, and from Wayne Eller making sure our levers were positioned correctly, to Gino Aponte setting our race sag, to Eric Siraton, who walks around with killer homemade spicy red potatoes in one hand and a T-handle in the other, everyone made us feel welcome and at home from the minute we walked in.
Before long I found myself sitting on the line waiting for the race to start. If you’ve never seen the start of a GNCC race, it’s pretty awesome. There are literally hundreds of bikes lined up, and each class starts roughly ten seconds apart. Sitting in that massive pack of racers produces a pretty unique feeling. Everyone is amped and ready to go and there’s almost a mob energy, just in a good way. I even found myself involuntarily starting up my ride and revving it up multiple times for no reason other than simply being excited. Sure, the big field we were in was soupier than a can of Campbell’s, but I was confident once we got into the woods it’d be a different story. I soon learned my positivity was completely unfounded.
When it was time for my class, which consisted of about 40 racers, I hunkered down and waited for the flag. When it waved I jammed on the electric start button (GNCC races have dead-engine starts), dumped the clutch, and felt my Honda lurch off the line. It was officially on! I started grabbing gears as my bike rocketed forward, half rolling half hydroplaning toward the first turn. I’d gotten a pretty good jump, but just as I was about to start setting up for the first turn a Husky came in hot and we locked bars for a split second. Fortunately we broke free, but the damage was done and like a total rookie I locked up the brakes and stalled the engine. I didn’t lose much time thanks to the electric start, but my goggles had gotten completely blasted. I clumsily swiped at my goggles, bludgeoning the side of my helmet as I attempted to grab a tear off. After a few unsuccessful attempts I accidently grabbed the entire stack, tossing it, and any hope for clear vision, into the brisk Indiana air.
Go to the 50:00 mark to watch Aaron “Avon” Hansel and the rest of the Sportsman B Senior class start. #lifeofhansel
As I entered the woods I was greeted with an astonishing sight. Countless riders were already down, hundreds of spectators lining the trail were yelling and trying to point out the good lines, and the extremely muddy racing surface was covered with ruts so deep you could go spelunking in them. All the while guys were just pinning it, ping-ponging off each other and trees, engines screaming, tires roosting, as they attempted to establish good position early on. I didn’t even make it three minutes before a hidden root redirected my front tire directly into a tree and I catapulted over the front of the bike and into the soaking mud. That scenario repeated itself so many times over the next 20 minutes I became convinced the trees in Indiana generate their own gravitational pull.
As I started to settle in it was becoming painfully clear at just how unequipped I was for this type of racing. There’s nothing like that where I live in California, and the deluge we’d had the previous day had transformed the course into rutty, rooty, slippery beast with about as much forgiveness as a divorcee whose husband had left her for the baby sitter. Making matters even more challenging was the sticky mud that was clumped all over the bike, making it extremely heavy. It was caked all over me too, thanks to my newly acquired penchant for making mud angels, and every part of me, including my helmet, felt about ten times heavier. The weight on my boots was the worst. My legs were absolutely exhausted from hefting all that weight up and down, and there were times when I crashed simply because I couldn’t get my feet off the pegs fast enough to dab. It got to the point where I was pinning it through creeks with my feet hanging down in an effort to knock of the mud!
Half a lap in and it was already the most brutal thing I’d ever experienced on a dirt bike. Even the open fields, which you’d expect to be a good place to rest, provided no respite. They were soaked and standing water was everywhere. It was actually easier to go through with a little bit of speed, but it was so slick even miniscule increases in throttle resulted in the rear wheel sliding out and passing the front. Let’s just say I performed a whole bunch of big, unintentional circles in those fields trying to get the bike straightened. Later Ziegler even told me he almost buried it and got stuck in one of those fields, and that’s saying something because unlike me, he’s extremely talented on a motorcycle.
Somehow I was able to persevere through that initial loop (I think the course was 12 miles long), but my spirits sank when I crossed the line and saw a white flag waving. I seriously didn’t think I’d survive another lap. I had zero energy and like an idiot, hadn’t worn my hydration pack. As rolled into the pit area the first words out of my mouth were, “Boys, I don’t know if I have another lap in me!” They responded with heartless laughter and proceeded to speedily prep the bike for another round. I watched, halfway in a daze, as I realized I was indeed going to go back out. I snapped back to reality as the Phoenix team deftly maneuvered around me, shoving fresh gloves onto my hands, snapping new goggles on helmet, and pouring water down my throat. I tried to drag out the process.
“I think we need more coolant, I lost a bunch.”
“It’ll be okay.”
“Should we change the tire pressure?”
“Well there’s a seat bolt missing. We should replace that.”
"I don't know if I have another one of those in me," Hansel said to the Phoenix Racing Honda team when he pitted. Courtesy of Phoenix Racing Honda But he chugged some water, got gassed up, and got new goggles and gloves before going out for his second lap—only to ruin the fresh gear moments later by crashing again. Courtesy of Phoenix Racing Honda
Had I been there by myself on my own bike, I might have pulled off, but after seeing the enthusiasm from the team, and the quickness in which they got me ready for another lap, I felt encouraged and genuinely wanted to finish even more than I wanted to avoid being the bitch who quit. If they could do their part and put in work for an idiot journalist whose results didn’t matter to the team at all, I could damn well throw down another lap. I revved the bike defiantly just as someone yelled,
“Aim for the dry spots Aaron!”
Two turns later I was down in the slop. Again. Fresh goggles and gloves ruined already.
The second lap became an affair of simple survival. There was zero fight in me, and I was just trying to keep from falling over and having to lift up that mud-caked machine. From the looks of it plenty of other people were experiencing the same thing. It looked like a warzone out there, and despite the track being in slightly better condition from all the traffic of the first lap, bikes and riders were down all over the place. Some of them were struggling to get moving again, some had completely given up and were sitting in the mud, face down, cradling their helmets in their hands, openly weeping. There was even one guy who’d pulled off, dumped his bike, and taken a nap. I’m not joking. I asked if he was okay and he said he was just napping! My spirits would be buoyed by the idea that I at least hadn’t yet become a casualty, but they would immediately crash back down to Earth when someone would blow by me, seemingly with zero difficulty in navigating through the treachery. I hung my head when a guy wearing a pink skirt motored by me, and I nearly turned in my man card when a dude in a cow suit sliced his way through a section I was convinced not even Kailub Russell could handle. The struggle was real!
The bike itself felt great, although in those conditions it’s hard to get a good impression of how it rides. I can say I had zero time on it before the race, but I never felt out of sorts with it. There was also plenty of low end power too, which was great for when I found myself accidentally lugging it up a muddy hill. One thing that really impressed me was that the thing held together. Not that I doubted it would, but I was not kind to that poor bike, and neither was the course. I abused the clutch so hard it’s probably in counseling, and over and over I found myself in situations with the engine pinned and not going anywhere. The radiators were completely clogged with mud too and not surprisingly there were multiple occasions when an absolute river of coolant was flowing out and creating clouds of steam so thick it looked like I was carrying around my own weather system. The coolant eventually stopped puking, and I assumed it was because there wasn’t any left. Then again, when I tried using that excuse for a longer pit stop, the crew shrugged it off. Somehow that bike continued to run strong. I was, and still am, impressed with its durability. These have to be the gnarliest conditions you can put a bike through.
When it was all over I’d been racing for three hours and 17 minutes, and had picked up four extra spots by going out for that second lap. My final finishing position was 25th out of 42 in the Sportsman B Class, and I was 278th out of 634 overall, which I was more than fine with. Hey, I was in the top half! I was just happy to have survived what was easily the toughest thing I’ve ever done on a motorcycle. And as torturous as it was, it felt damn good having completed it. And when we all had dinner and drinks together later, it was even more fun enjoying the camaraderie, laughing, and exchanging our experiences from the day. That’s what it’s all about, and even though there were times when I was genuinely miserable out there, I’m counting the days until I get to do it again. Could we get a little better weather next time, though?