The opening round of the 2020 Grand National Cross Country (GNCC) Racing season returns to South Carolina for the Big Buck GNCC. The new season is already shaping up to be a memorable one with defending champion, Kailub Russell, announcing 2020 as his final full season of racing, Thad Duvall continuing his title quest, rookie sensation Ben Kelley going into the XC1 class for his first full season, and both Steward and Grant Baylor making a switch to FactoryONE Sherco, as well as several other rider and brand changes. Here are a few things to watch for at round one of the 2020 GNCC Racing season.
Russell Railing Towards Retirement
KTM made the announcement several weeks ago that 2020 would mark Kailub Russell’s final full-time season of racing. He said he plans to continue racing through 2021 on a limited schedule. While it didn’t mention specifics, we would expect to see Kailub at a variety events in 2021, maybe not quite a Ryan Sipes schedule but a variety regardless. For 2020 however, it’s business as usual for the seven-time champion as he’ll be making his bid for championship number eight.
Listen to this podcast Jason Weigandt did with Russell after the announcement.
With seven straight titles, Russell holds the record for most consecutive titles on the bike side and while this title run has been one for the record books, it hasn’t come without its fair share of adversity, hard work, and a bit of good luck. In 2012, Russell battled down to the final round with Paul Whibley. Whibley would end up with the race win and the championship, but the defeat gave Russell the knowhow and desire to come back in 2013 as a championship favorite.
He won the 2013 championship in a final-round showdown with Charlie Mullins. Mullins, the 2011 would be Russell’s closest competitor in 2013 and most of 2014 until a severe wrist injury took him out of contention and would eventually force him into retirement. In 2015 and 2016, Josh Strang exchanged wins with Russell, and then since 2017 Thad Duvall has provided Russell a strong fight for the championship.
Russell has been able to keep these challengers at bay and hopes to do so for one more season. As he stated last week in a podcast with Jason Weigandt, he wanted to announce his retirement before the season, so any riders who want to take the crown from him straight-up will know this is their last chance.
Russell is still on top of his game but there are a number of riders who would love to beat him in his final season. This alone shapes 2020 as one exciting season.
Consider Thad Duvall to be like a fine wine; the older he gets, the better he is. Duvall is actually just a few months older than Russell, but the past three seasons have been some of the best of Duvall’s career. Thad claimed the XC2 title back in 2008 and made the jump straight to the XC1 class in 2009 and many expected him to be a serious contender. Unfortunately, Duvall would be plagued with mechanical issues, injuries, and other setbacks. For awhile, it looked like his racing days might be numbered.
Eventually Duvall started simply finishing races consistently, then consistently started challenging for podiums and even won a few races. This would lead him to the factory Rockstar Energy Husqvarna squad beginning in 2017. That’s when Duvall rounded into Russell’s closest challenger. Since the beginning of the 2017 season, Russell and Duvall have claimed a combined 30 wins out of 38 GNCC events. While Russell is heading towards retirement, Duvall has made no mention of plans to slow down.
This would make Duvall the favorite for titles moving forward but the racer inside him ultimately wants to defeat Russell straight up, and 2020 marks his last opportunity to do so. Duvall has been fairly quiet and low-key off-season recovering from an injury suffered late in the 2019 championship. This could show that Duvall has done his homework in the off-season and he very well could come into 2020 at his highest level yet.
A Rookie Challenger
So much off-season buzz in off road racing centers on Ben Kelley. Arguably one of the most impressive success stories the series has seen, Kelley, from Connecticut, grew up primarily racing the NETRA series of the northeast. It wasn’t until 2016 that Kelley competed a full schedule of the GNCC series. He would finish fifth place in the XC2 class in both 2016 and 2017 before beginning an impressive run claiming the 2018 XC2 championship, then backing that up with a dominant XC2 title defense in 2019.
How dominant? Kelley won ten straight races in the XC2 class during the first ten rounds of 2019! Then, he gave up the chance at a perfect season to make the jump to the XC1 class for the final three rounds. This proved to be a good idea as Kelley would claim back-to-back wins in the final two rounds, earning overall wins in just his second and third starts in the XC1 class. That means the only time Kelley didn’t leave a GNCC as a winner in 2019 was his debut XC1 race—otherwise, he emerged with 10 XC2 wins and 2 XC1 wins in 13 starts.
While this is incredibly impressive, it’s key to mention that Duvall missed both of those rounds due to injury and Russell sat out the final round and also pulled off early in the penultimate round. There are no asterisks in race wins, but many are wondering what those races would have been like with those top challengers competing in them.
Russell and Duvall are the savvy veterans at this point, and Kelley is the rising star. Adding Kelley into the XC1 championship mix really adds to the unknown this season.
A New Shade of Blue… And White.
One of the biggest changes coming into 2020 came with the announcement of Steward and Grant Baylor making the switch to Sherco brand motorcycles. Longtime motorcycle industry professional Clay Stuckey had imported Sherco off-road motorcycles for several years, but in 2019 Clay sold the import rights to Ryan Young, the multi-time AMA National Trials Champion. This change has resulted in a huge push of the Sherco brand, including the addition of the FactoryONE Sherco Off-Road team, an offshoot of the FactoryONE Sherco Trials Team.
FactoryONE Sherco began slowly announcing several key signings to its off road team, included both Steward and Grant Baylor. While Grant has some experience riding other brands at a couple of times in his career, both Baylors are longtime KTM riders. In fact, for Steward, this marks the first time in his entire life that he’ll be competing aboard a different brand. This came as a shock to some, but for others the rumors had been flying for quite some time. Sherco is unproven at the top tier of GNCC, as there has never been an XC1 competitor on the French brand.
However, you have to start somewhere and the Baylor Brothers can help. The brothers are actually notoriously tough on equipment; as they just ride so much and so hard that they put a lot of work on practice bikes in a short period of time. This could be very beneficial as the brand develops the machines. There are early reports are that these guys are getting very comfortable on the Sherco, and despite what rumors are out there, they’ve been having great success with the durability of the bikes.
Even with a bit of uncertainty involving the Sherco bikes, there’s no doubt that Steward and Grant are both capable of winning races.. Straight up, no drama, Stew beat both Russell and Duvall to win last year’s GNCC season opener. The confidence and talent are there, and the desire to establish Sherco as a contender could make the Baylor Brothers two riders to keep an eye on all season long.
There are a number of other riders who have experience challenging for wins, or already have wins of their own. Trevor Bollinger would have been on this list after collecting five podiums last year, and battling DuVall and Russell up front, but the North Carolina native sustained a torn ACL and meniscus in his left leg during a crash at the season opener of the AMA National Enduro Series on February 2.
Similarly, Josh Toth, another up coming talent with a GNCC XC2 title, is out for a bit with a broken leg.
Hailing from Washington State, Ricky Russell (no relation to Kailub Russell) broke onto the GNCC scene back in 2013 with a privateer Yamaha effort. Ricky found his way onto the AmPro Yamaha team and even delivered a win at Snowshoe a few years ago, but now he will move over to the Coastal Racing Husqvarna squad. Ricky had some struggles in 2020 with a pre-season injury keeping him out of the first four rounds. He eventually he clicked off a pair of second place finishes later in the season. Will change from Yamaha to Husqvarna be good for him?
Monster Energy Babbitt’s Kawasaki fielded a new GNCC effort in 2019 with veterans Josh Strang and Jordan Ashburn. Both of these riders ran up front and lead races at some point during the 2019 season. Strang landed on the podium once and both riders were consistently inside the top five. With a season to grow the Kawasaki program under their belts, these two could very well make the necessary adjustments to challenge for the XC1 podium in 2020.
Phoenix Racing Honda fielded a great effort in 2019 with Andrew Delong in the XC1 class. Delong won quite a few XC2 class races several years ago and was a favorite for the championship until a pair of injuries ended two of his seasons early. Delong was one of the first riders on the Factory Husqvarna squad when KTM took over and that paid off with the 2014 National Enduro championship. Unfortunately, injuries continued to hamper him, and he wasn’t able to put together a full season of GNCC for a few seasons. He returned on the Phoenix Honda team in 2019 and finally found that consistency, finishing just off the podium late in the season. Delong is back in 2020 and looking to run with the front of the pack more often.
Phoenix Honda will also have a pair of new XC2 class competitors in 2020 in the form of Jonathan Johnson and motocrosser Heath Harrison. Johnson tried out a Honda for the first time at Ironman and landed his first-ever XC2 podium in the process. He snagged the Pro 2 class win at the first round of the AMA National Enduro Series a few weeks ago, and looks to be one of the top contenders in the XC2 class in 2020.
Who Takes XC2?
With Ben Kelley now in the XC1 class, the door is now wide open for those aiming for the XC2 class title. Craig Delong returns to the Coastal Racing Husqvarna team in 2020, making him the senior rider as he has been on the team since its inception in 2016. Delong is regarded as one of the most consistent XC2 riders, and while he doesn’t have a copious amount of XC2 wins, he can be counted on for podiums and top fives. Delong missed the first three rounds of 2019 due to an injury but landed seven second-place finishes and two wins in the XC2 class, establishing him as the favorite for the XC2 title.
However, he’ll face some serious challengers. We already mentioned Phoenix Honda’s Jonathan Johnson, but another rider on the move in 2020 is Mike Witkowski. After spending a couple of seasons as part of the Factory Beta team, Witkowski will be racing aboard an AmPro Yamaha in 2020. Witkowski landed five XC2 podiums in 2019. AmPro Yamaha is managed by seven-time National Enduro champion Randy Hawkins, and with that additional expertise on his side, Witkowski should be a serious contender for the XC2 title in 2020.
Evan Smith is another rider who has been quietly establishing himself as one of the top XC2 riders. The Georgia native picked up some additional support for 2020 riding as part of the LanMills XC team, which are a combined ATV and bike, amateur and professional effort backed by the Landers Family out of Tennessee. LanMills is also supporting the defending GNCC WXC champion Tayla Jones, so with a full roster of talent, Smith just may find himself transitioning from a rider looking for a podium finish to a rider looking for a race win.
New Zealander Liam Draper contested the 2019 GNCC season with the Tely Energy folks, who were supporting the Baylor Brothers. This season, Tely returns with Draper as their XC2 effort. Liam actually landed his first XC2 podium and first XC2 class win in 2019. Now working with championship-proven mechanic, Allen Gravitt, Draper is another rider who could be a contender in the XC2 class.
Two-time XC3 champion Jesse Ansley will make his move to the XC2 class this year. While he’s used to racing his 125 SX, Ansley is someone who can get into the mix for wins and podiums in the 250 class as well.
Finally, a newcomer to full-time GNCC competition will be contesting the XC2 class in 2020 as part of the Monster Energy Babbitt’s Kawasaki team. Australian rider Lyndon Snodgrass, who has tried several GNCC events in the past, will make a full-time bid on the series for 2020. The long three-hour GNCC events are usually a steep learning curve for foreign riders, but in terms of raw speed, Snodgrass is very fast and could be tough competition in the XC2 class as the season progresses.
With all of these racers and a slew of other riders looking for a breakthrough, the 2020 season in GNCC should be fun to watch. From Kailub Russell’s final championship bid, to XC1 newcomer Ben Kelley, and numerous XC2 stars looking to claim the class title, 2020 could very well be that season everyone talks about for many years to come. Follow all the action each week by tuning into RacerTV.com.