This story, from the Detroit Supercross at Ford Field, appeared in the July 2014 issue of Racer X Illustrated.
“Take that one,” Michael Byrne says. “Straightest shot to the first turn.” Byrner spent fifteen seasons as a full-time pro in the U.S. and now works the sidelines for BTOSports.com KTM teammates Andrew Short and Matt Goerke, as well as holeshot master Mike Alessi during the week. Starts are the most critical aspect of Monster Energy AMA Supercross, and on this night, we’re putting the holeshot process under the microscope.
At Ford Field’s Detroit Supercross, we’ve decided to study one single gate all night long. Byrner recommends the one fourth from the inside. There’s a good chance, he says, that the main-event holeshots will come from there later in the evening.
7:35 p.m. 250 Heat 1
GEICO Honda’s Justin Bogle gets the first gate pick. He was second in timed qualifying; Adam Cianciarulo will pick first in heat two. Sure enough, Bogle goes right to that fourth gate, “mainly for position,” he explains. Position is key here because there are no ruts to choose from—not a single bike has rolled over the gate yet. Bogle’s mechanic, Grant Hutcheson, goes to work building a rut of his own with his Alpinestars boot.
Bogle gets a good jump, but AG Motorsports’ Kyle Peters comes in from the outside, forcing Bogle to brake to avoid a collision. Gavin Faith wisely tucks underneath and shoots into the lead on his TiLube/Stormlake Honda. The privateer wins the heat. Bogle, who has been struggling with his starts all season, must do better through turn one in the main.
7:49 p.m. 250 Heat 2
Cianciarulo picks the gate seventh from the inside. There are now ruts to contend with in front of the gates. These are the secret sauce of gate selection, because mechanics and riders are only allowed to work the dirt behind the gate. The condition of the rut and dirt in front of it, then, becomes the most critical part of gate selection—even more than lining up inside or outside. As two-time AMA Supercross Champion Ricky Johnson used to put it, “Condition over position.”
After just one start, gate four already has a hole in front of it, so while Bogle took it first earlier, it’s not chosen until Rockstar Energy Racing KTM’s Cole Thompson grabs it with the fifth pick.
Surprisingly, only one 450-team person is on the floor watching this—but there’s no surprise that it’s Tony Alessi. No one takes starts more seriously than the Alessis. What’s Tony looking for? “The rut in front of the gate,” he says, concurring with RJ’s theorem.
Such studying rarely matters, though, because Mike Alessi generally selects the first gate to the outside of the doghouse. Which spot is Tony looking at now? “Status quo,” he says.
Thompson gets a good jump, but riders from farther outside again make a sweep. Cianciarulo gets to the first turn first, but his teammate Martin Davalos overtakes him to get the lead and the win. Thompson claws his way forward to finish fifth. The heat-race wins went to riders in gates five and three. Gate four isn’t getting the love, and it’s because of the hole forming in front of it.
8:03 p.m. 450 Heat 1
“Status quo” works well for Smartop/MotoConcepts’ Alessi, who jets across the start to beat a bunch of riders to the turn.
“It’s just balls,” Mike explains. “A lot of guys aren’t willing to go into that first turn around the outside wide open. They’re worried someone on the inside is going to come into them.”
Alessi holds it wide open and holds off nearly everyone, same for JGR/Toyota Yamaha’s Justin Brayton, who started a few gates farther inside and gets the holeshot.
Yoshimura Suzuki’s James Stewart had the first pick in this heat. Gate four might offer the best position, but that hole in the rut is scary, so he grabs gate three. Red Bull KTM’s Ryan Dungey, with the third pick, selects gate four, and his mechanic, Carlos Rivera, works the rut with his Fox boot. Dungey’s rut is tight, just barely wider than his rear tire. Stewart, next to him, has a comparatively wider rut, carved by his mechanic, Rene Zapata. They can work the rut behind the gate all they want, but the hole in front is the issue. Dungey doesn’t get a good start.
8:15 p.m. 450 Heat 2
Ryan Villopoto’s mechanic, Mike Williamson, should leave a tip jar on the starting line. He takes rut building into the realm of performance art—he even lifts the rear of the bike into place so he doesn’t disturb his sculpture. Then he takes a rag and cleans residual dirt out of the knobs.
In contrast, Justin Barcia selects gate four and does all the work himself. “That’s the way I’ve always done it,” says Barcia, known as one of the best starters in the business. Villopoto ends up with a deep, flat rut, while Barcia’s is shallow.
The gate is held extra long in this heat. Barcia flinches, so he gets a bad jump, which means he’ll have to shut down a little early and get back on the gas. That digs an even deeper hole.
Ah, but position. Barcia enters turn one in tenth but just uses the inside line to emerge in second. “The inside is safe,” Byrner says.
Barcia, despite the flinch and the bad jump, wins the heat. But he leaves a seriously jacked-up rut behind.
“I dropped the gate at five and a half seconds for the first heat and seven and a half for the second,” explains Dan Rager, who drops the gate inside the doghouse. “I like to mix it up.”
8:21 p.m. Track Maintenance
Rager is in his sixties and worked a variety of AMA positions at the races before taking over the doghouse a few weeks ago in Dallas. He’s seen his share of starts.
"I came back from Vietnam and needed to do something crazy,” he explains. “My brother raced dirt bikes, so I got one. I’ve done hand-on-helmet starts and rubber-band starts, forward-falling gates.… One time in Charlotte I remember the forward-falling gate, and the 500s bent it!”
Dan has a stopwatch to decide the seconds. “There are two rules,” he says. “Has to be between five or ten, and the 30-second-card girl has to be gone!”
8:34 p.m. 250 LCQ
Crosley Radio/RiderSurance-backed privateer Jacob Baumert takes gate four with the third pick. He does his own work on the gate, leaving mechanic/agent/truck driver Brandon Parrish to hold the bike. He gets a good jump out of the gate but Gannon Audette crosses in front of him from the inside, they collide, and Baumert ends up way back. He finishes twelfth in the LCQ and misses the main.
8:43 p.m. 450 Semi 1
Brayton has first pick and uses the same gate he holeshot with in his heat. Wil Hahn picks second but stays outside as well. Hahn’s mechanic, Shawn Irwin, goes back to the condition-over-position concept.
"We wanted to go inside but the ruts are bad,” he says. “Some guys will double-clutch and the rut gets wavy. You’ve got to stay away from that."
Nick Wey has the fourth pick and goes for gate four. He doesn’t get a great jump but cruises down the inside, makes a move, and ends up with the holeshot. Score one for position.
As soon as that gates drop, Feld Motor Sports’ Sean “Gary Busey” Jacobi runs out to drag giant Tuff Blox and banners across the start. There’s an army of supercross personnel down here making sure everything happens smoothly.
8:49 p.m. 450 Semi 2
Ken Roczen has the first pick and goes sixth from the inside, same as Hahn. "This one has the best rut in front of the gate,” Roczen says. “I want it to be smooth."
RCH Racing’s Broc Tickle picks second and goes for the fourth gate. His mechanic, Tony Berlutti, wears an Oakley shoe on his left foot and a riding boot on the right for gate packing. The real news is that, with only sixteen riders in the semi, the track crew closes off the inside three gates. No one can line up next to Tickle, so he shoots off the gate straight as an arrow. He gets into turn one first, but more importantly, gate four is starting to look good again.
9:06 p.m. 450SX LCQ
Pennsylvania privateer Ronnie Stewart has second pick and chooses gate four. Tickle’s good launch a few minutes ago helped clear the way, and Stewart nails the start and grabs a picture-perfect holeshot—he’s the only rider all night who will lead the field into, through, and out of the first turn. He goes on to finish third in the LCQ and make the third main event of his career.
9:21 p.m. 250SX Main Event
“Check out those flames,” Gary Busey says. “He’ll make ’em dance.” Busey and fellow track man Zach Lawson are showing me the flame machine that controls the burst above the starting gate. You think flames can dance without a choreographer? Nope. Lawson works the buttons like a manic texter. “I count to three, get into a rhythm, and let it go,” he says.
Beneath the flame machine, Bogle goes back to gate four, the same one he used in his heat. Gate five has the worst rust now, and no one wants it. Blake Baggett surveys it and walks away, choosing to go farther outside. It gets so bad that the AMA’s Tim “Tool Time” McAdams, the official in charge of loading the gate, has to hold a finger up to signify there’s still one inside gate remaining. Matt Lemoine, with the lucky thirteenth pick, takes it.
Unlike the factory mechanics, Lemoine’s wrench, Tim Bennett, is wearing skateboard shoes as he packs the dirt. No worries—Lemoine nails the start and gets his bars ahead of Bogle. Bogle learned a lesson from going wide in the first turn of the heat, so he jams on the brakes, slides inside, and comes within about an inch of the holeshot. Soon he’ll work his way into second and finish there, behind Cianciarulo. It’s Bogle’s best start and finish of the season thus far.
Watch the highlights from the 250SX main event:
9:54 p.m. 450SX Main Event
Seven laps into the 250 Class main event, the 450s head to the gate. James Stewart gets the first pick and immediately looks toward the inside, surveying gates three and four. Like he did in his heat, he goes with three. Although Tickle and Ronnie Stewart helped clear it, there’s still a hole in front of gate four. Tellingly, Barcia has the second pick in the main. Remember, he used gate four in his heat, flinched, and ruined the rut. He chooses not to use it again and goes to gate two. “The rut was jacked up,” he explains.
Villopoto uses the very inside gate. No one has pulled a good start from here all night, but this is common practice for the three-time Monster Energy AMA Supercross Champion.
“He doesn’t care about the holeshot,” Byrne says. “He can win with a top-five start. He just wants to make sure he doesn’t get taken out in the first turn. Remember: safety.”
Villopoto’s mechanic Williamson builds another work of art. “Yeah, but what sucks is this guy is going to do a practice start and ruin it all,” Williamson says of his rider. Next to him, Barcia works his own gate, so he’s careful not to launch too hard for the parade lap.
“I’ll only do a practice start if we made a big bike change and I need to test it,” Barcia says. “I’ll let Schnikey [mechanic Mike Tomlin] fix it up a bit.”
“Hey, if you’re checking out ruts, look at my piece of art,” Josh Hill says from his spot just inside of the doghouse. “I even put little traction grooves in mine and everything. It hasn’t actually worked yet this year, but it sure looks sick!”
Dungey, with the seventh pick, selects gate four. He’ll have to deal with that hole. “Most weeks you need to get at least the fourth pick, but two weeks in a row no one picked the fourth gate,” he says. “There was a little bump in it, nothing terrible. I was like, ‘All right, I’ve got to get out of this.’ And I did a really good job—I actually got out good and then clipped somebody—Brayton, I think—to the right of me and he took my hand off the handlebar, right off the throttle. So I was like, ‘I’ve got to grab the throttle!’ It was crazy!”
This time, the inside positioning saves Dungey, as he’s able to follow Villopoto around the inside and make passes. But Stewart uses the better rut to get a quicker jump and get into turn one ahead of him. Stewart ends up with a great start and Dungey a bad one, and that tells the story—Stewart wins the main from the front while Dungey has to make moves to finish third, behind Villopoto.
The man winning the $1,5000 Nuclear Cowboyz Holeshot bonus is 450 part-timer Cole Seely, riding Trey Canard’s Honda. He uses the same gate he had in his heat to grab another holeshot, but Stewart shoots past on lap two to take the lead. Dungey closes up on Villopoto for second but can’t get him, so he settles for third. At the end of the night, the difference in winning and losing isn’t a few seconds or even a few bike lengths—it’s the size of one small hole in front of gate four.
Watch highlights from the 450SX main event from James Stewart's point of view:
Watch highlights from the 450SX main event from
Watch the highlights from the 450SX main event: