Story by Griff Cotter
It can be seen throughout history: One great power falls, another takes its place. It may be immediate or it might take a few years as others jockey for rank. But a vacuum is created and whether it happens instantaneously or gradually, someone new or something else will rise to prominence. It is in that time between, however, where legends are forged. For champions are not simply born into glory, they fight their way to the top.
Looking back, this fact rings true throughout the more than 40 years of the Grand National Cross Country (GNCC) Series. Over the course of more than four decades, there have only been 14 different XC1 motorcycle champions. That is an average dynasty of 2.8 years. Of those 14 champions, six were one-time winners and four others have only won the title twice. That accounts for 14 years and ten of the 14 different champions. This leaves 28 years where just four men dominated the GNCC motorcycling landscape.
In its infancy, GNCC gave birth to its first dynasty. Pennsylvania’s Ed Lojak would throw his leg over his Husqvarna motorcycle in the spring of 1980, naive to the reign that would follow. For the next four years, he would rule the class winning the first five of his eventual nine series championships, a GNCC record that still stands today. It might have been ten in a row had a Lojak been healthy in 1985, as an injury would allowed Jim Maltba to play spoiler. Maltba would become the first one-time champion, as the following year kicked off the second Lojak winning streak. Lojak’s dynasty would continue throughout the eighties, before the sun would set on a four-year run at the end of the ’89 season, the last of which he won on a Yamaha. Lojak would eventually land in the AMA’s Motorcycle Hall of Fame.
The very next year saw the dawn of another dynasty. Kentucky’s Scott Summers would three-peat to kick off a new decade in GNCC racing history, and he would do it on a before-its-time Honda XR600 four-stroke motorcycle. Summers’ run would be interrupted by the likes of Ohio’s Fred Andrews in 1993, and Scott Plessinger (another future AMA Motorcycle Hall of Famer) in ‘94 and ‘95. Then, just when the racing world thought it was over, Summers would retake the throne two more times before giving it up for good in 1998.
Right on the heels of Summers came former Grand Prix motocross title contender Rodney Smith from California. “El Rod” would win back-to-back titles in 1998 and ‘99, then surrender to Australian wild child Shane Watts in 2000. Smith would win back-to-back titles again in ‘01 and ’02, then conceded to seven-time ATV Champion Barry Hawk, who jumped to a motorcycle in ’03 and snagged a Bike championship. Smith, a factory Suzuki rider throughout his reign, and yet another future AMA Motorcycle Hall of Famer, would win his final title in 2004.
The year 2005 would usher in a new era for GNCC Racing, though credit must go to the aforementioned Watts for being the pioneer of what became a foreign invasion of sorts. The next six years would see international talent at the top of the GNCC rankings. The first was Finland’s Juha Salminen, who brought with him a new style of riding and upped the ante for anyone that wanted to challenge for an XC1 title. The KTM-backed Salminen practically sprinted from green flag to checkered flag and the Americans had nothing for him. Many often ponder how many titles Salminen could actually have won had he stayed longer. He moved back overseas, but on the way out he practically handed off the crown in 2007 to his KTM counterpart, David Knight from the Isle of Man, off the coast of England. Knight, a thoroughbred in his own right, would win back-to-back titles in ‘07 and ‘08.
New Zealand imported the next champion in Paul Whibley, who won in 2009, and then Australia’s Josh Strang would strike GNCC gold to close out another decade in 2010. The Americans were reeling and searching for a way to recapture the crown.
Little did they know, however, that the answer was already among them. Ohio’s Charlie Mullins would become the first rider to ascend the ranks from a GNCC youth champion all the way to XC1 champ and stop the foreign dynasty that had ruled since Rodney Smith exited the stage. Mullins’ and America’s moment in the sun would be short-lived in 2011, however, as a resurgent Whibley would recapture the title in 2012.
In all the turbulence of those years between Smith and Whibley there were rumblings in the KTM pits and talk of an ultra-competitive, ultra-talented champion-in-the-making who was also from that American cradle of off-road talent, Ohio. In fact, Whibley’s ‘12 title wasn’t secure until the last lap of the last race of the season at Ironman Raceway in Indiana, as young Kailub Russell nearly stole the title. Russell, a second-generation off-roader—his father Jeff Russell was the 1991 AMA National Enduro Champion—may have come up short in 2012, but from there he would go on a tear over the next eight years, a domination unlike anything GNCC racing had ever seen before. And while those eight straight titles are one short of Lojak’s nine, Kailub Russell’s sheer domination over that period gave him the GOAT status in GNCC Racing: Greatest of All Time.
Mercifully, Russell finished his GNCC career in 2020 to turn his attention to a brief run in the Lucas Oil AMA Pro Motocross Championship, as well as building his own training facility. He stopped with a .570 career winning percentage (67 overall wins in 116 races started). To put that in perspective, he won more races than he lost. Like Ricky Carmichael, the GOAT of AMA Motocross, Russell was feared on the track and was the favorite anytime he threw a leg over his motorcycle. Like Lojak, Summers and Smith, Russell is sure to one day be enshrined in the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame.
From Lojak’s ferocious run that kicked off the term dynasty in GNCC Racing, all the way up to the most recent Kailub Russell reign that just ended, history shows us what to expect moving forward. But not necessarily right now. What we are experiencing today is more of an outlier than the norm. It is the time in-between. Seasoned race fans look back on fond memories, and tell stories that are now legend, from Summers dead-lifting his heavy Hondas to the time Barry Hawk decided he had won enough on four wheels and switched to two and won the bike championship. Such moments of glory are what inspired today’s athletes to race GNCC.
Now we’re in October with two rounds to go in the season, and we have no idea who is going to win the title! KTM’s Ben Kelley from Yamaha’s Stu Baylor are practically in a dead heat heading into round 12 of 13. It doesn’t get any better than this—a two-horse race for the title, and your guess as to which one will win is as good as mine!
Historically though, just how good is the racing in 2021? For starters, we’ve seen four different race winners, which ties the highest number of individual overall race winners since 2012. There have also been three different points leaders in Grant Baylor, Ben Kelley, and Stu Baylor. And the one point that separates Stu Baylor and Kelley could set up the closest championship duel since 2013, when Kailub Russell edged out Charlie Mullins by just seven points to capture the title. If Ben Kelley can win the Buckwheat 100 tomorrow and Stu Baylor takes second, we could see a championship decided by only one point at the finale, which would be the closest title race in GNCC history.
Realistically, Stu Baylor shouldn’t even be in this championship race. Preseason he was among the favorites but an injury just before the season opener left him on the sidelines. To add to his early season woes, a mechanical at round two led to a 14th-place finish in Florida. These two mishaps left him in a nearly 50-point hole. Many believed this was enough to squash the blue #514’s dream of a championship in 2021. Everyone, including him.
“You know, after round one I was thinking positive, I felt like we could come back, like we were still in it,” said Baylor of his season to date. “In Florida [second round] I think I was running in second and I thought I could win and be back on track, but after the [equipment] failure and scoring only six points, I basically gave the guys a two-race head start. I wanted to stay positive. I wanted to say, ‘You know, we could still pull this out,’ but at that point it almost seemed like it was going to be impossible. It was going to take bad luck on other people for me to pull it off. There’s no way I ever would have thought I would have won seven of the next nine races.”
And Baylor did just that, taking seven of the next nine races. In fact, dating back to the second half of the ‘20 season, Stu has won 11 of the last 15 races he has entered. Because of his slow start though, he has taken on the role of the underdog in 2021.
“I’m still up against a great racer and a great team,” added Baylor. “As we sit, I would definitely say that as a whole, I am the underdog, even still with a one-point lead. But at the same time, I don’t want that mentality. I’ve got to know deep down, that I'm the best racer to set foot on the bike that day. I don’t want to be known as the underdog; I want to be known as the top dog.”
Ben Kelley, Stu’s KTM-mounted counterpart, owned the points lead for the lion’s share of the season. He will not just submit to the Yamaha. KTM has been a force in the GNCCs for a long time. Orange bikes have carried the #1 plate for nearly the past decade. Their state-of-the-art semi is routinely perched front and center in the pits, not just because it looks good, but because they earned it. Team Manager Antti Kallonen is to GNCC titles what Alabama football coach Nick Saban is to NCAA National Championships. Kallonen cut his teeth as Juha Salminen’s mechanic and has grown one of the most successful race team managers ever. He was backstage for every one of Kailub Russell’s eight titles, and BK is next in line for the orange off-road juggernaut.
“Coming into this season the championship was definitely the goal,” Kelley said. “To be consistent, hopefully win a lot of races and be able to shoot for that championship.”
Kelley, a former XC2 champion, is competing in his first full XC1 season in 2021 after an injury sidelined him for the majority of last season. And while he has multiple premier class victories, up until this year he sat in the shadow of the GOAT, Kailub Russell. Expectations and pressure to perform as the premier rider on such a prestigious team can be a lot for the most seasoned veteran, let alone a young, hungry, redshirt freshman such as himself.
“It’s definitely tough,” admits Kelley. “KTM has won the past eight championships with Kailub and they obviously want to keep the title. I wasn’t even around the GNCC scene when Kailub started winning so I don’t know how those [championships] went for him. But this is my second year XC1 and first time battling for a championship. That’s what’s crazy about this sport. It’s not cookie-cutter. Everyone has their own way of going about things.”
In a season where he has only won two races, Kelley has found a way to stay consistent. “I definitely have to keep it fun,” Kelley said, “That’s why we started racing. And it always seems like when you’re not so stressed out and just focused on the race itself, just going out there and doing the best you can. That’s when you get the best results.”
While Kelley’s goal in 2021 was a GNCC Championship, he also knew one of his biggest competitors would be the #514 of Baylor: “I figured Stu would be the main guy I would have to battle with. He’s always strong. You know, there’s a lot of guys that are good and can win on the weekend. But to consistently be battling for the lead is kind of a different story. Stu has been around for a long time and he’s just a solid competitor. He’s gritty.”
With two races to go, both of these competitors know what is at stake. Barring a major turn of events, either Stu Baylor or Ben Kelley will write their name in the history books as a GNCC Champion when the checkered flag waves in a couple of weeks in Crawfordsville, Indiana. While they ride different color bikes, their strategy to closing out this championship is very similar.
“With a win in the GNCC, there is a five-point gap from first to second, so being one point apart [from Kelley] is insignificant,” Baylor said. “At this point, I’ve got to go in and think I have to win out.”
“It’s one point,” shrugged Kelley. “For the last handful of races I’ve had a four-point lead, which might as well be a zero-point lead. Since Josh Strang won at the John Penton its either been Stu winning or me. We’ve been back and forth. And it’s what I’ve been expecting. I feel for me to win the championship I’m going to have to go out and win these next two and if he wants to win the championship he’s going to have to go out and win them. But I want this championship.”
After nearly a decade, another great GNCC dynasty has come to a close. GNCC Racing nation is experiencing a changing of the guard, and so far, it has been everything you could have hoped for in a championship fight. Consistency from a young up-and-comer, and grit and a never-say-die attitude from the seasoned veteran. Both would be first-time XC1 champs, and both would be worthy of the crown.
In the colorful history of GNCC Racing, there have been 14 XC1 Champions over 40 years. In a few short weeks that number will be 15, and history will either be a little bit more blue, or a deeper shade of orange. The time in between rarely disappoints, and it sure hasn’t this time. A couple questions still remain, the biggest of which is will it be Ben Kelley or Stu Baylor? Also, is the next great dynasty on the starting line today? Maybe, maybe not. But the struggle for supremacy is as intense as it has ever been, and if you are anything like me, I can’t wait until Sunday.
Tune it to watch tomorrow’s Buckwheat 100 GNCC at 1:00 p.m. ET on RacerTV.com.
Main Image by Mack Faint