Main image by Ken Hill
Grand National Cross Country (GNCC) Racing ended its off-season with the kickoff to the 2023 season taking place at South Carolina’s Big Buck Farm for none other than the Big Buck GNCC. For many years Florida played host to the opening round of the series, but a new tradition was born about six years ago and has been a wildly popular change with huge numbers of racers and spectators alike. After injuries depleted a large portion of the XC1 Pro class ranks in 2022, the kickoff to the 2023 season would prove to be an exciting one with a lot of the favorites back in the mix. Here’s a few things of note from round one.
Baylor Blasts Off
Steward Baylor Jr. is no stranger to the opening round win in GNCC Racing as he’s put it together a couple of times in the past, but last year’s Big Buck event proved to put a damper on his season as a late race crash caused several injuries that sidelined him for a good portion of the season. Well, Stu put all of that behind him and would put together a very impressive ride to claim the season opening win and of course, along with that, the early season points lead.
Stu would also lead every single lap of the three-hour race on the way to this win, and also do so fighting off challenges from some really tough competition. However, he would take it all in stride and simply ride his own race, minimize mistakes and take home the win by more than 30 seconds in the end. This sounds like everything went right, doesn’t it? Well, it’s more like “almost” everything.
If you’re not familiar, Stu has a bit of a tradition of looping out his bike when crossing the finish line for a win. This time he got just a little extra traction too early and the front tire of the bike actually caught the scoring loop of the finish line, which effectively shut down the transponder scoring system, leaving the scorers scrambling to score the final lap by hand. Oops!
“Man, it’s awesome I told myself I wasn’t gonna loop the bike because now I have to be conscious of the budget, but this South Carolina crowd was loud today,” Baylor said during the RacerTV broadcast. “This will be the last one.”
“Hell, it’s been stressful the last couple months,” Baylor continued. “Parts aren’t coming in like we thought they would, so we’re scratching trying to get by. Luckily Rocky Mountain is able to stock almost everything, so we’ve been able to float by thanks to those guys. We’re wearing a lot of hats right now. For running a training facility, training kids, building a team and racing, I think we’re doing pretty good.”
The Other Challengers
While Baylor may have led each lap, the rest of the competition was never terribly far behind. While 30 seconds is a sizable gap, on a 12-mile GNCC course with three hours of racing, a 30-second gap isn’t a huge margin with there are a lot of factors at play. There were a number of challengers keeping Baylor from simply cruising it in for a win.
One of those challengers would of course be the 2021 GNCC champ, Ben Kelley. Ben would run a solid second place the majority of the day and finish there. Kelley dominated the opening rounds in 2022 but was sidelined after six GNCC rounds due to a broken leg suffered at a National Enduro event. The recovery from the leg has been lengthy and Kelley has even said he’s still not quite 100 percent and the leg is still nagging a bit.
While it sure didn’t look that way to the casual viewer, eagle-eyed fans noticed that Ben didn’t take his “bad” leg off the footpeg for almost the entire race. Yes, even in turns he kept his feet on the pegs. While this has become more and more common on the motocross and supercross fronts, it’s not always the norm in off-road racing. Regardless, a second-place finish is nothing to scoff at even if Ben is looking for a little more.
Big Buck - Overall RaceFebruary 18, 2023
|1||Steward Baylor||02:47:19.199||Belton, SC||KTM|
|2||Ben Kelley||02:47:54.000||Harwinton, CT||KTM|
|3||Ricky Russell||02:47:59.000||Duvall, WA||Yamaha|
|4||Jordan Ashburn||02:48:06.000||Cookeville, TN||Husqvarna|
|5||Craig Delong||02:48:26.000||Morgantown, PA||Husqvarna|
Ricky Russell ended the day in the third-place spot just a mere five seconds behind Kelley. These two ended up having quite the race of their own and Russell is beginning to show he’s more than ready to challenge for the title. Russell made the switch from the Coastal Racing GasGas team back over to the AmPro Racing Yamaha squad where he had ridden previously. Ricky looked comfortable back on the Yamaha and Russell is no stranger to the top step of the GNCC podium as he has a few overall wins to his credit, including last year’s season finale Ironman GNCC. This means he very well could be one of the guys gunning for the GNCC title as the season wears on. What’s impressive about Russell’s podium is he suffered a broken collarbone just four weeks ago!
Last year’s GNCC National Champion, Jordan Ashburn, did exactly what he’s done for many years. He rode a quiet but very consistent race to finish the opening round in the fourth-place spot. These kinds of rides are what helped him claim the 2022 GNCC title, and while it’s always harder to defend a title than to claim it, Ashburn is already doing exactly what he needs to do to position himself to continually be a contender for another title.
Craig Delong rounded out the top five in the XC1 class and much like Ashburn, just rode a very quiet race with no real drama or anything overly exciting. Delong has always been one of the most consistent guys in the GNCC series and a fifth place start to a new season is the exact kind of solid finish a guy like Delong is poised to produce. Don’t be surprised when this guy is on the podium in 2023 and he very well could find himself contending for a race win as well!
The XC2 250 Pro class has really been the most exciting it has ever been over the last few years and round one is already a little teaser that more of that could take place in 2023 as the hunt for that championship really is anyone’s ballgame. The defending XC2 champ, Lyndon Snodgrass, will obviously standout as the favorite, but he definitely has his work cut out for him in 2023.
The opening lap leader in the XC2 class would actually be Chilean Ruy Barbosa before Snodgrass would take over the lead on lap two with Barbosa dropping to second. Snodgrass would continue to lead as the second-place position would swap between Cody Barnes and Angus Riordan for a couple of laps. However, Ryder Lafferty would be the man on the move as he worked his way from sixth on lap two to take over the lead later in the race.
Lafferty would roll onto the race win over Snodgrass with Riordan rounding out the podium in third while Barbosa and Mason Semmens would finish in the fourth and fifth place positions. Now, this really sets up an exciting scenario as there as a number of guys in this XC2 class who are previous race winners and Lafferty has really come into his own in the last couple of years and actually finished in the runner-up spot in last year’s XC2 title hunt, and at the same time finished third overall in the National Enduro series, even leading both the XC2 class and the National Enduro series at one point. Oh, and yes, if you didn’t already know, Ryder is the nephew of eight-time National Enduro Champ, Mike Lafferty.
Obviously, Snodgrass is still a favorite for the title but Lafferty is one looking to play spoiler to a second title, as are guys like Riordan, Barbosa, Barnes as well as other former XC2 race winners like Liam Draper (now Yamaha) and Mike Witkowski (now Honda) who are still in the mix as well. It seems like the last few years have been some of the most exciting seasons in the history of the XC2 class, but the 2023 season really has potential to be the most exiting one yet.
Big Buck - XC2 Pro RaceFebruary 18, 2023
|1||Ryder Lafferty||02:49:36.000||Millville, NJ||GasGas|
|3||Angus Riordan||02:50:16.000||Woodland, CA||KTM|