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Feb 27, 2001

First Person/Opinion: AMA Season Preview, Part One

FIRST PERSON/OPINION:<BR><BR>One Reporter's AMA Season Preview<BR><BR>By David Swarts<BR><BR>The 2001 racing season looks like it will be the most exciting in years, with an incredible amount of talent racing in America these days. What follows is a run through the AMA classes to preview the season.<BR><BR><BR>Part One:<BR>Chevy Trucks Superbike<BR><BR>The Superbike class for 2001 gets one rule change and one new venue. New for pit stops in 2001, only five crew members will be allowed on the track side of the pit wall with one of those crew members to man the fire extinguisher only. In the past, factory teams regularly used three people on each wheel and a total of nine. This will possibly lengthen a good Daytona pit stop from 7 to 10 seconds or more. This rule was meant to help level the playing field of pit stops between factory teams and teams with less funding, but all it will really do is widen the pit-stop-time spread between teams with expensive quick-change equipment and team without. <BR><BR>Demonstrating that factory teams are more equal than non-factory teams in ways beyond having more resources, the AMA implemented a ban on powered bike lifts for pit stops in 2001, but then postponed implementation until 2002 when the factory teams complained.<BR><BR>Pits stops used to only apply to the Daytona 200, but the 2001 season finale scheduled for Virginia International Raceway will run 150 kilometers, or 92.3 miles, too far for a Superbikes' 24-liter (6.34-gallon) fuel tank to handle without a pit stop. V.I.R. is located on the state line between Virginia and North Carolina near the town of Danville, Virginia. It is still unclear as to whether the AMA will run the tighter 2.26-mile course or the wide-open, roller coaster, 3.26-mile course. For a review of V.I.R., see the November issue of Roadracing World.<BR> <BR>In 2000, the Superbike title hunt went back-and-forth between defending Superbike Champion Mat Mladin and Superbike rookie Nicky Hayden. Mladin, 28, won his second consecutive title by a scant five points over the 19-year old Kentuckian. For 2001, Mladin will have a new GSX-R750 under him and a new crew chief, Peter Doyle. On the other hand, Hayden will be back on a familiar bike, with mechanics he likes, and with a year's worth of experience in bike set-up and tire management.<BR><BR>The only rider I see as having a straight-up chance of beating Nicky Hayden or Mladin is Anthony Gobert. Gobert moved to America early in the off-season and has been training very hard for the upcoming campaign. Now 25 years old, Gobert realizes that he could have been a World Champion by now if he hadn't repeatedly blown his chances and wants to realize that dream.<BR><BR>In the you-can't-ever-count-them-out category will be seasoned and capable veterans Miguel Duhamel and Doug Chandler. DuHamel, 33, proved that he could still win by taking a close victory over Mladin at Brainerd last season. For 2001, DuHamel will have a metal-rod-free body to work with and a renewed fire from the late-season Brainerd win. Maybe the most respected rider in the paddock, Chandler, 35, is a master of tire management, but will by held back by one of the oldest and only carbureted bikes left on the grid. Overseeing Chandler's green machine will be Chandler's longtime tuner Gary Medley.<BR><BR>Several other riders are capable of winning a race or two or even the Championship. Scott Russell, 36, will be back on a competitive bike in the form of his 2000-spec HMC Ducati 996, with a proven Ducati tuner in Carl Fogarty's ex-mechanic Anthony "Slick" Bass, and with a lot of critics to silence. People easily forget that Russell is a former Superbike World Champion who has beaten Fogarty in World Superbike and even beat Mick Doohan in a Grand Prix. On the other hand, Aaron Slight is probably the fastest man to not win a World Championship. In a last minute deal, Slight, 35, signed to ride for Competition Accessories Ducati when the team could not come to terms with two-time World Champion John Kocinski. While Kocinski pursues a post-racing career in real estate, Slight will be reacquainting himself with Daytona, learning the rest of America's tracks, learning the Ducati versus the Honda RC51, and learning Dunlop tires versus Michelins. Slight has won the Suzuka 8-Hour three times, has finished second and third in the Superbike World Championship several times, and has 13 World Superbike race wins. <BR> <BR>Kurtis Roberts, 22, gets his first full season on a Superbike with Erion Honda and tuner David McGrath. Roberts definitely showed some speed in his guest rides on the RC51 last year but seemed to have trouble staying on the Superbike. Not one to lack confidence, Roberts is a rider who knows he is going places. <BR><BR>Aaron Yates, 27, has won in the past and is coming off a strong 2000 that saw him finish third in the Championship. Unfortunately, Yates, like his new Yoshimura Suzuki teammate Jamie Hacking, will be starting the 2001 season on a brand new bike with little if any testing due to off-season injuries. No one has ever doubted Hacking's speed, but the man from South Carolina has yet to develop the consistency it takes to win a Championship. <BR><BR>With an all-star crew behind him and wins on two different brands of machinery, Eric Bostrom, 24, definitely has the talent and backing to take the Superbike title. Unfortunately, the limitations of the Kawasaki ZX-7R may hold E-Boz back.<BR><BR>Larry Pegram, 28, started the 2000 season in a rush to get bikes from Italy, through customs, and set-up for Daytona. Although he and Competition Accessories had a good debut on the high banks in 2000, Pegram wasn't able to match those results for the rest of year. Hopefully, the increased support from Ducati Corse will help Pegram get back to the top of the AMA podium. <BR><BR>Steve Rapp, 28, was happy to return to the Italian make in 2000 after a year struggling on the Suzuki Superbike in 1999. Unfortunately, Rapp suffered an injury to his hand early in 2000 that held him back until late in the year when Rapp got his first pole position and Superbike podium during the final round at Willow Springs. Although they will be painted differently, Rapp will again be riding his ex-Vance & Hines Ducatis with HMC in 2001.<BR><BR>With Yamaha's World Superbike program being canceled, hopefully Tommy Hayden, 22, will get the support with the unsorted Yamaha YZF-R7 that he needs to fulfill his potential. Lack of top speed and a finicky slipper clutch held the oldest Hayden back in 2000, not a lack of effort or desire. <BR><BR>Even with a serious lack of power, Pascal Picotte, 31, and Mike Smith are a threat to win with the VR1000, but only in the rain or a bullring like Loudon or Pike's Peak. I don't think that it is cruel to count the Harley-Davidson team out before the season starts. The H-D team has a new leader in John Baker, but 2001 will be a rebuilding year as the VR race program is brought in-house with an increased budget, resources, and development work. Part of the new Harley-Davidson development program will include giving direct support to Austin/ Bleu Bayou Harley-Davidson Racing, a team that the Harley factory had shunned in the past. Formerly known as Bell County/ Bleu Bayou H-D, Austin/ Bleu Bayou will field former Canadian Superbike Champion Jordan Szoke.