Morgantown, W. Va. - After seven years of battle with the world’s fastest off-road motorcycle champions-ranging from Australia to New Zealand, the UK, and Finland-Charlie Mullins finally brought home the Can-Am Grand National Cross Country Title in 2012. But after becoming the first American-born GNCC champion since 2004, the 25-year-old finds himself facing the pressure to defend against a rising tide of young off-road racers just about to step into their prime. The battle starts next Tuesday, March 13, with the Moose Racing Westgate River Ranch GNCC opener.
Mullins hopes to become the first repeat GNCC Champion since 2008, but he’ll find stiff competition among two young, Ohio based FMF/KTM teammates. Kailub Russell, the two-time XC2 Lites Champion, logged a strong rookie XC1 campaign last year which included a win. The 22-year-old Russell will race on his familiar 350 XC-F, while Cory Buttrick, 21, a race-winner in 2010, will be aboard a 450 like Mullins. The time is now for Russell and Buttrick, who like Mullins grew up racing the GNCC Youth Series, to step into title contention.
But the GNCC veterans are not ready to move over. Paul Whibley finished a close second to Mullins in the final ’12 standings with four race-wins and a strong push at the end of the season. The 2009 GNCC Champion, Whibley is back under the Am-Pro Yamaha Racing tent once again, and the New Zealand native only gets faster with each season. No one outworks Whibley, and he hopes to carry his momentum over from the end of last season for yet another chance at the title.
The JG Racing Honda team also packs a pair of experienced contenders in Nathan Kanney and Jimmy Jarrett, two riders who have won plenty of GNCC races before. And 2008 XC2 Champion Thad DuVall is aiming for a career reset with the new Shenandoah Honda outfit. After a career on Yamahas, the 22-year-old DuVall still has the talent and speed to make a title run if he can make his bike transition smoothly.
But the biggest pre-season buzz may come from 17-year-old defending XC2 Pro Lites champion Steward Baylor. Baylor has battled and beaten the top XC1 veterans throughout pre-season events. Baylor will return to the XC2 Pro Lites division this season to defend his title on the KTM 250 XC, a two-stroke machine that seems to work well for him against a field of mainly four stroke motorcycles. Baylor claims sand as his favorite type of terrain, so Florida may be his best chance at securing an overall win on adjusted time.
The XC1 and XC2 classes will race for three hours on a demanding, whooped-out sand track at the Westgate River Ranch. The race begins at 1 p.m. on Tuesday, March 13, fitting into the Daytona Bike Week schedule. Classes are also available for a full roster of amateur and youth riders.
Spectator passes are $20 for Saturday and Sunday (ATV), and $20 for Monday and Tuesday (bike). Children five and under are admitted free. On both Sunday and Tuesday, youth riders race at 8 a.m., amateur riders race at 10 a.m., and the top amateurs and the pros race at 1 p.m.
The track is located at the Westgate River Ranch in Lake Wales, Fla. From U.S. 27, go south to S.R. 60 (Lake Wales Exit), make a left and head east for approximately 25 miles. River Ranch is on the right.
The 2012 Can-Am Grand National Cross Country Series kicks off this weekend, in conjunction with Daytona Bike Week. Bike practice will take place on Monday and racing on Tuesday. For more information, go to www.gnccracing.com.