The 2014 AMA Pro Road Racing season opener at Daytona International Speedway made it very clear that the Monster Energy Graves Yamaha AMA Pro SuperBike squad does not rebuild, it reloads.
While many teams would be crippled by the loss of their reigning champion, the works Yamaha team has returned this season with what may prove to be the series’ most formidable 1-2 punch since the legendary pairing of Ben Spies and Mat Mladin at Yoshimura Suzuki.
Three-time AMA Pro SuperBike champ Josh Hayes remains the face of the program. He’s extra motivated after losing the #1 plate in 2013 to then-teammate Josh Herrin (who will kick off his Moto2 World Championship career this weekend in Qatar). The Mississippian had a record-setting fourth-consecutive title in his sights last year but the Hayes title freight train was ultimately derailed by multiple mechanical problems, a series of jump starts, and a costly crash suffered while leading.
On Friday, Hayes got a measure of redemption, fighting his way to a narrow 0.025-second victory on his Daytona return to notch up his 42nd career AMA Pro SuperBike win.
“I couldn’t be happier,” Hayes said. “It was a great day and it was a really fun race. There was a lot of nervous pressure out there. It was ‘+0’ on the board the whole time… Well, I actually had a gap for a little bit but they closed it down. I was like, ‘all right, stay settled down, and just ride smart.’ It was fun racing but hard on the nerves, hard on the old ticker. I still have a few tricks up my sleeve.”
However, when asked how it felt to make up for last year’s disappointment, the three-time-champion was prescient in pointing out, “There’s still one to go…”
Saturday proved to be new teammate Cameron Beaubier’s day while Hayes was delivered the same fate he twice encountered a year prior. Incredibly, the ’10-’12 champ was knocked out of contention yet again by mechanical woes, leaving Beaubier to dice with Yoshimura Suzuki Factory Racing’s title-contending counterparts: Roger Hayden and Martin Cardenas
Following Hayes’ exit, the super-rookie ran in tight formation with Hayden and Cardenas and ultimately aced them to the checkered flag by 0.090 and 0.135 seconds, respectively. While an extremely close result, it was apparent that the new kid on the block was in control of the contest, and he expertly blasted past both Yoshimura men late in the race to claim his first-career SuperBike victory
Beaubier was also the fastest man in Friday’s opening race, but two crucial errors, which he openly referred to as “rookie mistakes,” robbed him of a chance for the double. After collecting third in his class debut, he came back even stronger the following day and landed on top of the podium in his first weekend as a SuperBike star.
Beaubier cashed in $15,000 of the weekend’s hefty $100,000 SuperBike purse. Shortly after his momentous triumph, he said, “This means everything. I’ve worked really hard to get to where I am. I can’t thank Monster Energy Graves Yamaha enough for giving me this opportunity on the R1.
“(Saturday) was a little bit smoother of a race than (Friday) — I didn’t go off the track or anything, which I was happy about. I was a little more consistent. We made a little bit of a spring change — we went stiffer on the rear shock, which was better when the tire was fresh but when it went off I was sliding pretty good. I couldn’t drive off the corners quite as well as everyone else. But I’m really lucky my bike had some steam on these guys — they were riding really well. Now I’m looking forward to going to some road courses.
It comes as little surprise to see Beaubier succeed in the premier-class. He absolutely dominated the AMA Pro GoPro Daytona SportBike category in 2013, and is arguably the most highly-touted class rookie since the emergence of the aforementioned Spies or perhaps Nicky Hayden (two riders who went on to become AMA Pro SuperBike champions and later, world champions), if not before then
However, the immediacy of his breakthrough victory may have come as something of a shock. It’s the rare rookie who manages to win a race during his first season on a SuperBike. In fact, it’s far easier to point to those who did not, including the likes of eventual champions Mladin, Hayes, Herrin, Doug Polen, and Scott Russell.
It’s even rarer yet to win by the second race attempt. Most recently it was accomplished by Eric Bostrom (American Honda) in 1998 and Alessandro Gramigni (Fast by Ferracci Ducati) in 1996. However, neither serves as a perfect analogy as they were both midseason additions to the series.
Perhaps a closer comparison would be Troy Corser, who, at 20-years-old, won the second race of the 1994 AMA Pro SuperBike season on a FBF Ducati. The Australian went onto win the title that year before graduating to become World Superbike runner-up the following season and World Superbike champion the year after that
21-year-old Beaubier has a long road ahead of him if he’s to win this year’s crown, but he does leave Daytona with the series’ points advantage, albeit just a single point up on Hayden. Hayes meanwhile, finds himself stuck in another early-season hole, as he trails his upstart teammate by a quick 21 points. However, the nine AMA Pro SuperBike race finals left on the 2014 schedule are more than enough for Hayes to make up the ground necessary to add to his already impressive championship caliber resume.
Hayden piloted to a pair of seconds, missing out on two victories by just inches. However, there were few regrets from the Kentuckian, who did everything right in both races and merely lacked the ability to sneak by at the stripe.
His performance signaled the opening of his best shot at a championship to date. Typically a slow starter, a fully-up-to-speed Hayden armed with Yosh equipment could prove to be a dangerous combination as far as the competition is concerned.
Hayden said, “It’s a little disappointing to come so close to winning both races but coming in second. But it’s a good start to the year and that was a fun race, battling at the end. Everybody was kind of swapping around.
“It’s a good start for me — I usually start the season really slow and then by the third or fourth race I get going. So I’m glad to start strong. I can’t thank the whole Yoshimura team enough for this opportunity they gave me. I didn’t know I had a job this year until Christmas Eve so to get two seconds at Daytona… I can’t complain.”
Like Hayes, ’13 title contender Cardenas had an up-and-down weekend. He was in the mix in Friday’s contest before a crash pushed him down to 12th. The Colombian quickly shook that one off and scrapped for the win the following day, eventual taking a close third.
He’s now even with Hayes at 30 points and facing the same uphill climb. “(Saturday) was much better than (Friday),” Cardenas said. “(Friday) I could not ride the bike as I wanted to and had a little crash. But today I bounced back. I was hoping for maybe a little better — first or second — but it wasn’t possible.”
Hayden and Cardenas were not the only Yoshimura Suzuki Factory Racing runners to reel in strong results during the weekend. Third pilot Chris Clark overcame ADR Motorsports/Sic/Motul Fly Racing’s David Anthony and KTM/HMC Racing’s Chris Fillmore on Friday to earn fourth place, his best-ever AMA Pro SuperBike finish. And then on Saturday, he did it again.
“I’m super excited to get my best AMA Pro Superbike finishes so far,” said Clark. “I have to say thanks to the Yoshimura Suzuki guys for giving me such a great bike as the Yoshimura Suzuki GSX-R1000. We were so close to the podium and I’m looking forward to getting up there soon. Overall, I’m just really excited about the whole weekend. This was great way to kick off the year and I’m looking forward to continuing the pace and closing down the gap with the front guys, and just having a really good year.”
Sixth-place Fillmore said of his Saturday effort, “It was an exciting race. I battled with Anthony the whole time. Unfortunately, we both got passed by Clark with two laps to go. We could stay in his draft but could not pull around him. I tried everything I could to move up but had to settle for sixth. Overall, I am happy to walk away from Daytona with two sixth place results. Our team has put in a lot of effort during the offseason and it shows with how much more competitive we were on this course today. I am looking forward to the next race.”
There was remarkable consistency down through the order. Not only did Clark (fourth x two), Anthony (fifth x two), and Fillmore (sixth x two) duke it out both days to the same outcome, positions 7-9 were the repeated each time as well
In both races Cusanelli Motorsports Argentina’s Diego Pierluigi narrowly edged TOBC Suzuki’s Taylor Knapp and Team AMSOIL Hero EBR’s Cory West, as they twice finished 7-8-9.
On Friday, SuperBike rookie Stefan Mesa picked up a top-ten in his premier-class debut on the DMS Kawasaki ZX-10. And on Saturday, GEICO Motorcycle Honda’s Chris Ulrich rounded out the top ten aboard his Honda CBR1000RR.
“I was a little tentative at the start,” Ulrich said. “I just wanted to get through Turn 1, execute my plan for the race, and move forward from there. We made a pretty big change before the race after getting a better feel for the bike in warm-ups. In the end, we’re in the top 10, and I’m pleased with being able to roll out of Daytona in one piece.
Beaubier will carry his slim AMA Pro SuperBike title lead into Round 2, the Subway SuperBike Doubleheader at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, on May 30-June 1.