Art Eckman's Column: Bar to Bar - Suzuki's Shining Moment (Pontiac, Mich.) With Kawasaki's James Stewart 31 points ahead in the 125 West and Honda's Ricky Carmichael trying not to let Yamaha's Chad Read panic him into blowing the 250...
Art Eckman's Column:
Bar to Bar - Suzuki's Shining Moment
(Pontiac, Mich.) With Kawasaki's James Stewart 31 points ahead in the 125 West and Honda's Ricky Carmichael trying not to let Yamaha's Chad Read panic him into blowing the 250 championship, a number one plate for Suzuki couldn't have come at a better time.
Smiles have been hard to come by for SoBe Suzuki guru Roger DeCoster. He's seen his entire collection of highly paid 250 veterans wiped off the roster with an assortment of surgeries and ailments. He's had to force feed his 125 West riders onto 250's just to field a team. Roger became a prime candidate for the Epstein bar syndrome if not a good case of ulcers.
Out of the hills of Pennsylvania rode Suzuki's savior, Branden Jesseman. Prior to this season this quiet, rather shy 20 year old's biggest claim to fame was being the rider who put a stop to Chad Reed's sensational victory streak on way to last years 125 East supercross championship.
The cards looked stacked against Branden from the beginning. The nurses at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center knew him by his first name as he recovered from a couple of serious surgeries. And the east region was packed with faster more experienced favorites. Michael Byrne was the most impressive 125 East rider opening the season in the West on a 250. Mike Brown, a 125 National MX champion was a seasoned competitor as was former 125 West titlist, Shae Bentley and two time 125 race winner Brock Sellards. Add Ivan Tedesco who showed last Saturday night in Pontiac he was capable of winning, Steve Boniface, and Grant Langston and few gave Branden Jesseman much of a chance in what was rightly predicted to be the most competitive series in supercross.
Only a small supporting cast knew of this young man's work ethic. Not looking at physical rehabilitation as a resting point he applied his energies toward continued conditioning, nutritional knowledge, and mental focus for the up coming season. To win a title in supercross, skill is an obvious ingredient but what Branden gave the fans this season was a glowing example of exemplary character.
Getting an outstanding start in the opening round avoided a first turn yard sale that slowed his competition. It was the only race Branden dominated leading every lap and winning by slightly more than seven seconds. Round two was tedious, crashing in qualifying and getting an eighth place start. He carefully picked his way up through the ranks to make the podium, falling two points behind the new point leader Brock Sellards.
Round three at Indianapolis was the turning point for Branden. He showed he was in it for a championship not just a good outing. After a seventh place start it took him five laps to get into second. He got the idea for the tunnel pass at the over/under structure from Ricky Carmichael during qualifying, and made his move on Sellards for the lead on lap 11. From there he showed the same cool displayed in round one while out in front.
Daytona was a different kind of test and Branden would leave that most physically enduring track in supercross downhearted and disgusted at what might have been. Leading a great back and forth battle with Mike Brown, he slipped out on lap seven. Brown would play the opportunist pulling a big lead on way to his first supercross win since 1995. The young contender held on for second and a slim points lead (5).
At St. Louis, Brown returned the favor and it was Jesseman's turn to take advantage of racing luck. Branden ended the first lap in ninth after another bad start. He blitzed through three riders to sixth on lap two. Then he raced into third riding by Brown and Kelly Smith who had crashed and locked bikes on lap three. The very next lap he made the pass on the leader Steve Boniface.
Despite winning his qualifying heat and getting a good third place start the race in Houston called on more character to salvage a double digit lead in the standings. From third he crashed to 12th on the second lap. It took him a pain staking 11 laps to get to a fourth place finish. Oddly enough he gained a couple of points on Brown as Sellards stayed mathematically in the race with his second win of the season. Brownie finished in fifth.
Last Saturday's final round was reminiscent of the 125 West championship battle in 2000. Shae Bentley was trying to sew up the title in the final race when he crashed. David Pingree after crossing the finish line in second looked back to see where Bentley would place. Shae was able to battle back to seventh just good enough to win the championship by two points over Pingree.
This time Jesseman needed an eighth place finish if Brown won the race to still get his first number one plate. Branden admitted, "I was very nervous. I'd never been in that situation before." He got the crowd stirring when he finished the opening lap in 14th while Brown was in fourth. To complicate the mission at hand Branden fell from 10th to 15th on the fourth lap. Brown was having troubles of his own running into the downed bike of Brock Sellards on the ninth lap. Michael would get up and going finishing in third. Looking back he would find out that Branden Jesseman was able to battle to sixth thus winning the championship by seven points.
Suzuki going through some hard times in the 250 division was thus able to continue a tradition of excellence in the 125's. It marked the 12th championship in 125 supercross for them - tops amongst the factories. Bobby Moore won the 125 West in the premier year of the support division in 1985. It was in 1987 that Suzuki became the first brand to sweep both 125 regions when Ron Tichenor took the honors in the East and Willie Surratt won the West.
In 94' Suzuki got another sweep with Ezra Lusk winning the East and Damon Huffman taking the first of back to back West championships. Huffman came to within one win of the all time 125 career supercross record of thirteen set by Jeremy McGrath.
A couple of years after Todd Dehoop won the East for Suzuki, Denny Stephenson amassed the greatest 125 season at that time winning all of his eight 125 victories in the same year. It wasn't until Ricky Carmichael's perfect 1998 season winning nine out of nine races that Stephenson's record was broken.
Tim Ferry was on a Suzuki when he won the 125 East in '97 without winning a race. That's only happened twice in 125 history. The only other time was when Willie Surratt's consistency was good enough for the championship without a win in '87. In fact the top three riders in the west that year failed to win a race.
The last Suzuki 125 title before this year was Travis Pastrana's five victory season in 2001. Out of 283 rounds of 125 supercross, Suzuki has won 71 of them.
Still Roger DeCoster searches for the answers to convert those 125 titles to 250 championships. Of all the victories over the years, those eleven 125 champions have failed to win one 250 race on a Suzuki.
Branden Jesseman says he's going back home and enjoy his 21st birthday on the 16th. Then he plans some testing for the outdoors before zeroing in on the Dave Coombs Memorial 125 shootout in Las Vegas. Once again he'll go into a hallmark affair the underdog despite his recent achievement. But now we know this pleasant, hard working champion, whose stop watch times are deceivingly fast, has the character and skill that makes supercross the exciting sport we all love.