RIVER RANCH, Fla. – Three hours of rough, sandy whooped out trails could not separate Can-Am Grand National Cross Country Title contenders Paul Whibley and Charlie Mullins. They battled down to the finish-and into sheer exhaustion-at the opening round of the 2012 season, the Moose Racing Westgate River Ranch GNCC in Florida.
Ultimately Am-Pro Yamaha Racing’s Whibley, who finished a close second to Mullins in the 2011 title chase, grabbed the win by just six tenths of a second. Mullins, completely spent, collapsed off of his FMF KTM as he crossed the finish line in second. Fast behind them came XC2 Pro Lites winner Steward Baylor on his KTM 250 two-stroke. Much pre-season buzz centered around the 17-year-old Baylor’s attempt to win a race overall on his 250, and his Florida performance did not disappoint.
Last year, Mullins scored the first GNCC Title for an American-born rider since 2004. This year he appears to be up against stiff overseas competition again, with New Zealand’s Whibley joined by another Kiwi, WMR/KTM’s Rory Mead, who finished a strong third in the XC1 class and fourth in overall time behind Baylor.
Whibley grabbed the $250 Motosport.com Holeshot Award with Mullins close in tow. Mullins, Mead, FMF/KTM’s Kailub Russell and Florida favorite Garrett Edmisten fought for the lead, but Whibley responded to each challenge.
“I made a little mistake and Charlie got around me but I caught back up to him and went by him pretty easy,” Whibley said. “Charlie gave me a fight all the way to the finish, but that’s what I was expecting. Everyone is doing the work and riding really well, so to get a win is good. You can’t really expect to be out front all the time like that, it’s going to make it an exciting season!”
“I would definitely say this was one of the toughest ones I’ve done. I gave it everything I had and just came up a little it short,” Mullins said. “I was riding good, it was 100 percent from the word go and we’re just looking to recover for Georgia now.”
New Zealand’s Mead came to the GNCC Series last season as a fill-in rider for the JG Offroad Honda team. The WMR/KTM team provided the opportunity to return to GNCC aboard a KTM450. He started in nearly last place, but slowly made his time up against a stacked field of XC1 riders.
“It was a pretty tough track out there today, back home it’s all sand but I didn’t do a whole lot of preparation for it, but it was a good day,” Mead said. “The start didn’t go too well for me, I bumped the throttle and got off last place. I followed Chris Bach there for a while and we made our way through the pack and guys were dropping back toward the end, so I just rode steady.”
Mead eventually caught Mullins near the halfway mark, and passed him when Mullins made a gas stop. Then Mullins rallied back. “Whibley stalled it before the finish and I got into the lead, but I kind of tightened up and he ended up passing me and then Rory actually got by me when I was getting fuel,” said Mullins. “Rory had a pretty good pace going so I latched onto him and I was able to catch Paul on the last two laps.”
Mead began to back off the pace near the three hour mark, while Mullins put in one last run in the final hour of racing, leading up to an almost photo finish with 2009 champion, Whibley.
Shenandoah Honda/Offroad Champion’s Thad DuVall put in a solid ride on his CRF450, just missing the podium in fourth place. American Beta/WMR’s Chris Bach battled with DuVall all afternoon and took fifth, ahead of XC1 rookie Jordan Ashburn, riding a YZ250 for the Am-Pro Yamaha Racing team this year. Seventh went to FMF/KTM’s Cory Buttrick.
Japan National Cross Country Series (JNCC) rider Takeshi Koikeda took eighth. Koikeda hails from Japan and plans to contest all 13 rounds of the GNCC Series for the first time ever, and with a little help from KTM Japan and North America, he could be a serious contender in weeks to come. New Jersey’s Jesse Groemm took ninth. Edmisten had the Florida fans going when he took the lead early, but he tired out toward the end of the race, finishing a respectable tenth.
FMF/KTM’s Kailub Russell is expected to fight for this year’s championship, and he looked good early by passing Mullins and challenging Whibley for the lead. But a crash ended his hopes, causing him to drop from the race with a shoulder injury. Russell still hopes to give next weekend’s race in Georgia a shot.
Baylor’s ride for third overall and first in the XC2 division didn’t materialize until late. In a first corner pileup, the young racer immediately began the race behind the rest of the field, but before the first lap, Baylor had already put himself into the fifth place XC2 position. FAR Racing/Husqvarna’s Glenn Kearney and Jason Thomas led for a bit, until Baylor’s late push.
“I feel like it’s my time. I know I’ve got the speed now and I think it’s just pulling a couple more things together,” Baylor said. “I ride with emotion and when I get upset is when I go the fastest. Fifth place, I was not happy with that, I think it was about lap three when I put myself together, started charging and caught Jason [Thomas] and Glen [Kearney] and just pulled out from there.”
Kearney, who is filling in for the injured Andrew DeLong aboard the F.A.R Husqvarna for the first two rounds of racing, got off to a rough start as well but put himself into podium contention right away, battling with GNCC regulars such as Jesse Robinson. Husaberg-backed Robinson also closed strong and finished second, with Kearney on the XC2 podium in his first GNCC since 2010.
KTM’s Kevin Foley took the AM Overall and Super Senior A (45+) class win over fellow KTM Mark Hyde, who won the Masters A (50+). Factory FMF/KTM’s Maria Forsberg won the Women’s class and finished sixth overall over pro women’s motocross racer Sarah Whitmore of Michigan.
In the Youth racing action, it was Ohio’s Triston Landrum who took the Overall win, followed by West Virginia’s Cody Pingley and Tennsessee’s Sam Thurman.
Round two of the 2012 Can-Am Grand National Cross Country Series heads to Washington, Ga., March 17 and 18 for The Maxxis General GNCC.