As mentioned in an earlier posting, the four qualifiers were selected as the two top scoring European based Americans and the two top scoring domestic based Americans. Since only two in the former category showed up for the event, Sam Ermolenko and John Cook automatically qualified before turning a wheel. But the competition for the other two places was fierce. Auburn's scratch main event wins last year were dominated by Mike Faria and Charlie Venegas, but the meeting started with no clear favourite. After scoring a 15 point maximum in this event 2 years ago, then having a disastrous meeting last year, I thought Sam Ermolenko would be keen to make amends, but since his qualification place was assured, the incentive was not there. The US based places went to Mike and Josh Larsen, both of whom, I understand will be taking their places at the Overseas Final.
John Cook proved what he has frequently preached, that a fire-breathing high performance lay-down is not essential to be competitive on America's small tracks. John rode a bulk standard 8 year old Jawa 898 with telescopic forks, that he first rode the day before. This was the first time John has competed in an Auburn event for many years, although he has hosted a number of John Cook Academy training sessions at this track. Despite a heavy fall in practice the previous day and another tonight, he showed his skills are as sharp as ever.
There was comparatively little overtaking. This was not for any lack of track preparation, the track had plenty of dirt and held up well.
1. Faria, Fisher, D. Ermolenko, Sephton
Regular referee John Grant was not available, so promoter Dave Joiner was referee. Dave made his starting gate procedures clear for the riders at the practice session and at the riders meeting. But a number of disqualifications were still necessary. Much to the annoyance of the crowd and sometimes the riders. The referee's job is a difficult one, but for the promoter its extra hard and should probably try to be avoided.
Generally a good meeting, but there were a few riders who I would have expected to score points. Charlie had a bad night, I would have expected him to qualify. Billy Janniro has had trips to Australia last winter and a trip to the Czech under 21 qualifying round. He is a promising youngster and many of his fans were hoping he would qualify. A number of riders admitted that they would be pleased to give up their place if Billy had qualified behind them. But he was simply not getting good gates and at this level of competition, battling through from behind is not always an option.
Others did better than I was expecting. Chris Manchester seems a lot more confident this season and was showing the kind of form he demonstrated when he became US National Champion. It was good to see Ryan Fisher do well at this level of competition, after his disappointing show at the 1999 National.
Back to normal Speedway next week, with John Cook threatening to show up again.
Gary Roberts' Pre-Race Observations:
The format will be the conventional 4 man scratch heats, each rider getting 5 rides, to enable him to race against every other rider throughout the course of the night. 3 points for a win, 2 for second, 1 for third, 0 for last. At the end of the night the two highest point scoring US based riders and the two highest point scoring European based riders will qualify to enter the Overseas Final in Poole, England, where they will compete against the top Brits, Aussies, New Zealanders and South Africans. Last year, the 4 qualifiers were the 4 highest point scorers. A change in the qualifying criteria was decided at the AMA meeting back in December last year. At that point it was assumed that more European based riders would be competing, indeed it was assumed that more European based riders would exist. The American contingent in Europe is currently very thin. Brent Werner has chosen not to contest the event this year, Ronnie Correy has given it a miss for many years. So as things have worked out, John Cook and Sam Ermolenko are competing for 2 places. Sounds easy, but that was not the way it was intended. I don't think that anyone would deny that Sam and John are both strong candidates to represent America in the Overseas Final and I would expect both of them to go on to qualify for the Intercontinental Final.
However this makes the battle for the other two places much fiercer. It would be nice to see America's young future hopes get a chance to compete in the Overseas Final, but the question must be asked, are they ready? Have Billy Janniro and Ryan Fisher got sufficient experience on bigger tracks?
Another thing that must be considered is that both the Australians and the Brits have currently got a lot of very strong contenders both in the GPs and going through to the Overseas Final. The FIM, who arrange the overall qualification process have the responsibility to make the qualification process as fair as possible. If America can not send over sufficient competitive riders, it is up to the FIM to reassign those slots next year. This would make the route to future success even more torturous for America's future hopefuls. It is therefore imperative that competitive riders qualify.
With a star studded line up like this, there are a number of riders who could win the event and it will be interesting to see who the US qualifiers are. It will also be interesting to see if, having qualified, they actually go and compete in the Overseas Final. A number of successful qualifiers in the past have turned down the opportunity, for a number of reasons ranging from financial, to plain lack of desire. There are plenty of reasons not to go. The need to take time off work, (remember, all these Speedway riders have a day job) the difficulty in getting hold of competitive equipment, lack of familiarity with racing on a big track. The other consideration for a US based rider is that if he manages to overcome all these hurdles, and succeeds in qualifying for the Intercontinental Final, he then has to do it all again.
This event has been the source of much criticism in the past, because European based riders have to come back here to qualify if they are to pursue the World Championship. They have to compete on a track that is half the size of the tracks they usually race on, against a field or riders who practice on these small tracks every week. But at the end of the day, the true championship contender will make it. Remember Sam Ermolenko 2 years ago? Five straight wins.
Friday evening will be interesting.
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