Both MotoGP and World Superbikes are in action this weekend, and both in spectacular locations. While Mugello nestles in a valley tucked tightly between the Tuscan hills, Miller Motorsports Park, not far from Salt Lake City, Utah, sits on a plain, surrounded by a ring of mountains, all part of the mighty Rocky Mountains, the barrier that splits the American continent in two. That spectacular location also has a downside: Like Kyalami, Miller is several thousand feet above sea level, and the lack of oxygen leaves both bikes and riders gasping for breath.
For Ben Spies, the US round of the World Superbikes at Miller Motorsports Park will be a breath of fresh, if somewhat thin, air. So far this season, every track the series has visited has been a relative unknown for the American rookie having at best tested there, at worst never seen the track before in his life. For the first time this year, Spies will have the psychological advantage of being both at a track he is familiar with and a race in his home country.
Spies will be hoping to exploit this advantage as much as possible. Though much of the public focus may be on breaking Doug Polen's impressive streak of 6 poles in a row, which Spies matched in South Africa two weeks ago, for Spies, there's only one thing that counts, and that's getting points back from the runaway series leader Noriyuki Haga. Spies' 88 point deficit is partly his own fault, and partly the fault of the Yamaha team, the Texan crashing out at Valencia and Assen, but technical problems robbing Spies of potential victory at both Monza and Kyalami. If Spies is to keep his title hopes alive - and an 88 point deficit is a big gap - he can no longer afford to suffer those kinds of mistakes. Spies really needs a double at Miller this weekend.
Spies' problems have been amplified by Noriyuki Haga's consistency. Haga's brilliance as a rider is no secret, but the consistency he has shown so far this year is. In the Xerox Ducati team, Haga has finally stopped finding ways to beat himself, and now that he is no longer doing it, his rivals are finding beating Haga an incredibly tough task. Haga has either finished 1st or 2nd this season, with just a single, solitary mistake at Monza, caused by leading the race into a flock of pigeons, and injuring his arm so badly that he later crashed.
Miller Motorsports Park holds some bad memories for Haga though. Last year, the Japanese rider crashed during practice and broke his collarbone in four places, the first bone Haga had ever broken during all his racing career, despite his numerous off-track excursions. Undeterred, he continued to race, broken collarbone and all, crashing out in race 1, and finishing 6th in race 2. Haga will be hoping his weekend in Utah will be a little less painful than last year, and that he can come away with more solid points finishes. It's a little early for Haga to be playing it safe, with the season only just approaching its halfway point, but history is on Haga's side. All the riders who have finished the 12th race with an advantage as large as Haga's have gone on to take the title.
Haga's success has inspired his team mate as well. Michel Fabrizio is finally starting to fulfill the promise he has shown in previous years. Fabrizio took his first win at Monza, but he has also been finishing on the podium with increasing regularity. Like Haga, Fabrizio has been incredibly consistent this season, that consistency paying off in the form of 2nd place in the championship. At Miller last year, Fabrizio scored a couple of 3rd places, and given his form in 2009, that's the least he could expect here.
The Ten Kate Honda team will be hoping that Miller will mark a turning point of their luck. Last year, Carlos Checa took the double here in impressive fashion, and though a repeat is unlikely, to say the least, both Checa and the team need a drastic improvement in their results. The team has struggled with the new Honda CBR1000RR, despite the fact that the 2009 bike is only fractionally different from last year's model, but only now is the bike starting to perform.
Sadly for Checa, it is in the hands of his team mate Johnny Rea that the bike is showing the most improvement. While Checa has struggled into the top 6 on occasion, Rea has been fighting for podiums, getting his first in Kyalami at the last round. The Ulsterman may find it difficult to repeat that podium at Miller, as this will be his first visit to the track, the Supersport class not having come to the US in 2008. But with the bike getting better, the rest of the season should see Rea as a much more regular visitor to the podium.
Ten Kate's problems have left the Stiggy Racing team as the leading Honda squad. Leon Haslam has been a revelation since his return to the series, and three podium finishes have left him standing 4th in the championship. Like Rea, Haslam has the disadvantage of being new to the Miller track, but so far that has failed to stop the Pocket Rocket. Haslam is experienced enough to learn fast, and he should be near the front once again in Utah.
If Haslam is new to the Miller track, his team mate certainly isn't. Jake Zemke, filling in for the injured John Hopkins, knows Miller well, having raced here in the AMA series. Zemke's first outing in World Superbikes at Monza went indifferently, finishing in 18th and 20th spot. But the American will be looking to be well in the points at Miller, and close to the top 10.
Fellow American Jamie Hacking will also be filling in for injury at Miller, riding Makoto Tamada's Kawasaki. There will be plenty of pressure on Hacking to perform in Utah, as Tamada's replacement at Kyalami, South African Sheridan Morais, scored a pair of solid finishes at his home track. Like Morais, Hacking is one of the few riders capable of getting the Kawasaki to perform, and Miller was Hacking's best track aboard the ZX-10R last year. The American veteran should be capable of getting close to the top 10, if not actually in it.
The World Supersport Championship is developing into a genuine two horse race between a couple of class rookies. No one doubted that Cal Crutchlow would be quick, the Englishman's results in the BSB series making his ability more than clear, but prior to entering the World Supersport series, Eugene Laverty had spent two anonymous years riding an ancient Aprilia LE in the 250 class. Since his return to the 600s, Laverty has taken victory in half of the races in World Supersport this season, his standings in the championship only ruined by a poor race at Valencia. So at Miller, we can expect to see the Yamaha of Crutchlow and the Parkalgar Honda of Laverty at the front once again, both men learning new tracks with little or no problem.
The chief rival to Crutchlow and Laverty has an advantage over the two class rookies in Utah though. Kenan Sofuoglu raced at Miller last year, in his miserable year in World Superbikes, and knows the track already. Sofuoglu and his Ten Kate team mate Andrew Pitt started the season as would be expected of two World Supersport champions riding for the team that has dominated the series for years, but since then, both men have struggled. Both Sofuoglu and Pitt need a result here to get their season back on track, and Sofuoglu will hope to leverage his experience here from last year to claw back some points from the championship leaders.
If Sofuoglu is to get back in touch with the leaders, he will need help from other riders taking points from Crutchlow and Laverty. And the only other two riders capable of doing that consistently have been Joan Lascorz and Ant West. Lascorz has been the best of the pair, putting the Kawasaki in the top 4 in the last three races, and looking ever more competitive. In previous years, Lascorz has been dogged by a lack of consistency, and if he can conquer that, he should be a podium regular for the rest of the year.
Consistency has also been Ant West's bugbear for the last few races, his last visit to the podium at Valencia. Since then, the Australian has been running firmly mid-pack, well below what West is capable of. While Stiggy Racing has been going well in World Superbike, their Supersport effort has stalled, and they and West need a boost at Miller this weekend.
The World Supersport class at Miller will be remarkable not just for the close racing the series has become famous for. For the class will also see the entry of at least one, and possibly even two women racers in Utah. US racer Melissa Paris caps her first season of professional racing with a wildcard at Miller, making her formally the first woman to compete in the World Supersport Championship, although German rider Katja Poensgen raced as a wildcard back in 1998, when the class was still called the World Supersport Series. And Canadian Superbike regular Marie-Josee Boucher was working on an entry as a wildcard at Miller, though whether her entry was successful or not was not known at the time this was written. Their progress will be followed closely by the thousands of women racers around the world, and given that both have regularly beaten many male riders, the World Supersport regulars have good reason to be worried.
The arrival of the World Supersport series has already cheered the hearts of American race fans, who have looked forward to seeing the cutthroat battles the series has produced over the years. If the season so far is anything to go by, Sunday's race should be well worth the wait.