A recent rule change is forcing three-time 250 World Champion Jeffrey Herlings up to the 450 class in 2017. The 21-year-old Herlings, winner of 60 Grand Prix overalls, has long been KTM’s 250 ace in the hole. Had it not been for a broken femur and dislocated hip, Herlings would be a five-time consecutive 250 World Champ. He’s a once-in-a-generation type of rider. And while comparing the might of Herlings to America’s best and brightest stars is nearly impossible, this past weekend’s MXGP of the Americas in Charlotte provided a glimpse.
Having watched “The Bullet” rip around the Valkenswaard circuit last year, I knew Cooper Webb, Adam Cianciarulo and Austin Forkner were going to have their hands full on Saturday. Herlings is at his best in the sand, but over his tenure in 250 GP racing he’s learned to dominate in all conditions. Much like Ricky Carmichael and his aversion to mud races during the early years, Jeffrey has faced adversity and overcome all obstacles. However, Herlings has dealt with a rash of serious injuries in recent years. The latest–a broken collarbone suffered at the Dutch Masters in early July–kept him out of GP action for three rounds. His points lead shrank, as it had two previous seasons. Only this time Jeffrey was able to heal up and come back strong.
Before the MXGP of the Americas, Jeffrey Herlings won 24 of 26 motos this series. Two defeats came at the hands of Dylan Ferrandis and Thomas Covington. Entering Charlotte, Jeffrey only needed to finish in front of Jeremy Seewer to wrap up the title. That realization stymied some fans into believing that Herlings would mail it in at Charlotte. That obviously didn’t happen. Jeffrey went from third to first in one lap in the opening moto. He ended up winning by four seconds over Cooper Webb and had put 29 seconds on Austin Forkner.
HERLINGS APPEARED SHOCKED AT HOW FAST THE U.S. RIDERS SPRINTED IN THE EARLY GOING. THE TORTOISE VERSUS THE HARE STRATEGY NEARLY WORKED FOR JEFFREY, AS HE CLOSED UP ON FORKNER TOWARD THE WANING STAGES OF THE MOTO. ONLY COOPER WEBB, THE APPROPRIATELY NICKNAMED “BEAST FROM THE EAST” AFTER FELLOW NORTH CAROLINIAN DAMON BRADSHAW, KEPT GETTING FASTER AS THE NIGHT SKY GREW DARKER.
The second 250 moto at Charlotte was nothing short of magical. North Carolina’s prodigal son, Cooper Webb, was buried back in the pack. Jeffrey Herlings was in good position in second, while Austin Forkner took the lead in the second turn and put on the afterburners. Forkner’s torrid pace couldn’t be matched by Jeffrey. It was a site rarely seen when the #84 Red Bull KTM is on the track. Later, in the post-race press conference, Herlings appeared shocked at how fast the U.S. riders sprinted in the early going. The tortoise versus the hare strategy nearly worked for Jeffrey, as he closed up on Forkner toward the waning stages of the moto. Only Cooper Webb, the appropriately nicknamed “Beast from the East” after fellow North Carolinian Damon Bradshaw, kept getting faster as the night sky grew darker. Webb grabbed the lead on lap 15 and sprinted away. Young rookie Austin Forkner had his hands full with Herlings, getting passed briefly, only to take second place right back.
Jeffrey Herlings ended the second moto in third place–his worst finish of the season. It was also the only Grand Prix of 2016 that he lost (of the 14 he competed in). This begs the question, is Cooper Webb better than Jeffrey Herlings? Sensing that was on the minds of many, Herlings addressed the press after the race by saying, “Everybody will say, who is now the fastest guy? Is it Cooper, is it Jeffrey? I think that’s something you cannot compare, because it’s just one event. I won the first moto. He won the second moto, so it’s one, one. But I think to really know who is the fastest you have to race a full championship on different kinds of tracks.” Jeffrey was spot-on in his assessment.
This weekend Herlings will face off against Austin Forkner once again, and instead of Cooper Webb he’ll have to deal with Geico Honda’s newest recruit, two-time 250 National Champion Jeremy Martin. The Americans will have home-field advantage at Glen Helen. Austin Forkner knows he has the speed to run with Herlings. Of course, Jeremy Martin would love nothing better than to stick it to the Europeans and his old team in Star Racing Yamaha. As for Herlings, the Glen Helen USGP will be his final race on a 250. Can he get to 61 GP victories? Be it triumph or defeat, history is inevitable.