Photos by Debbi Tamietti, Dan Alamangos & Jon Ortner
(This story is from last October when the Covid-19 forced the 2020 Wiseco World Two-stroke race to be delayed from its original April 2020 date)
No one expects the Spanish Inquisition or, for that matter, a two-stroke race that rivals the biggest motocross races in the land, but that is exactly what happened at Glen Helen when the 2020 Wiseco World Two-Stroke Championship, hosted by Fasthouse, came to town. What made the World Two-Stroke Championship such a memorable event? Let us count the ways.
(1) The turnout. It became obvious during the Thursday and Friday practice days that something big was gonna happen. And by race day, it dawned on everyone that there were 750 hardcore two-stroke racers jammed into the pits.
(2) The track. Riders came in from their first practice laps on race day morning and said, “My internal clock told me that the finish should be around the next corner, but it wasn’t. The track just kept going from hill to hill and sand section to sand section.”
Another rider said, “About midway through my first lap, when I thought I’d been everywhere the track could go, we jumped over onto the REM track and climbed another big hill. At the top, I looked down across the valley and realized that I was only halfway around my first lap and I was already tired.”
Glen Helen unveiled its updated track design a little bit at a time over a three-day period. On Thursday, a few new wrinkles were revealed in the classic Glen Helen layout, along with the addition of two long sand sections and some fast, sweeping turns. Friday was a two-stroke-only practice day, highlighted by a new left-hand turn at the bottom of Mt. Saint Helen, rolling whoops in the front sand section, a shortened run to the tunnel jump before the finish line, and, in a big surprise, the track crossed over to the REM track to climb an additional hill and hit one of the nicest tabletops you’ll ever see (it looks like a 30-foot tabletop as you approach it, but the landing ramp is a massive 40-foot drop-off). You can sail as far as you like, because you will still be landing on the down ramp. (Although, Josh Grant did test the limits of the drop several times).
When race day rolled around on Saturday morning, the riders were greeted by not just a double split lane up Shoei Hill, but a four-way split hairpin that gave the riders the option to go inside, to the inner middle, to the outer middle or all the way around the outside. The added bermed corners made those 40-man starts a little less hectic, but only a little.
(3) Lap times like the good old days. The Pro riders raced at a hectic pace to get their lap times down to around 2:45 (the fastest lap put in was by Mike Alessi at 2:34 in the first moto). Lap times got about 5 seconds longer in moto two. Lap times over 3 minutes were the norm in the Amateur and Vet classes. This is in direct contrast to the AMA National tracks where MX Sports states, “Lap times need to be close to 2 minutes.”
(4) The big money. Mike Alessi made $30,000 at the 2020 World Two-Stroke Championship. Mike won the Open Pro class, which paid $2700 to the winner. He came back five motos later to win the Pasha 125 Over-30 Pro class and pocketed another $1000. And, Mike had been smart enough to include the World Two-Stroke Championship, which he won for the first time back in 2016, in his bonus packages. Most of his sponsors agreed to pay him handsome bonuses if he won—and the kicker was that ESR Racing offered to pay a $20,000 bonus to any Pro rider who won the World Two-Stroke Championship on an ESR Racing YZ325-kitted bike (they also promised to pay $10,000 for a second-place finish and $7000 for a third; the only caveat was that you had to be on a YZ325). Mike not only got the $20,000 bonus, but he even earned a piece of the $2000 in holeshot bonuses.
(5) The benefactor. Hollywood actor Pasha Afshar (who himself finished ninth in the Over-50 125 Pro class) wanted to make the 125 classes bigger and more competitive at the 2020 World Two-Stroke race, so he reached into his own pocket and set $6000 on the table to be used as bonus money in three specific classes (in 2021, Pasha is putting up $10,000 of his own money for three special 125 Pro classes). The three classes are the 125 Pro class, the Over-30 125 Pro class and the Over-50 125 Pro class. Pasha said that he would pay $1000 to the winner of each of these three classes, $600 for second and $400 for third. Don’t confuse this with purse money. Glen Helen already planned to pay the 125 Pros back to fifth place. Pasha just wanted to sweeten the deal, especially for the Over-30 125 Pro and Over-50 125 Pro classes, who never had a 125 Pro class before, let alone one that paid.
(6) Pasha’s 125 Pro winners. Colton Aeck won the money in the 125 Pro class after first-moto winner Justin Hoeft had troubles in moto two to go 1-13. In the two older Pro divisions, Mike Alessi elected to skip the 125 Pro class and race the Over-30 125 Pro class. Mike, who is 33 years old, realized that on a 105-degree day running four long motos close together would be tough, so he opted for the later-starting Over-30 125 Pro class, which had five motos between it and the Open Pro event. And, obviously, he knew that it would be easier to win the Over-30 125 Pro class and pick up an extra $1000.
(7) Say what? The biggest surprise of the day was in the Over-50 125 Pro race. The bookmaker favorites were former factory riders Kurt Nicoll and Doug Dubach. And, true to form, Kurt and Doug went one-two in the first moto and looked to be set for a big showdown in moto two (a repeat of their classic battles at the World Vet Championships). Pete Murray had finished third in the first moto and knew that his chances of beating Kurt and Doug were slim to none. But, when he got to the starting line, there was no sign of Kurt or Doug. It turns out that Kurt had blown up his 125 in the last lap of the Over-30 125 Pro race (where he finished second behind Mike Alessi), and, even though people offered him their KTM 125s, he said he didn’t want to ride an unfamiliar bike on the rough-and-tough Glen Helen track. As for Doug Dubach, he simply got tired of waiting for his second Over-50 125 Pro moto to roll around in the 16-race schedule and went home.
Pete Murray, who is the current Over-60 World Vet Champion, along with being the 2012 Over-50 World Vet Champion and 2000 Over-40 World Vet Champion, was a popular winner. Murray had a battle with Jon Ortner in the opening laps of moto two, but pulled away to an easy win. Kevin Barda had to beat Ortner in the second moto to get the $600 second-place check, and he did—by one position. Ortner got $400 for third.
(8) Good Samaritans. Sean Collier stopped when he saw that Carson Carr had crashed in the Open Pro race and was lying motionless on the other side of the finish-line jump. Collier rode back to the top of the finish-line tabletop and laid his bike down to stop oncoming racers from going to the side of the track where Carson was lying.
Later in the day, John Perry was behind Mike Monaghan when Mike endoed and lay motionless in the center of the track. John spun a U-Turn and came back to protect the former 1980’s Pro Circuit Husqvarna rider from other riders. Sean Collier and John Perry both sacrificed their day to help a fellow rider, and they weren’t the only ones, but both these incidents happened in front of the grandstand section of track in full view of everyone. Much less dramatic but still noteworthy, several riders lent unlucky riders (who had suffered breakdowns) the parts, fuel or even spare bikes they needed to keep on racing.
Two-stroke racing epitomizes the good old days, but it might not just be the bikes that were different back then—most likely it is the people who race two-strokes, then and now, who are the common denominators that make two-strokes great.