INTERVIEW OF THE WEEK: AUSTIN FORKNER AT CHARLOTTE

_SOU8473_LRAustin Forkner’s dream rookie season continued this past weekend at the USGP of the Americas in Charlotte. The Pro Circuit/Kawasaki rider went 3-2 for third overall against Cooper Webb, Jeffrey Herlings, and many of the fastest 250 Grand Prix racers in the world. Forkner led both motos and was in position to win the overall at one point. Hear what Austin Forkner had to say in an MXA exclusive interview, rather than answers taken from a general press conference.

By John Basher

_SOU7973_LRAustin Forkner (214) was the fastest 250 qualifier and turned the top gate pick into a holeshot in the first moto.

Were you excited to race the MXGP of the Americas at Charlotte? It’s no secret that Monster Energy forced their U.S.-sponsored teams to compete.
I wasn’t super stoked. It comes at the end of our U.S. season, and I was kind of tired. It was a last-minute deal whether we were going to do it or not. Then the racing ended up being fun. Any time I can get out there and race with the different guys and experience something different than what I’m used to is good experience for me. If I can get to do MX des Nations in the future I’ll have ridden with some Europeans and know their style of riding. I don’t regret doing it. It was another weekend on the box, and hopefully I can keep that going.

You bring up the Motocross des Nations. I’m not sure if you know this or not, but David Bailey came to MXA’s headquarters a few weeks ago, and talk turned to Team USA. He would have selected you for Team USA this year. That’s quite an honor coming from a decorated Champion like David Bailey.
Wow, that’s an honor. I didn’t hear anything about being on the team. I figured that I wouldn’t get picked, because I’m the new kid. Everybody thinks that rookies are going to be inconsistent. Honestly, I’ve been one of the more consistent guys this year. I finished seven points out of third in the 250 National Championship. Making the team never really crossed my mind though. All my friends, after they saw the picks, they told me that I should be on the MXDN guy. I didn’t know what to say. It would have been good experience, but I’m kind of ready to be done this season after the Glen Helen GP. It has been a good season so far. I’ll take some time off and then get ready for Supercross in November.

What were your thoughts on the Charlotte track?
Nobody had any home track advantage. Cooper [Webb] lives close to there, so he had a hometown advantage, but no one had an edge. It was new dirt with a new layout, and we all had to figure it out. I thought it was pretty equal for everyone. The track was really fun. I wasn’t sure how it was going to be. If this were a practice track then it would be so much fun. For racing, it was still fun. You couldn’t really have a lot of fun on all the big jumps, because we were in race mode. In practice you could throw big whips over the jumps. At night it got a little bit slippery as the moisture came up out of the ground and the dirt got packed down. Some of the turns were a little bit hard to see, but for the most part it was lit pretty well. For their first time having a dirt bike race here, they did a good job. The track was well maintained and made for some great racing.

The spectators seemed to be involved. Every time you, Cooper or Eli Tomac went over the finish line jump they would roar. Did you notice that?
Oh yeah! I said that same thing to my dad after the race. We watched the 450s after my last moto from the other side of the track, and we could hear the fans screaming for the 450s every time they went over the jump. I was in the lead for probably 25 minutes in the second moto and 15-18 minutes in the first moto. Over the finish line they went crazy, and I could hear them. At the end of the long sweeper as I was braking for the turn I could hear them there, too. The fans were awesome. It was a good track to watch for the most part, because you could see a lot of what was going on. You weren’t on the track, but it’s a dirt track. I’m glad the fans were into it, because it pumped me up as a racer to hear them screaming.

“I KNEW COOPER WEBB WOULD BE TOUGH. I WASN’T SURE ABOUT JEFFREY HERLINGS. I FIGURED IF HE WAS AS FAST AS EVERYONE SAID HE WAS, THAT HE WOULD BE TOUGH TO BEAT. EVERYBODY I TALKED TO, AND I MEAN EVERYBODY, SAID THAT NOBODY IN THE U.S. HAD A CHANCE OF BEATING HERLINGS.”

All day long you battled with Cooper Webb, the 2016 AMA 250 National Champion, and three-time 250 World Champion Jeffrey Herlings. You aren’t easily intimidated, are you?
Not really. I beat Cooper a few times this year. He has beaten me way more than I beat him, but I did get him a few times, most recently at Indiana. I knew Cooper would be tough. I wasn’t sure about Herlings. I figured if he was as fast as everyone said he was, that he would be tough to beat. Everybody I talked to, and I mean everybody, said that nobody in the U.S. had a chance of beating Herlings. They were saying that all over Vital, too. I thought that we did have a chance of winning. After the first moto I wasn’t sure. Jeffrey put it to us that first moto. I made it easy for him after I fell, but when I got back up I was just trying to hang with Cooper, and Cooper was trying to hang with Herlings. I couldn’t hang with either one of them, and Cooper really couldn’t hang with Herlings. After the first moto I realized that Herlings is the real deal. In the second moto I was out front, and I didn’t look back, but I could see Herlings in the straightaway next to me. I thought, ‘Dang, here we go!’ I figured that I had to go as fast as I possibly could right away. At the beginning of both motos I pulled him for the first 15-20 minutes. I don’t know if I started slowing down or he got faster, but he was tough at the end of the motos. If I hadn’t ridden as hard as I did in the beginning of the motos then I don’t know what would have happened. That sprint strategy worked out in the second moto.

Were you aware that at one point in the second moto you were in position for the overall win?
Yeah, I knew it. Jeffrey was catching me a little bit at that point. Cooper had come from pretty far back and was making big gains on both of us. I was hoping that Herlings could hold Cooper up a little bit and play cat and mouse to let me get away. It didn’t work out that way [laughter]. Cooper got Herlings pretty quickly, caught me in two laps, and put pressure on me. I made a few mistakes, and with that track it was all it took for him to get by. I don’t even remember where he passed me. I tried to hang with him, but the roost was really bad. I wanted to see what he was doing differently. For the most part he didn’t have any spectacular lines. He was just riding really good. I tried to hang with Cooper and keep Herlings behind me. I rode as hard as I could the whole moto. Herlings made a last lap charge. He passed me, and I got him back.

_SOU8601_LRJeffrey Herlings (84) hounded Forkner the last two laps of the second moto and actually made the pass, only for Austin to mount a charge and quickly pass the three-time 250 World Champion back. 

Those last two laps in the second moto had to be the most challenging two laps you’ve had to do in your Pro career. Am I right in saying that?
Yeah, it was probably one of the first races that I’ve been up front in the top three with somebody putting hard pressure on me at the end of a moto. Most of the time in the Nationals we push really hard for the first 20 minutes and then spread out. For the most part we all have some breathing room at the end of the moto. The second moto was tough. I was tired. He was tired. It was basically a sprint for 30 plus two for both motos. In the first moto I struggled after I fell, because the fall winded me. In the second moto I kept it up and rode better. I don’t think I hardly faded at all. Jeffrey and Cooper were faster than me. I am happy with how I rode in the second moto. It was a good day.

The beginning of the AMA National series you said that finishing inside the top ten was your goal. Plans changed when you exceeded expectations, as you focused on top fives, then podiums and finally moto wins. Did you think when your Pro career began in May that you would put one over on Jeffrey Herlings?
[Laughter] I expected to do some of the things I accomplished this season. After how the first half of the National series went I thought that getting a moto win was going to be nearly impossible. Then I got a podium at Southwick. That’s when a top five seemed possible. I started getting consistent podiums from Washougal out. I’ve been getting better and better as the season went on. To me, it didn’t matter who I was racing at the MXGP. I expect to be on the podium at every outdoor race. Supercross is going to be a bit of a learning curve, but I’ve worked up to the point of being a guy who should be battling for race wins consistently outdoors. You’re going to have your bad races, your falls, and maybe some guys will be faster that day, but I expect to be a solid top-five guy. With Cooper [Webb] moving up, next year I should be up there battling for race wins. If you’re battling for race wins every weekend, then you’re going to be battling for the championship.

Everyone on the message boards believe that you’re the guy to beat for the 250 National Championship in 2017. I’m actually a bit shocked that you go on Vital and read what people say. There are some loose cannons on that message board.
[Laughter] I actually like going on Vital, because it gives me added motivation. The other day everyone was saying that nobody was going to beat Herlings, especially me. I thought, ‘Okay, let’s go!’ At the press conference after the Ironman National I said that I wanted to try and beat Herlings. Somebody wrote an article about it, and they said that I said that “I am” going to beat Herlings, which I didn’t actually say. Some of my friends read that article and said to me, “Do you really think that you’re going to beat Herlings?” I didn’t say that I was going to beat him, but I knew I had as good of a chance as anybody. My friends thought I wasn’t going to even run with Herlings. I laughed. As soon as I pulled off the track after the second moto I texted my buddy, “Wait, you said what now?” [laughter]. Obviously I didn’t beat Herlings in the overall, but I beat him in a moto.

“SOME OF THESE 250 GUYS HAVE BEEN IN THE CLASS FOR A LONG TIME. MY TRAINER KEEPS TELLING ME THAT I’VE BEEN IN THE CLASS FOR HALF A YEAR, AND SOME GUYS HAVE BEEN IN THE CLASS FOR FIVE, SIX, SEVEN YEARS. HE TELLS ME THAT I’M DOING AS GOOD, OR BETTER, THAN MOST OF THEM. THAT’S ALWAYS GOOD TO HEAR.”

Does the chatter ever bother you?
The other day I walked into a room where my dad was, and he was listening to some motocross radio show on his phone. Some guy said that he had me picked for both the Supercross and outdoor titles next year. I don’t know about that [laughter]! It’s only going to be my second year outdoors and my rookie year in Supercross. I think I’ll be a threat for race wins pretty consistently next year, and if everything goes right, hopefully we’re in line to get the title. I want a title as soon as I can get it. Some of these 250 guys have been in the class for a long time. My trainer keeps telling me that I’ve been in the class for half a year, and some guys have been in the class for five, six, seven years. He tells me that I’m doing as good, or better, than most of them. That’s always good to hear. I’m going to keep the ball rolling and try to continue improving at the rate that I have been.

_SOU7686_LR
You’re pretty subdued for a kid who hung with Cooper Webb and beat Jeffrey Herlings in a moto. After this interview are you going to lock yourself in a room and scream your head off from the excitement of it all?

No. If I was going to freak out, it would have been right after the race was over. I thought I was going to freak out after winning at Ironman, but I didn’t. Ironman was pretty hot, and I fell in the second moto. I didn’t even know if I was for sure going to win the overall. I was so tired that I could not even celebrate as much as I wanted to. I was about to pass out on the podium. Usually I go crazy right after the fact. Like at Washougal when I won my first moto, I held the bike wide open for a solid five seconds after crossing the finish line. When I get back home everybody tells me that I did a good job, but everything goes by so fast. Before you can even process the fact that you won, it’s already the next day and you’re moving on to the next weekend. It’s always nice to go out with a win at the end of the season, because then you get talked about until the next series starts. I have one more race this season [Glen Helen USGP], but even if I win it, I don’t think that will beat the feeling of winning at Ironman.

Talk about Ironman. In the first moto you waxed everybody. What was that like?
I won by, like, 28 seconds. Joey Savatgy did fall on the last lap, but even before that I had a 21-second lead. I could not even process that. I was more pumped about winning by that big of a gap than actually winning the overall. Those are some fast guys, and the first moto I won by nearly 30 seconds. That’s a cool deal. I watched all of “The Great Outdoors,” and Carmichael was always winning by big gaps, but nobody has really won by 30 seconds in a while. Roczen does every now and then, but I was blown away. For me to be a rookie and beat those guys by that much was really cool.

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