View From The Crew
2019 Ironman GNCC - Griffin Cotter
If you have never been to Crawfordsville, Indiana, in the fall, just turn on Netflix’s Stranger Things. The landscape is wide and flat, and cornfields stretch out and yawn for miles just before resting for their long, annual winter nap. The sky is gray and oftentimes angry and the sleepy small-town sidewalks littered with the red, orange, and yellow skeletons of a waning autumn. Lamp posts line the streets where banners adorn their masts that read “Motoville.” To the casual visitor who stumbled upon the small farm town, perhaps from a long journey on Interstate 74, the banners would seem a bit odd. But its own 16,000 residents know precisely what the banners mean. For hidden among the miles of farmland is a slumbering monster, resurrected once a year in ritualistic fashion, pitting man and machine against mother nature, where competitors show up in droves for what has become the largest and spookiest off-road extravaganza the United States has ever seen: the final stop on the 13-round GNCC circuit, the feared and coveted Ironman GNCC.
Ken Shaver’s alarm sounds and his day begins at 5:00 a.m. To many, 5:00 wakeup calls are few and far between. But to a farmer, it’s sleeping in. Shaver owns the farm that the GNCC has been coming to annually since 1995. He has been instrumental in building it into what it has become today. Every year, a regimented harvest schedule revolves around a motorcycle—well, not just one motorcycle, but 1,200 of them (and about a thousand quads too). The starting line to the 12-mile racetrack is tucked into a corner of one of his many cornfields, and the race remains a staunch reason for being for the middle-aged member of the FFA.
But it’s not just Kenny on the Indiana side of the Ironman GNCC; his father, Tom, wife, Lori, son and daughter-in-law Sam and Maddie, and daughter Holly spearhead a small army of Indianans who have the date of the race circled in red on their calendars the moment the schedule is released. Because for them and many others, the race is more than a race—it’s a way of life. The Shaver farm consists of around 2,000 acres of land, and about 360 days a year it’s a fully functional corn and bean farm. To many, 2,000 acres would seem vast and expansive, but the Shavers often joke about the size of their “hobby farm.” Two thousand acres is a lot, but the neighboring farms check in anywhere between 6,000 and 12,000 acres solely devoted to agriculture. This is important, because the Shavers have taken around 200 acres and devoted them to motocross and off-road racing. Not only do they play host to the final round of the GNCC series, they also play host to the final round of the Lucas Oil Pro Motocross series as well.
It’s safe to say the Shaver family knows people. They rally the community of Crawfordsville every time a race comes to town and offer unmatched support from every angle when it comes to executing an event. Crawfordsville renames itself Motoville, and the community has thrown an annual Moto festival since 2015. During the time of construction for the motocross track, the local high school showed up with the press box—yes, the fully intact press box from their football field—in tow, to be reinstalled as the announcers’ tower above the starting gate. They also have connections with the Indiana state road department. Crushed up in the pro paddock and spectator areas of the farm are two lanes of 500 miles of Indiana highway millings. To put it lightly, racing is in their blood and has captured their heart as much as farming has.
On top of the farming and off-road events, the Shavers also own and operate the largest Polaris dealership in Indiana, Tom’s Marine Sales. That commitment and dedication to our sport is why a little map dot in the heartland of our country has become a beacon of light and an annual pilgrimage spot for thousands of enthusiasts, racers, and race fans alike. It is why Ironman has become more than an event and a stop on the tour. It has asserted itself atop the bucket list of off-road motorsports.
Even the name “Ironman” brings superhuman images to mind. While Marvel’s superhero would have been a fitting brand for such a track, facility, and event, the namesake originates a little closer to home. Bob “Ironman” Sloan, an Indiana native who passed away in competition in 1994, dreamed of having a GNCC in his home state. Naturally, when Dave Coombs and Tom Shaver decided in 1995 to have a race in Tom’s backyard, the Ironman was born.
A lot has happened in the 25-year history of the Ironman GNCC. Year one saw Scott Plessinger take a 28-second victory over Scott Summers in a grueling eight-lap, 3:14 grudge match, securing his second national championship. In 2002, another two-time champ, Rodney Smith, notched a 4-second win over Fred Andrews. Or on the crisp day in 2013 when FMF KTM Factory Racing’s Kailub Russell lined up for the second year in a row with his first championship on the line. After starting early and being consequentially penalized, his 37-second victory over Charlie Mullins would prove enough to secure the first of his unprecedented seven consecutive national championships.
Today, Russell’s run of championships is still intact. But in the 2019 edition of the Ironman GNCC, he never even started. In fact, due to injury and a buffer crop of a points lead, KR hasn’t raced in Crawfordsville since 2017. Looking back, a championship has not been clinched at the final round since 2013, Russell’s first championship. Not only did Russell not start in 2019, but neither did his toughest competitor, Rockstar Energy Husqvarna’s Thad Duvall.
That didn’t faze the fans, however. Neither did the weather, as nearly 2” of rain fell the day before the race. The mud fleas—an endearing name given to the enthusiasts who line the mud holes and hillclimbs along the GNCC circuit—still showed up in near-record-breaking numbers. A beautiful week leading up to the race allowed for track crew to prep an unbelievable course. A hot and dry summer left the woods pretty dusty, and had the rain fallen Thursday or even Friday before the event, the track would have been primed for unbelievable racing. But mother nature held off until Saturday morning, when the remnants of a tropical storm stalled over Crawfordsville. The rain, coupled with thousands of bike laps, caused the track to deteriorate quickly. Adjustments had to be made to the track, abbreviating its original 13-mile loop for the XC1 quads to just under 10 miles.
One of the premier spectating areas on the track and the whole GNCC circuit is a hillclimb. When you think about the landscape and geography of Indiana, elevation change doesn’t necessarily come to mind. The flat or gently rolling plains and deep, dark, loamy dirt are definitely more appropriate than rugged woods and sharp inclines and declines. But hidden in the woods is a monster carved out of the ground by years of erosion from the typically tame and trickling Offield Creek that runs through the heart of the Shavers’ farm. The obstacle is known throughout the GNCC racing community as one of the most intimidating and is appropriately named after the event itself: Ironman Hill. Like the event itself, the obstacle is tough, gritty, and able to separate the men from the boys. But the similarities don’t stop there: the hill itself draws literally thousands of spectators over the course of the two-day event. It requires a dedicated security team, fencing, and public address system. It is so tough and littered with fans that a rule was implemented in 2018 prohibiting any quad rider who isn’t A-class or above from even attempting its climb. It’s an adrenaline-laced challenge for the riders and a once-in-a-lifetime obstacle that quickly turns into a once-in-a-year spectacle for the fans. This year, if you happened to be near one of the Racer Productions track crew or staff members working in the torrential rain around noon on Saturday, you might have heard this transmission come across the radio:
- “Ryan Echols, do you have a copy?” Tim Cotter, the Event Director for GNCC, radioed to Jr. Trail Boss Echols amid the deluge.
- "Go ahead, Tim,” Echols responded. You could hear the engine of his quad and the strain of his voice through the radio transmission. He was out there, somewhere along the trail, rapidly modifying the previously laid-out track to make it passable for the upcoming race. He knew exactly the question that was about to come.
- “How are we looking at the hill [Ironman Hill]? Are we going to run it?” Cotter asked. The security team, fencing, and PA system were already in place and ready for the race.
- “No one is making it up that hill, Tim. I can hardly get to the bottom of it let alone up the thing.” Ryan comes from the coal mines of West Virginia and is a former XC1 Pro Bike racer who has had his leg over a machine his whole life. A badass. Yet you could hear in his voice that it was bad out there. In any other professional sporting event, the race would have been canceled. But not GNCC. “I don’t know who’s going to do it, but someone needs to come down here and tell all these people we cut the hill out.”
- “How many people are down there?”
- “I’d say about 500.”
Five hundred people, hours before the race in the pouring rain. The name “mud fleas” probably makes a lot more sense now.
After about an hour delay, the race started. The championship had already been decided weeks before, as Walker Fowler, like Kailub Russell on the Bike side of things, continued his own streak of five consecutive national championships. But unlike Russell, he was on the starting line and was considered the favorite to take the win. After a nearly 45-minute first lap, the race was decided by Echols to be a three-lap event. Fowler jumped out to an early lead, and many thought it would be business as usual and he would cruise to another win. Fate had other plans, however. On lap two, it was confirmed that the #1 Yamaha rider had broken down and was in need of medical attention. The conditions were so bad that Fowler had to stop and make some in-race repairs to his machine that resulted in his battery literally blowing up in his face. He would be prove to be physically okay, but his day at the front of the pack and in the race all together was over.
This opened up the race behind him. XC1 rookie Hunter Hart and veteran Jarrod McClure were neck and neck, advantage Hart. They had no idea that Fowler was out of the competition. They thought they were, like usual, racing for second. Barely recognizable through the mud, they entered the home stretch wheel to wheel. Hart crossed the finish line P1 physically, and everyone watching the race but him knew he had won. After finishing runner-up at the previous round, Hart would have been happy repeating that performance. It wasn’t until he pulled off the track and had a RacerTV microphone stuck in his muddy grill that he realized what had just happened. With the camera rolling, watching him realize what had just taken place is must-see TV and a fitting finish to the Ironman ATV finale.
On the Bike side of things, it has become apparent that behind Russell and, to an extent, Duvall, it’s anyone’s race. A year ago in Crawfordsville, Stu Baylor took advantage of Russell and Duvall’s absence. Many even pegged him as a favorite to repeat as Ironman champ in 2019. But lined up next to him was a stable of former XC2 champions headlined by Trevor Bollinger, his brother Grant Baylor, and reigning 2019 XC2 champ Ben Kelley. With a still-muddy Ironman racetrack in front of them, the green flag waved, and what ensued over the next three hours left the GNCC Racing Nation salivating for 2020. On a blustery, sunny day that saw the track improve as the race went on, Ben Kelley would claim his second straight overall win and assert himself as a worthy challenger to bring KR’s seven-championship streak to an end next year.
Just like the farming and Ken Shaver’s 5 a.m. wake-up call, Ironman Raceway in Crawfordsville, Indiana, is consistent. It always delivers and never disappoints. With the 2019 racing schedule in the rearview, the woods and track will join the cornfields for their annual slumber. But the seeds have already been sown in the minds of thousands: Ironman is worth its weight in corn and will produce a crop of racing and memories next year just as it has for the last 25.