Welcome to Quick Fill.
We’re back! Not only is Quick Fill back, but we’ve made the trek back from Japan successfully and it was an excellent week over there with our friends from JNCC. In case you may have missed it, for the first time since 2019 we were finally able to return to Japan for the JNCC season finale last weekend and Steward Baylor represented GNCC in style by grabbing the overall win by a whopping five minutes! The finale is always dubbed the “AAGP” which has deep history, dating back to the ‘Hurricane AAGP’ enduro prior to the creating of the JNCC series.
The trip began with everyone departing from different airports, but eventually all meeting up along the way. By the time the group of Stu, Big Stu, Stu’s mechanic Blake Plonsky and myself all made it to the Tokyo Narita airport, none other than the namesake of the airport himself, legendary Japanese Pro Motocross racer, Akira Narita was there to pick us up. Okay, maybe the airport isn’t REALLY named after Akira but its still cool regardless.
From there, it was a four-hour trip to the Nagano region; home of JNCC. Although JNCC races all over Japan, home base for them is right in Nagano so with the Big Bird AAGP event at the X-JAM Takaifuji Ski Resort being less than an hour away this is like a home race for the JNCC staff. Friday saw a bit of bike setup and testing, followed by a full day at the track on Saturday checking out the racecourse, meeting the JNCC racers and fans, and just generally good times.
Saturday night, KTM Japan put together a wonderful dinner for us at a nearby hotel. Utilizing the hotel’s buffet style dinner with a few additions, there was all sorts of different food to try and not one single piece of it was bad. By Sunday’s race day, everyone was excited and ready to see how things would play out and this is when the real fun happens. First off, I got to try my hand at the morning race.
The JNCC staff worked with Japan’s number one KTM dealer, Basist Auto, to arrange a bike for me to ride in their morning amateur race. Originally I was slated to ride a brand new 2024 KTM 250 XC-F but the week prior to the race, Ryo Uchijima Basist Auto’s top JNCC AA1 (XC1 equivalent) racer had an issue with his machine. The 250 I was supposed to ride was intended to go to Ryo for the 2024 season, but he requested to ride the new machine in the AAGP. The JNCC community is so kind, they actually ASKED me if it was okay to change my machine to a gently used Husqvarna FC350. Naturally, I said it was absolutely okay.
Steward opted to ride a KTM 450 XC-F for the AAGP since that’s what he rode all throughout the 2023 season. KTM Japan was able to provide direct support to Steward and they really rolled out the red carpet with tents, a van full of extra parts and plenty of support. For me, given that the FC is the motocross model, the folks from KTM Japan also brought a set of forks to swap out. They had a lot of faith in my skill because even these were a good bit stiffer than what I’m used to! They seemed to be something I could manage during Friday’s test ride, so I foolishly didn’t mess with them any further… Which turned out to be a little bit of a mistake on my part!
JNCC rolled out the red carpet for me as well, introducing me during their starting lineup for the Morning “Fun-GP” race and really made me feel like a superstar. I opted to ride their premier “Fun A” class on the front row with about 18 other top amateur racers. Masami Hoshino, JNCC president, plays the Ricky Towery roll at the JNCC starts. But, instead of starting with a green flag, they start the races with the Japanese national flag. When Masami threw the flag, the Husky took a couple more seconds to start, so I was somewhere around sixth place in the first turn.
As we made our way up the first ski slope and into the choppy terrain I quickly realized the folly of my ways with the suspension and boy was it pogo-ing off the rocks and chop almost instantly. I lost a few spots on those first ski slopes but started reeled in a few guys and made a couple passes in the first woods sections. When we would get back on the ski slopes, these guys were hard to battle with as they ride that fast terrain really, really well. About halfway through that first lap I had worked up to about third place coming through one of the woods sections, but on the exit the bike stalled.
This sort of blew my mind as it actually had a Rekluse in it, and it took a few seconds to start. Once I was rolling again, I think I came around fifth place on the first lap. The next few laps I feel like I rode pretty terribly as I just couldn’t quite mesh right with the suspension. At one point I had dropped all the way down to tenth place, and this was before the “world’s longest pit stop” that I now hold the record for. We needed to refill the small tank on the Husky, and I came in talking smack with Stu and then when it came time to go again the bike just didn’t want to start. It was probably only 30-45 seconds or so, but it felt like five minutes.
By this point I had dropped to somewhere around 12th place but managed to find my way back around a couple of guys as I finished out that pit stop lap. With really dry conditions, the course was getting pretty choppy at the race wore on and with the stiff suspension I wasn’t sure how much more time I could make up. But, then I remembered something… Ever since I began racing many years ago, I’ve always rode the closing laps of races better than the beginning. By the time it was over I had managed to find my way into eighth place. All things considered; I was pretty happy with that!
There’s a pretty good gap in time from the end of the Morning “Fun-GP” to the Afternoon “Comp-GP” so I was able to come back, down a really good ice cream cone courtesy of the owner of Basist Auto KTM and take my time changing clothes. Stu would make his way over to the start and was introduced on the start line to some seriously pumped up JNCC fans. They love seeing the GNCC racers come over and do their thing, and they really enjoyed seeing Stu. When Masami threw the flag, Stu would be one of the last ones into the first turn, forced to work his way through the pack of AA1 and AA2 racers.
However, this was no issue as about 3.5 miles into the first lap, Stu had already found his way into the lead! Much like my experience, the Japanese racers are incredibly fast on the open ski slopes but us GNCC racers are able to reel them in through the woods sections. The woods sections on a JNCC course are actually a lot different than a GNCC course. Instead of turning, twisty trail marked a specific way, the JNCC staff goes into a section of woods and puts track tape on both sides of the trail, almost all the way through these sections.
They banner these woods 50+ feet wide, then cut all the small undergrowth and let you choose how to pick your way through these woods sections. It really makes it even more of a mental game as you try to search for the best way through the woods and there’s all sorts of different ways to do it. This really plays into the hands of guys like Stu, so he was able to make up a ton of time and then pull out a bit of a lead pretty quickly.
Multi-time JNCC champ, Manabu Watanabe stayed close to Stu for the opening stages of the race but ran into a few small issues that dropped him out of podium contention. By the mid-portions of the race, Stu had been able to pull out a pretty good lead even with a little bit of a challenge from second place rider, Kazuto Yano. Kazuto is actually a hard enduro racer who typically doesn’t compete in the whole JNCC series but wanted to come try his hand against Stu.
In the end, Stu would take the win ahead of Kazuto by 5 minutes. Masahiro Kobayashi claimed the AA2 class win and a solid third place overall while Manabu Watanabe would end the day fourth overall and wrap up the 2023 JNCC championship. Fifth would go to Yutaro Saito while our buddy Akira Narita would end the day in sixth. Defending series champ, Daiki Baba, who came over and raced Big Buck with us, would sort through several issues throughout the race but manage to end the day in ninth place.
As I was roaming around during the afternoon race, I happened to spot a Big Buck shirt and noticed it was actually an American wearing the shirt. We got to talking and this gentleman, Shawn Marshall, is from Tennessee and works for Nissan. He was in Tokyo for work and knew the JNCC event was taking place with some GNCC regulars in attendance. With Sunday off work, he hopped on the bullet train to the station nearest to the racetrack, then managed to get a cab from the train station to the track to watch the race. So, big thanks to Shawn for finding his way almost the entire way across Japan just to come check out the race.
Huge thanks go out to Masami, Akira and the entire JNCC staff for the help and hospitality. Additionally, and as always, our Japanese pal Yoshi Kawana was a tremendous help getting us around, making sure we did what we needed to do at the race, and getting us back to Tokyo as well. Yoshi is a big GNCC fan as well and goes way back with Josh Strang’s family as he spent some time in Australia with them many years ago. Also, huge thanks go to Riki and everyone at KTM Japan plus the folks from Basist Auto KTM for all their support as well. The JNCC staff and racers will be back at a GNCC again next year, and we’re already looking forward to seeing them again!
If you want to check out some more photos from Japan, and believe me; you do, you can take a look at the photo gallery HERE.
Before we wrap up this special JNCC re-cap edition of Quick Fill, one quick reminder that the Virtual Riders Meetings will be coming up soon. Be sure to send in your proposals for rules, classes and any other suggestions. You can find all the details in the Competition Bulletin HERE. That’s going to do it for this week’s edition of Quick Fill. Enjoy your weekend and we’ll see you back here next week!