- The Washington Times - Friday, March 14, 2003

It rained all Bike Week, annoying racing's fair-weather friends, but hardship was really just part of the trial by ordeal. Apart from the vagaries of the track itself, Daytona also has the distinction of being a very long and punishing race.

Instead of running the two heats common in World Superbike, Daytona features one long 200-mile challenge, putting enormous stress on tires, motor and rider. When the winner finally walks into Victory Lane he usually looks like a bent-over crone from the Brothers Grimm, though there is nothing grim about winning this, the most famous motorcycle race in the world.

Last year, Nicky Hayden and his Honda took some of the joy out of things at least for the spectators by winning by a monstrous 18.5 seconds. That is always a possibility in such a long race, but given this year's rain-induced delays and cancellations, race fans would have settled for a little sun and decent racing action. What they got instead was excitement from start to finish.

The race was a classic, contested among the top eight qualifiers, with Ben Bostrum, Kurtis Roberts, Mat Mladin, Aaron Yates, Eric Bostrum, Anthony Gobert and Miguel Duhamel dominating the action. It was a very American race in that the European nudging and bumping seen during the BMW Boxer Cup on Saturday was absent. The maximum recorded speed was just over 185 mph, the winner's average speed including two pit stops was 113 mph and the best single lap was 1:49:38 for the 3.58-mile course.

Few fans had stayed over into Monday when Sunday's 200 was postponed by a record 2 inches of rain falling just as the race was about to begin, but those who did had no grounds for complaints. The weather cleared up and the race was run under perfect conditions not quite hot, with little wind.

Except for the pit stops, the front three to six ran in an ever-shifting phalanx. The 200 was more closely contested this year. There were five riders who left the track in an impromptu way and when they hit the grass horizontally a rooster tail of water 6 to 8 feet high went into the air. Happily, no one was injured and the ambulance never even budged.

In the end, Mr. Duhamel on a Honda RC51 beat two other RC51s, Ben Bostrum and Kurtis Roberts by a few feet. It was a salient Honda triumph. Aaron Yates on a Suzuki had been a major threat and led for a while until he missed his braking point going into the first turn and had to turn around to re-enter the course. It was only a matter of 20 seconds but Mr. Yates was unable to make it up.

By contrast, starting way back in row 3, Mr. Duhamel of Quebec needed all 200 miles and every bit of his race savvy to reel in fellow Honda riders Ben Bostrom and Kurtis Roberts at the finish line. It was that close, and the drama had Duhamel doing a little triumphal jig after the finish.

Americans Ben Bostrom and Mr. Roberts were quick to attribute Mr. Duhamel's victory to the Canadian's "smarts," which, after all the trials of race preparation and the 57 grueling laps of the contest itself, came down to judicious use of drafting technique in the plunge down to the finish line. Just being there, however, was the result of surviving countless dicey passes in the chicane, tense tire-changes, and attrition among the other racers.

It didn't start out like a Honda parade at all, as Suzuki's Mr. Yates and Mat Mladin were obviously competitive. Mr. Yates led for a while, while Mr. Mladin succumbed to apparent tire problems.

In the end, however, Mr. Yates' fourth place and Eric Bostrom's (Kawasaki) fifth were the best Honda's competition could do. It was a very dominating performance for Honda to begin its U.S. Superbike title defense. Nicky Hayden was hardly missed.

Contrasting with the technical one-upmanship of the 200 was the first U.S. appearance of the "Boxer Cup," a contest featuring riders from around the world on identical BMW machines. The resulting racing was in marked contrast with some other competitions such as last year's 200. The Boxer Cup proved a good omen, with Italian Roberto Panichi edging American Brian Parriot by the proverbial photo finish.

As always, there were losers this year among the contestants, specifically Ducati and Harley. The racing pedigree of Ducati has never been in question, with numerous World Superbike wins in the bag, but victory at Daytona is another matter. The proud Italian marque has come close but never won, even when strongly favored.

Part of it may be the unique layout of the huge track itself, where long straightaways and high banking replace the tight turns so common in Europe. Then too, Ducati's pit stops were complicated by its rear frame design. Ducati World Superbike champion Carl Fogarty never won here; said he loathed the place and won't be back. Ditto for Harley in this, the motor company's 100th proud year. The VR-1000 Superbike program has effectively vanished, surviving only in vaguely derivative form in the new Harley V-Rod street bike. Even some late help from Ford failed to turn the trick.

It was not to be in what has begun as Hondas year, with all three podium slots secured at Daytona. It was a great race, but greater still for Big Red fans.

Honda has made a statement.

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