Sunday, October 9, 2011

AMA Flat Track: Jake Johnson Talks Winning at Calistoga and Taking the Points Lead Heading to Pomona With Fight For Dirt Track's Tyler Porter

As team owner Dave Zanotti goes about swapping out the rear tire/wheel combination on the #1 Zanotti Racing/Schaeffer's H-D/Boughner Racing/Motion Pro-sponsored H-D XR750, the rest of the team goes about their regular duties while rider Jake Johnson relaxes before hitting the track again at the Springfield Mile II event on September 4.  Round 16 of the 2011 AMA Pro Flat Track Harley-Davidson Insurance Grand National Championship Series made it's annual Labor Day Weekend stop at the Illinois State Fairgrounds mile oval, and when all was said and done the Zanotti team of owner Dave, head tech Ted McDermitt (left side of shot) and former AMA Grand National competitor Mike Hacker (sunglasses, behind Zanotti) had come pretty close in getting the set-up right as Johnson came home in the 3rd spot to round out the podium behind winner Willie McCoy and runner-up Chris Carr.

The defending AMA Grand National Champion took the lead in the overall points standing last weekend after winning his 3rd National main event of the year at the Calistoga Half-Mile (and first Twins Series event win), to leave the penultimate round headed to the Pomona season finale with a four point lead over runner-up Jared Mees, and an eight point lead over third place man, Sammy Halbert (357-353-349.) 

With just round 20 of the season left to go in the 2011 AMA Pro Flat Track Harley-Davidson Insurance Grand National Championship Series, The Champ has again put himself into the leading spot heading into the season finale.  Last year the same scenario transpired for the Zanotti team and rider Johnson, when Joe Kopp suffered mechanical ills at what ended up being the penultimate round for the 2010 season at the Canterbury Park event.  Johnson led by 10 going into the Arizona Mile II finale, and won the event outright to clinch his first overall AMA Grand National Championship by 20 points over runner-up Smokin' Joe.

For a man that is staring at the possibility of garnering his second AMA Grand National Championship in a row at next weekend's Pomona Half-Mile event, Jersey Jake is as laid back and carefree as can be-almost like he appears in the shot above.  Understanding the pressure of what leading and winning in the championship can be after last year's fine run, Johnson is the quiet warrior who lets his actions on the track do the talking.  With any given number of possibilities to win the championship against either of the remaining title contenders left in Mees and Halbert, letting it all fall together on the track is the best way for it all to be handled from Jake's perspective.

With 3 wins (Salinas & Springfield TTs, Calistoga), 13-top 5 finishes and 12-top 3 finishes, Johnson has had a stellar year by anyone's standards.  Although only garnering 2 wins on the season in the Dash events (Lake Odessa, Sacramento), the rest of his stat sheet looks mighty impressive as well: 14-total Dash events, with 8-top 3s to show for them. 

Read on below as Tyler Porter from Fight For Dirt talks with the defending Champ about his win at Calistoga that vaulted him into the points lead heading into the Pomona Flat Track World Finals on Saturday, October 15!

Tyler Porter from Fight For Dirt has been bringing us cutting-edge stuff from the world of AMA Pro Flat Track for several years now.  His weekly column, 'The InSlide Line' is a weekly stop for anyone wanting to get 'in the know' about the happenings in and around the AMA Pro Flat Track Grand National Championship Series.

Earlier this week, Tyler filed this great report at his Fight For Dirt site with defending AMA Grand National Champion Jake Johnson, after Jersey Jake had taken the win and series points lead at the penultimate round of the season at the Calistoga Half-Mile event.

Thanks to Tyler for this great interview with The Champ!

FFDT: I'd say Calistoga went pretty well for you?

JJ: Yeah, it went real well. It started good, we
were pretty fast in qualifying, top 5 in the first 2
sessions, then in the last session we were a little
bit off, we tried a couple things and the track
changed up a little bit, it got just a little slick. We
ended up 2nd overall so when we were going out
for the heat race the throttle started hanging up
on my bike, it just wierded me out a little bit. A lot
of guys were having problems with it, because it
was so cold I guess. Everybody was having the
same problem in Minnesota too. I guess the cold
the weather or something, the throttles were just
hanging up. Call me a sissy I guess, but I don't like
to ride when the throttles are hanging up. I don't
know if it's going to stick a little bit or a lot, so I
just ended up jumping on my back up bike for the
heat race. Won my heat race but I felt like I
struggled a little bit. When I came in we got the
main bike fixed for the dash for cash. I was getting
crappy starts all day and just got a bad jump in the
dash and me and Sammy got together on the
starting line. We were both going for it, neither one
of us wanted to lift so we tangled handlebars and
we both just about went down off the start. We
were tank slapping and our feet were flailing and
when we finally got separated I was last going into
the first corner. I worked my way up to third, but
found some good lines for the main. We had some
good laps times so I was feeling good for the main
event. When we went out for the main, we got
another crappy start and I was 5th or 6th going
down the back straight away. By lap 5 I was in the
lead and that's when Jared went down. I peeked
back when the red flag came out and could see
that I had a little bit of a gap so I knew we were
fast and could win at that point. On the restart, I
think it was Sammy that nearly passed me going
into the first corner, but I was able to beat him
going into 1, put in some good laps and pull away.
I was actually able to relax a little during the last 5
laps. Pretty much every race this season where
I've been in the hunt for the win has just been just
a complete battle, a dog fight until the end. It was
nice to be able to peek back with 5 to go and be
able to breathe.

FFDT: Did you find anything wrong with your
throttle or was it just the weather?

JJ: I'm not really sure. My mechanics Ted and Mike
went through everything and checked them all out.
They loosened stuff up and everything was fixed,
it was good. I don't know if there was some dirt
in there or what the story was, but it has seemed to
be a common problem the last two weekends. I
think it may just be the cold weather. Maybe we
just got lucky and it freed up. Luckily we got it
fixed and didn't have to worry about it.

FFDT: Can you tell the difference between the
bikes when you are jumping back and forth?

JJ: Yeah, a little bit. We try for the most part, as
the day goes on make the same changes. Like, if
we change the gearing on one bike we change the
gear on the other just in case we have to get on it.
We try to get the suspension as close as possible,
but it's hard to tell without riding it. The bike I rode
in the dash didn't feel quite as good as my main
bike, but I hadn't been on it all day long. It was a
little different than the other one. Basically it is the
same, gearing wise and it had the second best tire
that we had on it, just stuff like that. You can have
two bikes identical, you could buy two brand new
CRF450's off the show room floor and do the
same stuff to them but one of them is going to feel
better than the other. The back up was fine though,
it got us through while we were working on the
other bike.

FFDT: Did you feel like this win was payback for
what happened in Brainerd?

JJ: A little bit. It was kind of payback for all the
twins races that we've gone to this year where
we've been so close, we've been so close at all of
them, well, or most of them. I figured sooner or
later it was going to be my turn. It's been tough.
Jared, Sammy, Kenny, Bryan, everybody has
really been on their game lately. Especially Jared
and Sammy. At Knoxville the points were tight,
all three of us were on the podium, in Brainerd
we were up there too, so it's been tough to make
up any ground really. We got a little bit of a gift
with Jared's situation over the weekend. We were
able to make up some big points and it got us back
in the hunt. Going into the race 18 points down, I
still had a shot, but it was a long shot. I couldn't
count myself out, but I didn't think it was going to
turn out the way it did even if I did win. It was
good, it put us into the lead going into Pomona.
Pomona is going to be tough. It's somewhat of an
unsure track. I've done decent there before. I've
ridden decent, but I didn't finish decent. The year
I was riding the Suzuki, I was battling Kopp for
3rd and ended up crashing and taking both of us
out. I rode there in 09 and kind of struggled but I
think we should be alright. I know Sammy is going
to go good there, Jared hasn't had a great past
there, but neither have I. It's going to be interesting,
that's for sure.

FFDT: With the points being this tight going into the
last round, does the pressure get to you?

JJ: I try to put it out of my mind. You can think
about it all you want but it's not going to help
anything. The way the dash for cash is, I could
easily be one point down going into the main event.
You can think about the scenario's, you know if this
guy wins I have to finish here, but you can't really
do any of that until the Dash For Cash is over. I
could miss the dash and Jared could go out and win
it or Sammy could go out and win it and only be 3
points down. You just have to take it as it goes. I
have to make sure that I'm in the dash and that I get
some points out of it. From there, just do the math
and figure out where I need to be. I try not to think
about it that way, just go out there and try to win
the thing. It's nice to know though, in the back of
your mind that if you are running in a certain
position and you know you need to pick up one
more spot, it gives you a little bit of motivation
instead of not knowing what is going on. I'm just
going to try not to think about it. Last year going
into Arizona I was 10 points up and I didn't sleep
for two or three weeks. We had Knoxville that got
rained out last year so I had a lot of time for it to
eat at me. I've been in the position before, Last
year the way it was it would have been worse to
have lost the championship, well, the devastation
would have been bigger for losing than the
excitement of winning it was. If I wouldn't have
won that thing, I would have just been crushed.
This year, I don't know, I have won a
championship and no one can take that. I want
to win it, don't get me wrong, but I also know
that it's not the end of the world if I don't. I'm
going to give it everything I've got it.

FFDT: So how about making it back to back in

JJ: Yeah, that'd be nice. That is what I have really
been lacking this year, is wins really. We have been
consistent, I think my worse finish this year has
been an 8th, so we've been on the podium a bunch.
Jared's got 5 wins this year, Sammy has 4, so that is
what I am lacking. I'm lacking in the win department.
We got a little bit of luck going on our side, and
that's the biggest thing really. Jared, Sammy and a
few others can win on any given day, so really it
comes down to the little lucky breaks that you can
get. It's like everything was against us a few
weeks ago, but things are starting to turn back our
way. We'll see how it goes.

FFDT: Going into the last round with the points this
tight, do you get worried about one of the
championship contenders using a desperation move
to win the race or title?

JJ: No, no, I mean, it's expected out of anyone
really. If it's coming down to the last corner, the last
lap for the championship, any one of us is going to
do what we have to do. I'm not going to go out
there and clean somebody out or anything, but if it
comes down to it, we will for sure be going for it.
I'm going to try to be smart about it. I'm going to
give it everything I have, but I don't have that win
or crash mentality. I still want to go into the off
season with all of my limbs attached. I'm still going
for it though, but I'll be smart about it. None of us
knows until it happens, until the situation is in front
of me, from there anything can happen.

FFDT: Best of luck!

JJ: Thanks!

A big thanks again to Tyler Porter at Fight For Dirt for this very interesting interview with defending AMA Grand National Champion Jake Johnson.

Make sure you take the time to check out more of Tyler's great work here to keep up with what is happening in the world of AMA Pro Flat Track Series racing:

Tyler also has a YouTube channel at which he posts his video interviews from each round he attends.  Here he talks with defending Champ Johnson again, in this report filed after the Lake Odessa Half-Mile event on July 23, 2011, in which Jake brought the Zanotti Racing #1 XR750 home in the 3rd spot at the I-96 Speedway event, behind event winner Jared Mees and runner-up Bryan Smith, and after earlier in the evening winning the Dash for Cash event over championship contender Jared Mees: 

Again, a big thanks to Tyler for this great interview with Jersey Jake after round 11 of the 2011 AMA Pro Flat Track Harley-Davidson Insurance Grand National Championship Series:

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