Morgantown, W.Va. (February 23, 2009) -- The words came as a shock to most. At the 2008 Can-Am Grand National Cross Country Series banquet, Team Yamaha's Bill Ballance announced that he would retire from full-time competition at the end of the 2009 season. The nine-time GNCC Champion from Kentucky hopes to retire on top by concluding a decade of domination, but he also wants his competition to know he's leaving, so they will be ready to get one last shot at him. Ballance's charge for a final GNCC crown begins this weekend at the 2009 GNCC season opener, the Part Unlimited River Ranch GNCC in Lake Wales, Florida. ATV riders will practice on Saturday, February 28, and race on Sunday, March 1.
"I'm letting everyone know right now so they can come at me hard for next season," said Ballance at the banquet in November. "I'm 32 years old, and I'm going to try to go out on top with ten-straight. I still have the fire in my gut, and I'm still going to push it as hard as I ever have. But mark it down, this will be my last run as far as I can tell, so I want everyone to get one last shot at me and give it 100 percent."
Of course, Ballance reserves the right to change his mind and go for ten again in 2010 if he fails this season. And a host of riders would like to create that scenario. At the head of that pack comes Rockstar/Yoshimura Suzuki's Chris Borich, who won last year's Florida race and took second in the 2008 standings-his fourth-straight season as the GNCC runner-up. Borich may hail from Pennsylvania, but he possesses impressive sand skills since he spends his winters in Florida.
KTM's Adam McGill broke out last year when he won three-straight races early in the season and looked like a championship lock. Bad luck eventually derailed his title bid, but McGill expects more consistency in his second season with KTM. Last year's outstanding rookie, Yamaha rider Brandon Sommers, carded fourth in the final standings and showed a combination of focus and consistency rare for a rider with so little experience. Expect a big jump in speed from Sommers this season.
Bryan Cook will fly the DeRisi racing privateer flag again in 2009. Cook won a race last season and stood closest to Ballance in the standings at mid-season. Cook's strong run last year gives him plenty of confidence for 2009. Local favorite Taylor Kiser, who hails from Alvord, Florida, switches back to Yamaha equipment after a solid year on the KTM team where he finished sixth in the standings.
The entire top ten of the final 2008 GNCC standings featured riders capable of winning races this season. GT Thunder Yamaha's XC2 Champion Don Ockerman will graduate full-time to the XC1 class, and Ockerman already served notice of his abilities by landing podium finishes in both of his XC1 races last year. Popular veteran William Yokley picks up a factory Polaris ride this year, and the National Guard-backed rider expects to run up front on his new machine. Veteran Matt Smiley and sophomore Jarrod McClure can't be counted out of the running, either. And the Warnert Can-Am Team sends Chris Bithell back into battle this season. The 2007 series number three suffered from plenty of bad luck last year, but also won a race at Unadilla. Like McGill, Bithell hopes a year of testing on his new machine will result in more consistent finishes.
Ballance serves as the target. As a young racer coming through the ranks, Ballance chased seven-time GNCC ATV Champion Barry Hawk. After Hawk landed the 1999 title, he announced he would leave ATV racing to pursue the bike championship. "If I have one regret, it's that I wish I knew that was my last chance to beat Barry Hawk," said Ballance at the banquet. "Maybe I would have changed some things up instead of trying to develop a new bike that year. I want everyone to know this will be their last chance."
The top pro riders will race as part of a full four-day GNCC weekend, which also includes amateur, Youth and ATV classes, all of which practice on Saturday and race on Sunday. In the amateur ranks, Yamaha's Traci Cecco will begin her quest for an eighth GNCC Women's crown, with competition from KTM's Angel Atwell expected. GNCC Racing also offers four Utility and 4x4 classes as well.
A full slate of bike classes will compete at the race, too. Bike riders will practice on Monday and race on Tuesday. Pro races begin at 1 p.m. Two-day passes, which included full pit access, cost $15, and tickets are available at the gate. For more information on the event, go to www.gnccracing.com