Turning Point, Pt. II
In Part I, we considered how the transition from the season’s Short Track- and Mile-dominated opening half to its Half-Mile- and TT-heavy second half could potentially upset the balance of power in Mission SuperTwins presented by S&S Cycle. In Part II, the Parts Unlimited AFT Singles presented by KICKER title fighters are put under that same spotlight.
While defending Parts Unlimited AFT Singles champion Kody Kopp (No. 1 Red Bull KTM Factory Racing 450 SX-F) carries a healthy 15-point advantage into next weekend’s DuQuoin Mile, the championship battle has proven a relatively inclusive affair to this point. In fact, 7th-ranked Tom Drane (No. 59 Estenson Racing Yamaha YZ450F) is three points nearer to Kopp than the 49-point gap that currently separates his premier-class teammates, points leader Dallas Daniels (No. 32 Estenson Racing Yamaha MT-07 DT) and 3rd-ranked JD Beach (No. 95 Estenson Racing Yamaha MT-07 DT).
The class is also a bit harder to parse by the shifting shape of the season, as the track records of the primary contenders are both shorter and less easily defined by discipline as compared with their Mission SuperTwins counterparts.
That said, there are patterns that can be found and projections that can be made. For example, heading into the three-Mile stretch that is now two-thirds complete, the factory-backed Hondas and Yamahas were expected to make hay at tracks where the fact that the leading KTM riders are simultaneously up a few lbs and down a few hps would be the most impactful. And at the Mission Sacramento Mile and the Red Mile, they did exactly that. Turner Honda teammates Trent Lowe (No. 48 American Honda/Mission Foods CRF450R) and Chase Saathoff (No. 88 American Honda/Mission Foods CRF450R) combined with Yamaha ace Drane to lock down the podium both times out.
As a result, the trio made massive gains in their respective championship standings. What had been a KTM 1-2-3 featuring Kopp, Dalton Gauthier (No. 79 D&D Racing/Certified KTM 450 SX-F) and Max Whale (No. 18 Red Bull KTM Factory Racing 450 SX-F), now sees Saathoff level with Gauthier in points, his title deficit slashed in half, 30 to 15. Similarly, Lowe improved from 7th to 6th, and more vitally, reduced his gap by nearly 20 points, going from a mammoth 56 down to a more manageable 34 points back. It’s essentially the same story for Drane, who moved from eighth to seventh while cutting his margin to Kopp from 65 points to 46.
They’ll need a similar effort in DuQuoin because here’s the scary truth: Despite owning the points lead, the reigning champ has yet to reach his sweet spot on the schedule. While dangerous everywhere, Kopp is a genuine Half-Mile extraordinaire, having taken five HM wins during last year’s successful title campaign, while earning a grand total of eight Half-Mile podiums in a professional career that only kicked off in 2021.
The best strategy for defeating Kopp in 2023 was to bury him in a hole during the season’s opening half and then weather the storm likely to come once the second half got underway with four straight Half-Miles. That game plan is pretty much out the window at this point, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a path to defeat him short of injury or mechanical misfortune.
While the presumptive lead riders for Honda and Yamaha coming into ‘23 – Trevor Brunner (No. 21 Estenson Racing Yamaha YZ450F) and Morgen Mischler (No. 13 American Honda/Mission Foods CRF450R) – haven’t made up the sort of ground they would have liked at the Miles to date, both riders have a history of contending on a wide variety of racetracks, and both earned HM wins last year despite Kopp’s presence.
Similarly, second-ranked Gauthier and fourth-ranked Whale are major threats on any given weekend, and both have a potential ace up their sleeve. The two boast multiple career TT wins and may just been the category’s leading purveyors of the form (although it’ll be interesting to see how accomplished roadracer Drane fares).
With the season’s final five races consisting of three TTs and two Miles – the two disciplines at which Kopp has yet to win – we could be in for a barnstorming conclusion to the Parts Unlimited AFT Singles title race yet.