Features 27 Aug 2020

Rewind: Jeffrey Herlings conquers Ironman

When the MXGP great went 1-1 in one-off Pro Motocross appearance.

Words: Simon Makker

Three years ago, the age-old debate as to whether European or American motocross racers were faster outdoors went a long way to being answered, when then MXGP World Championship number two Jeffrey Herlings rolled up to the Ironman National at Indiana and swept both motos in a one-off appearance.

Held a week before the United States GP in Florida, the Crawfordsville round was the final of the 2017 Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship. Monster Energy Kawasaki’s Eli Tomac needed just 22 points from two motos to clinch the title, while Marvin Musquin (Red Bull KTM) and Blake Baggett (Rocky Mountain ATV/MC KTM) could barely be separated in their scrap for the runner-up position. When Herlings confirmed his entry to Ironman just two days beforehand, a lot of different scenarios suddenly became very real prospects.

Not one to leave things to chance, Tomac surged to the front of the pack as the gate dropped and scored the holeshot. This lead was short-lived, though, as Herlings stormed past on the opening lap. A second-place result would’ve still been enough for Tomac to take the championship, but as if keen to prove a point, he quickly tried to retaliate. It didn’t end well after Tomac over-jumped a jump and crashed, dropping to sixth and allowing his two closest rivals, Musquin and Baggett to fly past.

Image: Supplied.

By the halfway mark Herlings had a three-second lead, with Musquin slowly chipping away at the gap. Several heater laps saw Musquin pull alongside the Dutchman, but a couple of small bobbles thwarted his ability to attempt a pass and Herlings quickly regained the margin and ended up taking the checkered flag eight seconds ahead of the Frenchman. Baggett finished a distant third, with Team Honda HRC’s Cole Seely fourth, and Tomac fifth, one agonizing point shy of claiming the title.

Everything was up for grabs as the gate dropped on the final 450MX moto of the championship. Baggett claimed the holeshot ahead of Musquin and Seely, while Herlings went down in the first couple of corners and found himself having to battle from towards the rear of the pack. Tomac made life hard for himself too, starting outside the top 10.

It didn’t take long for Musquin to move past Baggett and start pulling away, but all eyes were on Tomac and Herlings to see who’d better muscle their way through the pack. Although both broke into the top 10 on the second lap, Herlings was clearly the quicker rider, passing Tomac for ninth on lap three, then edging his way into the top five two laps later. Posting the fastest lap times of the race, Herlings closed in on Baggett and took over second by lap 13, but was still 10 seconds adrift of Musquin.

A lap later the race changed when Marvin made an uncharacteristic error and crashed off the track, leading up to the iconic Ironman step-up, allowing Herlings to tear past as he tried to re-enter the circuit. Musquin spent the final two laps trying to make amends, but it was too late. Herlings crossed the finish-line 2.6 seconds ahead of his fellow KTM rider, capping off a near-perfect 1-1 sweep in his first and only Pro Motocross showing.

Content to look at the bigger picture, Tomac finished sixth and eased his way to his first-ever 450cc championship. For Herlings, though, he was happy to become just the second Dutch rider to win a round of the outdoors (following Pierre Karsmakers in 1974) and prove that – at least at that point in time – he was the fastest motocross rider in the world.

Image: Supplied.

“I was fastest all day, from practice to the first moto and the second moto,” he said afterward. “I was so mad at myself for crashing in the second moto, so I just kept charging the entire time. I kind of got lucky that Marvin crashed there at the end, but it doesn’t matter, I got a 1-1 and proved I was the best.”

Still, he was quick to say at the press conference that there was little chance that we’d see him back in the States for a full campaign: “This was a one-time thing and I have a contract for three more years in Europe, so I’m pretty happy at home and I like it there, but still, the racing is on a different level here.

“When we came here we didn’t know what to expect. We knew Eli, Marvin and Blake would be fast, but this was their track and anything in the top five I would’ve been happy with. After I went fastest in first and second practice I thought ‘okay, maybe if I get some decent starts we could come out on top’. To come here and leave with a 1-1 is pretty amazing.”

Tomac finished the 2017 season 17 points ahead of Musquin, with Baggett just two points further back in third. Herlings and Tomac recommenced battle a week later in the Grand Prix of USA at WW Motocross Park and Herlings again bested the newly-crowned champion, with a 2-1 result to Tomac’s 1-3.