Over the years there have been so many memorable Gopher Dunes moments for both myself and every single person who has ridden there. Honestly, I think it’s just one of those tracks where the conditions are almost always extreme. Whether the weather is hot or cool, the track always gets crazy rough and challenging. The bumps get deep, and sometimes the ruts get deep. It can change very quickly, regardless of whether it’s a round of the Rockstar Energy Triple Crown MXTour Series or just a local Ontario race. As far as the national race is concerned, though, I think the hottest day we’ve seen was in 2013 when the temperature was like a million degrees with 90% humidity. However, as far as the most challenging the track has been for the pro riders was in 2009 when it rained just prior to the event and left the track very soft. That year it was not only extremely rough but also very rutted. In a few sections the riders basically got into one rut at the beginning of the section and had to remain in it until the next corner. I’m sure everyone has their own opinion about what year, or years, was the most difficult, but this is my story and I’m sticking to it! Anyway, to celebrate the MXTour Series coming to this storied track for another year, here are my Top 5 Gopher Dunes moments in no particular order.
Moment #1- 1988
This one is an easy one as it’s the first year that I ever went to Gopher Dunes to practice. The track had just opened. I remember it being really so cool that we didn’t just have a new track to ride but it was also close to one of my favourite tracks of all-time…Big Bend! Also, I can’t put my finger on exactly what it is that I love about the Tillsonburg area of Ontario but I’ve always maintained that I would love to live there one day. Thinking back to those early days at Gopher Dunes is definitely cool, because at the time it took over from the one true sand track we used to have in Ontario – Bills Hills in Wilberforce. I know it sounds like I just made that name up, but honest to God, there used to be a track called Bills Hills and it was always hot and rough. Anyway, when Gopher Dunes opened its doors in the late 1980’s, it marked the beginning of one of the roughest tracks on the planet. Not too bad considering it’s a dead flat piece of land that used to be an old tobacco farm.
Moment #2: Racing a 125
Seeing as I grew up in the 1980’s and spent all of the 1990’s as a pro rider in Ontario, in those days, not only did we race at Gopher Dunes a few times each year but we also raced two-strokes. As we will see this Saturday when the gate drops on the FXR Racing 125 two-stroke class, riding a 125cc dirt bike around the track at speed is very difficult. Actually, let’s say that it’s difficult at any speed. To ride deep sand well on a 125, you need a few things to go right all at the same time. You need good technique, some sort of fitness, and a loose and flexible right wrist as you’re wide open for most of the time. You also need patience, and finally, you need to know what the word momentum means. Just like in the mud, momentum and energy are very important if you want to succeed at Gopher Dunes on a 125. Having said that, there is nothing quite as rewarding as finding your groove on a 125 in sand. Some of the best memories I have is racing a 125 in the sand. Watching the 125 class this weekend should be entertaining, especially with them being the final moto on Saturday. Ouch!
Moment #3: 2013
Again, in my opinion, 2013 was the hottest Gopher Dunes National that I’ve ever seen. It was not only crazy hot but it was also very humid with virtually no breeze. I still don’t know how the riders did it that day, especially the top riders who put on quite the show. That year, Ontario legend Kyle Keast was fit as a fiddle and ready to finally win his first ever pro national. But he had a few things standing in his way on that fateful day, the extreme conditions of course, as well as a determined Aussie named Brett Metcalfe. I won’t bore you with all of the details from each moto, I will just skip to the entertaining final moments of Moto 2. While the news was blasting out heat advisories every ten minutes, Keast was leading the final 450 moto and pretty much had the win in sight. Metcalfe came from way back to muscle his way into second with a few laps to go. Up ahead he could see Keast leading but at that point he probably looked more like an oasis in the Outback Desert. As Metcalfe admitted after the race, he had nothing left and at that point was happy to take second. Unfortunately, Keast made a small mistake and went off the track for a brief moment. That was all it took for Metcalfe to motor by and take the moto win. Keast was a beast that day and I don’t think anyone who was there that day will ever forget it!
Moment #4: 2009
I also made mention of 2009 and how I think the track was extra challenging. I can speak intelligently about the track that year as that was the only time that I’ve ever raced a national at Gopher Dunes. The year prior I had come out of retirement to race the final round at Walton Raceway, and since I had fun, I figured why not try a few more the following year. Since I had never raced a national at Gopher Dunes, I was pretty curious to see what it was really like. Also, it was at the time my son was just old enough to know what his parents were doing so I thought it would cool for him to see his dad race on the roughest track in Canada.
Of course, my day didn’t really go as planned as I crashed pretty hard in timed practice. While my bike and I were cartwheeling through the sand, my freshly sharpened footpegs sliced my left side wide open. It actually looked like a seven-inch shark bite. If my son wasn’t there I most likely would’ve called it a day as the crash really hurt, but he was there with his eyes wide open so I sucked it up and raced two of the most miserable motos of my life. The track was insane, I could barely breath, and in between motos I had to get the St. John’s attendants to clean my gaping wound and then patch it back up. I didn’t finish very well that day, but even as I was lying in the hospital at 11pm that night getting stitches while the nurse yelled at me for not coming to see her sooner, I was actually pretty happy because not only did I survive a national at Gopher Dunes, but my son got to see it live.
Moment #5: Everything
I could on and on with Gopher Dunes memories, however I’m sure you’re getting tired of reading this. My final favourite moment is just all wrapped up into 31 years of Gopher Dunes memories. From the entire Schuster Family and their unbelievable hospitality over the past three decades, to the ever-evolving track, there have always been a lot of reasons to visit Gopher Dunes. Over the years I’ve raced there, I’ve taught riding schools, last month I drove a new Honda side-by-side there, I’ve stood on the side of the track as a proud daddy and watched my son race, and once again on Saturday, I get to watch some of the best riders in the world compete for national glory. I can’t wait to see you all there, and to Gopher Dunes, thanks for the memories!
Moment #6: Paddle Tire
I know I said I was all done and that there only going to be five favourite moments, but I cannot talk about my thirty-plus years at Gopher Dunes and not talk about a certain day in the Spring of 1998. I’m not going to go into too many juicy details about this incident (and I do recall it being an incident) as I promised Derek Schuster that I would tell the complete story in the next issue of the Gopher Dunes Magazine. However, here are the Coles Notes.
Back in 1998 we had an Ontario Provincial Series round at Gopher, so all of the local top guns were there. In those days, Provincial races paid really well and our sponsors took them very seriously. I’ve been fortunate enough to win eight Provincial titles and I cherish each one as I had to beat some very fast riders. Anyway, we show up at Gopher Dunes in 1998 and everything appeared normal. On that day, CMRC ran the 250 Pro moto first, which was a little different as usually the 125s were first.
So, when the gate dropped for the opening 250 moto the track was still fairly smooth and fast. I got off to a second-place start behind the 1984 500cc Canadian Champion Mike Harnden, who had for some reason come out of retirement to compete that day. I saw that it was Harnden in front of me so I assumed that I would be able to pass him quickly and hopefully race off to victory. Well, that didn’t quite work out, as immediately I began to get these baseball size balls of roost hitting me everywhere. They were like nothing I’d ever experienced before, and it didn’t take long for my frustration to build. By the end of Lap 1, I’d used two tear-offs, then three, and soon I was out of tear-offs and there went my goggles. I could easily close up on Harnden going into the turns, but coming out he would pull away. Finally, after a few laps of eating sand, I got really close to him in one corner and saw that he was running a full-on paddle tire. Not like the scoop tires that they have today, Harnden had a full Glamis Sand Dunes paddle tire.
Halfway through the moto I was choking on Gopher Dunes sand and my eyes were almost done working. I looked behind us and saw that we had a big lead on third place so I backed it down and took a very disgruntled second place. My anger grew even more as we exited the track as Harnden was celebrating like it was 1984 all over again, at least that is what I saw out of the one part of my eye that wasn’t full of sand. I ate so much sand in that moto. Not only was there sand inside the back of my helmet, but my mouth was so full of wet sand that I couldn’t even tell Harnden what I thought of him. Moments after the race Harden got DQ’d and didn’t race the second moto out of protest. He claimed we were all whiners and that back in 1984 no one would’ve cared. I found that hard to believe as I’m sure Ross Pederson would’ve lost his mind if he were in my position.
At the time there was no official CMRC rule that made paddle tires illegal, as I’m sure no one ever dreamt that some former Canadian Champion would come out of retirement and use one. The rule changed the next day and remains there today. As I said, I will elaborate more on this story in the near future, and I will track Harnden down and get some of his thoughts. What a moto that was and what a great story that incident still makes today. I was talking to Frank Schuster last year about this and he told me that this is one of his favourite stories off all time. Please feel free to email a few of your best Gopher Dunes stories at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for reading!