Grand National Cross Country Series (GNCC)
In the mid-1970s, enterprising motorcycle race promoter Dave Coombs stumbled onto the small West Virginia town of Davis. Looking at the beautiful yet rugged terrain, "Big Dave" realized it would be the perfect spot to hold a motorcycle race. And best of all, it would be a tough one - an event only the strongest riders and machines could even finish. This was the way Big Dave liked it. He called the race the Blackwater 100
– ‘Blackwater’ for nearby Blackwater Falls, and ‘100’ for the number of miles in the race.
Blackwater soon became legendary - deemed "America's Toughest Race." As Dave's company, Racer Productions, grew, he and his wife, Rita, began holding additional 100-mile-long events, and the series became known as the Wiseco 100 Miler Series, and then the Grand National Cross Country Series.
Three-wheeled ATV’s were added to the program in 1983, and four-wheelers became popular a few years later. Instead of 100-mile races, which often lasted five hours, the events were pared down to two hours for ATVs and three for bikes. The ultra-tough races were cool, but it really cut back on the amount of people willing to come try.
By then, the first stars of GNCC Racing had been born. "Fast" Eddie Lojak took control of the first bike GNCC title runs, dominating the field from 1980 through 1984, and then again from 1986 through 1989, for a record nine titles – a record that stands to this day for bikes. At the same time, Ted Trey and Tom Tokay were emerging as the first ATV stars. By the 1990s, GNCC Racing was known nationwide. Blackwater reigned as the toughest event, until the town of Davis shut the doors on the event in 1993. But by then the GNCC Series was going strong even without it. This was the era of the "Great Scotts" - Kentucky's Scott Summers and Ohio's Scott Plessinger - as well as "Fast" Freddy Andrews, an aggressive pro motocrosser-turned woods racer. Meanwhile, Indiana's Bob Sloan and Pennsylvania's Chuck DeLullo battled for the four-wheeled title.
Summers became a hero to the whole off-road racing community, as his professionalism and public relations skills introduced the sport to a much larger audience. Summers became one of the first off-road racers in the U.S. to make a real living as a racer.
He wouldn't be the last. Team Suzuki imported its powerful factory team into the series, led by Rodney Smith, another former pro motorcrosser who had won races all over the world. When Smith, a Californian riding on a California-based team, signed on with GNCC, it signaled the emergence of the GNCC Series as the nations' most prestigious off-road series.
The ATV racing world was struggling at the time, though. A rash of safety concerns in the late 1980s had scared the ATV manufacturers from the racing scene. Factory rides dried up, and Honda dropped the dominant TRX250R from its lineup in 1989. But the concerted efforts of the ATV aftermarket industry and a determined gang of racers kept the flame alive. Pennsylvania’s Barry Hawk became the superstar of the sport, notching an amazing seven straight GNCC ATV Championships from 1993 through 1999. By then the ATVs were made up almost entirely of aftermarket equipment, which made them faster, lighter and better suspended than the old 250Rs, even though looked just like the old Hondas.
Hawk's rise culminated in a series of battles with Sloan. Sloan was so tough that he would win ATV races on Saturday and then race the bike events on Sunday, lending credibility to his “Ironman” moniker. Hawk wanted to topple Sloan on an ATV, so he copied his style and started racing a bike on Sunday as well. It would lead him in an entirely new direction.
Sloan, meanwhile, had been diagnosed with a heart problem, but he kept on racing, true to his Ironman spirit. But one day his heart gave out in a hard-fought race to the finish. One of the series’ greatest champions had passed. In his memory, the GNCC finale runs in Bob's home state of Indiana and is named "The Ironman".
Dave Coombs poured his heart and sweat and life into the series. It wasn't rare to see Dave lay out the course, run the riders' meeting, patrol the track, give a TV interview, guide photographers to prime spots, keep tabs on the pits and parking, and then go out and race a few laps himself!
The series lost Big Dave in 1998, leaving a major void in the sport he helped create. His family stepped up and continued to run the series, keeping true to Big Dave's vision. His son-in-law, Jeff Russell (“JR”), won the 1991 AMA National Enduro Championship; a few years later he began working side-by-side with Big Dave building the tracks. JR, as he is called, is today's GNCC Trail Boss.
At the turn of the millennium, changes were afoot in the series. Hawk had progressed so far on a motorcycle that Yamaha offered him a full factory contract. The deal was too good to refuse, so he parked his ATV and a huge chase for his ATV title ensued. Kentucky’s Bill Ballance claimed it, leading a Southern surge in the series. More races were being hosted in the South, with help from a variety of regional promoters and co-sanctions with series down there.
The series was about to grow a whole lot more. In 1999, Australian off-road sensation Shane Watts ventured to the U.S. after an incredible run through the international enduro scene. In 2000, he dominated the GNCC series and won races on five different sizes of KTM motorcycles.
Watts' personality drew plenty of attention too. He was brash and outspoken. He showed up at all sorts of events - even motocross races - and rode well at them all. Unfortunately, Watts' suffered through a huge string of injuries and rarely had the patience to heal properly before returning to competition. Watts, considered the Travis Pastrana of off-road, was never able to win the GNCC crown again.
Smith proved to be the ultimate GNCC lifer, as he fought off "too-old" claims to retake the GNCC title in 2001; and he would win it again in 2002 and 2004, at the age of 40. The series kept drawing exciting new talent, but perhaps the strongest of all turned out to be the quad guy: Barry Hawk claimed the 2003 GNCC Motorcycle title, and with right GNCC titles (seven on the ATV and one on the motorcycle), Hawk serves as the only rider to win championships on both sides of the spectrum.
While Ballance was busy trying to break Hawk's ATV records, his championships were gaining attention too, as ATV manufacturers slowly began to introduce new models again and the sport grabbed another gear. Ballance kept winning and Yamaha offered him a factory contract, but Suzuki grabbed young gun Chris Borich. The Ballance Borich duo, dubbed The Killer B’s, created an all-time rivalry, with countless close races and annual title fights. Balance eventually smashed Hawk’s all-time championship record and ran his own title streak to nine, before Borich finally busted through in 2009. Borich racked up six-straight titles, his streak ending in 2016.
The other GNCC classes kept growing too. The morning race created its own stars, like eight-time Women’s Champion Traci Cecco, who scored a factory Yamaha deal, while battling rivals like Angel Atwell, who also gained multiple titles. The Utility classes evolved from a class for farmers into a full-blown race division, with factory teams and hungry privateers pushing it every week. In 2008, Side-by-Sides joined the ranks, and soon, what began as a fun exhibition race, emerged into one of the most riveting race experiences the series has created.
On the motorcycle side, the series evolved from a single race in a small West Virginia town to a global phenomenon. In 2005, KTM imported Finland’s Juha Salminen, known as one of the most talented riders the series has ever seen, and he dominated the Bikes game for two years. Then, Isle of Man ace David Knight took his place and took the 2007 and 2008 titles. New Zealand’s Paul Whibley took the 2009 GNCC title, and Australia’s Josh Strang won the 2010 edition.
In 2011, Ohio’s Charlie Mullins, arguably the first champ to have gone all the way through the GNCC-ranks, from youth to pro, became the first American champ since 2004, when Rodney Smith won his fourth and final GNCC title. Mullins set the bar for a whole new generation of amateur racers who have now seen the American Dream play out before their eyes.
The current GNCC Champions have also followed the GNCC ranks from youth to amateur to pro as well. Walker Fowler actually started in the series on two-wheels, with multiple Youth Bike and Overall wins and titles. Back home in Ohio, he was exploring mini ATV racing as well, and his family convinced the GNCC organizers to give Youth ATV racing a shot. A successful race was run, with Fowler as the winner, and the GNCC Youth ATV Series was off and running. Fowler would switch his focus exclusively to ATVs. Ten years later, Fowler reached the pinnacle, ending Borich’s ATV title streak in 2015, and winning the title again in 2016.
Meanwhile Kailub Russell has become an all-timer in the GNCC bike ranks. The son of Trail Boss Jeff Russell, Kailub dreamed of being a championship-level off-road racer like his dad, and progressed through the GNCC Youth and Amateur ranks with great success, and then locked down the XC1 Pro Bike Championship in 2013. He’s become a winning machine since, running his title streak to four-straight seasons with a successful title defense in 2016, and climbing the all-time GNCC race wins list. For both Fowler and Russell, the dream of a pro title started with the reality of racing in the GNCC Youth ranks.
GNCC Racing has been making strides in the exposure department for years, but what really separates the series is the elevated television package that began in 2001 and has since evolved into Racer TV
package on the NBC Sports Network, and #GNCCLIVE coverage at RacerTV.com. Following every lap of the pro races live every weekend via the internet once seemed like a pipe dream. Now, it happens every weekend, and the series continues to benefit.
It’s also a big credit to a man named Dave Coombs, who thought this whole thing up thirty-eight years ago. Even with all the growth, there has always been camaraderie and family atmosphere at the events. Win or lose, pro or amateur, GNCC Racing is all about simply trying your best against the terrain. It’s the way Big Dave wanted it back then, and it’s the way it remains today.