2016 AMA Hillclimb Grand Championship
Pleasure Riders M/C – Thunder Ridge Motorsports Facility
Neoga, IL – July 30th & 31st, 2016
Logo-bearing photos by Grover Webb Photography
Less than a year ago, the site of the 2016 AMA Hillclimb Grand Championship was covered in trees and brush. Raw and untouched. But Pleasure Riders Motorcycle Club, founded in 1958, had been awarded the 2016 national championship event based on plans for a new facility to be built on that land, owned by Dennis Fetters – grandpa to hillclimber Levi Peters and father-in-law to AMA District 17 hillclimb director Matt Peters. So the Fetters, Peters, McKays and other local families and friends, along with help from PRMC, got to work.
The result of their labors – untold man-hours and thousands of dollars’ worth of diesel fuel to run the equipment – was spectacular. A truly national-caliber facility, built from nothing, in the span of a few months. An amazing transformation which proved it’s worth this past weekend. Photos and video of the hill just didn’t portray it as it really was – but once you were there, you could see how great it was!
With 326 entries from 144 riders, hailing from 10 different states, the competition was intense. The challenging design of the hill required great rider skill in order to lay down a fast time…as compared to other hills, where it may seem like whoever spends the most money on their motor is likely to come out on top. Riders started off by immediately hitting a jump, and then had a little time to set up for the first set of doubles – which were situated in the middle of a slight curve in the hill. You’d have to fix your approach to those doubles in order to land in a spot that would get you in the middle of the wall…for which you likely had to get on the brakes and slow down for, as hitting the wall with too much speed was a recipe for disaster. After cresting the wall, you had to execute a perfect launch again to get over the next set of doubles – which looked deceptively small, but proved difficult to get over cleanly. And then the rest of the way to the top was a steep, rough section that wouldn’t allow you to settle your machine if you hadn’t gotten over those lase doubles smoothly. Overall the whole course was about 350’ or so, and as we’d seen in the June shakedown events run there as a D17 event, a fast time meant getting under 9 seconds.
Central Illinois has been getting more than it’s fair share of rain this year – and the weeks leading up to the event were no exception. A lot of rain had fallen on the grounds a few days before the event, but the quick drainage to the creek at the base of the staging area and the clay composition of the soil made for quick-drying conditions…and by Sunday, most of the hill had been baked into an adobe-like hardness with fine dust covering everything. The ultra-hardpack combined with the dusty surface made for a treacherous landing in a couple spots – after the first doubles as you tried to navigate that curve before the wall, and to a lesser degree on top of the wall and the attack on the 2nd set of doubles. As it did in June, the top of the wall began to show black rubber streaks where riders where accelerating to clear the doubles – riders with hard terrain tires were likely at a distinct advantage. But if you got even just a little bit crossed-up on the first doubles, it was extremely easy to swap ends or slide out on that concrete-like landing area before the wall – the hill claimed many riders right there on Sunday, often several of them in a row. Getting through successfully meant a proper attack on the doubles and either flying straight and true, or being particularly skilled at recovering from a sideways launch.
The event started both days with the ATV classes – which as in previous years, were lightly attended. Only 4 riders competed in the ATV 450 class, but that doesn’t mean the competition wasn’t intense – less than four tenths of a second covered the spread from first to fourth. Hager City, WI’s Zach Diercks came out on top with a smooth 10.191 ride on his Yamaha Banshee – just barely edging out Josh Shafer of Caldwell, OH by about 5/100ths of a second – Shafer posted a 10.247. Brandon Novak of Portage, PA came in third just a hair behind Shafer with a 10.457 – both of those riders on Yamahas as well. The ATV Open class had just 2 entries, with Novak taking the win on a Yamaha with a 10.174 second ride, and Diercks having issues and settling for a 240’ ride. Zach’s dad Joel was the lone entrant in the ATV Senior class, and received a national championship trophy for his 11.141 second effort on Saturday.
The Micro Mini class was the only class to receive a course modification…rather than have the little 50cc machines attempt the wall in the middle of the hill…which was a daunting task even for an excellent rider on a 50, and would have created a scoring nightmare for the club, race officials opted to route them to the left side of the wall on a much gentler slope. The tactic seemed quite successful, as nearly all of the riders in the class were able to make it to the top light at least once during the weekend. Lane Brookshaw of Ellsworth, WI came out on top, with his first win in what turned out to be a magnificent weekend for the youngster, handily winning the class with a 12.898 second ride on his Cobra – the only Micro Mini rider to clock in under 13 seconds. It was an all-Ellsworth podium, with Brady and Hunter Kirchner in 2nd and 3rd respectively, at 13.538 and 15.357 seconds on their KTMs. Charlie Engnes from nearby Beldenville, WI was hot on Hunter’s heels with a 15.453 second run on his KTM, and Kaden Braun from Sleepy Eye, MN rounded out the top 5 on his Cobra with a 17.144 second effort. Young Darrell Prebe claimed the 10th place trophy with what proved to be the longest time of the weekend, running the clock for 31.719 seconds as he navigated the hill on his Honda – there’s a kid who knows how to get his money’s worth! The event organizers generously provided awards for all 13 riders in the class, a great gesture for these youngsters who are well and truly the future of the sport.
The 65 class saw another dominating performance by Lane Brookshaw, who won the class by half a second with a 10.846 second ride on Sunday. Conner Shafer of Caldwell, OH had lead the class after the first round on Saturday with a 12.073 second ride – and significantly improved on Sunday with an 11.332 to convincingly claim 2nd place on his KTM. Brady Kirchner also saw his 2nd podium finish of the weekend with a 12.447 second ride on his KTM for 3rd, as the Engnes family claimed another 4th place finish, this time with AJ taking the spot with a 12.886 second effort on his KTM. 5th place went to Hammond, WI’s Mason Sullivan and his KTM, who had some trouble on Saturday and only made it 210 feet, but very nearly made it into the 12s with a 13.063 second ride on Sunday. Once again awards were provided to every rider in the class – all 17 of them.
The Mini Junior class ended with familiar names on top…Lane Brookshaw very nearly pulling off a hat trick but being bested by his cousin Clive who took the top spot with a 10.800 second Saturday effort on his KTM. Clive, from Ellsworth, WI as well, edged Lane into second place by less than 2 tenths, with Lane posting an 11.038 second ride on his Kawasaki. Conner Shafer made his second podium appearance of the weekend with a solid 11.191 second ride on his KTM, almost three tenths ahead of the 4th place finisher Brady Kirchener, who posted a, 11.449 on his Suzuki. Wyatt LaFleur, all the way from Pembroke, MA snagged the 5th place trophy with a 12.638 second ride on his KTM on Sunday, improving his time by nearly a second and a half from Saturday. Wyatt received the “Long Distance” award at the riders’ meeting on Friday, having traveled around 1,100 miles to compete in the event. As in the previous two classes, all 13 riders in the Mini Junior class received awards.
In Mini Senior class action, Brock Riffe of Ashland, KY wowed the crowd with a smokin’ 10.284 second ride on his Honda, expertly clearing the doubles before the wall like they weren’t even there, and easily managing the wall and 2nd set of doubles, only to see the next rider steal the lead away – Bodee O’Neil from Hager City, WI blasted the hill on his Suzuki to score the only sub-10 second ride in that class the whole weekend, posting a 9.927 second ride on Saturday that would withstand all challengers on Sunday as well. Riffe was able to improve slightly on Sunday to a 10.242 second time, easily claiming second place over his local competitor Max Skeans, also from Ashland, KY, who likewise demonstrated great skill in flawlessly handling the doubles and the wall on his Kawasaki at 10.647 seconds. Kyle Jerls from Caledonia, MI put his Honda over in 10.827 seconds to get 4th place, and Branden Parsons and his Yamaha claimed 5th place for Beverly, OH at 11.327 seconds.
The Mini Girls class was, sadly, much smaller than in recent years with only 3 entrants. Indianapolis, IN’s Lilah McGurer had the class sewn up after her 14.266 second ride on her Kawasaki on Saturday, as both Raegan Riffe of Ashland, KY and Abigayle Linde of Charlton, MA failed to make the hill in the first round, and both carded 15 second rides on Sunday – Riffe at 15.076 on her Honda and Linde at 15.213 seconds on her Kawasaki. McGurer put an exclamation point on her victory on her second ride anyway, posting an impressive 13.394 second ride to take the win by over a second and a half!
Where the Mini Girls class lost riders since previous years, the Super Mini gained several – a relatively new class, it had only had 2-3 riders the past couple years, but this year saw 7 entrants. Andrew Fortner from Pittsboro, IN seemed to be in control with a stellar 10.114 second ride on his Honda CRF150 on Saturday, convincingly holding the lead until the very last rider in the class on Sunday… Bodee O’Neil struck his second come-from-behind victory with a picture-perfect 9.947 second ride on his KTM…after having trouble at the wall and failing to clear the hill on Saturday. O’Neil literally went from last to first…in under ten seconds. Brodie Bennett of Gays, IL claimed third place behind Fortner on his Suzuki, gamely improving his time by three tenths on Sunday to a 10.172. Sami Jerls from Caledonia, MI served up a bit of foreshadowing on her Honda CRF150, claiming 4th place by a full second ahead of Kaden Funk from Bay City, WI, who put his Yamaha through the lights at 11.748 seconds.
The 125 class was remarkably competitive, with the top 9 riders all coming in at under 10 seconds…and Gage Stear from Peoria, IL very nearly made it into the 8s, posting a sensational 9.171 second ride on his KTM. His ability to keep the tiddler on the pipe and immediately get forward momentum again after the wall put him almost three tenths ahead of second-place finisher Brock Riffe, who’s KTM got him over with an impressive 9.443. Another 3 tenths later, Andrew Fortner’s Yamaha came in at 9.771, with Brodie Bennett on his Yamaha at 9.774 missing the podium by a frustrating 3 thousandths of a second! Prestonsburg, KY’s Graham Burchett put his Yamaha over in 9.788 seconds…only 14 thousandths behind Bennett.
In the 200 class, Luke Cipala’s amazing 8.895 second ride was not only the sole 200 class attempt to break into the 8s, but it also qualified the Ellsworth, WI KTM rider into the King of the Hill shootout – practically unheard of from the 200 class. Second place went to Mankato, MN’s Jason Laven, who posted an excellent 9.134 second ride on his KTM on Saturday – only to later suffer a cringe-worthy crash in the 250 class that ended his aspirations for a national championship. As evidence of his excellent riding, his 200 class time from Saturday also qualified him into the KOTH, which sadly he was not able to compete in. Levi Peters of Neoga, IL, grandson of the landowner, claimed his first trophy of the weekend with a 3rd place effort on his Kawasaki with a 9.234 second ride. Gage Stear grabbed the 4th spot on his Yamaha with a 9.259, and Derick Bell rounded out the top 5 with a 9.326 on his Kawasaki.
The 250 class also saw one single rider under 9 seconds – although Nathan Prebe from Frontenac, MN did it both days – with an 8.998 on Saturday and a 8.972 on Sunday to put his Honda at the top of the podium. This was just the start for Prebe though, as he warmed up for later classes… Jason Laven also claimed 2nd place in the 250 class, with a 9.150 second ride in the first round on his Kawasaki…but then disaster struck. Laven got crossed up on the first doubles on Sunday on his 250, and was slammed to the ground…after some time he eventually left the hill under his own power, but was taken to a local hospital and then airlifted to the nearest trauma center for medical attention… Word is that he’ll be fine, but will spend quite some time in bed for a while…PRMC and Thunder Ridge wish Jason a quick and full recovery, and hope to see him back at a future event. Gage Stear made another podium appearance for 3rd with a 9.199 second effort in the first round on his Kawasaki – less than 5 hundredths behind Laven. Luke Cipala, the 2015 AMA Hillclimber of the Year, took the 4th place award with a 9.291 on his KTM, and Levi Peters finished up the top five with a 9.303 second effort on his Honda. The 250 class was one of the biggest of the weekend, with 31 riders taking a swing at the brand-new hill.
31 was also the rider count in the 450 class, which saw Nathan Prebe lay down a repeat performance, once again being the only rider in the class to come in under 9 seconds on both days. Nathan scrubbed his Honda as no one else could over the wall, and blew the crowd away with an 8.778 second ride in the first round – backed up with an 8.922 in the second round. Junior Jackson from Bettendorf, IA had clocked an excellent 8.947 second ride on his Yamaha on Saturday…and laid it all on the line to try to catch Nathan – like many others in the second round, the concrete-like surface covered in fine, powdery dust claimed him on Sunday, parting ways with his machine at 230 feet in a fury of sound and dirt – but still holding onto 2nd for the weekend. Junior, though, like Nathan, was far from done for the weekend… Luke Cipala took another podium spot with a 3rd place finish on his KTM, carding an 8.971 second ride on Sunday – difficult to do in the hardened conditions. Jacob Prebe, Nathan’s brother, flew his 2-stroke KTM 440 through the timers at 8.995 to be the 4th and final rider in the class to bust through the 9-second barrier. And Elizabeth, IL’s Eric Wheelwright fought his way to 5th place on his KTM with a 9.070 second ride on Saturday, narrowly edging out Gage Stear who had to settle for 6th with a 9.090.
In the 600 class, Jacob Prebe claimed victory for Millville, MN on his Honda CR500 – but not by much. He laid down a beautiful 8.892 second ride on Saturday, one of the fastest of the weekend…and only 5 thousandths of a second ahead of Joe McGurer of Brownsburg, IN, who blasted his Kawasaki through the lights at 8.897 seconds in the first round. Both riders had trouble in the second round, coming in at 9.4 and 9.1 seconds respectively on Sunday. Levi Peters was just a hair behind McGurer and Prebe – the wall and subsequent doubles bit him on Saturday, relegating him to just 310 feet – but he reached deep down and plastered his name on the podium with a 8.977 on Sunday – less than a tenth of a second out of 2nd place. Jason Braun from Sleepy Eye, MN didn’t quite get into the 8s, stopping the clocks at 9.032 on his Kawasaki for 4th place, and yet another Prebe, Aaron this time, taking the 5th spot with a 9.185 on his Honda for Frontenac, MN. All in all, it was a pretty good weekend for the Prebes…
In a worrying trend, the 750 and Open classes were fairly short on riders, as the true big bikes seem to fade from the sport…only 5 750s competed at the event, and the only one that was a modern single-cylinder machine took home the gold as Travis Schroedl from Fairfax, MN handily taking the win with a 9.225 second ride on Saturday. Yours truly, Kaleb Northrup from Hastings, MN took a big swing at Schroedl on Sunday, having 2nd tied up with a 9.868 – only to nearly detach myself from my Kawasaki H2 on the doubles after the wall…yet another victim of the deceptively difficult terrain. Third place went to Matt Peters, Levi’s dad, who posted a 9.904 in the first round on his Suzuki GSX-R, only to also crash after the first doubles on Sunday…unfortunately, Matt broke his wrist, ending his day a couple rides early. Jason Northrup, also from Hastings, MN, took home 4th place on a Kawasaki H2 borrowed from Kirk Mueller as he rebuilds Jason’s H2, carding a cautious 10.319 first-round ride and opting not to ride on Sunday. Henry Kelley Sr. made a comeback of sorts, having not ridden at all for many years, putting in an effort on his vintage Yamaha and bringing home the 5th place trophy to Waukee, IA.
The Open class was originally slated to have only 9 riders in it – although it was discovered that one of the riders entered in the 750 class should actually have entered the Open class – so after that move, the Open class was an even 10 riders. Joel Falde took home top honors to Ellsworth, WI and his blushing bride Emily – their wedding wasn’t very long before our event (congrats!). Falde owned the class from day one, having put down a 9.255 on his big KTM v-twin on Saturday. Junior Jackson borrowed a bike from Kurt Krohmer, and put the big Honda over the top with a 9.319 to get close-but-not-quite on Sunday, taking 2nd place. And then Logan Peterson, from River Falls, WI, rode the only Italian bike at the event (an Aprilia) to the 3rd place trophy with a 9.399 second effort in the first round. Fourth place went to Joe McGurer and his big Buell twin with a 9.788, and Jason Northrup settled for 5th with a 10.273, after his 1,327cc Kawasaki KZ broke its chain on Sunday.
Junior Jackson took the title spot in the Senior class, posting the only 8-second ride in the class on Saturday with an 8.909 – a good thing, since the devious hill claimed his second ride on Sunday and keeping him south of the lights with only 345 feet. Matt Peters’ first round time was good for second at 9.159 on his KTM…also a good thing, since he crashed and broke his wrist in the 750 class and wasn’t able to ride in the second round. Multi-time national champion Mike Wood took the final podium spot in this class, posting a 9.239 on his Honda from Bay City, WI. Les Wolfe on a Honda from Fleming, OH took 4th place – but actually tied with Todd Cipala from Ellsworth, WI as they both had 9.448 second rides as their best times…the tie being broken by their other rides, with Wolfe’s 9.505 being better than Cipala’s 9.709 – relegating Cipala and his Kawasaki to 5th.
There was a huge come-from-behind win in the Super Senior class, as Michael Pulver from Lizton, IN improved from a 10.026 on his Honda in the first round to a 9.278 to claim the big trophy. Todd Cipala thought he had the win in the bag on his Kawasaki, but was unable to improve on his first-round 9.489 and fell to second. Les Wolfe found his way to the podium with a 9.504 on his Honda, while Brent Stewart from Galva, IL made a return from retirement to slot his KTM into 4th with a 9.613. Affable Jeff Jack from Wapello, IA made it five with a 9.762 second ride on his Kawasaki.
The Women’s class saw Sami Jerls cruise to victory on the virtue of her stellar first-round 9.922 on her Honda – the only woman in the class to get into the 9s. Casey Virkus from Ellsworth, WI made her earn it though, posting an excellent 10.189 on her Honda on Sunday – exactly one one-hundredth faster than her Saturday time. Morgan Wheelwright from Elizabeth, IL wasn’t far behind with a 10.261 on her Yamaha…and over half a second ahead of 4th place Brook Hagstrom from Jackson, MI on her Honda, having posted a 10.806 in the second round. The top five finished up with Bay City, WI’s Olivia Bach and her KTM, carding a 10.926 to barely beat out Lakota Ashworth of Neoga, IL on her Honda for that 5th-place trophy, with Ashworth posting a 10.940.
The 2-Stroke class granted victory to Levi Peters, who was nearly frozen solid by an ice-water shower from Uncle Butch at the trophy presentation, having blistered the hill with a fantastic 8.694 second ride on his Kawasaki. Jacob Prebe narrowly snagged the 2nd-place spot on the podium with a 8.837 on his Honda, nudging Joe McGurer to the final podium position with his 8.853 on his Kawasaki. Jared McKay, who personally put in many hours of work preparing the facility, and representing one of the events bigger sponsors (McKay Farms, Trucking, & Storage in Neoga) didn’t make it into the 8s, but did claim 4th place with a 9.21 second time after having nearly succumbed to the hill on Saturday where he managed only an 11.695. Matt Peters brought home the 5th place trophy on his Kawasaki with a 9.354 – and by “brought home” I mean he could pretty much just carry it home, being only a couple miles away from his own homestead. Sadly the 2-stroke class also saw a notable injury, with Brian Marty getting a rough treatment from the hill – he found himself out of shape and on the back wheel after the first set of doubles, and was neither able to collect himself nor scrub any speed before hitting the wall, and was suddenly *way* too high in the air and parting company with his bike off the top of the wall. Brian broke his leg when returning to earth – we’re sure he’ll heal right up and be back to normal in no time, and look forward to seeing him at Thunder Ridge again.
In the 4-stroke class, once again it was Nathan Prebe laying down the law, blistering the hill with an incredible 8.608 second ride on his Honda…a seemingly impossible feat, only made reality by his uncanny ability to scrub his machine over the wall, keeping his momentum up with only the slightest drop in speed. That sterling 8.6 second ride would prove to be the fastest of the weekend. Junior Jackson, a former professional motocross rider, blitzed the hill in 8.809 on his Yamaha to take the 2nd spot, and Josh Denson (technician for Team Babbitt’s Monster Energy/Amsoil/Kawasaki pro arenacross team) from Windsor, IL captured 3rd on his Kawasaki with a 9.021. Logan Peterson put his Yamaha into 4th with a 9.225 in the first round, and Aaron Prebe barely took 5th place with a 9.247 on his Honda over Joel Falde’s 9.277 on his KTM.
Jacob Prebe claimed another class win in the 400 Stock class, barely nudging past his brother Nathan by about a burger’s worth by posting a 9.049 on his Kawasaki, vs. Nathan’s 9.072 on his Yamaha. Yep…it was a good weekend to be a Prebe. 3rd place went to Fleming, OH’s Ethan Wolfe and his Yamaha, who had the distinction of being the only rider qualified into the King of the Hill from a stock class (Jacob and Nathan would have both qualified from the 400 Stock as well…if they hadn’t been faster in other classes), posting a 9.375. Derick Bell from Fillmore, IL came in 4th on his Kawasaki with a 9.501. And Braiden Henry rounded out the top five with a 9.524 second effort on his Yamaha in the first round…his second round effort ending in a cloud of dust at the wall as did so many others on Sunday.
Joe McGurer seized the top spot in the Open Stock class with a superb 9.042 second run on his Honda, incredibly beating 2nd place Jason Kostan by over half a second. Kostan, from Portage, PA, clocked a 9.651 on his Suzuki in the first round. Ethan Wolfe podiumed again, taking 3rd with a 9.848 on his Yamaha. Jason Hagstrom from Jackson, MI took the 4th place trophy with a 9.924 on his Kawasaki, and Jeff Jack claimed 5th with a 9.979 on his Husqvarna.
Once all the regular classes were complete on Sunday, race organizers broke out the sextant and abacus and whittled out the top ten riders from each lane for the King of the Hill shootout. At a regular event, it’s usually just the top ten riders overall…but for better or worse, it’s become customary to take the top ten from each lane at nationals…which takes a bit more work to figure out, as frequently you have the same riders qualifying in both lanes. Once the pencil dust settled, the list of 20 was announced…the list included Jason Laven, who as noted was injured and unable to compete…as was Matt Peters, having just broken his wrist a while earlier on his 750. And Brent Stewart was out of the action as well, having blown the shock on his KTM 380. So 17 riders made their way to the starting line to wage this final battle…against a hill that was becoming increasingly unfriendly – as discovered by the first rider, Junior Jackson, who lost the fight against the hard-baked hill and came up short of the top light. Josh Denson saddled up next, and put down a solid 9.160 on his Kawasaki…but the very next rider was none other than Nathan Prebe. The man of the hour…the tower of power. The Slim-Fast Kid, who had already claimed ultimate victory in 3 classes…whose only defeat so far was a 2nd-place finish to his own brother. The youngest Prebe rolled his Honda to the line, kicked the furious machine to life, and proceeded to do what he’d been doing all weekend…he launched, he sailed, and he scrubbed like no one else that day could, blowing through the top timer with an 8.705. His brother Jacob was the only one who could even come close, taking a mighty swing on his Honda but coming up a couple tenths short at 8.992. No one else made it under 9 seconds. And at the end of the day it stood Prebe and Prebe…Nathan the youngest brother, and Jacob the middle brother being the only man who could beat him the entire weekend.
Rarely has a single rider so dominated a national championship…and usually when that happens, it’s a Cipala that does it. But 2016 belonged to Nathan Prebe, emphatically so. Time and time again he proved that he was in a league of his own, and so it was absolutely inevitable that he was awarded the 2016 AMA Hillclimber of the Year award by AMA representative Mike Bronk.
The AMA Youth Hillclimber of the Year award went to Lane Brookshaw, who claimed 2 youth class wins and a 2nd. And the AMA Senior Hillclimber of the Year award, the first time it has ever been awarded, went to Junior Jackson who won the Senior class, and backed it up with 2nd-place finishes in the Open, 450 and 4-stroke classes.
Congratulations to all our competitors this year, and on behalf of Thunder Ridge and Pleasure Riders M/C we wholeheartedly thank each and every rider and spectator for coming out and making our event a roaring success, and we look forward to seeing everyone at a future event!