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SPORTS WEEKEND | Motor Racing

Mladin Looks Safe in Race for the Plate

September 29, 2000|SHAV GLICK

While Americans are mining for gold in Australia at the Olympic Games, an Australian is closing in on gold here.

Mat Mladin, defending AMA Superbike champion, needs only to finish 11th or better in the final round of the Chevy Trucks U.S. Superbike championship series Sunday at Willow Springs Raceway in Rosamond to repeat as champion.

To be honest, though, there is no gold involved in winning the AMA crown. The gold is in the No. 1 plate on the champion's motorcycle.

The money is good, but it comes from the manufacturer, in Mladin's case, Suzuki. With only Willow Springs remaining, Mladin leads teenager Nicky Hayden of Owensboro, Ky., 365-346.

"Every manufacturer wants that No. 1 plate, that's what we're racing for," said Mladin, 28, who came from Camden, New South Wales, a tiny village about 50 miles from Sydney, to the United States in 1996 to continue his racing career. "So winning Sunday's race really isn't important, but finishing it is. To get the No. 1 plate was a big achievement last year. This year will be even better because we also won Daytona."

The Daytona 200, opening race of the Superbike season, is the year's top prize. In 1999, Mladin lost to Canada's Miguel Duhamel by .014 of a second, at the time the second-closest finish in race history.

"After 200 miles it came down to a few inches," said Mladin. "I felt a pain losing like that. I waited all year for another chance. I said before this year's race that I was going to make up for it."

That he did.

On the last lap, Hayden passed Mladin for the lead going through the infield chicane, but the Australian blipped the throttle on his Suzuki GSX-R and powered by Hayden at the finish line.

This time the margin was even closer, .011 of a second.

"When Nicky went by, I knew I had a lot left," Mladin said. "We were just cruising through the chicane, going maybe 150 [mph]. I kicked it up to about 180 and caught him just before the line. It felt extra good because I beat the factory that beat me. That was special."

Duhamel and Hayden both rode Hondas.

After Daytona, Mladin won a doubleheader at Road Atlanta and threatened to make a runaway of the season. In the next eight races, however, he won only at Loudon, N.H., but scored a remarkable five second-place finishes. In 11 events, he has never finished out of the top five.

"Once I got that big lead, winning wasn't quite as important," he said. "Finishing second kept me well ahead in the championship and that's what the factory wants, that No. 1 plate to show off."

Mladin has not won at Willow Springs--90 miles northwest of Los Angeles, just west of Edwards Air Force Base--but it is one of his favorite tracks because "it is safe and fast."

Qualifying today and Saturday will set the field for Sunday's race, 60 miles or 25 laps. All of the Superbike races, except for Daytona's 200 miles, are 60 miles.

"That's about 34 minutes of racing at Willow," the 6-foot, 155-pound Aussie said.

Mladin and his wife, Janine, split time between homes in Chino and Las Vegas, but he says that when he retires after a few more years, they will return home to Australia, where he hopes to have his own race team.

When he's not racing, or riding his motocross bike at Glen Helen or Elsinore to keep in shape, Mladin can be found on the golf course. He is good enough to have played in the Ventura County Amateur with his Suzuki teammate, Jason Pridmore, a 1-handicap golfer from Ventura.

"I missed the cut, but I played pretty well, considering it was my first tournament," Mladin said. "I kept messing up on those short shots around the green."

It's a wonder Mladin ever made it to this country to race.

In 1994, he broke his back while racing, then in 1995 he crashed an ultra-light aircraft and mangled his foot so badly it nearly had to be amputated.

"I was young and crazy then," he said. "I thought I was the Red Baron. The foot was barely hanging on to my leg by a thread. Just when I thought I was about ready to walk again, infection set in and I spent three months in the hospital with my leg up in the air. I almost lost my foot."

The ultra-light is at home in Mladin's garage, but he hasn't been back up.

"At the end of that season, I got a call from Suzuki to race Superbikes in the United States and I had enough sense to realize that if Suzuki was good enough to look after me, I had better look after continuing my career with them," he said. "I still get a lot of pain when I run, but riding the bike doesn't hurt. And that's what matters."

THE SHORT TRACK SCENE

Greg Voigt of Goleta has clinched the 19-race Food 4 Less super late model championship, Irwindale Speedway's top NASCAR series, but Saturday night's final race still is important. At stake is the $5,000 Miller Lite Big 10 Challenge bonus, given to the driver with the most points in 10 designated events. Voigt leads with 508 to 488 for Ben Walker of Santa Clarita and 486 for Tommy Fry of Simi Valley. Fifty points are available Saturday.

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