Who Will Be Master Of The Middleweights?

All eyes on the number one. Can Escalante repeat as MotoAmerica Supersport Champion? Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

Supersport was, without a doubt, the most consistently compelling, must-see championship of the 2020 MotoAmerica season. In virtually every one of the 18 middleweight-class races held last year, the action was breathtaking and the display of talent and racecraft was world-class.

In the end, it was HONOS Kawasaki rider Richie Escalante who took the championship, and he did so by winning 13 of the 18 races on the season. A gaudy number, to be sure, and it belies the level of excitement displayed on track, particularly by the top three finishers in the point standings: Escalante, Sean Dylan Kelly, and Brandon Paasch.

Escalante took the 2021 title by 40 points over, ironically, competition number 40 himself Kelly. And, this season, we expect Escalante and Kelly to pick up right where they left off. Clearly, Escalante, who is the only MotoAmerica rider in the entire paddock who has the right and privilege to display the number 1 on his bike, has got to be penciled in as the odds-on favorite to defend his 2020 crown.

His 2021 Kawasaki ZX-6R will carry an extra 9.6 pounds of ballast as a MotoAmerica-mandated balancing measure, but when we asked him about the additional weight, he seems unconcerned about it. Actually, that’s not completely accurate. In truth, he is actually excited about the challenge, and he said that the extra weight could even be a benefit. He put forth the notion that adding a little bit of ballast could possibly improve the weight distribution and overall handling of the bike. So, rather than being upset or worried, Escalante, who turns 26 this Thursday, seems even more confident going into 2021. Also, he says he’s riding better than he ever has in his career.

Kelly was Escalante’s fiercest challenger in 2020. Can SDK snatch the middleweight crown? Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

Escalante’s closest rival last year will, once again, be his closest rival in 2021. M4 ECSTAR Suzuki’s Sean Dylan Kelly very nearly won this year’s Daytona 200. The Team Hammer rider led almost the entire race only to get nipped at the line by one of his 2020 MotoAmerica nemeses Brandon Paasch (more on Paasch later). It was a gut-wrenching result for Kelly, who is only 18 years old and will undoubtedly compete in more Daytona 200 races in the future.

At the Official Dunlop Preseason Test at the Circuit of The Americas (COTA) a few weeks ago, Kelly ended up second to Escalante in almost all the Supersport practice sessions.  He had a fairly quiet test and didn’t seem to be trying to challenge Escalante for lap-time bragging rights, but he did make it known that, just like last season, he will definitely be in the hunt for race victories and possibly the season title.

Last year’s third-place championship finisher Brandon Paasch, the lightning-fast 20-year-old who narrowly beat Kelly to the checkers and won the Daytona 200, is taking his talents to the British Superbike Championship. It’s a shame because Paasch’s battles last year with Kelly and Escalante were a joy to behold, and Paasch was also a fun person to talk to in the post-race press conferences because he always had a smile and something interesting to say.

So, if Escalante and Kelly are the two favorites to win the 2021 Supersport Championship, then who will replace Paasch as the third member of the podium and third combatant at the front of the pack?

Three MotoAmerica class championships in just two years. Can 16-year-old Landers add a Supersport title in 2021? Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

With three MotoAmerica class championships—two consecutive SportbikeTrackGear.com Junior Cup and one Twins Cup title—on his resume, 16-year-old phenom Rocco Landers may be the one to join Escalante and Kelly at the pointy end. Like Paasch for most of the 2021 season except the final round at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, Landers will be aboard a Yamaha YZF-R6 and could give Suzuki-mounted Kelly and Kawasaki-mounted Escalante all they can handle, especially as the season progresses and Landers gets more comfortable on his higher-spec Supersport machine.

At the preseason test, an event that, mind you, wasn’t attended by all the Supersport season entries, Landers was challenged on the timing sheets by Xavier Zayat. In fact, the 22-year-old, New York-based rider was faster than Landers in five of the eight Supersport practice sessions at COTA. However, the X-man is a bit of an X-factor in the 2021 Supersport Championship because his racing plans are currently in flux due to the fact that his proposed team N2 Racing may not be fielding him in the class. We sincerely hope things work out for Zayat because a rider with his obvious talent deserves to be racing in MotoAmerica.

Along with Landers, another Supersport rookie who could fill the podium spot vacated by Paasch is BARTCON Racing’s Dominic Doyle. The 19-year-old South African, who was one of Landers’ fiercest rivals in Junior Cup, is destined to continue battling with Landers as they race aboard middleweight machinery in 2021.

Speaking of South African riders, Sam Lochoff deserves mention as he, too, makes the jump from Junior Cup to Supersport. Class rookie Lochoff will enjoy the benefit of being Sean Dylan Kelly’s teammate aboard an M4 ECSTAR Suzuki, impeccably built and prepared by Team Hammer.

Other riders who figure to mix it up in the top ten, and possibly even the top five, of the 2021 Supersport Championship are Altus Motorsports Suzuki teammates Kevin Olmedo and Jaret Nassaney, North East Cycle Outlet Racing Yamaha’s Benjamin Smith, Pure Attitude Racing Yamaha’s Nate Minster, Cycle Gear Racing Yamaha’s Nolan Lamkin, and another Supersport rookie making the leap from Junior Cup to Supersport, Grant Motors Racing Kawasaki’s Liam Grant.

Despite the global market shift away from four-cylinder, 600cc sportbikes, MotoAmerica’s Supersport class is as strong as ever, and the 2021 season looks like it will be every bit as exciting—if not more so—in comparison with the 2020 Supersport Championship.

We can hardly wait till it all starts at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta on April 30 through May 2.

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