A crowd in excess of 20,000 is expected at the track less than three miles from Tri-Cities Regional Airport.
Some of the professional riders like Alex Ray, who will be filling in for the injured Cooper Webb on the Monster Energy Yamaha team, and Shane McElrath from Canton, N.C., consider Muddy Creek their home track. So does New York native and longtime Florida resident Justin Barcia, who comes into the race third in the 450 Class point standings behind defending champion Eli Tomac and German rider Marvin Musquin.
Tomac has dominated the early season in the 450 class with four overall victories and wins in seven of eight motos. Aaron Plessinger leads the 250 standings with local favorite and defending series champion Zach Osborne of Abingdon, Va., out for the season with a shoulder injury.
All those at Friday’s media day were looking forward to getting on the track for the fifth race on the Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship.
Barcia, a two-time AMA Pro Motocross 450 Class winner, feels healthy and ready to challenge for a moto win on Saturday. Tomac has dominated the season and Musquin won the other moto, but Barcia isn’t that far off and still has a chance to grab that No. 1 jersey at the end of the season.
“Being so close is harder than not being that close because there are so many little things to take that next step,” Barcia said. “Realistically, it’s getting the bike set-up where I need it. I think we’re close to that, and then it’s just speed, holeshots and all that. All-in-all, I think we know how to get to that next step, and every weekend we’ve been putting that puzzle piece together.”
This is his first season with the Monster Energy Yamaha team after being part of the Honda Racing program for the past few years. Although he has more resources to work with than ever before, this season has been somewhat of an adjustment.
“The two guys who are my main competitors have been on the same teams for years, and this is my first year on the factory Yamaha team,” Barcia said. “It’s a building block and I hope the next few years to stay at Yamaha, get more comfortable and keep building.”
This is a chance of a lifetime for the Atwood, Tenn., rider who is filling in for Webb, a two-time Tennessee National winner. He had run as a privateer prior to getting the factory ride as a teammate to Barcia in the 450 class.
“It’s crazy, definitely some big shoes to fill,” Ray said. “The guys on the team welcomed me with open arms. They didn’t have much expectations for me. The pressure I got was from myself, but it’s been good so far with my career-best finishes every single weekend.”
More than the pressure, Ray looks at what an opportunity this presents for the future. It’s a chance to show what he can do with the top-notch equipment on a track where his racing heroes Mike Brown and Nathan Ramsey, two other Tennessee riders to make it to the top of the sport, competed.
“This is a dream come true,” he said. “Growing up as a kid, this is something you wanted so bad and you see yourself there. You don’t know how you’re going to do it, but you keep working, keep working and now you’re here.”
McElrath, rider of the Red Bull KTM, is currently ninth in the 250 standings. He has a pair of podium finishes for his career, including one at Muddy Creek in 2016. With this track, less than 90 miles from his home, McElrath and his family spent several nights camping in a van and racing at the Blountville track.
“I love to come here,” he said. “I grew up here and have been here many times. I really want to do good in front of my friends and family, so I put a little more pressure on myself. I’ve loved coming here for every single race and it’s been a good time.”
He recalled as an amateur coming to Muddy Creek for the first race of the season with the ground frozen and ending the year with the prestigious Suzuki Top Gun Showdown. He’s come such a long way to be riding with the factory team at the professional event.
“This has exceeded all my expectations,” he said. “As a child, I just wanted to be on TV. But we’ve been really blessed and this is far beyond what I could have imagined. Its crazy.”