Matt Huggett ‘On the Road’ | 2023 Southwick MX National

By Matt Huggett

Buckle up, It’s time for another “Roadtrip,” folks. Sand tracks tend to be polarizing, you either love them or hate them. With much of my youth spent riding sand tracks like Baja Acres and Gopher Dunes, I love them. As a photographer they are some of my favorite races to shoot. Every year when the AMA National schedule is released, I compare it to my work schedule and look for opportunities to attend races. This year the stars aligned, and I set my sights on the Southwick National. Southwick is of course infamous in the motocross world for being the roughest sand track on the AMA national calendar. It is a race I have long wanted to attend, not only to watch great racing, but to gauge for myself how our local sand tracks compare to “The Wick.” 

I finished my work week Friday morning at 5:30am, had a quick nap and hit the road at 8am. The drive to Southwick, Massachusetts, is 8.5 hours from Sarnia via Niagara. I crossed into the US at the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge. It is a little-known bridge for Nexus members between the Queenstown-Lewiston and Rainbow Bridge. It is often empty, so I opted for this to avoid any delays. I quickly went from a scenic golf course and tourist lookouts on the Canadian side to a very rough end of town in Niagara Falls, NY. It’s roughly a five-minute drive to the thruway from the bridge, and perhaps the most unpleasant 5 minutes of the trip. Many locals were wearing all red on one block and a couple blocks ahead all blue. While I would like to think they are just big fans of the Buffalo Bills, the context of the neighborhood gives you the impression those colours tie into two of Americas largest street gangs.

After making it though the 5 minutes without any bullet holes or carjacking attempts, it was time to relax and start clicking off the miles. The majority of the drive to Southwick is actually rather simple as you remain on I-90E with only a couple larger cities on the route, including Rochester, Syracuse, and Albany.

My drive was going great until Rochester when the rains came. I spent 3+ hours in varying degrees of rain, which was less than ideal. I was approaching the Massachusetts State line when Google Maps alerted me that there was a major collision, and I would be in traffic for an extra hour. I quickly downloaded Waze and I was given a detour around this. Due to the area of the crash, it was a very bizarre detour where at times I thought I was really lost. When I finally got back on the I-90 which was now called a “turnpike” in Massachusetts, I was able to see the miles of stopped traffic. Thank you, Waze, I now swear by this app. 

I pulled into Southwick, Mass, just after 4:30pm, picked up my credentials for the weekend and took a quick tour through the paddock and around the legendary circuit. I made the trek back to my vehicle when I noticed the person walking to the vehicle beside me was Brett Smith. Brett produced MotoWorld on ESPN and now writes stories for a wide range of outlets including ESPN, Vice, Meta, Racer X and a host of cycling magazines, along with creating and managing the We Went Fast brand. Brett grew up in Michigan, so we bench raced about legendary Michigan facilities like Baja Acres, and he shared a glimpse of what had brough him up to Southwick.

He was meeting with John Raymond who shot the nationals back in the 90’s and had collection of New Old Stock Hard Cover 1992 AMA Pro motocross season photobooks (Think mancave coffee table type of stuff). Along with that John provided Brett with boxes full of the original photo negatives from the 90’s. Look for some cool content from Brett on his We Went Fast page.

As I was pulling out of the parking lot an older gentleman stopped me and asked what I thought of the book. I quickly found out he was John Raymond and he told me stories from shooting back in the film era. Very rad stuff. He now resides in Bangor, Maine, and is heavily involved in the local off-road and snowmobile clubs. Being an avid snowmobiler, that immediately piqued my interest and I think at this point he has me sold on making a sled trip up to Maine.

It was now 5:30pm and I was in desperate need of some food and a cold one. The neat part about Southwick is that the racetrack is actually in the middle of a village. A short, two-minute drive and I found myself on Main Street. I drove past a couple restaurants until I found one with a full parking lot. I grabbed a seat along the bar and ordered a PBR and a burger. The food was amazing, and the beer ice cold.

I started talking with the gentleman beside me and found out he was a local. He did not have any disdain for the chaos that the race weekend brings, despite never attending, which was very nice. He then pointed me to another bar down the road where the bartender was a lady in her 70’s who lives life on two wheels. He said it’s just down the road on the left and there is a flag hanging over the door.

I drove 500 feet down the road where I found a bar with a pride flag over the door. With no other bars in sight, I decided to venture in, as this seemed like the bar he was referring to. I quickly learned it was not, it was run by some friendly younger ladies. The bar was surprisingly busy with locals from all walks of life. I chatted with the couple beside me learning that he had been to the race before as it was a good local drinking event. She had never been but seemed interested in it, and supportive of the economic impact it had on their small town.

The bartenders then pointed me to the bar I was originally in search of. It was beyond rundown; I did not see a flag flying and when you entered you went back to the 70’s right away. The bartender was the lady I was looking for and she told me stories of her time on two wheels.

Since her 60’s she has been doing big rides to various parts of the country. The Dakotas, The Carolinas, Tail of the Dragon, and the list goes on. She recently completed a certified Iron-Butt ride of over 1000 miles in 24 hours in her 70’s. This lady is a badass and if you can find the bar do yourself a favour and grab a cold one.

My lack of sleep was catching up to me, so I paid the tab and headed across the State line into Connecticut and the Air-BnB I had rented in East Granby. It was an interesting set up, essentially an attached garage that had been made into a single bedroom apartment. It was slightly dated, but clean and a quick 10-minute drive to The Wick.

Saturday morning is always an early wake-up call at the nationals, and not knowing how traffic would flow, where they would park me, etc., I arrived at the track shortly after 6:45 am. I was waved right into the paddock and parked right beside the AMA Truck and the Media Center (Big win!). The only other media member there was Stephan Legrand of LeBig USA. A native of France, he has travelled the circuit for over a decade now and wears a variety of hats both in and out of the moto industry.

Before long the tent was abuzz with all the media. I was sitting next to the Align Media team and the Racer X duo of Tom Journet and Matt Rice. Between Align and the Racer X guys they produce the lion’s share of the media you see from American Motocross and Supercross. I was certainly in the deep end this weekend.

Qualifying fired off around 8am and we were treated to a show. Jimmy Decotis was back after a battle with Lyme Disease and was lined up in the unseeded 250B group who got to make the first tracks on a very smooth and fast Circuit. The first lap is merely a sight lap, but it was the fastest sight lap I have ever seen, akin to Olympic speed walking. Jimmy led the pack around to the green flag and laid down an absolute heater. His lap time saw him qualify P1 on the day, with the second fastest lap of the entire day. The second treat of morning qualifying was delivered by Jett Lawrence. Jett’s first qualifier was two sessions after Jimmy’s and the track was getting rough already. On the Final lap of his qualifier Jett turned on the afterburners and laid down one of the most flawless laps the facility has ever seen to set the fastest time of the day. Eclipsing Jimmy’s lap by 1.2 seconds and clearing the rest of the 450 class by 2.2 seconds. 

The facility is not the easiest to get around, however I figured out the ways around, over and under the fences to get the shot. For those of you unfamiliar with Southwick there is an famous berm named for local photographer Paul Buckley. Some of the sports most iconic images have been taken in that corner. Paul was in attendance with his camera in hand and it was a very cool moment as a photographer to be shooting along side him.

I was also in charge of the DMX Instagram account for Southwick, which was a welcome challenge. Hopefully, y’all liked the content and some of the new things I have been trying! Like usual the rest of the day was a blur with the heat and humidity further compounding that. Some observations from the day include:

#613 Jimmy Decotis.

The Locals – It was great to have Jimmy D back for one last dance. He delivered another iconic New England local performance that has become a staple of the Southwick National. His goal for the day was top 15 and he delivered.

#87 Chris Canning.

Chris Canning also turned heads. The New England native and son-in-law of Keith Johnson (retired pro racer turned Southwick promoter) finished 7th overall with 8-7 motos battling the likes of Factory Kawasaki’s Adam Cianciarulo in both motos and besting Adam on the day.   

The Facility – The Wick 338 is the most unique circuit of the entire year. The facility is the backyard of the local American Legion 338 and sits between a high school and a public park. Built mostly into a valley the heat and humidity blanket the racetrack combined with the sand radiating that heat to make for a grueling day. The track has a nice mix of elevation and great viewing for the fans with the fence lines being much closer to the action than bigger facilities like RedBud

#18 Jett Lawrence.

Jett Lawrence – Jett has 5 rounds remaining and has remained perfect. His perfect season does not seem to be in jeopardy in any way. Chase Sexton was able to keep him honest, however Jett did appear to be in management mode due to the heat and humidity of the day.

#128 Tom Vialle.

Tom Vialle – The 2-time world champion shined in the sand going 1-3 for his first win in America and showing that all that time he has spent at places like Lommel paid off. Look for the Frenchman to be very fast again at Millville

#96 Hunter Lawrence.

Hunter Lawrence – Hunter had yet another day he would like to forget. He ran up front through most of moto 1 until his Honda expired. This was eerily similar to Jett’s misfortunes last year in the heat and humidity at Red Bud, and certainly a concern point for the Honda team. Hunter struggled again in moto 2 finishing 8th. 26-8 Moto scores gave him 13th on the day and stripped him of the red plate.

#238 Haiden Deegan.

Haiden Deegan – Haiden appeared to struggle in the second moto finishing 10th, a 4-10 would put him 6th overall, however, due to the misfortunes of Hunter he will be rocking the red pate at Spring Creek

#787 Lars Van Berkel.

Lars Van Berkel – Who? Lars is a Dutch journeyman who has primarily been racing beach races in Europe for Honda France. The sand specialist finished 16th overall at Southwick. He then stripped his suspension, packed up the van with his friend from New York, dropped it at the Albany Airport, grabbed a rental car and drove through the night to Gopher Dunes. Lars then borrowed a bike and proceeded to PODIUM the Triple Crown Series National at Gopher. IRONMAN.

With the national over, I packed my bags and grabbed a bite to eat at a local diner before heading back to my Air-BnB to edit and post content from the day. I finished that up around 11pm and set my alarm for 2am. I was planning to be home early to spend the day with my wife. The drive home seemed much faster without traffic (Maybe that was just the RedBull I drank). I had one close call with a deer, but other than that it was smooth sailing. I arrived in Canada at 8am (precisely as my Nexus lane opened on the bridge). I was making great time and chatting with my wife. I floated the idea to her that maybe I should stop at Gopher since I won’t be far from it on my way home. She had just returned from a girls’ trip to Europe and to my surprise she asked me why I wouldn’t go. BINGO!

I sent some texts and Billy hooked me up once again. I made it to Gopher in time for the pro qualifying sessions. Morning qualifying is my favourite time to shoot due to the lighting. It was great to catch up with a number of familiar faces, and I was absolutely blown away with how great Digg’s (Derek Schuster) and the Triple Crown Crew had Gopher looking!!

I had gone with the intention of shooting the first motos, however with the gate drop of moto 1 at 1pm and 2pm instead of noon and 1 like I remember from years past,  I decided it was best to bail and finish the last hour and a half of my drive while I was still alert. I made it home around 1:30pm and with that my road trip was over, 11.5 hours later. 

I would like to thank Billy for providing me with all the support he does! Getting to know him more lately he is a fantastic steward for Canadian Motocross, who goes above and beyond to help give Canadian Moto a voice and platform. I really appreciate the opportunities he gives me to cross off items on my motocross bucket list. It doesn’t look like I’ll have the time to make another race until the SMX Playoffs, however I do have another cool story I’m planning for the end of august.

Stay tuned…