Ben Spies entered Sunday's final two races in the World Superbike Championship trailing Japanese rider Noriyuki Haga by 10 points. Starting from pole, Spies, a Longview, Texas native, won the first race to take a 15-point lead over Haga, who crashed, and rode strategically in the second to finish fifth and became World Champion by six points, 462-456, at the Algarve Circuit in Portugal. He's the first American to win the title since fellow Texan Colin Edwards in 2002.
Spies was remarkable in his rookie season in the series and his first in international competition. He won 14 of 28 races in the 14-event season, which had 10 races in Europe plus stops in Australia, Qatar, South Africa and the United States, at Miller Motorsports Park in Utah. Spies trailed Haga by 88 points going into Miller, but won both races and trimmed Haga's advantage by 33. It was the major momentum shift that Spies needed in his championship run.
Yamaha signed Spies for World Superbike after he had won three straight American Motorcyclist Association Superbike titles. He will move up to MotoGP, the Formula One of two-wheel racing, with Yamaha next season. SI.com reached to Spies to talk about his weekend, his championship and his season.
SI.com: Now that you've had 24 hours to soak in becoming world champion, what does that mean to you?
Ben Spies: Oh, man, it's hard to describe just because of the year we've had, ups and downs and the first year of all the travel and learning jet lag and learning cultures. It's been a huge year to come back from the deficits we came back from. The team worked their butts off for me. It hasn't sank in fully yet, but I'm working on it. It's been good so far.
SI.com: You trailed Noriyuki Haga going into the final round Sunday and won the first race. How did you manage to perform so well under the pressure?
Spies: I don't know. We've been in this situation once before. We just went out and did what we had to do in the first race and Nori had some bad luck and we were able to watch him and sit on him in the second race and kind of bring it back. The first race went picture perfect. It was hard to concentrate and to be able to go out when they say 'You have to win, that's all there is to it.' I just went to the front and all I could really see is winning and that was the whole thing. I wasn't going to let anybody pass me and if they did pass me, I was planning on going straight back by and, hopefully, on two wheels. It was good, we were able to do it and everything worked out.
There was some pressure, but I had a lot of friends here supporting me and actually trying to keep my mind off of it, so it was good.
SI.com: The win in the first race gave you a 15-point lead going into the second race, which meant you only needed to finish sixth to win the championship. It's not exactly your style to hold back. You finished fifth and Haga was second. How was it to drive that kind of strategic race?
Spies: It was good. I just had to keep my head down and keep concentration, that was the hardest thing. If Nori won, I had to finish sixth and if he finished second, I had to finish 11th or better, so I had to keep an eye on him and I kind of trailed him in the race and did what I had to do and just brought it back. It was a pretty exciting race and it actually went by pretty quick.
SI.com: When we spoke earlier this year in June before the American round at Miller Motorsports Park, you trailed Haga by a substantial margin. That was the midpoint of the season and it looked like Haga was in control. Then, everything changed at Miller. You took the Superpole and won both races. Haga had some trouble and you cut his lead in about half. Was that the turning point in the season for you?
Spies: Yes, I think so. I mean we had a lot of turning points, but followed by bad luck. It was hard. We got on a couple of rolls and then we'd have a mechanical (problem) and I got taken out in one race. It's kind of hard to say what was the really big turning point of the year, but I think that was a big one. Winning in front of the home crowd both races, breaking the pole streak record and cutting the lead as much as we did, that was a big weekend for us. We tried to stay on a roll. Every race, we approached it the same way and that was just trying to win races. We continued that mentality all the way to the last race yesterday and then it was just finish sixth or better and let's win a world title.
SI.com: You set the World Superbike season record for Superpoles with 11 and for consecutive poles with seven. How to you regard your performance in Superpoles as contributing to your championship?
Spies: It was huge. It was a confidence booster, but mainly for me it was better track position for the race on Sunday. You get no extra points for Superpole, so it was confidence and track position and try to go out and get them on Sunday, so that's always what we did it for.
SI.com: You were riding a new bike, with a new team on new tracks this season. What was the biggest adjustment?
Spies: Racing on all new tracks was the hardest part and then, just traveling all around the world. It wasn't bad, it was just different. It was hard at some points. I lived in Italy basically half the year. It was difficult, a big change and we had to kind of cope with it and keep moving forward.
SI.com: You've been signed by Yamaha to run in MotoGP next season and you will ride on a Yamaha in two weeks in the final MotoGP of 2009 at Valencia, Spain. Are you looking forward to going there as the World Champion in World Superbike?
Spies: Yes, I guess. I take a little confidence, but it's a different animal out there and I'm just going to try to get my feet wet and see what we can do. Just go out there with no real goals and just go have fun.
SI.com: You raced in three MotoGPs in 2008 and finished sixth at Indianapolis, so you've got some experience in MotoGP.
Spies: We've done three races and I kind of know what it's about. I know how fast those guys are, so that's how I'm going into it, pretty open minded.
SI.com: You'll be teammates with Colin Edwards next season ...
Spies: Two Texans on a team. It's going to be pretty interesting. It will be fun. I've known him for a long time and I'm pretty happy for my first year there, he's going to be my teammate, so hopefully it will make things easier. We've got nothing to hide from each other and I think he'll help a fellow American as much as he can.
SI.com: You'd signed with Yamaha to return to World Superbike next season and later they decided to move you up to MotoGP. Was it too good an offer to pass up?
Spies: It's just the next step and I need to go ahead and do it and try it out and see if we can be successful. It's going to be a long, hard road, but we need to start somewhere.