Salmiakki Surprise - Getting to know Lari Kunnas
The sport is somewhat on the periphery of the motocross firmament. Outside of Europe, sidecar motocross an entirely foreign concept, and even on the Continent, where the sport has solid roots, people often look askance. Even solo motocrossers themselves sometimes whisper epithets when coming across sidecar rigs, usually if they have to train just after a sidecar (or a few of them) had pulled in. Sidecar rigs are heavy and robust, you see, and the somewhat unique lines they create on motocross tracks tend to remain for a while, making matters challenging for the solo jockeys that come after.
Yet for all of that, there is a poetry to sidecar motocross. Rider and passenger have to be in perfect synch for things to work properly. It is not all that easy, guiding a high-powered behemoth with some substantial heft to it across a track that might well be mistaken for the dark side of the moon, all the while having to rely on your own skills and those of your partner. When rider and passenger combine well, though, it becomes a dance, the rig seeming to float, the wheels merely kissing the obstacles.
You can well imagine that it takes hours and hours' worth of getting used to each other for a rider and passenger to gel properly. Imagine the raised eyebrows then, when world champion Etienne Bax suddenly announced that he would team up with Finnish passenger Lari Kunnas for the Sidecarcross of Nations at Cingoli, without so much as a ride to the shops together. If that didn't drop the jaws to the floor, the results certainly did. With a hard-fought race win and a second place in their heats respectively, the somewhat unusual pairing of Bax/Kunnas played an anchor role in propelling the Dutch team to a comprehensive victory, claiming the Sidecarcross of Nations title.
This was a story that needed some telling, and we went in search of the illustrious newcomer. Lari might have been an honorary Dutchman for the event, but in real life he's a true, stoic, inscrutable Finn. Seeing as the interview happened via chat, we missed out on the delights of the accentuated Finnish clip, but we'll surely sample more of that as time goes along.
We take the story back to the beginning. Lari started off with solo motocross, but more at hobby level, whilst his brother Riku and their father flattened the Finnish countryside, participating in the Finnish sidecarcross championships. Dad had a long career as a sidecarcross passenger, and imparted the love of the sport to his sons. The rigours of the tough sport started taking its toll on weary old bones, and by the time he was 15, Lari was lassoed into the sidecar, learning the ropes from his father and older sibling.
As soon as the birthday cake sported 16 candles, it was competition time for Lari. He quickly cut his racing teeth at local races, and in 2012 , the brothers took their first foray into GP racing with a visit to the Estonian GP at Kiviöli. This was not the most trouble-free debut of all times, however, as Riku dislocated his elbow during qualifying on Saturday when they tackled a jump with a tad too much enthusiasm and overjumped it.
The brothers skipped the GP circus during 2013, due to a number of injuries, and focused on Finnish races only. In 2014 they got their toes wet with two GPs, and in 2015 they doubled up on that. From 2016 onwards, they were GP regulars, building up speed and skills along the way.
The brothers have become popular regulars at GP's, and in 2017 they had their best world GP results of eighth and seventh, ironically at the very same Kiviöli track that held such dark memories of their first foray into the world championship arena. Lari laments that the Finnish sidecarcross scene seems to be dwindling, with only about ten competitors and the series curtailed to three rounds only. He is encouraged, though, by the seeming resurgence of the sport internationally, with The Netherlands, Belgium and France hosting strong series.
Lari was a bit perplexed, but more than a little excited and pleased when the approach came from world champion Etienne Bax to see if he would be interested to team up for the Sidecarcross of Nations in Cingoli, Italy. Bax had just clinched the world title with Frenchman Nicolas Musset, but the vast distances that the latter had to travel during the season for training, and local commitments in 2018 had prompted the successful duo to split up after only one season. As just-crowned world champion, Bax could certainly pick from a number of passengers, but his trained eagle eye fell on the young Finn. With Finland not entering a team for the event, the road was clear for Lari to agree, and so the die was cast for a pairing that would yield a result a Hollywood scriptwriter could only dream about.
The story unfolded at double quick pace, and there was no time for the slightest bit of training or familiarisation between the two before the event rolled along. They travelled to Cingoli together to get to know one another a bit better. Lari was a bit apprehensive and nervous at first, but he credits Bax for being a consummate professional and letting him know exactly what he wanted. It was a revelation to pair up with the newly-crowned world champion, and Lari says that in the short time available to them, Bax managed to bring the best out of him. They grew more comfortable with each other session by session, and by the time the gates fell in earnest, they were ready for seroius action.
The chemistry between the two was positive, and in their first ever race together, against the top riders in the world, they battled their way to an exciting victory, setting the fastest lap time along the way. This was as much of a fairytale start as one could have hoped for, and they proved that it was no flash in the pan when they finished second in their follow-up outing, thereby playing an anchor role in bringing victory to the Dutch team.
Lari was beaming after the event, and he could scarcely believe that a link-up he had no inkling of only a week or two before, would now see him as an integral part of the Sidecarcross of Nations champions. Still in a haze of disbelief, he is guarded when discussing a potential link up with Bax for the 2018 world championship series.
Bax has expressed a definite interest in such a link-up, and for Lari it would be a dream come true. He would have to relocate to The Netherlands, but that would be worth it in pursuit of his dream, and he was substantially cheered that with zoute drop (salty licorice), the Dutch have their own version of Salmiakki, the Finnish delicacy (well delicacy for some, it's an acquired taste). It is a delicate matter for him, given the long-standing riding partnership with his brother, but Riku is supportive and would not stand in his way.
There it is, from the Cinderella branch of the sport, a fairytale ending that is bound to please everyone. Who knows, if the negotiations come to fruition, some new eyes might follow the world championship series next year to see if this auspicious start turns into enduring success.