Bradley Taft had his first race as a pro last week at Unadilla. He was coming off a win (1 / 2 / 1) in the 250 A at Loretta's and a 6th place
finish (3 / 17 / 3) in the Open Pro Sport class. So what should we have expected from him at Unadilla, and what should we expect in the future?
Unadilla Rookies 1
Judging only by races related to Loretta's (Area Qualifiers, Regional Qualifiers, and the Finals), Taft's results were the 5th best of any 250 A rider. Taft finished 2nd in his Area Qualifier (behind Sean Cantrell, who would finish 6th at Loretta's), and 1st in his Regional Qualifier. Which is very impressive, but not quite as impressive as 250 A rival Chase Sexton, who won every Area and Regional moto during his qualifying. Sexton, though, finished 2nd at Loretta's (5 / 1 / 4), then injured his knee before Unadilla, delaying his pro debut.
All that said, Loretta's was about as rainy and muddy as a race week can get, so like always you have to understand the context around the numbers and take any prediction based on such limited data with a grain of salt.
Taft as a 250 star -- then what?
But let's take it as true that Taft is right around the 5th best 250 A rider. There were over 500 riders who entered qualifying for Loretta's (which is essentially my measure for whether they get included in the world of MotoXGraphs), so 5th out of 500 would put Taft in the top 1% of the 250 A class. Now here's the tricky part:
In the past, riders who have transitioned from 250 A as amateurs up to the MX Pro Lites class (250MX in this case) have finished 45% lower--on average--in the MX Pro Lites than where they stood as amateurs. So if they were in the 20th percentile in 250 A, they'd end up around the 65th percentile in 250MX as pros. Since Taft was in the top 1%, according to this logic, we'd expect him to finish around the 46th percentile in the pro Lites class.
But, you might be thinking, guys at the very top of the Amateur 250 class probably vary from the "average" rider. So let's look at guys who, after finishing in the top 2.5% in 250 A, went on to ride a few pro 250 races after finishing the amateur season. Since 2009, there are 14 riders who fit the requirements (and went pro thereafter), and their results were better than the "average" rider moving up to the 250 pro circuit -- they had drop of 26% instead of 45%, averaging an 18th place finish in their first race. Overall in their first several races, they averaged a 17th place finish. Sorted by the best percentile in 250 A, where, for instance, RJ Hampshire was the #1 rider in 250 A in 2014 and Steven J Clark was in the 2nd percentile (approximately the 10th best rider -- you can approximate by multiplying the % by 500) in 250 A in 2008:
These riders' best finish as a pro is also listed, to give some sense of how these amateurs eventually developed as pros over the years -- some riders only have a few years of results, so the "best finish" is a work in progress for many of these.
If we applied the standard 45% penalty to Taft, putting him in the 46th percentile (1% in 250 A + 45% penalty), that would leave him projected at #32 (with approximately 70 riders trying to qualify, 32nd place finish would put him in the 46th percentile). If we modify that penalty to 26%, putting him in the 27th percentile (1% in 250 A + 26% penalty), then he'd be projected at #19 (based on approximately 70 riders).
So what happened?
At Unadilla, Taft finished 26th in Moto 1, apparently had at least a couple crashes. In Moto 2, though, he rebounded for 12th, starting off strong and again finding the ground, but held on for 9 points and 18th overall. Several riders checked out of Moto 2 because of the intense heat, which probably helped his standing -- but they were all facing the same heat, and Taft endured better than those guys did.
In the end, Taft put up a result on par with the veteran 250 pros. It's only 1 race, but it did line up nicely with the projection.
Then what's next?
Based on the other recent riders who went 250 A to 250 pro, their second race results looked a lot like their first race -- 18.6 vs 19.5 -- so within 1 spot on average. Those who also rode a third race did better in that one, finishing just better than 14th on average. Again, a small sample size to make much of, but some improvement over the next 2 rounds is certainly possible, even likely.
If we look earlier into Taft's amateur career, we see that compared to average, he has some good and bad seasons in there:
(Blue line is Taft's overall rankings among pro & amateurs; his age for that year is noted at each point; grey line is average rider at that age.)
His age 15 season in 2012 stands out as particularly good, and after his down season at age 16, he had two solidly above-average seasons in 2014 and 2016. Followed by about as good as he could have expected this year (not pictured). So he appears to have momentum on his side, and as a cold-weather prospect, often they bloom later (a la Ryan Dungey). Pull up the chart and enter any name on the home page.
Another way to look at it is the Percentile Comparison Chart, where you can see that Taft compares pretty well to some other established riders, looking at where they stood as amatuers (or pros) at the relevant ages. Taft's age-15 season, as mentioned stands out as being quite impressive, and in general he's held his own compared to where current pros were at his age:
As far as forecasting a career, the peak of these comparable riders is high, but far from a sure thing. Of the guys who had similar races after thier impressive 250 A seaons, only 4 of the 14 riders have earned an overall podium (in 250 or 450) so far in their pro career. And 3 riders have not managed to break into the Top 10 overall for a race weekend. So it's impossible to tell what's on tap for Brad Taft, but so far things seem to be going by the numbers, which I think is a good thing if you're in Taft's camp.
Continue on to Unadilla Rookies 2 for a look at Jerry Rubin in the 450 class.