Las Vegas, Nev.,-- Something about Las Vegas' glitz and glamour fits the Open gun. Picture JJ Racaza rolling into town, fresh off his successful TV debut on Top Shot. The desert sun sparkles on his brilliant white/red/black uniform, spiky black hair, and the black-and-white Limcat .38 Super on his hip. Surrounded by fans and friends, he's a rock star in wraparound shades. Switch to Jo Jo Vidanes and his family, laughing as they emerge from JV Dynamics' huge H1 Hummer. They're strapping on futuristic racing blasters that would make Han Solo blush, and tucking in their colorful red-and-black uniforms. Switch to Chris Tilley, the Anglo equivalent of Racaza, dressed in brilliant SV blue and khaki shorts, with spiky blond hair and yes, wraparound shades. His SV pistol looks darkly purposeful, all steel and carbon fiber, and Tilley himself looks like he just quit playing college ball. At this level, both man and machine are technical racing monsters, with ports, wings, tattoos, optics, thumb rests, cleats, technical fabrics, carbon fiber, X-degree-back-angled-vents — and those stylish wraparound shades.
As Tilley and Racaza might say, Open "is the bomb."
But they're not the only game in town. There's another group almost as flashy, but in a darker, more menacing way. They're a little older, and serious. Most all the top shooters in this group have a law enforcement or military training contract somewhere, or are sworn LE officers. Their guns hold with this more-tactical theme, and here again, man and machine come rigged to run. Witness lightened long slides, kydex holsters, 5-11 pants with quick-release knee pads, Adidas boots, extended safeties, and black skate tape on everything. The black-clad agents of the Glock (Robert Vogel and David Sevigny), are here stalking the title. Soft-spoken Travis Tomasie of the Army Marksmanship Unit, and the wise-cracking Rob Leatham just rolled in. Many of these shooters have an eye on representing the United States at the Worlds in Greece in 2011, and winning L-10 would be a great way to warm up for the Limited match that will decide the U.S. Standard division team. With a ride to Greece in the distance, and the creds to win military training contracts on the line, the L-10 field is deep, intense, and professional.
They're all met by the USPSA National Staff, the most professional cadre of range officers to be found in the United States. Here again we see magnetic characters, like the kilt-wearing Range Master Troy McManus, stone-faced NROI chief John Amidon, and the cigar-biting, pony-tail-and-earring-wearing "prop man" David King flying by on a four-wheeler.
If you let it, the excitement the 2010 USPSA Open/L-10 National Championships sucks you in, and you find yourself watching wide-eyed as an entire squad from the Philippines walk by, including the renowned Mary Grace Tan. She'll have her work cut out for her, as all the other IPSC ladies' medalists from the recent World Shoots are here as well. It's this blend of professionalism on the ground, challenging course design, fantastic technology, and the world's finest competitors all coming together that gives the USPSA Open title such weight. No matter where the title is held, you're in for an epic contest.
Flashy by day, classy by night, from Oct. 8-12 this group of characters raced hard in the dust and rocks of the Desert Sportsman's club outside of Las Vegas, then played hard in and around the Orleans Casino. Together they were 364 strong, (264 Open, 77 Limited-10), and when supplemented by the staff, you saw shooters everywhere in the off hours, hobnobbing in the bars, heading out to take in a show, or tucked into one of the restaurants. The RO crew took over a corner of the Mardi Gras bar, surrounded by shooter-types and random gamblers, while more shooters dropped anchor at the Alligator Bar and the blackjack tables in between.
In the opening days, the L-10 contest seemed headed toward the younger guys. Travis Tomasie was shooting smoothly, almost flawlessly, and the brute speed of Blake Miguez was winning stages. In contrast, Rob Leatham was limping from position to position thanks to a knee replacement surgery just four months earlier, but he seemed to be gaining speed. "We timed the surgery around this match," said Leatham. "It's getting better every day, but the other (knee) is getting worse." Rob is famous for making come-from-behind victories - and true to form, as the days wore on, Rob started percolating to the top. He couldn't bend his knee properly, so he'd bend his back or hips instead to reach the low positions. It shouldn't have worked, but that's Rob Leatham for you - the bumblebee of practical shooting. With problems in both knees, and more problems with his vision, he SHOULD be getting creamed, but like the famed Sicilian in "The Princess Bride," you don't bet against Rob Leatham when a national title is on the line. When the dust settled, the obviously hurting Leatham had fought his way to third overall!
On the Open side, it was ALL about the young guys. KC Eusebio, Chris Tilley, JJ Racaza, Max Michel, and Shane Coley were cracking each other up between runs, then laying down the heat. Mirrored shades and iPods blended with the colorful uniforms and good-hearted wisecracks. Here everyone was having fun and supporting each other in what seemed like a shared effort to do well. The group would discuss strategies, and even go to bat for one another. At one point Glen Higdon intervened to help Shane Coley get a re-shoot after an RO accidentally got ahead of Coley, causing him to pause. There was no contact, but it was apparent to Higdon that Coley stopped to keep the RO out of danger.
"I want to beat the guy," said Higdon. "But not like that."
At the top of the performance ladder, KC Eusebio in Open and Travis Tomasie in Limited-10 built commanding victories through speed tempered with control and consistency. To emerge on top of this field is a remarkable testament to their skills. As someone said in reference to Open division, there are only about eight men in the modern history of USPSA to win the title. Those eight men have a collection of world team titles and world individual titles between them. If there's a "Hall of Fame" for USPSA, winning an Open title makes you an instant candidate.
To have the Norco-California-trained speed demon KC Eusebio standing atop the winner's podium at the age of 22 confirms a change in the guard within USPSA. I wish I had the words to convey the thunderous applause that arose for KC in the Toulouse Ballroom at the Orleans Casino, particularly from the Filipino contingent.
Likewise a roar rose for Travis Tomasie, as he took the podium to thank the Army for the opportunity to pursue his dream. Many have spoken of how Travis would one day become a force within Limited, and that day has certainly arrived. This was his second major USPSA title, coming on the heels of winning the World Standard title a few years ago.
Intensity of Youth
There's a free-wheeling intensity to this new group of shooters that photographs struggle to convey. After Shane Coley blasted his way through a stage, going crazy fast but picking up a foot fault, Eusebio marveled how "he shoots like his life depends on it, every time."
Similarly on Stage 18, we watched as Robert Vogel ran UP an angled barricade wall, looking like a scene out of "The Matrix" before exploding back uprange. This stage forced you to run a horseshoe pattern, down one side, around the curve, and then back up the other. A low wall hid three down-angled targets just beyond contact distance, so you had to charge the wall to get them. The wall was angled about 15 degrees away from the shooter, so Vogel fired in motion, ran onto the wall and launched back off of it, like a race car coming through a banked corner, earning the fastest time on the stage.
Phil Strader called out as Vogel finished: "You are the one, Neo!"
It's this new generation of shooters, particularly within Open division, that makes these contests such fun to watch. They're lighthearted, jovial, and infused with a flashy, American style.
Over the course of four days, I spoke with shooters of every stripe, and almost to a person they lauded this year's course designs for their balance of accuracy, complexity, and outright hosing. You found both "disaster factor" and "risk/reward" opportunities, sometimes in the same stage.
"When I first looked at them, they didn't look all that impressive," said ladies Open champion Rebecca Jones, "but once you get into them, a lot of these are really challenging."
Megan Francisco said "The short courses were more fun than I thought. Footwork was key, and there are speed bumps all over the place. Those no-shoots really catch you."
"I think it's awesome," added Emanuel "Manny" Bragg. "It's a nationals-quality match."
Looking around at the super squad, he nodded to them, pointed and said with some gravity, "This is challenging us. It's a mixture of speed, accuracy, and the no-shoots are making you aim here. You can risk, yes, but you may or may not get the reward!"
Perhaps the most fearsome, and certainly the most-talked-about of these was Stage 11 (standards). As a rule, USPSA has downplayed accuracy-intensive standards courses over the past decade. USPSA President Michael Voigt gave orders to the set-up crew to change that. He let it be known that in order to succeed at this match, shooters had to have a balance of skills. Afterwards he explained his instructions this way: "If people are saying this was an accuracy match, we did something wrong. If people are saying this was a hoser match, we did something wrong."
Stage 11 drove the accuracy nail home. Here you engaged three partials at 18 yards, and two open targets at 28 yards, one round each, Virginia count. You did this twice: once freestyle, and once with the weak hand.
In case you're new, that means you can only shoot at each target once per string, or else endure a heavy 10-point penalty. The points you earn less penalties are divided by how long it took to earn them (in seconds) to generate your final "hit factor." Too many shooters didn't take enough time, and instead plowed their shots into the hard cover, or missed one of those far targets entirely. With 50 points on the line, one in four had enough penalties to end up with nothing.
According to Todd Jarrett, it's these short courses that often spell the difference between success and failure. A bobbled draw or a miss here would cost you much more than the same problem applied to a field course. On a long course, a miss equates to roughly three seconds of extra time. Here, a miss wipes out a third of the available points. No matter how fast you are, there's no way to recover.
"I like tough matches but this (stage) was too hard." said Rob Leatham.
When pressed for details, he explained that it wasn't so much the shooting, as the change in expectation. "It's tough to go from no weak-hand for two years to this. This is the hardest weak-hand I've seen since I've been shooting."
Blake Miguez echoed that thought, saying "I was jumping for joy when I shot that standards clean. That weak-hand had all the iron sight guys worried."
Others saw it differently.
Michael Voigt (also shooting L-10) pointed out that "those shots really aren't all that hard," then proceeded to win the stage.
No matter your opinion on the difficulty, everyone was asking "how did you do on Stage 11?"
On the ground, the 2010 Nationals were as smooth as could be. There are always little problems that come up, but the amplitude of those problems this year was remarkably small. While there were plenty of near-the-180-line shots, turn-and-draw starts, and a retreat stage or two, the number of disqualifications was quite low, and all the props/stages survived the match more or less intact. The match ran ahead of schedule, the food on the range was good, tents and seating made people comfortable, and the whole show ended at an evening awards/prize presentation ceremony, with more than 400 competitors attending.
Given a few hours to clean up after the last shot on Tuesday, competitors along with their spouses and friends arrived at the match hotel dressed up in evening gowns, team uniforms, button-down shirts and slacks, we even saw a tie or two. They took advantage of a buffet table and cash bar, giving everyone opportunity to socialize and look at posted scores before the awards presentations began. Following the awards, you could see folks laughing and joking, or having their picture taken with their sports heroes in front of the "interview wall."
Plans are in the making to bring the handgun nationals back to the Desert Sportsman's club Sept. 16-24, 2011, leaving about two weeks for travel to the World Shoot (Island of Rhodes, Greece, Oct. 2-10). Given the obvious successes of this sold-out contest, invitations (a.k.a. "slots") to the nationals will be hard to come by, so start making plans to get one now.