By Jon Row
Monster Energy’s 2012 Supercross season roared into Anaheim‘s Angel Stadium with new teams, new riders, new sponsors and even new fans. For Supercross fans, Anaheim One is always a big deal - an event that sets the stage for the rest of the season. Eighteen times in its 38 year history A-1’s winner has also ended up taking the Championship, a statistic Ryan Villopoto, Chad Reed and James Stewart are famously familiar with. This year’s recession-defying, sold out event points to yet another exciting season for the most popular form of motorcycle racing. SX promoter, Feld entertainment, has expanded live TV coverage on SPEED, FUEL, and CBS and negotiated a new international TV agreement that will give SX more worldwide exposure. Those who took in the show live Saturday night saw plenty of excitement both on and off the track.
Perhaps more than any year before it, 2012 has more riders unquestionably capable of winning events, something Anaheim’s heats, LCQs and main events demonstrated although not necessarily in obvious fashion. The riders most likely to end Ryan Villopoto’s 2011 SX and MX championship run have all been working plenty hard. Some of them look better than ever, like a robust Andrew Short and a 40 lbs lighter Davi Milsaps. Conversely Trey Canard was forced to watch A-1 from the sidelines nursing a 4-week-old collarbone break and the flu. When asked how he’s coped with his string of injuries, squeaky-clean Canard jokingly quipped “hard liquor”. Although Canard’s championship odds are now long, don’t be surprised to see him, Broc Tickle, Justin Brayton or Kevin Windham displace Dungey, Villopoto, Reed and Stewart on some podiums this year. At 34 years of age Windham has riding gear older than some of his competitors but plenty of racetrack savvy too.
Supercross’s main engines, the manufacturers, continue to battle a tough economy. Suzuki and KTM are each coming to the 2012 SX battlefield with just one rider. The series is seeing more entries though, as new teams emerge to capitalize on reduced factory participation. Eighty-eight riders are signed up for this year’s 17 round series. Former champs turned team owners Jeff Ward and Jeremy McGrath have leveraged their fame and connections into well-subsidized private factory support teams.
Owner/rider/manager Chad Reed is back with his Two-Two Race team. Reed and McGrath’s teams have even scored workspace inside American Honda’s race team shop and headquarters. JGR’s Joe and Coy Gibbs have signed an unprecedented five-year deal with superstar James Stewart that should improve Yamaha’s chances for a SX Championship. Failing that, Stewart is now free from former sponsor (San Manuel Indians) restriction on riding the outdoor MX series. Stewart has a long season ahead of him either way though, the crowds’ boos at number 7’s Anaheim introduction was deafening. No word on whether James’ community service sentence for impersonating a police officer has affected his training schedule, but despite a come from behind heat win his 6th place finish doesn’t bode well for the New Year.
More factory-supported teams are good for SX. The teams are gaining sponsors the OEMs can’t or won’t engage. Ward and McGrath’s sponsor lineups are longer than Lindsay Lohan’s rap sheet. These “support” teams give championship bridesmaids like Andrew Short, Josh Grant, Ivan Tedesco and others a decent shot against the elite full factory rides. OEMs haven’t been getting great return on their Supercross investment for years but the evolution of more semi-factory teams gives them efficient ways to showcase their brands. Privateers will benefit too as Tommy Hahn demonstrated by dominating his Anaheim Lites heat. It was ironically refreshing to see plenty of enthusiastic newcomers working out of vans and pick up trucks in the pits.
A-1 Lites Observations
Troy Lee Design’s Cole Seely and Monster Energy Kawasaki’s Tyla Rattray put on a good dogfight until Seely put the Honda in front for good on lap four of the 15-lap event. Monster Kawasaki’s Dean Wilson had third for most of the race but Geico Honda’s Eli Tomac had other ideas capitalizing on an unusual situation. Eli made it to the main event through the last chance qualifier. Due to live TV coverage and the program running overtime, intermission and track re prep were both scrapped. The Lites Main event was run within minutes of the LCQ. Tomac, though undoubtedly tired from the short turn around was re racing the same surface. He amped it up, setting fastest lap of the race and giving Honda two of the three podium spots with his third place finish. Seely, TLD and Honda would like nothing better than to end Pro Circuit Kawasaki’s reign of Lites championships this year. Stay tuned.
SX Class conclusions:
Monster Energy’s Ryan Villopoto got the New Year off to a difficult start having his Kawasaki squeezed to the back of the pack in heat one and getting himself momentarily out of shape while working his way up to heat winner, Chad Reed. Mike Alessi’s trademark holeshot in that heat and Andrew Short’s in the other served as reminders that Villopoto and others will have to work hard for breakaway launches this season.
It took Villopoto less than a lap to say good-bye to the entire field at Anaheim’s big gun event. This wasn’t surprising. Ryan’s program, equipment and team are the least changed of all the contenders this year. As most racers can attest, change is difficult and Villopoto has the least amount to deal with. Chad Reed’s second overall looked very secure as Ryan Dungey and James Stewart fought over 3rd, a full twenty seconds behind the leader. Neither rider looked comfortable with their bike. Although he was fastest qualifier and heat winner, Stewart’s fight ended on lap 16 when he augured in after passing Dungey a second time.
James managed to claw his way back to 6th overall behind Jake Weimer on the Monster Energy Kawasaki and Justin Brayton’s Muscle Milk Honda. Stewart was actually lucky to avoid a second soil sampling session when Tedesco crashed directly in front of him on lap 18. James looked to be trying to ride at less than 10/10ths but it wasn’t working. Reed in his second year on the Honda is smooth but less than astonishingly fast trying to keep Villopoto in sight. Reed is fortunate to have secured the talents of multi-time championship tuner Mike ‘Goose’ Gosselar. Gosselar is the best guy available to set up the Honda for Chad’s whoop busting capabilities. Reed Dungey and Stewart now need to move fast to keep that eighteen-year A-1 winner/championship statistic unchanged.
Next round: January 14th Chase Field, Phoenix Az.