May 20, 2002MOTORSPORTS PAGE
SACRAMENTO (AP) The massive golden-domed California capitol building looming above, four of motocross' biggest names sat at a table with microphones on a pleasant spring afternoon.
As they talked about the upcoming outdoor season in front of more than 100 fans and a handful of politicians in black suits, Ryan Dungey, Ryan Villopoto, Chad Reed and Trey Canard were nearly close enough to touch shoulders.
If the wild Supercross season is any indication, there probably won't be much separation once they hit the throttle when AMA Motocross kicks off its 40th season at historic Hangtown on Saturday.
"Supercross was a little surprising at moments, some weird things happened," said Dungey, the defending outdoor champion. "Outdoor is going to be another tough championship."
Dungey became the first rider to sweep the Supercross and motocross titles as a rookie a year ago, completing a rapid rise to the top of his sport. He did it, though, with former champions James Stewart and Chad Reed, along with Villopoto, out with injuries.
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With those three back for Supercross this year, the sport had one of its closest finishes ever, a wild 18-race ride that included five riders winning races and five lead changes in the season points standings.
Villopoto closed it out by finishing third at Las Vegas two weeks ago, capturing his first 450-class title just a year after a horrific crash left his right leg mangled and the cartilage in his sternum scrambled.
Reed, a two-time Supercross champion, finished second in the points, just four points back, and Dungey was right behind him in third. Stewart, a two-time champion himself, finished fourth and Canard, a rising star on the circuit, was fifth despite breaking his leg during testing last month.
Canard will be out until later in the season, but the rest of the champions are revved up and ready to go as motocross moves from the stadiums to the massive outdoor tracks.
It starts with Hangtown, an AMA original hosting its 43rd race near the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. One of the most demanding courses on the circuit, Hangtown will give the riders a tough initial test with just one weekend off after finishing Supercross.
"It's a track where starts are important," Reed said. "It's choppy, it's fast, it's a difficult race track to master. I think we all come in as prepared as best we can, but it's the first race of the season, we're straight off Supercross and throughout the weekend we're all going to struggle at some point in time."
Villopoto will be considered the favorite coming off his impressive Supercross run.
The 22-year-old from Fontana, Calif., opened up the 2010 Supercross season strong, winning seven races, but suffered a horrific crash at St. Louis that broke two bones in his right leg and knocked him out of the outdoor season.
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Determined to finish his climb to the top, Villopoto put in grueling hours of rehabilitation to get back in shape, work that paid off with wins in his first two races back, at Anaheim, Calif., and Phoenix to open the Supercross season. He finished with a series-high six wins, capping it with his first title not far from the glitz of The Strip.
"The Supercross season is so long and we have one week off and roll right into the outdoor season, so there's not much time off," Villopoto said. "But I think we're all ready, we're all prepared and will have the same goal."
Getting to that goal won't be easy, as the Supercross season showed.
With everyone healthy and Canard up from the 250 class, the Supercross season was a tight race from the start, one where a single gaffe was enough to put riders in a deep hole.
Villopoto had one in Jacksonville, where he inexplicably missed qualifying for the main event. Dungey was derailed by a slipped chain at the second Anaheim race.
Reed, running his own team for the first time, had trouble at the two Texas races. Stewart, known for either crashing or winning, did both, getting five wins to go with three crashes, not to mention an arrest for impersonating a police officer.
The move outdoors is the start of new season, but the premium on staying consistent will continue.
"You throw away a race or 25 points, you're going to have your work cut out to get it back," Dungey said. "You try to make it easy on yourself. The goal is to win races and try to win a championship, and you can't do that if you're in the back, getting bad starts, losing points here and there. There's a lot of great guys out there, so you can't throw away points like that."