By Steve Bauer
Photos by Maeda and Milan
Supercross racing is such a grueling test of man and machine that it lends itself to domination by those individual riders who have given that little bit extra during their off-season training, and are willing to take calculated risks by hanging it all out as necessary to win. Repeatedly over the course of its 30-year existence, we've seen the emergence of one or two riders that rise above the rest of the field and earn their way into the record books. Contrary to the commonly held belief that no rider has won every race in a season, in 1975, Jimmy Ellis did just that on his trusty Can-Am, winning all four Supercrosses held that year. The years 1977 through 1983 belonged to Hannah, with honorable mentions to Barnett, Bell and Glover.
In 1985, there were eight different winners in the 11 race series, with Lechien and O'Mara the only repeat victors. That's precisely the kind of parity that makes for exciting racing and tight championship points battles. It was also the last time there were more than six different winners during the series, because next came the Johnson/Stanton years, followed by the McGrath decade and now the Carmichael stranglehold on the new Millennium. It's no secret that the fans love to see close racing…as much as they enjoyed watching McGrath run away with almost every race, inside they were hoping that somebody, anybody would come along and give him a run for his money; it's human nature.
When Carmichael stepped up and took over the reins from McGrath in 2001, fans were happy to see some passing again at the front of the pack; that is until MC got hurt/tired/old (choose only one) and it turned into the Ricky the Redhead Show. Boring. Then, when RC announced he was leaving the green of Kawasaki for even more green with Team Honda, a torrent of misdirected ill will and boos were released his way that subsided only recently. With the exception of Vuillemin, no one was able to come close to matching Ricky's speed and consistency during 2000-2002. Enter Chad Reed.
Reed didn't find his way to America accidentally; he's been planning his entire life to reach this moment in time. He devised a plan and stuck with it, deviating only slightly by doing one year in Europe racing the 250 GPs, in which he finished second. When the only contract offer he received was from YOT to race the 125 East in 2002, he once again sucked it up and did what he had to do to get to where he wanted to be. When he won for Yamaha of Troy the125 East title in 2002, the factory pulled him into the big rig to race the 250 class in 2003. It turned out to be a good call, as Chad won nine of 16 races, including the hollow World SXGP Championship, for which Yamaha paid him zero in bonuses.
By most accounts, the 2004 Supercross season was shaping up to be a two-man duel to the death between defending Supercross Champions Carmichael (AMA) and Reed (FIM), with Reed the slight favorite. Despite having been beaten by RC in 22 consecutive outdoor National motos over the summer, Reed had arrived at the US Open in October looking every bit as confident as he had after finishing the Supercross series with six-consecutive victories over the frustrated three-time SX Champion. Reed's stock shot up when he went on to take a convincing overall win over Yamaha teammate David Vuillemin and Carmichael on the factory Honda.
Soon after, Clear Channel announced that both Ricky and Chad had committed to racing the first two SXGP rounds in Spain and Holland, giving the fledgling “World” series some much-needed credibility, but it was not to last, much to CCE's chagrin…
With just three weeks left before the first SXGP round, word on the street was that the Yamahas were dialed in and ready, as were the riders. With the factory Supercross test tracks all within pissing distance of eacother, it's safe to say that the “word on the street” is usually on the money as far as what the other team is up to. The general buzz was that Windham's times were faster than Ricky's, Ezra's were faster than everyone's, and that Ricky was going to jump ship to the Honda CRF450F in a desperate attempt to match K-Dub's times! Not only was RC switching to the 450, he was now reneging on racing the SXGP, electing to use the time preparing to defend the all-important AMA 250 Supercross Championship. Calls to Honda for clarification were a lesson in futility as they had shifted into full covert mode…a sure sign of trouble.
Then, just as quickly as it had begun, the speculation was over… Carmichael injured his knee at Castillo Ranch and was out for the season. Less than one week later and more bad news, this time from the Yamaha camp: Reed injured his shoulder (playing pool!) and is heading into surgery as this is typed. We hope that Chad will have recovered and be contending for the title by the time this hits newsstands. TWMX is disappointed that neither rider is able to defend the titles they worked so hard for and wishes each a speedy recovery.
That said, this blows the lid off the whole thing. All bets are off and it's time to rank the contenders! Here they are:
Chad Reed, Yamaha Factory Racing: If he leaves Anaheim 1 in the top 10 he'll win it all; it's his destiny. 2:1, (unless he misses more than one round from shoulder surgery)
Kevin Windham, Factory Connection Honda: K-Dub now has a chance to win a championship and erase his name from the dreaded “Most races won without ever winning a title” list, where he ranks second behind Damon Bradshaw. Honda MX Manager Erik Kehoe said, “Kevin is mentally focused and riding really well.” Just the fact that for the first time in his career he doesn't have to beat RC for the title could be the edge he needs. 3:1
David Vuillemin, Yamaha Factory Racing: “Le Cobra” is feeling good, having fun, and all healed up from last season's injury list. It could be shades of 2000 all over again. 3:1
Timmy Ferry, Yamaha Factory Racing: “Red Dog” is in 100% physical condition and burning laps like a madman at his Florida home track. When TWMX informed his wife, Evie, via instant message that Reed had hurt his shoulder, she replied that she was going to “go get Tim in,” and just sit him down until the opener at Anaheim! 4:1
Ezra Lusk, Mach 1 Yamaha: Ezra has the ability to go as fast as any rider on the track, bar none. His weakness lies in not knowing which Ezra will show up at the track, one that wants to race or one that just goes through the motions. The grapevine reports that he's hauling ass at the practice track. 5:1
Michael Byrne, Factory Kawasaki: KHI is burning $600k per year to give the injury-prone Aussie his long-overdue shot at racing the 250 class. Burner has come out smoking in the 250 class the past couple seasons, only to be dropped down to the 125 class when the show headed east. This year he's in for the long haul… Stranger things have happened! 6:1
Mike LaRocco, Factory Connection Honda: Iron Mike is out there burning laps like the hard-working, blue-collar animal that he is. What you see is what you get with Mike; unfortunately, what he gets is lousy starts! 7:1
Ernesto Fonseca, Factory Honda: Ernie has improved his 250 skills little by little, but is still prone to hard get-offs and just doesn't seem to possess the killer instinct that it takes to win in the 250 class… Where's the fire you had burning in 1999 and 2000, Fonz? 10:1
Grant Langston, Factory KTM: Young and determined when he arrived here as a 125cc World Champion, Langston came out blazing, but has been haunted by injury after injury ever since. Though he did win last year's 125cc National Championship, he and his KTM 250 are unproven in the premier Supercross division. 12:1
Mike Brown, Yamaha of Troy: The veteran scrapper and former 125 National Champion pointed out of the 125 class and finds himself forced to mix it up with kids half his age…almost. He's never shown much promise in Supercross or as a 250 rider, but maybe Phil Alderton knows something we don't know? 20:1
Sean Hamblin, Factory Suzuki: Injuries and their aftermath seem to have taken away some of the promise shown by Hamblin's early results. According to Rick Johnson, Hamblin “shows great burst speed.” 25:1
Sebastien Tortelli, Factory Suzuki: The often-injured Frenchman suffered another injury to his thrashed knees just before press time and looks to be out for an undetermined period. We hate to say it, but perhaps Seb should take up knitting with Shae Bentley…no offense. 100:1
With RC out and Reed injured to some extent, the 2004 Supercross Series has a half-dozen legitimate contenders and a dozen racers capable of winning on any given night. As usual, injuries and luck factor into any equation involving the world's first extreme sport. We can't wait!