Bench Racing Ammo: Rockin' Rookies

September 12, 2006 5:54am

Although technically this year may not be considered Ryan Villopoto’s pure rookie season (he raced the last three nationals in 2005), the fact that he won the championship in his first full year is very impressive. He will almost certainly be named the AMA’s Rookie of the Year.

Yet another championship for Mitch Payton and the Monster Energy/Pro Circuit Kawasaki team

And I have to admit, prior to the season I didn’t have Villopoto in my top three list of title contenders. Although he wrapped up his 2005 season at Glen Helen with a very impressive second overall, there were still some areas for concern—including a few tracks that he never raced on—clearly giving the advantage to the many other veterans of the 250F class. But a combination of persistence, consistency, and sheer speed can be volatile to the competition, and Villopoto was able to win half of the races this year on his Monster Energy/Pro Circuit Kawasaki to claim the first major championship of his professional career. Congratulations, Ryan!

While Ryan and his team and family celebrate his championship (and prepare for the 2006 Motocross des Nations), we started thinking about other impressive rookie seasons. Just last year we saw Mike Alessi—the runner-up this time—have a good run at the title, only to fall a moto short to Ivan Tedesco.

In 2002 James Stewart won his first-ever pro national at Glen Helen and went on to win 10 of 12 races and the AMA 125cc National Championship by 137 points over Suzuki’s Branden Jesseman. Stewart was awarded 2002 AMA Rookie of the Year honors that season.

James Stewart won the 125cc National MX Championship and AMA Rookie of the Year honors in 2002

Team Suzuki’s Travis Pastrana did the same in 2000—although he didn’t win his outdoor title by 137 points. In fact, Pastrana’s championship came down to the final moto of the season between his #199 Suzuki and Yamaha of Troy’s Stephane Roncada. Pastrana won the final moto and the championship by a mere two points.
Although Carmichael raced one outdoor national in 1996 (and received the AMA Rookie of the Year Award for doing so), his first full outdoor season came in 1997, and similar to Stewart, RC came out swinging at Round 1. Instead of Glen Helen, the first race of that season was in RC’s home state of Florida at Gatorback Cycle Park in Gainesville, FL. Carmichael went 2-1 there and notched seven more overall wins that season to take the title from Team Honda’s Steve Lamson.

In 1989, Honda-mounted Mike Kiedrowski battled down to the wire with fellow rookie Damon Bradshaw of the Yamaha team for the AMA 125cc National title. Although Bradshaw won the final round of the series at Steel City, as well as the Rookie of the Year Award, the “MX Kied” took the championship by three points on the #762 Honda, then helped Team USA win at the Motocross des Nations that fall (just as Pastrana did in 2000).

Team Honda's Marty Smith

photo: Dick Miller Archives

We have to look a little further back for the next rockin’ rookie, because in 1974 was when Honda's Marty Smith rose to fame in outdoor motocross. Smith was a San Diego area teenager known for his good looks and very fast rides on his Swedish-made Monark. When the AMA announced its first 125cc National Championship, Honda tapped Smith to pilot their factory Honda CR125 Elsinore. He led a Honda sweep of the top four spots in the final standings—teammates Bruce McDougal, Chuck Bower and Mickey Boone rounded out the next three spots.

So congratulations to Ryan Villopoto on joining a long and storied list of AMA Motocross rookies who also earned a championship in their very first seasons!