In 1996 it was Ricky Carmichael. Come 1999, it was Travis Pastrana. In 2002 it was James Stewart, while 2004 had Mike Alessi and the summer of 2005 saw Ryan Villopoto on his way. Just last year, the Class of 2006 was Ryan Dungey and Josh Hill. All these prized prospects were touted as the next big thing in professional motocross. Some proved to be beyond the hype, like Stewart, who won his second supercross and the first outdoor national he entered. Others were worth more than the hype—Villopoto just added a Lites SX title to the outdoor championship he won last year as a rookie. And some are still trying to live up to the hype (Mike Alessi is struggling with that right now).
Be that as it may, fans in our sport can always count on seeing new teenaged talent enter the AMA pro ranks every season in hopes of becoming what teams are eternally searching for: the next superstars of supercross and motocross.
So who’s next? While there’s never a sure way of getting a perfect bead on tomorrow’s top stars, there is a very reliable set of measuring sticks: the results sheets from this nation’s biggest amateur motocross races. In this sport, it’s pretty easy to find the top riders, as the talent is now concentrated on a set schedule of major amateur events throughout the year. With the spring races now in full swing, we decided to check the pulse on the next generation of American motocross stars. That’s our best chance of figuring out who might be vying for Lites class championships as early as 2008.
The Road to Fame For several years now, the standard amateur-to-professional transition protocol for racers is to compete most of the season as an amateur, hopefully winning championships and gaining the most attention possible. Ideally, a racer would like to have a professional contract signed prior to the biggest amateur race of the season, the AMA/Air Nautiques Amateur National Championships at Loretta Lynn’s Dude Ranch in Tennessee in early August. After that event, aspiring pros then enter the first AMA pro national following Loretta Lynn’s, the Spring Creek National in Millville, Minnesota. They continue on and race the remaining nationals of the season, some hoping to prove themselves even more and get a better ride for the following season, others just hoping to gain experience, as their contracts are already signed.
In 2007 there are a few riders who have risen to the top of the professional team managers’ draft boards. In fact, a few are already signed for 2008 and beyond. Of course, that takes some pressure to perform off of their adolescent minds, but the goal and focus remains the same—to win.
So who’s got next? The line begins behind a redheaded kid from Oklahoma.
Trey Canard At the top of this year’s list of teenaged track stars is Elk City, Oklahoma’s Trey Canard, who is already signed by SoBe No Fear/Samsung Mobile Honda for his amateur career and into his professional one.
“The pressure is off a little bit now that I already have a deal,” says Canard, who wears the #241 on his CRF250R, “but I put pressure on myself to go out there and win, because that’s what I want to do.” Canard is no stranger to winning, but he really started to come into the limelight last summer after he swept all six motos in the 250 B Stock and Modified classes at Loretta Lynn’s on a Team Green Kawasaki—a team he’d been with throughout much of his amateur career. Soon after, he was signed by the powerful SoBe No Fear/Samsung Mobile Honda. Having already make a commitment with a pro team gives reason to possibly become complacent, but not for Canard. “I’ve said this to a few people already: I’m far from making it,” he says. “I’ve never even entered an AMA pro race—I don’t even have my license yet—so I’m far from making it. So that alone motivates me even more.” Canard shows a strong positive attitude, but he does have some weaknesses. “My weakness is probably my mental game,” he admits. “I do get nervous. “That last time I’ve been intimidated by a rider was probably at Oak Hill,” he says of the annual GNC International Motocross Final at Oak Hill MX Park in Decatur, Texas. “I haven’t raced Austin Stroupe in a while, and that makes me a little nervous.” When the gate dropped at Oak Hill for the thirty-first annual running of the event, Canard, who was carrying three championships from the Lake Whitney Amateur National the week before, showed no signs of weakness. Throughout the week, he pulled holeshot after holeshot and showed he was the most dominant rider in attendance by recording the fastest lap time on the Trackside Scoring software. Unfortunately, although his nerves and mental strength withstood any challenges, his motorcycles didn’t, and mechanical DNFs kept Canard from winning more than one championship. Out of four classes, he only was able to take home one title, in the 125 A Modified class. His problems would continue at the World Mini GP in Las Vegas, where poor starts and early crashes hindered his results. But you can’t let bad luck get you down, and Trey is already looking forward to his first pro national in August. “My first four nationals I want to use for a learning experience,” he says of the races that wrap up the 2007 AMA Toyota Motocross Series. “I know it’s a whole different game out there, and I’d like to go and get top-five or top-ten and just learn the ropes.” When asked what he thinks of his old rival Ryan Dungey, Canard smiles and says, “What Ryan has done has really given me a lot of confidence. We raced Intermediate and Schoolboy together for about three or four years. He won a lot of the time, but we were still pretty close. It gives me a lot of confidence to see what he’s done in his first season racing supercross.”
Austin Stroupe Austin Stroupe’s first motorcycle was an LEM 50, and his father was the catalyst that sparked his racing career. Says Austin, “My dad raced when he was a kid, and he broke his femur and his mom wouldn’t let him race, so he got me into it.” Fast forward twelve years and Stroupe is one of the top amateur racers in the country, with two new championships at Oak Hill. But he will openly admit that he was the benefactor of Trey Canard’s misfortunes. “I came in here probably at 45 percent,” says the 16-year-old Kawasaki pilot, who sat out Lake Whitney the week prior to try to be better prepared for Oak Hill. “I had nose surgery after the Mini Os so I could breathe better also. I then went to California and broke my thumb, so I was out for six weeks. I was just coming into Texas hoping to be consistent, and I ended up coming out with two titles, so I’m really happy. I just didn’t want to push it. If Canard was faster, I was just letting him go. I didn’t even try racing him.” Stroupe was born and raised in North Carolina, but over the past few years he and his family have spent most of their time in California and Texas, enabling Austin to maximize his seat time. When asked at what point he realized he could possibly make it as a professional racer, he replies, “It’s always been there in my head, but the past few years is when I really started focusing and told myself I could be a pro. It’s pretty much been on from there.” Stroupe was always in the top of his class as a mini rider, but he has really excelled since moving to the bigger bikes. “I used to be out of control, but I worked on it and smoothed out a lot,” he says. “I think my focus is a lot better too.” Stroupe’s 2006 season was one of the best of his career, as he tallied thirteen amateur championships, bringing his total to thirty-seven. But similar to his rival Canard, Stroupe admits to having some work to do on his mental game. “Pressure is my weakness,” he explains. “Sometimes I could fumble if someone is behind me. I have to work on that a lot. I need to be able to ride my own race if someone is behind me.” Stroupe is looking forward to a busy season. Following the World Mini GP in Las Vegas, he is headed to the Loretta Lynn’s Area and Regional qualifiers, then Mammoth Mountain, Ponca City, and finally Loretta Lynn’s. After that it’s on to Millville—a track he’s never raced on—to compete in his first pro national. The question right now is, what will he be riding? “We’re not signed right now,” Stroupe says. “We have a couple offers, and hopefully after Vegas I’ll sign, so it should be good. We really want to go with Monster Energy/Pro Circuit, but it’s a tough team to get with. They take the best, so I just need to prove myself a little more.” Maybe one of Stroupe’s riding partners, Ryan Villopoto, can put in a good word with PC’s Mitch Payton. “I’m always riding with Villopoto—he lets me train with him, and when I’m 100 percent I’m pretty close to him in speed,” says Austin, who is shooting for a top-ten at Millville.
Nico Izzi In 2006, Roger DeCoster and Makita Suzuki shocked the industry when they announced the signing of young Ryan Dungey to the factory team, before the young Minnesota rider had even competed in the Expert class. Looking back, it was a brilliant move by DeCoster, as Dungey already has three AMA Supercross Lites victories and could be a contender in the outdoor nationals.
This season DeCoster is up to his old tricks again with the signing of Michigan native Nico Izzi before his first Expert race. In fact, Izzi signed the three-year factory contract in the latter months of 2006, while he was recovering from an injury. “I’m happy [about signing with Suzuki], but I don’t want to not take it seriously,” says Izzi, who has been a Suzuki-sponsored rider since age 9. “This is the hardest I’ve ever worked, and I’m sure I’m going to be working a lot harder. Suzuki has always been really good to me. No matter what I needed, they’ve always helped me out with it. Every year they help me out more and more. They said they didn’t want to let me go. They’ve always been loyal to us, so I wanted to stay loyal to them.” Izzi began his racing career by doing local races, and after some successes, family friend Dave Lichtle suggested that he try a national. “We went and did some of the nationals and did pretty good, so we just started traveling around racing,” Izzi says. “I was probably about 10 years old when I decided I wanted to make it a career. I never really just did it for fun—I always took it very seriously.” His dedication paid off as an amateur, as he was always one of the top riders in his class. He has several amateur championships, but his six Loretta Lynn’s championships and two 85cc U.S. Open wins are what stand out the most. Nico has been under the radar lately, mostly due to injuries—he was out for six months with knee injuries, having torn the ACL in his left knee and the meniscus in his right at the same time. He returned to racing in November of 2006 and has been steadily improving ever since. Unfortunately, the two amateur nationals in Texas didn’t exactly go as planned. “Lake Whitney was my first pro race, and that was horrible,” he says. “Whitney and Oak Hill were the worst two weeks I ever had. I had tons of bad luck, and I was just trying to get back up to speed. While I was off, everyone was getting faster. As long as I’m gaining speed, I’m happy. My main goal is to be up to speed for Millville.” Similar to Ryan Dungey in 2006, Izzi will be making his professional debut under the Makita Suzuki awning at Spring Creek August 12, 2007. But before that, there are a few things he knows he has to work on. “I think I just need more seat time,” he says. “I’m six months behind, and my condition and training is good, but it just has to get a little bit better. Before I was injured, I always picked really good lines and I was always really smooth, but I kind of lost that. I’m just trying to get some of that little stuff back, because it all adds up.”
Wil Hahn The last of the “Fab Four” in 2007 is Kansas native Wil Hahn, who recently relocated with his family a few miles down the road from Oak Hill MX Park in Decatur, Texas. Out of the four riders, Hahn may have the least hype, but he often shows the most speed. Wil is the younger brother of current Team Honda factory rider Tommy Hahn, and when asked if he ever feels overshadowed by his brother, he answers, “Yes and no, but it’s good to be overshadowed a little bit sometimes. I don’t regret it. I wouldn’t be where I am without him.”
Unfortunately, Wil has been slowed by a broken collarbone this spring after crashing out at Lake Whitney. “Lake Whitney was going really good and I felt really strong coming in to the year,” says the American Honda-sponsored rider. “I had Trey Canard’s pace at Whitney—I was just as fast as him, but he’s just a little bit more consistent than me. I got two second-place finishes, and then in the final moto of 125 A I came off the bike wrong and broke my collarbone.” Hahn lives and breathes motocross, and after concentrating on the other major amateur races on the summer schedule, he hopes to join Canard, Stroupe, and Izzi on the starting gate at Millville. Wil does not have a deal signed for his professional debut, nor is he close to one, but he still plans on racing the last few nationals of the season. He remains optimistic that he’ll be able to impress a team manager enough to get a deal signed for ’08. “It helps to see Ryan Dungey go in there and do that well—it makes me think that we can go in and do it as well,” says Hahn, who also took a moto from Josh Hill last summer at Loretta Lynn’s in a straight-up dogfight. “I hope it opens up some of the team managers’ eyes and it shows that we’re capable of coming in there, being mature, and doing that well also.” Will we see Hahn on a Honda, like his brother, or on one of the other brands? Who knows? But one thing we do know is that the next generation of pro riders are all very fast, and the future looks bright—even if it’s not signed in ink yet.