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Bench Racing Ammo: History of the SX Opener

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Last year’s Monster Energy Supercross opener in Anaheim was one of the wildest ever, as James Stewart and Chad Reed crashed into each other and Josh Grant delivered an emotional win. But Stewart recovered from his nineteenth-place finish to win the championship, which raises the question: Despite all the hype about A1, how often does round one really indicate how the championship will go? For this week’s Racer X Bench Racing Ammo, we dive into each and every supercross opening round. Take a deep breath and get ready!

1974: Only a three-race series back then, so winning the opener gave you a giant advantage. Pierre Karsmakers won that opener, on March 9 in Daytona, and indeed held on to win the title. After round one, time was already running out for his competition!

  • Bob Hannah
1975: The series expands to a whopping four rounds, with Dallas hosting the opener on February 28. “Captain Cobalt” Jimmy Ellis wins every race and captures the title on his Can-Am (yes, Can-Am won the 1975 AMA Supercross Championship). Can we consider 4-for-4 a perfect season?

1976: Tony DiStefano wins the March 6 opener in Daytona but unfortunately becomes the answer to a trivia question: Who is the first rider to win the opening round of the season and not win the title? Your 1976 SX Champ is “Jammin’” Jimmy Weinert. Tony D. ended up fifth.

1977: Introducing Bob “Hurricane” Hannah. He wins the season opener on March 5 in Atlanta and dominates the entire tour on his way to the SX title.

1978: Wait a second! Here comes “Captain Cobalt” Ellis again, this time taking the opener on a Honda. That race took place on February 18 in Seattle—yes, they were still working out the kinks in the SX schedule in those days. What about Bob? Hannah doesn’t grab a victory until round four in Houston, but then takes six straight to win the championship.

1979: Jammin’ Jimmy wins the infamous 1979 opener held in Oakland, California (marking five different opening-round sites in five years). The track is sandy, so Weinert grabs a paddle tire and wins in a romp—he’s also wearing a foam neck brace, for some odd reason. It’s classic Weinert. After that, paddle tires are banned from AMA competition. Hannah restores order to the series by winning the third round of the tour in Seattle. He wins his third championship.

1980: Hannah is out due to a broken leg suffered while water skiing, but Yamaha is ready to win without him, as Mike Bell takes the opener in Seattle and goes on to win the title.

1981: Kent Howerton wins round one on January 31 in … drum roll, please … Anaheim, California! Howerton is known as more of an outdoor specialist during his career, as eventually his Suzuki teammate Mark Barnett comes out on top of the championship chase.

1982: Honda’s Donnie “Holeshot” Hansen wins the Anaheim opener on January 30 and goes on to win the championship.

  • David Bailey and Rick Johnsin, circa 1986.
1983: A young new Honda rider named David Bailey wins the Anaheim opener, the first supercross win of his career, and carries that momentum to the championship. Notice a pattern here?

1984: Yet another Honda rider, Johnny O’Mara, wins the first supercross of his career at the Anaheim opener and goes on to win the title. The riders change but the story remains the same.

1985: Now this is where things get interesting. The opener moves to San Diego and O’Mara wins it, but the whole season is crazy. Jeff Ward wins the title despite only winning two races, edging Broc Glover in a controversial finale. Honda’s three-year Anaheim-winner-goes-on-to-take-the-title streak is over.

1986: The opener returns to Anaheim and produces the epic battle between Bailey and Rick Johnson. Bailey wins the race but Johnson gets motivated by the loss and goes on to win the championship. In this case, winning the opener worked against Bailey.

1987: Johnson is literally KO’d in Anaheim, as he lands awkwardly from a jump and crashes hard. Ward wins the race to take a huge points lead over his rival. Johnson fights back into the points lead when Ward hurts his ankle, but then Johnson breaks his fingers and Ward wins his second SX crown. That Anaheim triumph ends up holding up for Wardy.

1988: You won’t find Anaheim ’88 in the AMA history books. The Anaheim Supercross actually did take place, but it wasn’t an AMA event, as promoter Mickey Thompson had locked up the rights for the race, which didn’t end up as part of the series. Johnson wins the Anaheim race, but the actual points-paying AMA opener in Houston goes to Ward. Johnson goes on to win the AMA title in ’88 anyway.

1989: The ’89 Anaheim opener nearly hosts the shocker of the decade, as O’Mara, after years of struggles with injuries and a bike switch, gets out front early and pulls away. Johnson is mired in traffic and fighting some nagging injuries. But O’Mara cases a double and snaps his front end. Johnson wins. In another breakthrough, Johnson’s new Honda teammate Jeff Stanton takes a surprising second. Johnson wins the first five rounds of the tour but later suffers a broken wrist. Stanton becomes supercross champ.

  • Jeff Stanton
1990: A crazy jam-packed field lines up for this Anaheim opener, with Johnson and Ward coming back from injuries and Stanton carrying a #1 plate. But 17-year-old rookie Damon Bradshaw nails “the holeshot from hell” and battles another rookie, Jeff Matiasevich, for the win. Bradshaw wins round two in Houston, also, and looks set for dominance … until he breaks his ankle while leading round three in San Diego. Stanton struggles mightily at round one, finishing sixth and admitting the pressure of the #1 slowed him. But he’s champion again by the end of the year.

1991: Surely to the delight of all the mechanics (who were also the box-van drivers back then), the season opener moves to Orlando on January 12, while Anaheim keeps its traditional January 26 date and serves as round three. That’s a cross-country drive within the first three weeks! Stanton is a lot more comfortable as #1 this time, as he wins the opener. But ultimately Jean-Michel Bayle outduels him for the title.

1992: Orlando again, and amidst all the Stanton/Bayle/Bradshaw hype, Kawasaki’s Mike LaRocco delivers a surprising win. He breaks his wrist just a few weeks into the season, though. Stanton wins the title over Bradshaw and Bayle in super-dramatic fashion.

1993: Déjà vu? LaRocco wins the Orlando opener again … and then breaks his wrist again! Meanwhile, rookie Jeremy McGrath takes fourth at the opener, wins round three in Anaheim, and begins an unrivaled run of supercross dominance.

1994: Orlando again, and MC stops LaRocco’s Florida win streak. He also wins the title again.

1995: Orlando again, MC again.

  • The King of Supercross, Jeremy McGrath.
1996: Orlando again, MC again.

1997: Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes. Orlando is out as the opener. Anaheim is off the schedule as the stadium undergoes renovations. And McGrath switches to Suzuki at the last minute! The old L.A. Coliseum hosts the opener, and Greg Albertyn wins his only career supercross. It wouldn’t hold up for Albee, though, as Jeff Emig lands the title. McGrath finished way back on opening night after colliding with ex-teammate Steve Lamson, and those points prove too tough to overcome.

1998: Even crazier times in L.A., as Frenchman Sebastian Tortelli comes from way, way back on a muddy, rutted track to win on January 10. At one point, most of the leaders thought Tortelli was a lapped rider, because few even knew who he was. Title contenders Emig and McGrath finish second and third; McGrath gets his title back by season’s end.

1999: Anaheim is back as the season opener for the first time since 1990. And team Honda is back too, as Ezra Lusk leads a Honda podium sweep. McGrath struggles to seventh when he bumps a rider and goes down. Speculation runs rampant that MC’s era is over. By the end of the year, he’s champion again.

2000: Oh, let’s just end this drama: McGrath wins the Anaheim opener and the supercross title.

2001: Oh let’s just end this drama: McGrath wins the Anaheim opener and the supercross title … er, wait. McGrath does win round one easily, but the next weekend in San Diego, Ricky Carmichael beats him straight up. MC counters by winning Anaheim 2, but after that, the new era begins. Carmichael wins the final thirteen rounds of the season to land his first SX title.

2002: Carmichael switches to Honda. McGrath vows revenge. Neither does well at A1. RC takes a massive crash over a jump and McGrath struggles with arm pump. Neither makes the top ten, and David Vuillemin wins the main. Carmichael then mounts the greatest comeback yet seen—twentieth to first in the points—to retain his title.

  • James Stewart and Ricky Carmichael
2003: Welcome to the FIM World Supercross Championship, which begins with two rounds in Europe. Vuillemin takes the opener of that series, but when the AMA tour begins in Anaheim, it’s 250 rookie Chad Reed grabbing the win. It takes Carmichael a few rounds to get up to speed, and although he goes on to win the AMA title, he decides to not skip those international rounds ever again.

2004: Well, he won’t skip then when he’s healthy. Carmichael is forced out of the SX tour with a knee injury. Then Reed hurts his shoulder playing pool (!) and misses the Euro rounds too. The first race, in Seville, Spain, is arguably the craziest mudder of all time, and little-known Darryl Hurley wins it. Reed is back for the domestic opener in Anaheim and wins easily. He wins the 2004 AMA SX title as well. Heath Voss is the World SXGP Champion.

2005: Carmichael is back and races the international rounds, now in Canada. Reed doesn’t race them, and Carmichael wins the Toronto opener. The Anaheim AMA opener is crazy muddy, and Kevin Windham wins it. At the end of the year, Carmichael is AMA SX and SXGP Champ. And people have started to notice: Carmichael never wins Anaheim 1.

2006: Reed and James Stewart have to race in Canada because it worked so well for RC last year. Stewart beats RC from behind in Toronto, and he takes Anaheim 1 as well. Is it all over for RC? Nope, he ends up AMA champ, but Stewart does take the FIM World SXGP title.

2007: Reed wins in Toronto after a big collision with Stewart (sound familiar?). Carmichael is about to retire, but he sure would like to check “Win Anaheim 1” off his list. Not gonna happen; it goes to Stewart. The championships are James’ too.

2008: Toronto is moved to midseason, and Anaheim is the full opener again. Stewart crashes in turn one and Reed wins the race and, ultimately, the championship.
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