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Racer X ReduX: Anaheim 1

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It finally started! I’m not just talking about Monster Energy AMA Supercross an FIM World Championship—I’m also talking about this new online column, which we’re dubbing Racer X Redux. Each week we’ll take a deeper look at the races; consider this a supplement to get you through to Racerhead on Friday.

And my name is Jason Weigandt. I host the Supercross Live! webcast on www.supercrossonline.com every Saturday night alongside Jim Holley, and I hope to keep doing the show, so subscribe now so I can stay employed. I promise to spend whatever money I make on something dumb, thus causing me to go into debt and give banks the infusion of cash they need to pull us out of the recession (because that’s supposed to work). In short, webcast subscription = fixing the world economy.

Speaking of, the motocross world needed some good news, and we got plenty of it at Anaheim. The long, cold winter of economic woe has finally passed, the teams/trucks/riders/mechanics/fans were all there, and the racing delivered some surprising results.

But most importantly, we were racing again. So now we get to bench-race about who won and who lost instead of who is trying to get a ride for 2010 (in which case just about everyone lost).

On Friday, if someone told you Chad Reed would go out of the race after just one lap and James Stewart would take the win, you could pretty much assume it was a snoozer. Nope. Ryan Dungey stepped into the Supercross class with one of the most impressive debuts ever, leading Stewart beyond the fifteen-lap mark, and then fighting back and trying to re-pass on the last lap. When Stewart passed RD on lap 17, Dungey bobbled and didn’t jump a triple. He lost a ton of time there, but lo and behold, he got all of that time back and nearly got back into the lead on the last lap!

Stewart didn’t out-speed Dungey; I think he just dug deeper when he needed to. Both riders were putting in 56-second laps on their good laps, and 57s when they made mistakes. Stewart willed himself into the 56es on laps 14-17, and that’s how he won the race.

  • Dungey saved the show once the Reed/Stewart battle fizzled.
Second in Dungey’s debut sounds good, but it’s even better when you factor in this: Yes, other rookies have won this race before, like last year with Josh Grant, and Damon Bradshaw in 1990. Sebastien Tortelli won the L.A. opener in 1998 while he was still basically a GP rider. But Dungey’s ride matches those guys’, even though he didn’t win. In 1990, Bradshaw actually spent the night battling fellow rookie (and his all-time hated rival) Jeff Matiasevich for the win. The big names were off the pace: Rick Johnson still had wrist problems, Jeff Ward started about last, and Jeff Stanton admits he choked while riding with a #1 plate for the first time. Bradshaw only had to beat another rookie to win. Dungey had to go through Stewart, which even Grant didn’t have to do last year, since Bubba was on the ground. And Tortelli’s win was an anomaly on a rutted, muddy track, as proven since Seb never won another SX. I’d rank Dungey’s debut as right up there with the best ever.

(And don’t give me any of that “It wasn’t Dungey’s debut because he raced a 450 before,” because in that case, Bradshaw had a 250-class podium at San Diego the year before his Anaheim win, Grant raced a 450 at Seattle in 2008, and Tortelli had already completed a full 250 GP season in ’97. The first full season is the first full season, as far as I’m concerned.)

Here’s what makes Dungey’s ride even better. Until the end of last season, Stewart had never lost a supercross he didn’t crash in, and even when he finally did, circumstances were at play. He had a horrible start in Seattle and a championship on the line in Vegas, and Ryan Villopoto won those. On Saturday night, Dungey came as close as anyone ever has to just pulling away and beating Stewart straight up. Reed led for a few laps in Anaheim last year but Stewart got back by him on lap six. And Anaheim 2 of 2006 is one of the most underrated races of all time, as Ricky Carmichael stayed glued to Stewart’s fender until Stewart washed out with two laps to go. That’s as close as I can recall anyone just handling Stewart’s speed, and even then, Stewart had to fall to lose.

Dungey, in contrast, had Stewart calmly in check for most of the night. For a few laps, Stewart looked human, as even Short and Villopoto had him in sight.

  • Does Stewart actually have more room for improvement than the rookie Dungey?
So now the question is, was Dungey that good or was Stewart a little off? Certainly, James had some cards stacked against him, as he’s working on a new bike and missed a good chunk of off-season due to an illness. And he didn’t race outdoors, either. There were a few sections, especially the whoops leading to the first triple, where James’ 450 was going east-west instead of north-south. That’s where Dungey drew next to him on the last lap, and it’s a good thing James didn’t swap then, because they both would have gone down (and Kevin Windham would have won, justice for crashing into a downed Stewart last year).

This is what I’m getting at: yes, Dungey is a rookie, so if anyone should have room for improvement, it’s him. But last year Chad Reed had Stewart covered for the first few rounds, then Stewart got his bike figured out and it was all over. This could happen again.

As for Reed, he’s as far back as Stewart was last year. If you think Chad gave up, remember, this is the dude who has finished on the podium with a shoulder held together with tape and spit in the past. He’s in a big hole now, though. When Stewart went down last year, it was easy to imagine him winning seven in a row and taking the points lead back (which he did). Can Reed do the same against Stewart and Dungey? That’s a steep climb.

When he crashed last year, Stewart broke the ice on Erin Bates’ ambush interview for live TV. Don’t get mad at Erin for doing this, because it’s her job as a reporter to get the story. Even if the dude is pissed off. And that’s impressive on her part, because I wouldn’t have wanted to go anywhere near Stewart after that crash last year. Anyway, surely Reed knew his turn was coming this time, and Erin was there with a mic and some questions. Reed even threw out a four-letter word because he was so pissed about being out.

Not as prepared was Austin Stroupe, whom Erin got to next. He could only muster up a few ums while on the back of his bike. His mechanic, Lee McCollumn, was doing his best to pilot the getaway car, Stroupe’s ums blending in nicely with Lee blipping the throttle on the 450. Beautiful stuff.

Dungey’s challenge to Stewart will give other riders some confidence. Surely Reed is thinking, “If Ryan can lead James, I can lead James.” And I bet Josh Grant thinks the same thing too. And lucky for those guys, they weren’t out there to be proven wrong. If you’re everyone else, the truth of the matter is that the third-place rider (Windham) was 37 seconds down on Stewart at the finish! That’s crazy.

  • Windham scored a victory for 31-year-olds everywhere (like the author of this story).
Still, Windham’s ride was a revelation. Kevin always seems tight at round one (barring his Anaheim 1 win in 2005, but that was just a tad bit muddy, if you recall). After this race, he told me, “I’ve been doing this sixteen years, and I think I finally stopped getting nervous for the first round.”

I stopped by the GEICO Powersports Honda truck and learned some things. Last summer the team let manager JC Waterhouse go and moved Mike LaRocco in. Mike’s credentials speak for themselves, but there’s even more to this. Way back in 1998, LaRocco started this team along with Rick Zielfelder of Factory Connection and his friend Darrin. The team has grown quite a bit since then, and now Ziggy wants to go old-school with just him, Mike, and Darren running the show again. As a team, they’re running revalved stock suspension instead of works “kit” stuff. “We’re not going to do things just because that’s the way they’ve always been done,” says Ziggy. The riders seem to like their bikes and the results (a second, third, and fourth on the weekend) seem good.

In a way, the FC Honda team reminds me of LaRocco himself. We all like to believe hard work wins championships, but life isn’t always fair like that. LaRocco did everything right as a racer and won some, but he was never the dominator. This team is the same. They do everything right and have some success, but that darned Pro Circuit squad is always there just ahead of them, kind of like LaRocco trying to chase McGrath. If they can ever get that last 1 percent they’re looking for, this team could be on a real roll (and having young talent like Canard, Wharton, Barcia, and Tomac signed up helps too).

Over at JGR … er, make that Muscle Milk/Toyota Yamaha, the news was good and bad. Justin Brayton looked really fast all day but got tight in the main. They’re okay with that. Unfortunately, Josh Grant was just too beat up to race the main. He’s being checked out today to see if he can ride this weekend.

During the off-season, you heard a lot about super-talents Josh Hill and Davi Millsaps finally finding their way to the front consistently. Both looked fast in practice, but the sixth (Hill) and ninth (Millsaps) wasn’t so hot. Don’t write them off yet. Anaheim 1 makes riders do strange things, like get nervous and pump up. It could turn around soon.

  • Max Anstie was darned fast, but the DNA/Star Yamaha guys needed better starts.
In the Lites class, a bunch of guys went faster than their results will indicate. Rookie Max Anstie lit it up in practice, but he started, like, eighteenth in the main, and this track was super hard to pass on. He finished ninth.

Anstie’s teammate Broc Tickle looked fast too. Before the race, I asked if he was bummed that people aren’t always talking about him as a title contender, but he said he’s happier being under the radar. He was a little higher-profile after winning his heat race (and yes, he thanked his team, not just the girlfriend and dog) but then went back to stealth mode with a bad start in the main and a sixth. Tickle will be on the verge of a win this season if things fall his way, kind of like Brayton last year out West (but unfortunately, Brayton came close but never found victory lane).

French MX of Nations moto winner Gautier Paulin looked awesome at times and had a good run going early in the main until Canard took him down. I, for one, expect to misspell Paulin’s name quite a bit, so I’m going to write it here for practice:

Gautier Paulin. Gautier Paulin. And while I’m at it, David Vuillemin (used to misspell that all the time. In fact, I messed it up in first story I ever sent in to Racer X, back in 2000, and I thought my career would be finished before it started).

  • Learn to spell Gautier Paulin correctly, because the name will probably come up a lot soon.
I chatted with Paulin on Saturday, and I’m impressed, because the guy looks like an athlete. It sucks for our sport that even the fittest motocrosser generally just looks like a skinny guy, so people who don’t realize how hard the riders train. I’m sure Mark McGwire looked larger than life in his baseball-playing days (and he basically was). LeBron James must cut an imposing presence in person, and even the quarterbacks in the NFL are huge. If anyone saw James Stewart in the mall, I don’t think they’d realize they were looking at one of the most dominant and fit athletes in the world today.

Paulin looks like a big, strong, tough dude—a little too big for a 250, really, which just make him look more like DV (Le Cobra). He’s a little rough right now, but I could see him becoming a great SX rider in the future … and yes, he wants to ride in the U.S. full-time in 2011.

  • Many observers were impressed with Wil Hahn's riding.
But the most surprising Lites rider, to me, was Will Hahn. I don’t know what Ping does with his guys over at Troy Lee, but last year he turned Chris Blose from “Wait, which one is Chris and which one is Michael?” into Chris Blose, aka Mr. Top Five. Made Jake Moss a name, too. Hahn looked as aggressive as anyone on a 250 all weekend, and if the track offered any room to pass, he would have gotten around Blake Wharton and finished fourth. That is impressive, and that makes two different online columns that mentioned Wilbur (this is just something that I “observed” at Anaheim…um, nevermind).

I am flat amazed that Grant Langston got tenth in the main. In the first free practice, he looked so slow that I started wondering if he should be out there. He was riding in the B practice (non-factory, basically) and dudes were still putting it to him! Then again, in 2004, I told David Izer of DMXS that Langston should just retire, because it was sad watching him get pounded into the ground every weekend on the KTM. So I should know better than to count GL out. And in the main he rode a perfect, steady race and got tenth. This guy hasn’t raced in nearly two years. Very impressive.

GL’s new teammate Jason Lawrence made the main, which has to be the best example of “doing it on pure talent” ever. He only had a few laps in him and then pulled off, and now he’ll take a few more weeks off to get back into shape. Now, some will theorize that racing is the best way to get into racing shape, but keep in mind that racing when you’re out of shape can lead to crashes and injuries. And no one wants to kill their confidence racing for fifteenth each weekend—that’s why most riders ride at home for a month before they start racing again after a big injury. Consider that what Lawrence is doing.

Freestyle master Nate Adams wants to make the night show at Anaheim or Phoenix before heading out on the Nuclear Cowboyz tour. The fastest forty riders from practice make the night show, and Nate ended up forty-first. Ouch! On the other hand, congrats to Chris Howell, who was fortieth and made the show! Word is the Metal Mulisha may grab Howell now that he took down a Soldiers of Havoc member (this is all Nuclear Cowboyz talk. The world will never be the same).

Well, this was longer than I hoped it would be, but hey, this is Anaheim 1, and no race generates gossip like this. My apologies to guys like Shorty and Byrner for not even mentioning them here, and I also apologize to all the French guys who had names I mispronounced on the webcast over the weekend. More misspellings to come next week, too.

Check out Blogandt here for stuff that I couldn’t fit in here, and email me at jasonw@racerxonline.com or hit me up on Facebook or Twitter (jasonweigandt). Soon you will be as sick of hearing from me as everyone in this office is.
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