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Racer X ReduX: Anaheim 2

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I think something just changed.

James Stewart and Chad Reed might have the longest-running rivalry ever in this sport. It started back in 2002, when they were pitted against each other in the 125cc East/West Shootout in Las Vegas, Reed with the East Region Championship and Stewart with, uh, a lot of wins out West (sadly, the actual West Region Champ, Travis Preston, didn’t get much).

  • Note the national pastime sign in the background. If we had battles like this every week, supercross would be bigger than baseball.
Stewart won at the shootout, and then rematches came weekly during the AMA Motocross Championship. One time, at Unadilla, Stewart famously slowed up to let Reed catch and pass him, only to turn it back up, pass Reed back and pull away. He wanted to take the “I can’t get a good start” excuse away from Reed. From there, the bad blood just kept getting... is badder a word?

At this point, you pretty much can’t have a conversation about them without someone taking sides. “Stewart and Reed” is “Republican vs. Democrat”. As such, anything we write about the guys here is immediately questioned by exactly half of the readers, who will believe we’re biased Reed or Stewart sympathizers. Stewart is either a hero for riding through pain in Phoenix and Anaheim, or he’s just a drama queen. The fans are on both sides of the fence, but few are sitting right on it.

Well, we’re going to try to sit on it this week. And I think there is just one thing we can all agree on: sitting on a fence hurts.

But it might not be this way for long. For the first time since the beginning of the previous decade, a rider not named Carmichael, Stewart or Reed is threatening to run away with this championship. That’s Ryan Dungey. Reed is already out with a broken hand, and James Stewart is barely hanging on—literally—with a jacked-up wrist (believe it). And Dungey looks like the total package.

After his battle with Stewart at A1 and his win in Phoenix, we knew Dungey had the speed, the conditioning, the confidence, and the right group of people around him (he’s going riding today with Carmichael). With an impressive come-from-behind win at Anaheim II, we now also know he’s patient. Yeah, the pressure will build on the rookie if he holds the points lead late in the season, but this guy just went through a season of nail-biters as a Lites rider, followed by a clutch MX of Nations triumph.

  • Dungey has eclipsed Bradshaw's early-season rookie performance, but Damon did no-handers when he won, so there's that.
Much of the Reed/Stewart drama comes from them being the top men in the sport. If injuries knock them back and a new crop emerges, the drama will be over. And with the way Dungey is riding, that could happen. He is now off to the best rookie start in the history of the series, piling up 72 points in three races. Damon Bradshaw nearly had a perfect score of 75 after three rounds in ’90, but he crashed out of San Diego, a fact I had to write only because I said I would last week.

There is a caveat to all of this: James “The fastest man on the planet” Stewart is still out there. He’s hurt right now, for sure – just take a look at that massive crash with Kyle Partridge for proof – and whether the crash was his fault or not doesn’t make it hurt any less. His wrist is the worst part, and that’s a tricky injury – especially when it’s the throttle hand, which is the case here. Either that wrist magically gets better and James gets his 20-lap mojo back, or he’s stuck aggravating it every weekend and missing out on riding during the week. This is a huge question mark, because as well as Dungey is riding, we still don’t know for sure if he can take down a 100-percent healthy Stewart every week. And we may never know.

All of this led to a collision course in Anaheim 2, one of the best supercross races you’ll ever see. It was close and awesome and great, and I actually had to borrow words from Sunday to find enough stuff to use on Saturday. Hence, when I watched the Saints beat the Vikings in OT on Sunday night, all I could say was “that was decent.”

Really good supercross racing emerges when riders don’t know where they stand with each other. And that usually happens at the beginning of the season. Last year’s A2 was awesome, as well, with Stewart fighting past Kevin Windham, Josh Grant and Ryan Villopoto to get the lead on the 11th lap, then holding off the furious advances of Reed at the finish.

There have been classic battles at A2 and A3 before, because it’s early in the season and a lot of riders still have the confidence to win. Josh Hill is a prime example. After a solid third last week, he had the mojo going all day. In his heat race, he must have been confused when he ran up on Stewart, who had gotten the holeshot. He finally decided to go forward and make the pass and win the race. Stewart seemed to have his trademark explosiveness, but only in short bursts.

  • The technical A2 track didn't seem to work as well for Tedesco, but his Bailey gear looked good, at least.
In the main, Austin “Mike Alessi” Stroupe nailed yet another killer start, and again refused to back down from the big names. Stroupe isn’t turning in 20 solid laps yet, but his first few are always spectacular. Again, Suzuki needed another rider to get their logos up front, and the Rockstar/Makita/Yoshimura/Scott-backed rider delivered.

Stewart soon had the lead with Hill right behind him, just like the heat race. Dungey worked his way past Stroupe and then sat in third watching the Yamaha battle go down. The track took care of the rest.

Much has been said about the work that Dirt Wurx and Feld Entertainment did to save A2’s track. The guys literally started working at 5 a.m. in Phoenix, worked all day, drove all night to Anaheim and then worked all day Sunday to get the A2 track finished before the rain came. You really couldn’t tell, at all, that the stadium had absorbed eight inches of rain during the week (which is half of Anaheim’s yearly precipitation, and also about the same as I get at my house in Morgantown every day, it seems).

There was just one small sign of that rain. A wee bit of mud was leftover at the base of some jumps, and it led to better racing. One lap Hill would jump something Stewart wouldn’t, then the next lap Stewart would jump and Hill wouldn’t, and on it went. Spectacular racing, and then Dungey rolled up to make it a three-way battle. Dungey had a nice line figured out in the first corner; he was using the middle and avoiding the big rut near the outside.
Now an endorsement for two of the expert analysts I have worked with;

1) My SupercrossLive! Partner, Jim “Hollywood” Holley, noticed Dungey’s line a few laps in and predicted it would be a factor. Dungey later passed Hill for the lead there, and we exchanged high fives because our voices were already pegged and Jim was even more excited than usual.

2) It’s difficult to carry so much speed down the start straight and then hang a turn without using the rut. Takes me back to what Jeff Emig described while I worked with him during the AMA Motocross tour this summer on TV. Emig says Dungey is really, really good at weighting the outside of his bike and making it stick on the inside of flat, bermless turns. You got it, Fro.

Dungey also has fitness. Remember last week when he pulled away from Villopoto on lap 13? Guess what lap Dungey took the lead on this week? Lap 13! As other internet observers have noted, he then logged his best lap of the race on lap 14 to get away, and stayed in the low 59s on 15, 16 and 17 to seal it. Hill hit the wall and drifted into one-minute laps on 14, 15 and 16. Hill is definitely leaner and meaner this year, but he admits pushing the pace and riding at absolute full-tilt max took a lot out of him.
Hill won a supercross in 2008, but I think this was his best race ever. When he won Minneapolis in ’08, Stewart was out and Reed crashed, so all Hill had to do was beat some kid named, oh wait, Ryan Dungey! Scratch that thought and we’ll just say they were both great rides.

  • Is he holding his wrist!?!?!
Okay, then there’s Stewart. Moto-journalists really should thank him for making the afternoon practice sessions so fun. Last week, he skipped the second timed session and cell phone towers caught on fire from the texting and tweeting that broke out. This week, he rode a few laps in practice with people on the floor studying his every move, TMZ-style. Did he grab his shoulder? His wrist? His ribs? If L&M Racing wants to communicate, but the cell towers have melted down, maybe the two-headed Paul/Oscar mechanic combination can just write on the pitboard, “please check the box next to what hurts” let James make his choice, and allow us to read it. An ex-factory mechanic who now writes about the sport always complains about mechanics pit boarding during practice, but he would probably like that.

Then James didn’t come out for opening ceremonies. Later, on the Webcast, Larry Brooks told us that at that time, James was probably not going to race. Brooks said he then decided to suit up for the heat race, which can give the Reed vs. Stewart sides of every argument plenty of fodder.

Stewart said on the podium that he could only hold on for eight laps. The second half of his race was dotted with a lot of one-minute lap times. I think the guy is pretty hurt and you have the comment box below to say what you think. Methinks no one will hold back.

Andrew Short finished fourth. Like Hill, this wasn’t his career-best finish, but I think it was his career-best ride. Short was just a few bike lengths from striking distance the whole time. His speed was right there with the leaders, and if anyone tangled, he could have won. It’s hard to be super pumped without a podium, but Andrew saw the leaders most of the way, and that’s pretty exciting.

Hey guess what? Kevin Windham started the race a little slow but ended strong, logging his best time on lap 13. Is this really KW or does Mike LaRocco throw some of his old MSR gear on and do the riding for him? Kevin actually got a good start in his heat race, but tagged a Tuff Block in the first turn and crashed. He charged back to fifth. Once again, I’ll mention that Kevin usually gets better in the second half of the season. Look out.

  • The A1 Ryan Villopoto slept in the Anaheim dirt and came back for A2. The other rode in Phoenix.
Besides all the Dungey/Hill/Stewart craziness up front, people still remember that Ryan Villopoto is supposed to be a contender. So a lot of people wondered what happened to him. His seventh was not very impressive; he caught Justin Brayton around the 12th lap and couldn’t get by him, and by the end Brayton pulled away. You won’t find many years were a rider lost a battle for sixth and later won the supercross championship. A different motocross magazine (which focuses on Action) used to say you know who’s a genuine contender by round five. We’ll see.

The Corrections: Eagle-eyed readers are helping keep me on my toes, and here are two clarifications from previous columns. First, a letter from someone who I think is named Roger Dale:

On Thursday's Anaheim1 ReduX by Jason Weigandt, he was talking about the Factory Connection team being started by Mike LaRocco and Rick Zielfelder in 1998. I've actually always thought that team was started in 1997 with Damon Bradshaw riding and Rick Zielfelder. Am I wrong or was Jason wrong? Thanks and Roll Tide!

Well, as always I am pretty much wrong but I can defend this: Yes, Bradshaw teamed with Factory Connection under the Manchester Honda banner in ’97, but when Ziggy was talking about getting back to the roots of the team, he described the ’98 version, when LaRocco and Darren Borcherding joined up. You could say Bradshaw built the foundation for this team, but LaRocco made it a house. I’ll say we’re both right so I can sleep better at night. And the Tide did roll, so congrats.

The other correction:
I'm just writing to note that Dungey missed like six or so nationals in '07 from a crash at Red Bud on the ski jump. I think that is the broken collarbone you're alluding to, but it took him out for more than one race.  I guess he has a little bit of a hard time with that track.

Cheers.
Kyle Vanderwerff

  • Tommy Hahn calls me Weeds, but I'm still rooting for him.
Good point, Kyle, I forgot Dungey crashed on that ski jump. He did miss the motos that day at Red Bud, but came right back at the next race in Unadilla to go 2-2. But I am still wrong about Dungey only missing Steel City when he broke his collarbone there. SC wasn’t the finale in ’07, so Dungey missed Texas and Glen Helen after that. Now I will hit myself in the head with a shovel.

Tommy Hahn entered the season nursing some injuries, and so far he’s been just searching for the top 10. I think he’ll sort himself out soon. Grant Langston told me he had some suspension woes at Phoenix, which is what led to his crash there. He wanted to test a new shock during the week, but the rain prevented that. A friend of his has some land on high ground and promised to build Grant some SX obstacles this week so he can get it all dialed in.
   
In Lites, Jake Weimer won in a way I didn’t know he had in him. Weimer is a great rider and a cool guy, but I don’t know if he had ever entered mind-blowing status. He was there at Anaheim, though. The Anaheim whoops were really tough, especially for the 250F riders, but Weimer was killing them. By the end of the race, he was wheelieing out of the first section, throwing a little flair on it. Jake now has seven career Lites SX wins, but this was his most impressive.
   
Ryan Morias had the worst luck at Anaheim, getting launched just a few moments into his heat race by Phil Nicoletti. For as bad as the crash was, he ended up beaten but not broken, and should be back for San Diego.
   
  • Weimer and W. Hahn are impressing. Wil is in the same spot Jake was a few years ago. Think about it.
Nice job by Trey Canard to salvage third; he’s trying hard and does everything right, but Weimer has everything going his way right now, just the way Trey did early in ’08. But Trey still produces the funniest interviews in the game. Check out this one with Holley: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Mbsm8tMmzw
   
TLD/Lucas Oil Honda’s Wil Hahn was on the gas again en route to second, his teammate Cole Seely rode amazingly well to get fifth, and Ping probably wishes he had himself to team manage himself when he was racing. Last year, Hahn did produce a second in Jacksonville, but this year his consistency has stepped up, as he’s tied for second in points with Canard.
   
I think Gautier Paulin is leaving supercross now to go back to Europe; again, I think he will be good here someday. Some laps, the guy kills it, the next lap he’s casing jumps. Smooth out the rough edges and he could do some damage.
   
And finally, Broc Tickle managed to one-up his bad starts by crashing on the first lap of the main and getting up a half-lap behind everyone else. He fought back up to tenth. As always, Tickle is serious.
   
Okay once again this is entirely too long and many deserving riders have not been mentioned here. Email me jasonw@racerxonline.com or hit me up @jasonweigandt on Twitter or on Facebook where I have yet to actually make a book of my face, but I do have an account. See you in San Francisco!
   
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