If your Christmas was just like any other Christmas, it was just like every other Christmas. The holidays are about tradition, so while gifts make it seem like a day to step forward with new stuff, the day is really centered around things staying the same, year after year.
Surely at some point over the weekend, you had seen enough relatives, food and gifts. But you were trapped—heck I was down in North Carolina for the weekend and we were even snowed in down here.
Thankfully in this sport we have sunny days and exciting times right around the corner. Anaheim 1 is almost here, so that truly does make this the most wonderful time of the year.
As I slipped away from Christmas thoughts and on to more bench-racing scenarious, one more Christmas tradition rolled on. A Christmas Story was over, Christmas Vacation had run, and then came the legendary Rocky IV, the one where Rocky has to fight the Russian monster Ivan Drago in Russia on Christmas Day. Seen the movie a million times, will watch it a million more.
As the same old awesome movie rolled on with the same old awesome hype, I started to see the parallels. Watch Rocky IV closely and you can see the outline for Monster Energy Supercross 2011. The early Rocky movies were somewhat realistic (if you can overlook the whole white guy doing well thing), but by Rocky IV, Stallone had turned Rocky into a superhero. The words "heart" and "fire" were used in every third sentence, and the training and fighting montages were the stuff only steroids and Hollywood could produce.
This is how you get people pumped up, and I'm pumped, super pumped, even, on the new season. Cue the music: Hearts on fiiii--rree! Strong deeeesiireee, raaages deep within!
Kids, this is a box cover from a Video Cassette Recorder (VCR).
[I've used some classic quotes from the movie to illustrate]
Adrian: YOU CAN'T WIN!
Rocky: Oh, Adrian. No maybe I can't win. Maybe the only thing I can do is just take everything he's got. But to beat me he's gonna have to kill me, and to kill me he's gotta have the guts to stand in front of me, and to do that he's gotta be willin to die himself. I don't know if he's ready to do that. I don't know. I don't know.
-- And this is what makes Ryan Dungey so dangerous now. Yes, he won two titles last year, and yes, he did it while Stewart, Reed and Villopoto were out for significant chunks of the season. Some will say he needs to beat these guys straight up, others will say that he won the titles, and nothing else matters.
But Dungey knows he won, and he carries the confidence of the guy who won. This is bad news for the competition, because for all of RD’s talent and drive and work ethic, the one thing people seemed to doubt was his mental toughness under pressure. Two 450 titles will go a long way to erasing those doubts. Dungey has more belief than ever. I wouldn’t be surprised if he struggles in the spotlight at round one, but after a few races, he’ll be consistent, in the hunt, and still he’s the defending champ. If you’re Dungey right now, no challenge seems to big, no competitor seems invincible, and no title fight can make him wince.
These two have only faced off one time, uninjured, on 450s in supercross.
Apollo: We always have to be in the middle of the action 'cause we're the warriors. And without some challenge, without some damn war to fight then the warriors might as well be dead, Stallion.
-- This story is on repeat: Chad Reed can’t stay with his old team, and he threatens retirement until he finds a new deal. Suzuki picked him up for 2009. Kawasaki for 2010. He didn’t have any suitors this year, leading to retirement rumors again. Then throw in some life-changing events: Chad has a new baby, he lost his friend Andrew McFarlane…enough to say there was a giant exit sign staring him in the face.
First, let’s right now, forever, debunk the idea of someone getting slower because of weddings, births or funerals. Plenty of top riders have wives and kids, and you can’t draw any kind of trend line to results falling off once it happens. Heck, weddings, births and funerals only made Rocky tougher! Chad still has the fire burning inside. He thinks he has some more to give. So he went about this the hard way, building his own team.
How will it go? You can go two ways to go with this one. First, we’re talking about Chad Reed, who deserves respect based on his results over the last decade. It’s entirely believable that Reed will be back to his old podium dwelling self. The talent is there, and Chad’s confidence never wavers.
However. It’s been said that the last person to know an elite athlete has lost it is the athlete himself. We’ve seen many great riders lose their edge, and keep switching teams and bikes and brands in the hopes of finding it again. It almost never works. Plus, running your own team is not going to be easy. I’ve heard plenty of riders say that, even in this day and age of strong satellite teams, complete access to the full factory warchest is still the best game in town. For the first time, Chad doesn’t have that.
Taking Chad’s rough 2010 season and building a new team into account, it could be a bad year for Chad. But he does have one thing on his side: the dude is stubborn. He’s been counted out before and figured out a way to take punches, get off the mat, and win again. This will be his biggest challenge yet, but I guarantee you he believes he will do it. Maybe with Reed we just get to say he's innocent until proven guilty. Until we know for absolutely certain that he’s done, you have to think he’s not.
Is Reedy still speedy (enough)?
Apollo: Well, I've been with the best, and I've BEAT the best! I've retired more men than Social Security!
--Let’s take all stuff we said about Reed above—about weddings and births having no effect on racing—and add it to the Kevin Windham file, too. Do you even know what year Kevin got married? What year his first daughter was born? You don’t because even with all that going on, he’s remained the same old Kevin at the races and in the results column.
Last year was a great year for K-Dub, with two supercross wins, second in series’ points, and even an improbable AMA Motocross triumph in a series he wasn’t even supposed to race in.
So as good as Kevin was in 2010, he’s coming into 2011 with more momentum. And six outdoors races and some supercross racing in Australia means he should be in fighting shape from the very first gate drop.
That’s all good, but remember, it’s the same old Kevin at the races. No matter who the top dog is in this game—McGrath, Carmichael, Stewart, Reed, Dungey—KW always seems a hair off of him, even in his best year.
I talked to Kevin last week and I can assure you winning that elusive championship is still his number-one goal. The fans love him, and he loves them, but he’s still doing this for the wins, not the accolades. But he’ll have to get through some tough hombres to get this done.
Duke: He's worried! You cut him! You hurt him! You see? You see? He's not a machine, he's a man!
-- Rookies weren’t supposed to contend for titles right from the start, but Dungey changed all that by winning the whole thing last year. So now this year’s crop, including Trey Canard, Jake Weimer and Brett Metcalfe, can look to RD2010 for inspiration. Unfortunately for Weimer, he’s already out after breaking his arm in a practice crash yesterday. For Metcalfe, I hope he avoids the same fate. Getting through the full 17 races healthy should be the first goal, as even Lites SX tours have been tough for him with injuries in the past. He’s definitely rolling with some confidence after a strong outdoor tour, though.
Canard has already proven he can deliver on the 450. We’ve seen many Lites guys step up for guest rides in the big class and do well, only to struggle under the pressure of the full season when the time came. Canard may be different. He’s got championship and Motocross of Nations experience, and he has Dungey’s breakthrough last year as a guide.
The only trouble is he’ll be going for it against a full field now, not an injury depleted unit like he faced last year. Tough times will come, he has to keep his chin up through it and keep on fighting.
Also, look out for Kyle Regal. I believe he will do big things this season with San Manuel Yamaha.
Ludmilla (Drago’s Wife): He's a professional fighter, not a killer. We are getting death threats. We are not involved in politics. All I want is for my husband to be safe, and to be treated fairly. You have this belief that you are better than us. You have this belief that this country is so very good and we are so very bad.
-- So maybe you didn’t get what you wanted for Christmas. You’ve got nothing on Christophe Pourcel. He lost the elusive AMA 250 Motocross Championship in heartbreaking fashion, fans turned against him and started booing him on the podium while they chanted "USA! USA!" for Canard, his injury has been rough, and for some reason Christophe has been unable to nail down a 450 ride. As far as we know, he won’t be racing at all at Anaheim. It is simply unprecedented for a rider with this level of success simply not getting a deal together, and this is a travesty.
Falls don’t come much harder and much faster. The morning of Pala, it looked like Christophe would emerge as 250 Motocross Champion, cash in a nice title bonus, and sign a big 450 deal. Instead, he was left hurt, title-less and rideless.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Christophe Pourcel is cool. He is funny. I really like working with the guy. He gets the short end of the stick because of the language barrier, and his dry sense of humor than many don’t notice. I really thought that in a few years the fans would really warm up to him. I sure hope they get the chance.
Christophe Pourcel does not have a ride. Sense? This makes none.
Ludmilla: No, Draggo is naturally trained.
Interviewer: Then how do you account for his... freakish strength?
Ludmilla: [smiles] Like your Popeye. He ate his spinach every day. [everyone laughs]
-- James Stewart’s potential to just destroy everyone is the scary part of this season. If James still has his fast ball, he could go on a streak and turn this into a route. And I believe he still has that fast ball. Missing nearly the entire racing year last year with a wrist injury was bad, but it was the best thing he could do. Rushing back from a navicular break is career suicide, but James avoided it, and I think he’ll be 100 percent for Anahiem. And a 100 percent James Stewart is scary if you have to try to beat him.
Maybe you’re not a James Stewart fan right now, and you’re not convinced, but try to be honest with yourself. If you’re in Vegas and you have a million dollars to bet on one guy to reeling off 12 wins this season against healthy competition, for a million dollars, would you really bet on Dungey, Villopoto or Reed to win 12 of 17 races against this kind of competition?
I’m not saying Stewart is going to do it, but I am saying that if I had to bet on who could do it, my money would go on him. I don’t see anyway anyone else can be that dominant against this field. But James has that ability. If we roll into the month of April, and Stewart is the fastest guy in practice every week and is winning the main events in a romp, will you really be shocked?
Drago: I can not be defeated. I beat all man. Someday, I will be the the real champion.
-- Ryan Villopoto’s stats don’t indicate his true ability. He has missed significant portions of all four of his 450 championship series with injuries and illness, but this is more coincidence than a trend. RV may ride hard, but he’s never been known as a crasher. Besides last year’s bone cruncher in St. Louis, he hasn’t even really had a high-profile wreck on a 450. It’s very possible that he will make it through this season safe, so we will try to rule another big injury out.
I think Villopoto’s head is in the right place right now. When he bowed out of the 2009 season with a torn ACL, he relished the chance to finally get a break for the summer. You could tell his fitness was still lagging by the time 2010 began. That’s not the case this year. While Ryan spent the summer of ’09 hanging out, he spent the summer of ’10 screaming at his TV screen while watching Dungey reel off wins. He has Aldon Baker behind him, he’s fired up, and from what I hear, the gnarly leg injury is all healed up.
If the leg is really all fixed, I can only think of one other issue for RV: We still haven’t seen the complete well-round game from him yet. Last year he won a lot of races, but only when he got the start and had everything figured out. When he didn’t get the start, he often struggled to come through. He had a few off races, too, like Dallas, where Dungey straight handed it to him in a heat race and Villo struggled to fourth in the main. When he’s good, he’s great, but he will have to come from behind and win on his bad days at some point over 17 rounds.
Duke: But now you're the one. You're the one that's gonna keep his spirit alive. Now you're gonna’ have to go through hell. Worse than any nightmare you ever dreamed. But in the end, I know you'll be the one standing.
-- Take the Google Earth view of this scenario, and it’s not good: You go from Team Honda to Team KTM, and you trade a 450 for a 350. Andrew Short has an, um, tall order. But maybe it’s not so bad. Honda doesn’t dominate like it used to, Roger DeCoster is running the KTM ship, and Shorty has at least been saying all the right things about his new bike. But then again, Shorty always says the right things!
Red Bull KTM made the right move getting Shorty. Let’s say, instead, that Dungey had wiggled out of his Suzuki deal to follow DeCoster over to KTM. If Dungey doesn’t win races immediately, the 350 looks like a fail. Same if they had gotten Reed. Shorty hasn’t won a supercross main yet, so if he does, KTM’s a huge winner. If he puts in some solid rides, which he realistically should do, they’re still looking good. Surely being the first to race this bike in supercross won’t be easy, but Andrew’s not afraid to work for it.
Short’s season is harder for me to predict than any other rider. The 350 is very hard to gauge. Yes, Mike Alessi struggled on one outdoors, but everyone says Shorty is hauling, and I’ve even heard that the bike sounds stronger than it did over the summer. Deep, tilled up loam won’t be a factor indoors. If Shorty can still get decent starts and can clear all the right obstacles, they might be on to something.
Or maybe Team Honda is still the gold standard, and no one gets better once they leave. Hmm, come to think of it, how the heck is Millsaps going to do on Muscle Milk/Toyota JGR?
Yes, we're actually now actually asking the question, "I wonder if KTM's supercross program is superior to Team Honda?"
Nicoli Koloff [Drago’s Manager at the Creed-Drago press conference] You are not very realistic, are you, Mr. Creed?
Apollo: Now who is this guy? Where did you come from?
Nicoli Koloff: You can box, yes. But you are far too old to think that you can beat Drago.
Apollo: Is that a fact?
Nicoli Koloff: Yes. And it could be a painful one!
-- A few veterans out there looking for a new lease on racing: Ivan Tedesco and Nick Wey, for example. These dudes have been through the ringer the last few years, but they’re not giving up. They’re also bringing some cred to relatively new teams. IT is the highest-profile rider in the Dodge Hart & Huntington Kawasaki stable, as is Wey over at Valli Motorsports Yamaha.
The question is, how much do they have left?
Tedesco was really starting to come into his own with Valli last year until he got hurt in St. Louis. If he can get back up to that level, he could put the H&H team on the box for the first time ever. But if the mileage is starting to pile up on these guys, it will show. Since they’re such good guys and hard workers, we’re all certainly hoping that’s not the case.
Nicoli Koloff: [at the Balboa-Drago press conference] It is a matter of size. Evolution. Isn't it, gentlemen? Drago is the most perfectly trained athlete ever. This other man has not the size, the strength, the genetics to win. Drago is a look at the future!
-- It’s almost impossible to predict how the Lites classes will shape up because teams never declare who is racing what coast until late. Even today, we received a PDF of the pre-entry list for Anaheim, and the powerhouse Monster Pro Circuit Kawasaki and GEICO Honda teams have entered all four of their riders. Is that some kind of joke?
I do know that two high-profile rookies will make their debuts either at Anaheim or Houston. Eli Tomac will have a high standard to match after winning his pro motocross debut last year at Hangtown. Will the off-season allow him to rest up and get that crazy speed back? Will he take to supercross? I think the answers are yes and yes.
Not enough people are talking about Jason Anderson. Even Tomac’s debut had some anticipation at Hangtown, but Anderson has been under the radar. Even the fact that he signed back on with his original supporter, Suzuki, after amateur stints with KTM and Kawasaki, seems to have generated little buzz.
I’ve watched Anderson a lot at Loretta’s, and he’s the real deal. You heard it here first, and that’s a shame that today is December 29th and I’m the first one saying it.
Anderson also has a rookie teammate in Ian Trettel, who is good, but not quite as spectacular. I’d say Anderson has the potential to ignite instantly while Trettle will progress more steadily.
As for the rest of the Lites class, will someone please make these teams make a decision?
Nicoli Koloff: Whatever he hits, he destroys.
-- It took a year of sacrifice to get a storyline this good. Stewart, Reed and Villopoto went out with injuries last year, which sucked, but it helps make this year completely unpredictable. We’ve got irresistible forces and immovable objects in all directions. A healthy James Stewart may very well still be the fastest man on the planet. Ryan Dungey seems to get better every day, so he’ll be even stronger than he was last year. Villopoto believes he had Dungey beat last year. Reed knows he can still run with the lead pack. Windham believes the best is yet to come. The rookie crop is exciting. The rejuvenated KTM effort is unpredictable. The Millsaps/Brayton combo at JGR could be good. Josh Grant is back on Hondas. Mike Alessi is back in supercross. So much to see and do and talk about, it’s going to be a great season.
And if that doesn’t pump you up, just watch this or this.
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