Racer X ReduX: Indianapolis

Racer X Redux Indianapolis

March 15, 2011 4:10pm
Welcome to Redux presented by Yoshimura. And welcome to Monster Energy Supercross’ second act.

You can break this supercross season down into two parts—and since most of us look at this as entertainment, you can see it just like a movie. The first half of the season is the classic action flick—big stars, fights, explosions, and battles. But don’t look for too much meaning yet, because no matter where a rider finishes, they can always march out the “we’re just trying to be consistent,” the “we’re building on this,” and the “it’s a long season” mantras to disguise their performance.

Leader of the pack.
Photo: Andrew Fredrickson

No doubt, the first half of the year packs the excitement. All the stars are there, they’re all healthy, and the anticipation and hype meters are pegged. But somewhere along the way, things start to get serious. That’s the second half, when this series moves from action to drama.

We’ve arrived at that moment. Ryan Villopoto is trying to take over, and others are not where they want to be. Look at RV’s reaction after winning this one—when he won a big battle in Los Angeles, it was high fives to his team. Now he’s pointing up at God—the championship is getting closer, and now these wins are becoming life-changing. This was so much more than simply out riding everyone else for twenty laps.

Look at everyone else. James Stewart has tried to keep his chin up this season. In previous years, when Stewart has some bad races, he’d start hiding in his motor home. This year, he’s trying to keep smiling, trying to remain accessible. He was out there post-race in Houston, Atlanta, and here talking and signing. But it’s getting harder to stay positive as the points gap grows and the time remaining shrinks. James said he was, “so pissed off right now” on the podium, and told me, “it was pathetic.”

Look at Ryan Dungey. All year, we’ve been waiting to see the spark from the champ. We want something to light a fire, make him get aggressive and push that extra one percent over the edge. I saw it in Indy. He was uncharacteristically aggressive trying to pass Trey Canard on the first lap. He got aggro with Reed, too, and it cost him with a crash. But he’s trying, and he’s no longer just saying, “he’s happy to be here” and, “I’ve got to give it up to the team.” Did you hear his short, pissed off interview with Erin Bates on TV? I visited him in the Suzuki truck after the race, and it was a different Ryan Dungey. He’s pissed, he’s mad. This is serious.

Stewart is desperate for a win.
Photo: Andrew Fredrickson

Look at Trey Canard. Three weeks ago he was the hottest rider in this series, winning in Houston and leading in San Diego. Then came the rookie mistakes—crashes or stalls in each of the last four rounds. It boiled over in Indy, where he stalled battling Dungey on the first lap, and said after, “I was so mad. I was just demoralized. It just sucked.” He even gave Dungey a tap after the race, but later apologized. The heat is on in the heat of the moment.

Then you have Reed, who had to feel the series was coming his way two weeks ago. Had he won Atlanta, and Villopoto finished third, Reed would have been just eleven points back of the leaders with an entire second half of the season remaining. Over the last two races, though, he’s been on the podium, but he has not been on pace with RV.

These are tough pills to swallow. Riders are going to start getting mad, rivalries are going to get heated. Back in 2009, Stewart and Reed only reached the blood feud level in the second half of the series. They actually spent the first half of the season complimenting each other and trying to douse any flames. By Jacksonville, though, things heated up, and the last few races became the stuff of legend.

The only reason this didn’t happen last year was because Villopoto got hurt just as the drama was about to begin. Last year after Round 10, in this column, I wrote this:

The Dunge and Villo have battled before, but they have never had friction—they even formed a common bond in the J-Law battles. But the stakes are higher now. I think that at some point in the next month, things will tighten, pressure will rise, and something crazy will happen. Maybe at St. Louis, which always seems to host wild events, or Jacksonville and Salt Lake City, where it got crazy last year.

Dungey is still searching for his first win of the year.
Photo: Matt Pavelek

Well, it did happen in St. Louis. Villopoto cleaned Dungey out, and then Dungey tried to catch back up. The end of that race was set to be a thriller, until Villopoto crashed. It would have been so on.

This season is not going to go away quietly. There are too many personalities with too many personal stories. Consider these conflicts: In 2008, Kawasaki chose to let long-time employee Stewart walk and invest their future in Villopoto. Now the Kawi/Villo team is trying (and so far succeeding) in taking Stewart down for a championship. Villopoto also has Aldon Baker, the trainer who Stewart let go last summer. If you’re Stewart, you’re getting beat by your old team and trainer. You’re also dealing with team turnover, as Larry Brooks continues “to take family time” if you actually believe that. James is in complete control of his team right now, but he’s raced five supercrosses in a row without a win for the first time in his career. Fever is going to be getting hot.

Consider that Chad Reed rode for Kawasaki last year, too. He had a two-year deal with the team, but they both decided to part ways since the relationship didn’t really work out well for either side. The factories officially closed their doors to Chad this fall. This season, he has a chance to stick it to them all if he can beat them.

Consider that Dungey had to dodge the, “Did you only win last year because everyone got hurt?” question last year. And now, with Villopoto, Stewart and Reed healthy, he’s sitting behind each of them in points. It was easier to accept this early in the season, when there was still time to get wins, capitalize on mistakes and get this championship again. Now it’s a more dire situation. Don’t forget that when Roger DeCoster and Ian Harrison were over at Suzuki, whatever the team touched—Carmichael, Reed, and Dungey—turned to gold. Now his RM-Z450 has endured two mechanical problems this season. Does the new management really have anything to do with that? Of course not. But this is a mental game, and at this time of year, everything gets magnified. And if you’re over in the KTM rig right across the pits, why not go chat with The Dunge and plant that seed? (Oh, and just forget about that malfunction for Andrew Short this weekend. Teething problems we’ll have fixed next year. Move along.)

Reed is holding on by a thread.
Photo: Andrew Fredrickson

These riders are defined by their results, their choices and the people who surround them. In stick and ball sports, each athlete is just part of a team. In this sport, the athlete is the team—you’re not rooting for the Sox, you’re rooting for the Reed. Hardcore fans like us can define entire calendar years of our lives based on someone else’s performance on a dirt bike—2009 was the year Stewart and Reed squared off. Two-thousand-seven was the year Ricky Carmichael retired. Two-thousand-six was the year Carmichael, Stewart and Reed went down to Vegas for the title. 1992? The year Bradshaw blew it. 1996? The year MC nearly won them all.

These next few weekends will present life-changing opportunities. Dungey needs to get some wins. Stewart needs to mount an offensive. Canard needs to rebound. Villopoto needs to not throw it away. No more action movie fun. This is true drama.

The Lites class presented a similar story, with Ryan Sipes finally getting that elusive first win. It’s big not only for Sipes, but for his whole family, who just lives this thing (Ryan’s younger brother Justin is in the mix every week, too, with dad still going to all the races and spinning the wrenches for him). It’s also big for all the other riders who came so close so many times—dudes like Brett Metcalfe. After awhile, people start thinking that perhaps winning is some sort of mental block. Sipes proved you can get it done. (And damn, Metty would have done the same if his darned bike didn’t run out of gas at Southwick. But this is what I’m talking about. Seems like some of these guys have to ride under this strange cloud of bad luck. Awesome for Sipes to break through.)

Was this just one, or one of many for Sipes?
Photo: Matt Pavelek

The next question is, what will this win do for Sipes? Is this the breakthrough he needs to mount a streak and make a run for the title? He’s only twelve points down. Then again, I figured Wilson and Baggett would get on a roll after they won in Atlanta and Daytona, too. With a few mistakes from those Kawboys, and Barcia still on the mend, this title is waiting to be taken, and maybe, just maybe, Sipes can do it.

By the way, when Sipes finally crossed the finish with the win, the press box erupted into applause. We were all behind a glass window so we couldn’t hear the crowd and the crowd couldn’t hear us. It was pointless, but that many industry people were that pumped for Sipes. I don’t remember the last time I heard a round of applause after a rider won a race.

What’s also interesting is how no one takes shots at Dungey. Would be really easy for any of the riders or teams who were out last year to take a swing at him, but everyone seems to agree that he’s riding well, and just hasn’t caught the right breaks. If his peers think he’s riding well, then he must be, because obviously competition isn’t going to pay you a compliment unless you really, really deserve it.

A few years ago, I was the weird announcer guy at the races who did a lot of interviews but never actually had time to actually talk to people down in the pits. Big thanks to Steve Matthes for showing me the hot lines in the pits—remember, Matthes started out as a mechanic, so he was down in the pits and factory semi trucks long before he was an internet journalist, so he knows the ropes. To think, a few years ago the only person I really spoke to at the JGR team was Josh Summey, and even that was only because Matthes made us become friends over our mutual love for GNCC. Now I waltz into that JGR truck like I own the thing. And I just moved to Charlotte so their shop is next.

Brayton is once again having an under-the-radar-type of year.
Photo: Andrew Fredrickson

I’ve also learned to take advantage of Monster Energy Kawasaki’s generous hospitality (I have to steal food from teams now, back in the Webcast days I would get to eat from the Feld staff spread). This week I officially went too far when I ventured into the Kawi truck without Matthes and started eating their wings and hot dogs. Matthes showed up a few minutes later, and I was already deep into bro-ing and chowing down with the team. Then they proceeded to make fun of him, and I laughed along while stuffing another hotdog down. Ah, how quickly the student turns on the teacher!

And there’s lots of comedy over at that Kawi truck. Just light the fuse by claiming Villopoto is getting gifted these wins, then watch the fireworks. The show goes on, smack gets talked, and then Villo himself usually walks in toward the end of the convo as the grand finale. It’s like we’re the opening act, just waiting for the headliner to come in and really light up the audience. Good times.

This one was clearly not a gift—although I did tweet, “RV got lucky again by out riding everyone for 20 laps and winning.” He’s firing on all cylinders right now—bike looks good, team is solid, he’s in shape, and his riding style has been refined so much through the years, it seems unlikely that he will throw it away. Even on a track like Indy, with so many ruts and tricky sections, he barely makes mistakes, and when he does, he calmly puts the bike back where it should go and avoids catastrophe. I wrote the same thing about him at Daytona, but he won there, too, so I guess the story is the same. And if you don’t believe me, check out this interview we did with Ryan Hughes way back in Los Angeles.

Last week on our weekly (must listen!) Racer X podcast with Matthes, Ping and myself, we asked if Malcolm Stewart had what it took to be a top five or podium guy. I wondered if he could really hit his marks for fifteen laps. Well, he apparently can, because he finished a solid, quiet fourth. No huge crashes or mistakes that anyone seemed to notice. This is real progress.

And speaking of a quiet, solid ride, guess who peeked back into the top five this weekend? Everyone’s favorite unnoticed guy, Justin Brayton! Realtree has had a few tough weeks, but he was back in the mix this time. I do know he changed a shock setting based on what he learned for Daytona and I’m sure that made all the difference. Since I now live near the Gibbs guys, I am upgrading my love for this team significantly, and may just start calling JB10 “Perfect 10.” Depends on how many free lunches I can get out of the team. What’s it worth, boys?

Lil Stewy is starting to make a name for himself.
Photo: Matt Pavelek

Also want to give credit to Matt Lemoine, who made up for stalling out of fifth last week in Lites by actually getting fifth this time. Nice ride by Les Smith to get into the top ten, and bummer for Hunter Hewitt, who had been riding really well lately, but dropped out on the first lap of this one with a crash. Also Jason Anderson had a rough night, and now my predictions of him being the next big thing aren’t looking quite as sharp. Hopefully he’ll rebound.

Finally, Indianapolis is now the official winner for the most underrated city in America. It's made up entirely of hotels (six Marriott's alone), restaurants, and arenas/stadiums and fields. Downtown was absolutely jamming on Friday night, and it was so crazy on Saturday night that we couldn’t even find a place to get into. Long lines out the door of every place for blocks. Maybe you don’t have Indy in March up there with Vegas in May, but clearly a whole bunch of other people do. If you come to this race, you will enjoy this race.

That’s it from Indy for me. Shoot (or just send) me an email at jasonw@racerxonline.com.