Changing habits is the hardest challenge in life. In supercross, habitual dominance was the habit. The cravings have existed since Jeremy McGrath busted out 10 wins and a championship in his rookie year of 1993. Yes, there were occasional moments on the wagon. When MC switched to Suzuki in 1997, things got unpredictable, and it took a few rounds in 1998 on a Yamaha in for him to get the full mojo back. Then when Ricky Carmichael kicked the door down in 2001, he did it by winning 13 races in a row. Chad Reed’s 2004 title run included 10 wins, and James Stewart won 13 in 2007.
Just like your aunt who won’t stop smoking, or that annual resolution to finally lose weight, save money, or stop reading Observations, each year we hope the habitual domination habit gets kicked. And for a few rounds each season, it looks like it’s going to happen. Then the old habit kicks back in.
Well, I think that old habit has been kicked.
Supercross has changed. Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but I believe the days of dominance are over—for real this time.
Are the days of dominance over?
Photo: Simon Cudby
Of course, we also have a habit of making such declarations. It’s easy to say this before round one or going into round three. We’ve been there before. But here we are 13 races into Monster Energy Supercross for 2011, and things have been so crazy, so consistently, that I think it’s about time we just permanently expect the unexpected. The era of dominance is over. Something has changed.
In the last three seasons, three new riders have been added to the “realistically could win on any weekend” roster. Ryan Villopoto, Ryan Dungey and Trey Canard headed to victory lane legitzville within their rookie seasons. Before that, most of the hot properties out of the lites class came in with high expectations but never became consistent winners. Riders like Huffman, Pastrana, Fonseca, Tedesco, Langston and Millsaps just couldn’t make The Leap to become a genuine title contender in the big class. And not from lack of trying! These were and are all solid, talented riders, but the climb was just too steep when faced with immortal talents like McGrath, Carmichael, Reed and Stewart. Now we have three rookies with wins in three consecutive seasons—each with multiple wins, even—and Pourcel and Weimer haven’t even gotten a shot.
Canard is the latest to make an impact in his rookie season.
Photo: Simon Cudby
This just opens the door for more. I’m sure Justin Barcia is just counting the days until he gets his shot on a 450, for example. For 15 years, you had to break through against probably the three fastest forces to ever hit a supercross track—McGrath, Carmichael and Stewart. We’re back to the point where the really good talents can compete for wins—you no longer need to be an alien to apply for a championship.
Yes, Reed and Stewart are still out there, but the fact that they don’t own this series like they used to just serves as more proof. One of them may win the championship this year, but it’s not a two-man show.
Things are super tight now. In baseball, they say momentum is only as good as the next day’s starting pitcher. In supercross this year, momentum is only as good as the next day’s start. Really, we can analyze and dig deep through opinions and polls and theories, but so much of this season has come down to starts. Trey Canard started in front of the rest of the contenders in two of the last three races, and he won two of the last three. Dungey started in front in one of the last three and won one of the last three. Villopoto got a start in Indy and won—his starts have sucked since and he hasn’t won since. Stewart hasn’t won in awhile, either, and during that string he’s been in the back at the start way more often than usual.
Is the field catching up to Reed and Stewart?
Photo: Simon Cudby
Before, the starts mattered, but they couldn’t always singularly determine the outcome of the race. MC didn’t get 14 holeshots when he won 14 races in 1996. Stewart didn’t get 13 in ‘07. With the aliens in the field, a top five start was all they needed to win. Now, starting fifth may just mean finishing fifth, unless someone crashes. The speed gap is just that close right now.
That was all on display again this weekend in Dallas, or Arlington, or whatever we’re supposed to call the location of this race. (And by the way, the Rangers were playing the Red Sox across the street on Saturday night and sold their game out, but the supercross drew 50,000 as well, which means a lot of people are pumped on this series. Well done by Arlington. How often do cities handle 50,000 people in both the football and baseball stadiums at the same time?)
Anyway, this is the way races go nowadays: In Dallas, Canard got the start. Stewart put his still-considerable speed on display by scrubbing past Dungey early and the getting past Reed in the whoops. If this were 2007, or 2009, Stewart would have then reeled Canard in and turned a top-five start into a win. In those days, it didn’t matter what anyone else did—you can get the holeshot, adjust settings, change your training, move to Florida, switch bike brands or take up a new religion, but Stewart’s speed was so great that you were not going to beat him if he didn’t crash. No one could stop the Carmichael or McGrath express when it was going, either. The race was his destiny and everyone else was just a part of it.
Stewart logged his best lap of the race on lap two. His 50.196 would stand as the fastest lap of anyone in the main. Don’t doubt for one moment that when it comes to reading the stopwatch on your best lap of the day, Stewart is still the fastest man on the planet. But then he couldn’t quite maintain it. Reed reeled off seven-straight laps in the 50s, while Stewart threw a 51 and a 52 in there. Reed repassed him. They closed ever-so-slightly on Canard, but even if they had not gotten together for the 763rd time, there’s no guarantee that they would have won the race. This is the way supercross works today.
Is Stewart's dominance over?
Photo: Simon Cudby
The usual double standards still apply in Stewart’s case. It’s still a story if he doesn’t win a race. It’s still a story if someone merely keeps up with him or passes him. He’s still the guy that most of the people were probably talking about when the race was over. But he’s not the guaranteed winner of the race or the title. Could he find his old mojo again and start utilizing that speed to dominate again? Maybe, but it’s starting to look more and more like missing last year with an injury has let the field close the gap up just enough. If anything is off even the slightest—and in Stewart’s case you can point to a myriad of things, from missing a year, to a pile of big crashes, to his team manager or arrest drama—as to why he may have come back down to earth and became merely one of the best, instead of the best.
Same for everyone else. Villopoto’s seat came unlatched early, which made it tough to grip the bike through the whoops—and that was more critical on this track than maybe any other this year. That was just enough to make him fifth fastest, but he got second since he didn’t crash. Dungey may have had the stuff to go after Canard, but he tangled with Michael Byrne. Any little thing can change everything.
This makes it nearly impossible to pick a winner during the stretch run. Reed has been fast the last few weeks. Canard and Dungey have gotten wins. Villopoto hasn’t had a chance to show what he has, and Stewart can still log unmatchable lap times. These are great qualities, but they’re only as good as next week’s start or next week’s mistake. It’s been a long time since the sport was like this, but after eight-straight weeks of it, I think it’s now the rule and not the exception.
Villopoto struggled off the start in Dallas.
Photo: Andrew Fredrickson
The Lites class is the same. At one moment it looked like Blake Baggett was back and ready to win again. Then this was Ryan Sipes’ race. Then Justin Barcia’s. But eventually Dean Wilson overwhelmed them all to win it. Somehow, the same power of parity has swept through both classes.
If you’re like me you can’t help but laugh whenever Wilson and Barcia hook up. The instant they get close, they start fighting like an old married couple: They don’t move fast, they don’t really accomplish anything, and they probably won’t ever change. And this week Wilson even threw an “elusive peup” (that’s poop if you don’t speak Scottish) into his old-man repetior.
I respect the human element at work here. Stewart isn’t going to back it down after all of his big crashes this year, and Barcia isn’t going to let people go because he has a big points lead. Emotion plays a part, and when Stewart sees an opening on Reed in the whoops, he’s going to pin it to try to make something happen. If Barcia sees Wilson in front of him, he’s going to aim for a wheel.
As for Sipes, he admitted after the race that he lost focus once he made a bunch of mistakes and coughed up the lead. That’s what led to his crash on the next lap.
Mistakes cost Sipes in Dallas.
Photo: Andrew Fredrickson
Tommy Hahn had a good return to the races with seventh, but he did say he was torn on if he should have passed Reed on the last lap when Reed went down. No one wants to get in between the title contenders at this point! The only rider who I see truly trying to get into that mix is Kevin Windham, who rode about as well as he has all year and took fifth. If the chance to win or podium is there, KW will try to make the most of it. I think everyone else is in “get out of the way mode” as the championship intensity ramps up.
Oh, and Mike Alessi did try. He nailed the holeshot, and this was such a big deal that KTM had a press release out a mere three hours later with the headline “Alessi Holeshot at Arlington Supercross!” The PR also said, “After earning multiple holeshots this season on his 350 SX-F Alessi's bike was randomly chosen for a tear-down after the race. After careful evaluation the AMA concluded that Alessi's bike was legal and he has been pulling multiple holeshots on his appropriately bored 350cc KTM.”
Yes, that was an AMA certified official holeshot. Canard ate Mike up immediately, but Mike tried scrubbing the first triple hard to keep up. Then when Dungey made a pass, Alessi stuffed him right back. After the race, the Suzuki guys were kind of bummed Mike did that, because there was absolutely no chance he was going to hold off Dungey for 19 more laps, so he basically wrecked Dungey’s race for no real reason—if Dunge had gotten to second on the first lap it may have changed everything. Oh and about 20 seconds later, Mike hit the whoops and his run at the front was over.
Alessi would grab the holeshot in Dallas, but it would not last long.
Photo: Simon Cudby
Matthes and I felt bad seeing Mike struggle in the whoops, and his brother Jeff was sitting right in front of us. So we asked Jeff how Tony somehow missed out on teaching Mike the whoops back when he was teaching starts. According to Jeff, they have built full-scale supercross tracks with nothing but whoop sections—no jumps, just whoops. And yet it still didn’t work. Jeff also said he helped Mike after practice in Dallas, and if not for his advice, Mike wouldn’t have made the main event.
At the beginning of the season I predicted big things from Lites pro rookie Jason Anderson, but so far neither Jason (me or him) has looked very good based on that prediction. Seems like if anything can go wrong for Anderson, it does, including this weekend when he started decently and then “someone just slid into me in the turn after the finish” on the first lap. Dude has zero momentum going in this supercross thing and hopefully the outdoors lights the spark. He came from about last to 12th this week. On the other hand, Gannon Audette had his best race yet in his rookie season, with an eighth. And that other rookie who isn’t on the factory Suzuki or Yamaha lites team? Yeah, Malcolm Stewart took fourth for the second time this year.
I feel for Ivan Tedesco. Dude tries so hard, but he’s been through a lot of hurt in the last few years. His rib/lung injuries last season have been replaced with a torn ACL this year. Ivan has always been a fighter, but you have to wonder if all that desire isn’t getting him into some trouble this year—he’s been on the ground a lot.
That’s it for this week, but we’re heading to St. Louis, which seems to have the market cornered on craziness. This place hosted Emig’s streak-stopper in 1996, Carmichael and Stewart crashing out in ’06, Canard putting Villopoto into the finish line in ’08 and of course last year’s title-ending showdown between Villopoto and Dungey. Buckle up! (And email me at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Anderson has struggled through his first season.
Photo: Andrew Fredrickson