450 Words: Red Riders

450 Words Red Riders

March 5, 2012 12:25pm
There was a time when Team Honda could do no wrong. The Red Riders once dominated the sport to the tune of 13 AMA Supercross titles in 15 years, and many of those titles were won with riders many had not predicted as future stars—or riders that had not had such success until they switched to the CR line of bikes. Either way, the Honda system, or the Honda Way, was able to produce championships even when it didn’t look like they had the most talented riders in the pits. And when they did have the best riders, there was no doubt.

Honda’s run of dominance ended sharply when Jeremy McGrath split ways with the brand just before the 1997 season—MC took his four-straight SX titles to Suzuki that year but failed to win a fifth, but Honda, without time to replace MC, also came up short in another title bid. From there, Honda tried getting back to the top with the likes of Ezra Lusk, Kevin Windham, Sebastian Tortelli and Mikael Pichon on the factory squad, and Mike LaRocco through the Factory Connection team, but it wasn’t until they lured Ricky Carmichael over that they finally got the title back. And in a way, that venture was still not successful as hoped, because fans didn’t respond well to RC’s switch to the brand. Ten years after signing Carmichael to a mammoth contract for 2002, Team Honda has never again thrown a massive offer at a high-end free agent. Stewart, Reed, Villopoto and Dungey have all been on the market over the last few years, but Honda never offered a blank-check type of deal in their direction.

Seely has been a pleasant surprise for Muscle Milk Honda since taking over for an injured Trey Canard.
Photo: Carl Stone

But the brand is building success in other ways. The Factory Connection unit—now dubbed GEICO Powersports Honda—has developed amateur riders from the ground up, and the factory squad is beginning to benefit. Trey Canard is out injured at the moment, but he has delivered wins for the brand on a 450, and Justin Barcia lit it up last summer on Canard’s bike. Could someone like Eli Tomac be far behind?

Meanwhile, riders like Justin Brayton and Cole Seely weren’t on the radar through the amateur ranks, but Honda has grabbed them at the right time to deliver on some stellar riding. Seely rode superbly last weekend in Atlanta and actually looked just as impressive in St. Louis, even if a crash prevents the results from showing it. Brayton is a workhorse who finally delivered his first podium for the team. Meanwhile, Kevin Windham has been solid for a decade on the Factory Connection program, and Reed, now with full factory support, had his TwoTwo team in the thick of the championship hunt until an injury struck him down.

Gone are the days of domination with Johnson, McGrath or Carmichael. By the end of this season, a decade will separate Honda from their last AMA Supercross Championship. But Honda is proving that just about anyone who gets on a CRF450 can be a player—and in some ways, that’s a better endorsement for a brand than just winning everything in sight with one rider.

Brayton earned his first podium with Honda in St. Louis.
Photo: Carl Stone