If there’s any good that came out of Ryan Villopoto’s red cross/yellow flag mix up/pass up of James Stewart in St. Louis, it’s that it made people really mad. Oh yeah, if you’re Ryan, it was also good to win the race. But he’s done plenty of winning already. It’s the polarizing part that was a real score for him.
Think about it. In this business, you haven’t really won until you’ve won so much that the fans start wanting to see you lose. That’s rare air, the type of space only the all-time greats can occupy. For years, Villopoto has been the little red engine that could. Fighting against established big names like Chad Reed and Stewart, a contemporary in Ryan Dungey, and also missing enough races with injury to where his dominance didn’t become boring. But right about now, it’s beginning to dawn on everyone. Hey, RV wins a lot. He wins a lot more than those other guys, in fact. Maybe we don’t have parity like we think we do. Maybe it’s not as wide-open as we think it is.
This is not the first time I’ve written this story. From 2006-2008, Villopoto crushed it for three-straight seasons in the Lites class, and yet each season, the class would be tagged as wide-open. Every year, we’d open the Racer X Motocross Show picking up the series’ vibe: the big bikes will be a showcase for stars like Ricky Carmichael and Stewart, but anyone can win the Lites class.
Yet, only one dude was doing most of the winning. Villopoto won three-straight titles. The previous guy to do that eventually became known as The Greatest Of All Time, and the guy before that was nicknamed The Bomber. Those are nicknames that blast dominance in your face. RV? Yeah, he’s just called RV.
RV has captured seven wins in 2013, including four straight.
Simon Cudby photo
How could anyone have thought the 2008 Lites Motocross Series was wide-open? RV had already won two-straight. There weren’t any challenges left. Each week in the post-race press conferences, I’d ask Ryan if he was mad about all of this wide-open talk. Didn’t he want to command more respect as the champion? Each week, he would say he didn’t really care. He was just trying to win.
Let me illustrate the state of racing today with a fact: Ryan won his first 450 Supercross race at Seattle in 2009. From then until now, there have been 66 450 Supercross races, and Ryan has won 31 of them, or 47 percent. Take out the six races he missed with injury, and he’s won 51 percent. Yes, we’ve seen dominant runs like 13-straight wins (McGrath and Carmichael) or Stewart winning a ridiculous 30 times in his first 46 starts, but the bottom line is that Ryan has won half of the supercross races in the last four years.
In the same time that he has won half the races, we’ve all enjoyed the heightened parity, the anyone-can-win mentality. We are literally saying it this year while Villopoto at the same time has now won more than half the races.
RV is the silent killer, winning a ton and now going on the verge of three-straight SX titles, a feat only three riders have ever accomplished. Ever. Heck, in 2010, RV crashed out of St. Louis, battling Dungey tooth and nail for the title. To think, we could be talking about Ryan’s fourth-straight title this year, which would tie him with McGrath for the longest streak ever. No, he wasn’t as dominant as MC 1993-1996, but if you want to wage a “who was better” battle between the two, all you have to do is start looking outdoors and the scales start moving Villopoto’s way.
But I’m not here to proclaim Villopoto as better than McGrath. (It won’t be fair until both are retired, and for that matter, comparing across eras is always dicey. We did it with our Racer X Top 30 Supercrosser Countdown and it seemed like 7 percent of the people thought we nailed it, while 93 percent thought we were insane). This is not a matter of where Villopoto ranks among the greats, it’s the fact that he is now among them, and that seems to escape us.
Somehow, dominance is right in front of our eyes, but not recognized it as such. We see supercross 2010-2013 and think parity, even though one dude rises to the top each time. If there’s an aspiring motocross sabermetrician working on his thesis at MIT right now, get to work on the “weighted against competition” stat. Villopoto had to go through the likes of Reed, Stewart and Dungey to get his titles. That’s worth a hell of a lot.
Yet, Villopoto’s space in the hall of champions seems dimly lit. The respect, the shock and awe, the adulation, he deserves it all, but where is it?
What we’ve learned is that there’s more to it than just winning races. When other guys won a lot, they brought something else with them. Bob Hannah wasn’t just the most dominant rider of his era, he was also the best trash talker and interviewer of his time, too. Before anyone had custom stuff, he had lightening bolts on his helmet. He had the best nickname. He had the wildest riding style.
McGrath was Showtime, and not just by nickname. McGrath wanted to be famous. He craved it, he owned it. His riding style reinvented the way dirt bikes are ridden, and his style on and off the track set trends. He was so much larger than life that the sport orbited around him.
RV has his third straight 450SX title in his sights.
Simon Cudby photo
Carmichael wasn’t nicknamed Hurricane, but he was a force of nature. His temper and relentless drive was legend before he even got to the big class, and when he forced his way past McGrath to the 250 SX throne, it was a shot heard round the world. Then he won so much he got booed, them somehow turned that all around and got cheered. The fans, certainly, were not indifferent.
We haven’t seen the signature stamp from Villopoto yet. No lightning bolts, Nac Nacs or nicknames. Even his riding style is quietly effective, as he does as much damage in the corners as anything. Railing corners is cool. But jumps get people talking, and no one has their, “You should have been there the day Villopoto jumped this” story yet.
Today, Reed and Stewart have star power that still matches Villopoto, even though they haven’t beaten him for a championship in years, and have been left fighting over the scraps of the other half of the races Ryan hasn’t won. But Reed and Stewart carved their way off the track. Stewart is a magnet for attention with everything he does, from Bubba scrubbing to breaking barriers to the win-or-crash thing. Reed has found a place as the outspoken one. Plus, they have something Villopoto doesn’t—they have each other.
Oh, that rivalry. Complete with on and off track drama, team switches, neck grabbing, lapper incidents, pulling-over-then-repassing, Larry Brooks and the rest, and you’re watching gasoline poured onto a campfire kindled with fireworks.
Villopoto’s biggest rival? Ryan Dungey. The Ryans could have been at war, but they’ve decided to put a wet blanket on all that. Maybe those J-Law dustups of the past convinced the Ryans to back off the drama and focus on the task at hand. For whatever reason, these two declared long ago to leave it on the track. That’s where the races and titles are won, and that’s all anyone cares about, right?