As we continue to count down to the 2020 Monster Energy AMA Amateur National Motocross Championship at Loretta Lynn's Ranch, we also continue to reminisce about great battles through the years at an event that has hosted plenty of them.
This story, written by Chase Stallo, originally appeared in the July 2015 issue of Racer X magazine. The class of 2004: where are they now?
Rain begins to fall as Trey Canard enters the NBC affiliate’s studios in Utica, New York, where a television crew prepares for the motocross superstar’s in-studio appearance. Trey is joined by his wife, Hannah, as well as Fredrik Noren, a fill-in Honda Muscle Milk factory teammate. Just a few weeks earlier, Canard signed a lucrative two-year extension with Honda, the brand he’s been with since turning pro full-time in 2008. Canard plops into his chair, enamored with the green screen used for the weather report. This isn’t Canard’s first studio rodeo; he’s been doing media for quite some time. It’s a job requirement he never thought possible a decade ago.
“I figured I’d be kind of a privateer or maybe a satellite team rider, but not at the factory level,” admits Canard, who hails from Oklahoma and has won 250-class championships in both supercross and outdoors. “I never would have imagined ten years ago—or even in a million years—that I’d ride for a factory team. This still absolutely blows my mind.”
Ten years ago, Canard was just one of the many fast kids who packed the 85cc (12-13) Stock class at the AMA Amateur National Championships at Loretta Lynn Ranch. It was one of the most talented single-class groups in history—of 42 kids, more than half would race at the professional level.
Of course, their destinies varied wildly; while Canard enjoyed long-term success, Missouri’s Wil Barnard was done at the ranch after the following year’s race. Washington’s Tyler Villopoto was also there, riding in the shadow of older brother Ryan. He ended up racing mostly in Canada. California’s Michael Hall took a shot at Europe’s Grand Prix circuit, then came home to attend college. Steven Clarke hailed from England but raced here as a kid; his professional time in the U.S. was brief, but he’s enjoyed success back home. California’s Jake Canada and Washington’s Tommy Weeck are still trying to make a go of it. South Carolina’s Les Smith got some shots with both KTM- and Yamaha-affiliated teams, but injuries have held him back; the same can be said for North Carolina’s Taylor Futrell.
That 85cc Stock (12-13) class also produced one of the most talked-about amateur rivalries of the millennium.
“It was the Austin & Nico Show,” Canard says of the remarkably fast Austin Stroupe and Nico Izzi. “Everyone wanted to beat them, but you kind of wrote it off, honestly, before you got there. I know I did!”
Nico Izzi and his father, Nario, carried a certain bravado. They prided themselves on their Italian heritage and their blue-collar Michigan work ethic. While others may have been at the Ranch to have fun, Izzi was there to win.
“He definitely approached it like he was on a mission,” says Cole Gress, then Suzuki’s amateur team manager. “Nico wanted to be the best, and he liked winning. He liked being the front-runner. He definitely took it more serious than a lot of kids—the whole family did.”
“Nico was unstoppable back then—he was the kid to beat,” says South Carolina’s PJ Larsen, who finished fourth in the class that year. “He just had so much talent. I was getting my ass handed to me.”
Izzi, a tireless worker, was often seen running or working out the morning before his motos. “He put a lot of time and effort into it off the bike at that age,” Larsen recalls. “He was really the one putting in the most effort, and it showed.”
Just watching Izzi served as Larsen’s wake-up call—he realized he needed to do more. Four years later, Larsen shared the 2008 AMA Horizon Award with Darryn Durham, and he later signed with Team Canidae/Motosport Kawasaki (now Rockstar KTM). But injuries forced Larsen abroad after just one season with the team; he went on to win Australian SX and motocross titles with JDR KTM before returning home. He’s since bounced around to a few teams since, showing up at the occasional outdoor national this summer.
North Carolina’s Austin Stroupe was Izzi’s polar opposite, relying on a gift of natural talent. “It’s hard to find somebody with pure skill like that,” Gress says. “He had a lightswitch where he could just flip it on and go fast. That used to really just kind of piss Izzi off and really get under his skin.”
The rivalry grew intense at times. “Those two were just huge deals at the time,” says Lucas Oil/Troy Lee Designs Cole Seely, who finished ninth in ’04. “There was just so much animosity and so much tension between them.”
“They were buddies growing up, but then you know how it goes with racing—it gets the better of everyone,” says Texan Blake Wharton, who finished third that year and now rides for GEICO Honda. “Especially with two kids at the very top of their game.”
To his own credit, Wharton has a few 250 SX main-event wins—and he’s the first Texan to ever win one. His older brother Tyler was also on the line that year, but a Chrohn’s disease diagnosis meant early retirement. Tyler’s best pro finish was eleventh at the 2009 Atlanta SX.
Another fast Texas prospect was the late-blooming Kyle Regal, who went on to grab a couple of 450 Class outdoor podiums but never quite got the breaks he needed. Regal is racing Arenacross now, coming up to supercross and motocross part-time. He qualified for three 450 SX mains in 2014.
With all the talent in the class, it seemed obvious that Izzi and Stroupe were the ones destined for stardom. Nico won both 85cc classes that year with Suzuki, including a sweep of the Stock motos. He would rack up six minicycle titles at Loretta’s throughout his amateur career. Stroupe may have lacked the titles, but he had the talent to go all the way.
“I thought for sure Nico would be winning championships,” says Canard, who would win an AMA Supercross Lites title just four years later as a rookie. “I thought it would be Austin and Nico.”
“I would have definitely said a couple  supercross titles and a least one outdoor title, without a doubt,” Gress agrees. “I would have bet a lot of money on it.”
Neither racer matched those lofty expectations.
“He competed at such a high intensity for so long at a young age that when he hit pro I think he thought he had it figured out,” Gress says of Izzi. “I don’t think he ever really grasped what needed to be done at the pro level to have that same success.”
The Friday before the 2014 Unadilla National. Trey Canard is under the Honda tent, staring in disbelief at a 2004 Loretta Lynn’s podium picture snapped by Thom Veety of Action Photos. “Man, was I chunky!” he laughs.
Ten years ago, the 13-year-old Canard did look a little different—his red hair brighter, his features a little fuller, his freckled face smiling wide. Back then he had few aspirations of being a professional; the intense pressure to win at a higher level would come later. In 2004, Canard was just having fun.
“It was like almost going to camp or something,” he says of Loretta Lynn’s. “Everyone’s at the creek playing; everyone’s in everyone else’s motor home playing video games. It was just a big hangout.
“As far as training goes, you maybe ran a mile or two,” he adds. “We mostly just rode, and I don’t think anyone really took it serious. I liked to eat back then, that’s for sure.”
“I had no idea about training or diet or anything along those lines back then,” Seely recalls. “I was just having fun.” Izzi and Seely shared Suzuki support, but most of the attention surrounded the former.
“I think they were tired of basically Izzi getting all of the support they wanted,” admits Gress, Suzuki’s point man back then. “Cole was trying, but I never would have guessed he was mentally strong enough to do what he’s done since. No one deserves that success more.”
Back then, Seely was an afterthought behind Izzi. Now he’s likely to become Canard’s Honda Muscle Milk teammate in 2015.
“Cole was a nobody during his amateur career, but then he got that TLD deal, and he worked at it so hard,” Larsen says of his friend. “That deal was a perfect deal with the perfect team.”
“Back then there were so many guys that were better than me,” Seely admits. “I had no sense of ever being where I’m at now. I thought it would be cool to make supercross mains. Once that first pro season was done, if nothing came along, I would pack up and go to school.”
Seely would become a 250 SX winner and title contender, but he had doubts about a long-term future in the sport.
“At the end of 2009 I even enrolled in two classes, but then Christian Craig got hurt and TLD asked me to race supercross,” he says. “If that wouldn’t have happened, I probably would have graduated from community college, and I don’t know what I’d be doing, really.
“Looking back, I wish I would have known, but the path that I took was a little different,” he adds. “Kids that were beating me—kids that I couldn’t even keep up with back then, now the roles are reversed. I think it was definitely more of a complicated and more diverse approach to turning pro, but it taught me a lot.”
Canard began to blossom in 2004. “That year at Loretta’s was really the year Canard popped on the map,” says Larsen, Canard’s teammate back then. “That was the week that Trey really stepped in there, and I kind of followed suit.”
Although Canard showed signs of what was to come, nothing was certain. “Honestly, in 2004, where he was and what he had gone through family-wise, I don’t even know. I probably would have said working back home at the family’s motorcycle shop,” Gress says of Canard, who lost his father a few years earlier. “Personally, I didn’t know that he had so much inside of him to do what he does. In ’04, I would have missed him on the scout sheet. That would have been a terrible mistake.”
Ten years ago, no one would have pegged Trey Canard and Cole Seely to be at the sport’s highest level with lucrative contracts and multiple race wins and—in Canard’s case—championships. That was supposed to be Izzi and Stroupe. But somewhere along the way, both got lost—and not just once.
Izzi rode straight into a Suzuki factory deal in 2007, finishing tenth at the Spring Creek National that followed his Loretta Lynn’s graduation. One week later, Stroupe showed up at the Steel City National on a Monster Energy/Pro Circuit Kawasaki and finished a fantastic second in his first pro moto. Both would end that day in the top five overall.
The next year, Stroupe won the Indianapolis Lites SX with Izzi third and Christophe Pourcel in between. It would be the collective high point for the two can’t-miss kids of 2004. Stroupe would win more races, including the ’08 Glen Helen AMA Motocross opener over defending champion Ryan Villopoto, but injuries, poor decisions, and maybe even the “ride fast, live fast” lifestyle seemed to follow.
Stroupe lost his Pro Circuit deal and then Suzuki support, ending up on a Yamaha YZ450F for a time. His last professional race was the 2011 Las Vegas SX, where he finished seventh. Izzi never actually won a professional race, but he’s still trying. His last good race was a sixth a couple years back at the Steel City 450 National.
Despite repeated attempts, we couldn’t reach Nico Izzi for this story. He’s currently out of the sport, though his father is still training riders in Georgia.
Stroupe is easier to find via social media but also hard to nail down for an interview. Last March he reported that his family’s house in North Carolina had burned down. This March he had a plate and pins taken out of his right shoulder and told us via text that he hopes to race arenacross in 2015, and maybe even the outdoors: “It’s something I never got to finish, and I’ve always wanted to race the whole season to see all the tracks.”
[Note: Years later, Brett Smith was able to track Stroupe down.]
Ten years later, the class of 2014 rides on. Maybe.
Images: Thom Veety