Last weekend, the Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championships kicked off the 2012 series at Hangtown near Sacramento, CA and the racing delivered in a big way. James Stewart made his triumphant return to outdoor racing, winning both of the 450 Class motos in his debut ride aboard the factory Yoshimura/Suzuki RM-Z450. In the 250 Class, the action was virtually non-stop, as Blake Baggett, Ken Roczen and Justin Barcia vied for every inch of racetrack, with Baggett taking the win in both motos for the overall.
With Stewart back in his element for the first time in four years, predictions were up in the air as to how he would fair in the natural terrain. Judging from his past performances, along with photos and images that appeared with Stewart aboard the Suzuki in the weeks leading up to Hangtown, it was a safe bet that the number seven would be running at or near the front. A holeshot in the first moto that saw James lead the entire race for the win, followed by a second moto third place start and eventual win and overall cemented that notion that Stewart is more than ready to take on the Nationals.
I'll admit that I was calling upon some history and looked at Stewart's new teammate, Brett Metcalfe, to take the win. "Why?" you ask. Back in 1997, Jeremy McGrath made a similar last-minute switch from Honda, due to strife with the company itself along with displeasure with their new aluminum-framed CR250, to Suzuki, which hadn't even won a main event in a number of years. But McGrath was the already the King of Supercross and was expected to go right on winning. Instead, his quasi-teammate, Greg Albertyn (McGrath was technically on the Chaparral Suzuki team, while Greg was on the factory Suzuki squad but Showtime arguably had better support than Suzuki's own team riders) took the opening round win in Los Angeles, even though he was never considered an indoor specialist.
So why not call Metcalfe for the W? Stewart's move mimics McGrath's in a lot of ways: displeasure with a motorcycle; top rider of his era; move to Suzuki; two weeks to prepare for the first round; etc. But it didn't happen. Metty got fifth overall, while Stewart ran off with the win. So much for history repeating itself.
Back to the Hangtown, Ryan Dungey rode to a very solid second place finish in his first outdoor ride aboard the new KTM 450SX-F. In the first moto, Dungey had to overcome a less than favorable start to work his way into third. For the second time around, Ryan tailed Stewart almost all the way to the end of the moto until getting caught up in some lapped traffic and eventually settled for second and second overall for the day.
While both Stewart and Dungey rode well and were consistently faster than the rest of the pack, we still have not seen the best out of either rider. Stewart's multitude of crashes (and related minor injuries) and last-minute deal with Suzuki mean that he is still getting into better shape along with figuring out how the yellow machine functions in race conditions. Add to that James' long absence from outdoor competition and his unprecedented ability to push beyond even his own limits whilst remaining aboard the motorcycle and we have only seen an inkling of what Stewart will be capable of on the RM-Z.
Dungey is also returning from a broken collarbone that he suffered before Daytona and adjusting to a new machine. Yes, the break was several months ago, but a break is never a good thing, and at the top level of the sport, 98 percent mobility versus 100 mobility can be the difference between first and second place. In addition, Ryan also just had his first race on unfamiliar equipment. Not only is the latest orange 450 machine new to Dungey in an outdoor setting, so too is it new to the Red Bull/KTM. The Suzuki has been in development since 2008. This is year one for this version of the KTM 450SX-F. Every race will be a learning experience. Even though the Austrian manufacturer had a very successful Supercross season, outdoor motocross is a completely different ballgame.
In the 250 Class, Blake Baggett showed that he will be a very tough competitor this summer. The Monster Energy/Pro Circuit/Kawasaki rider came back from starting just within the top ten to take the lead, passing Ken Roczen on the last lap for the Moto 1 win. In the second moto, Baggett made things much easier on himself by starting near the front. Blake had to deal with Justin Barcia for the first half of the race before breaking away for another win and the overall.
Although Baggett broke away towards the end in both motos, the trio of he, Barcia, and Roczen seemed very evenly matched for much of the day. While defending 2011 250 Class National Champion, Dean Wilson, dropped out of first moto and potentially the rest of the year with shoulder issues, this year's small-bore title could very well come down to the final moto at Lake Elsinore if Hangtown was any indication.
For now the series moves on to the heat and humidity of Texas for the Freestone National. Last year, Dungey had the win in the bag until his Suzuki either boiled gas or ran out of gas, handing the win over to Chad Reed. Hopefully Suzuki learned from last year's incident and fuel will not be an issue for Stewart, who already has a win in the Lone Star State.
Baggett is coming into a similar situation as he did last season, with a first round win. In 2011, he had the momentum for Texas, but crashes in both motos dropped him out of the points lead. Here's betting that Baggett learned his lessons from last year. As with most of the tracks, this will be Roczen's first visit to the Freestone facility, but the current FIM World Motocross MX2 Champion will be a threat at every race. With a seemingly revamped Justin Barcia (who is now training with legendary fitness nut and six-time AMA champ, Jeff Stanton), the top finishers could go in any order. Add 2005 250 Class National Champion, Ivan Tedesco to the mix (he scored a fourth overall at Hangtown, which was his first 250 Class race in since 2005), plus Eli Tomac and you have a championship that is anything but decided.