AMA Motocross: Let's take it outside

Can Ryan Villopoto continue his title-winning ways at the 2011 AMA Outdoor National series? At his peak and healthy, his chances are better than ever. Steve Cox

The field is stacked, the talent pool is deep and expectations are high. Arm yourself with your favorite bench racing buzz phrase because the 2011 AMA Motocross Championships, which begins its 40th season this Saturday near Sacramento, CA, does have the potential to have more winners and points leaders than the recently concluded AMA Supercross series, which ended with four riders in contention for the title.

With only one weekend off between series, riders have been scrambling to get their setups finalized. During the week following the AMA Supercross finale in Las Vegas, hotspots in Southern California like Milestone and Pala Raceway were flooded with top riders James Stewart, Chad Reed, Ryan Dungey, Brett Metcalfe, Kyle Regal and more.

Minimize the damage. This championship is easily lost with attrition and careless mistakes. Defending champion, Ryan Dungey likes to borrow a phrase from Ricky Carmichael: "You win championships on your worst days." Example: If a first turn crash leaves you lying facedown in the sand and in 40th place, get up and score as many points as possible, even if it's only one.

With the exception of 2009, every AMA Motocross season in the 450 class since 2000 has had one rider win at least half the rounds. Four of those 11 seasons were complete 12-0 routs. Two-time race winner Mike Alessi expects more parity in 2011. "The days of dominating and being 24-0 [moto wins], there's no way. Not anymore," he said. "There's not just one fast rider anymore. Everybody's fast, everybody's fit, everybody's competitive. There's not just one guy."

With 10 overall wins in 2010 and the championship, Dungey surpassed Camichael's rookie season [2000] win total record of nine victories. Still riding for Rockstar/Makita Suzuki, he is the only rider who comes into the series with a solid base setup from the previous year. Every other rider he's competing against either switched teams for 2011 or missed last year's MX season entirely.

Despite concentrating on the supercross championship, where he was in contention until the final lap, Dungey said he still went out with the team over the Easter weekend break to work on suspension and motors for the outdoor series. "It does help to know that last year's bike was good and I don't think we go to the test track and reinvent the wheel but I do feel that there are a few areas that we could be a little bit better on," he said. "It's important to have an open mind about the team bike and setup and always being aware of what's new and better. If you take that route you never miss out on something that you should have tried."

Even with a stronger field than 2010, Dungey won't let himself get distracted by his potential competition. He's not even sure who's in and who's not. Getting third in the supercross series in 2011 seemed to be harder than his championship 2010 season. He is feeding off the knowledge he learned from fighting every race and not being able to defend his title. "I had to go back every weekend and work on my game. Not that I didn't before but it forced me to try harder and look deeper."

Is James Stewart going to race? No. At least not this weekend at Hangtown. The super secretive Stewart kept his plans and status very quiet until the evening of May 16 when he released the following statement on his website titled "News about the motocross season."

"Everyone witnessed the way I struggled during the Supercross series this year and while I'd like to race this weekend, we just aren't ready. I hope fans will understand. The decision has been very hard to make, but we won't race till we're ready."

Messages left with Stewart have been unreturned. He did show up to Milestone MX last week in Southern California to practice and he was running what appeared to be Pro Circuit forks on his Yamaha instead of the standard Kayaba suspension. The last time Stewart raced the full motocross series he won all 24 motos.

Chad Reed, the 2009 AMA 450 Motocross champion was also at Milestone on the same day as Stewart. He was riding a numberless Honda with factory Honda Racing Corp. (HRC) graphics and a Yoshimura exhaust system. Reed is expected to be on the gate with major support from American Honda who will be missing both of their riders.

Ryan Villopoto won the only 450 class race he's ever finished. That was the opener in 2009. The very next weekend he withdrew with a knee injury. He missed the entire 2010 season with a broken leg. The new AMA Supercross champion brings the experience of three 250 class titles and, having missed his first two seasons, he is shouldered with as much expectation as the defending champion. His best weapon is his trainer, Aldon Baker, who knows how to win a motocross title better than anyone, having done it with both Carmichael and Stewart. If he's healthy Villopoto will be top three every weekend and his competition must not let him sweep too many weekends

Mike Alessi is back on a KTM 450 in AMA MX for the first time since 2007 when he finished second in the series. His 2010 season was spent learning and developing the new KTM 350 and, judging by his starts [one holeshot all year], it was evident that he was lacking in power. With 100 more cc, EFI and linkage, Alessi's number one strategy is "holeshot, holeshot, holeshot." He also feels like he's entering the season largely unnoticed. "A lot of people are all about Dungey and Villopoto or Stewart and Reed," he said. "That's good because I kind of feel like an underdog. There's not as much pressure on me."

Brett Metcalfe, the 2010 runner-up is now the defending champion's teammate at Rockstar/Makita/Suzuki. The Australian has been away from racing since early March when he suffered a fractured wrist.

Christophe Pourcel, the runner-up in the 250 class in the previous two seasons is moving to the 450 class. The French rider hasn't raced since mid-Sept. when he lost the championship at the final round in a crash that injured his shoulder. Not being able to land a ride for the supercross season that fit his program, Pourcel sat out. In late April he put together a deal with Moto Concepts Yamaha where David Vuillemin, a former FIM World MX Champion, is manager. Vuillemin said the team gets its bikes, a parts allowance and "a couple of special parts" from Yamaha. Vuillemin said Yamaha is in charge of the engines but the Moto Concepts team does all the testing itself. Enzo Racing is supplying the suspension.

Andrew Short, still looking for his first career 450 win, will line up as Alessi's teammate but will run the KTM 350SX. Jake Weimer is another rookie in the class. Weimer, Villopoto's teammate on Monster Energy Kawasaki has only raced twice in 2011 because of a broken arm in late December.

Trey Canard, the 2010 AMA 250 Motocross Champion will miss at least the first half of the season due to a fractured femur from a crash on April 14. His teammate, Josh Grant, who won an overall back in 2009 is hoping to miss only the first two rounds. He's been out with a knee injury since early Jan.

Live television coverage of the first moto can be found on Fuel TV. NBC Sports and SPEED will be picking up the second moto coverage with a mix of live and tape delayed coverage.