Depending on who makes the main event Saturday at Angel Stadium for the start of the 40th season of Monster Energy Supercross, there is a good chance the winner will be making some sort of a comeback. You know those injuries and setbacks that cause fair weather fans and pundits to call the career on an athlete? Yeah, Supercross had about six of those last year.
2012 was so plagued with injuries that even the champion, Ryan Villopoto, didn't finish the season. Of the top 10 riders, only three competed in every main event. The injuries and injury list were ugly; a severely broken back, wrecked knees, hands, wrists, collarbones, concussions -- Supercross can be an unforgiving and unpredictable sport, and not one person would bet on a rider to score just two points in the final three events and still win the championship.
Those injured and now returning riders, the champ included, would like to strike some of those memories from the record. Welcome to 2013, a year of comebacks and the arrival of two new and promising rookies. And for the fans, hopefully a season that gives until the end.
Four different riders won the first four races of 2012 and it's not unrealistic to see that happen again, and maybe even get extended. Round 1's pre-race entry list includes 10 riders who have won 450SX main events in prior years, and four of those riders have won the title. But statistics are a funny thing in this sport and difficult to draw conclusions from. For example, Ryan Villopoto, the two-time defending champion has missed at least one main event every year in his four years in the premier class and has left the season early with injury three times. Yet, he still has two titles, same as James Stewart and Chad Reed, who have eight and 10 years of experience in the class. RV's win percentage is still well behind Stewart's, and his podium percentage doesn't compare with those of Reed and Ryan Dungey.
Ricky Carmichael, winner of 48 Supercross main events and five championships, once said, "You win championships on your worst days." That's a difficult stat to measure but probably the most important for all riders to consider. Even Villopoto takes a pause before defining the difference between those who win and those who don't.
"It takes a lot to win. Speed, consistency, everything," Villopoto said. "I also think I have one of the best teams out there. That's bottom line. But you have to put the work in. Nothing is going to come easy. You have to put the work in to see the results."
There is very little concern about Villopoto's ability to return to racing after his left ACL reconstruction in April. He came back strong in 2010 and 2011 after injuries, and he is just one of many top riders coming back from the sidelines. In fact, even as far back as October's Monster Energy Cup, Kawasaki's focus was less on Villopoto's rebuilt knee than it was on the major suspension change. After decades of using KYB brand forks and shocks, Kawasaki decided to run Showa's new system. Villopoto won the first of three finals at the MEC but crashed hard in the second and dropped from the competition before the third.
"[Suspension] was actually the one thing that we went to the Monster Cup to figure out where we were," Villopoto said. "That was a big change that we made that week before the race. We had to figure out where we were and what we needed to work on with the bike. I was still able to win the first moto, and at this point we are way farther ahead than we were there."
Villopoto's chances of becoming the fourth rider in Supercross history to win three straight titles are good, but he's going to have to do it against a field that continues to add talent and depth.
Now at Yoshimura Suzuki, a third different team in three consecutive years, Stewart returns from hand and concussion injuries and will start his ninth season in the premiere class. His main event win record stands at a stunning and pure 50 percent, but he has also only completed a full schedule four times in eight seasons and his winning percentage in races in which he did not crash is more than 84 percent. Stats like that make Stewart easy to bet on a race-by-race basis, but when it comes to winning titles he's 2-for-8. The house has too much of an edge.
"It's going take speed, but it's probably going to be about consistency more than anything," Stewart said about title strategy. "There are a lot of fast guys out there, and all of them want to win. None of us will have the luxury of a bad weekend this year."
An analysis of Reed's record is also impressive, but it has also yielded two titles in 10 attempts. With 119 podium finishes in 148 starts, Reed's 80 percent podium rate makes him the most consistent on the starting gate this weekend. Like Villopoto, he returns from left ACL reconstruction.
Dungey's short, three-season 450SX career has yielded a 72 percent podium rate, making him, statistically, the second-most consistent rider behind Reed. The 2010 champ helped KTM to a historic season in 2012 and the only unconquered goal for the Austrian brand in the United States is the Monster Energy Supercross title. If he hadn't broken his collarbone in practice last year …
KTM team manager Roger DeCoster is very happy with his rider's performance. In a recent Cycle News article, DeCoster said he believes Dungey needs to be more aggressive on the track. Dungey doesn't disagree.
"This offseason I've had a lot of time to think, sit back and really understand things more and put more energy and time into thinking about it; trying to think of ways to become a better rider, how I can control myself mentally," Dungey said.
Trey Canard's 2012 was wiped out when he crashed and was landed on at Round 3, resulting in a severe back injury. He didn't get back on a Supercross track until October, and he said he hopes to "just have a solid day" to kick off the season at Anaheim.
"Goal No. 1 for me is keeping my mind straight the whole year and make sure that I'm focused on the right things in the right places and I don't lose the perspective that I have right now," Canard said. "If I can make it through the season healthy, that would be a huge blessing."
The two rookies with the best chance at the podium, or better, are Dean Wilson and Justin Barcia. Wilson is a former Lucas Oil Pro Motocross champion in the 250 class and two-time runner-up in 250SX. He was one of ESPN's "NEXT" athletes in the action sports category but has been out of action with shoulder problems since May.
Barcia made his 450SX debut in October at the Monster Energy Cup in Las Vegas, and he won the overall. Also Canard's teammate on the Muscle Milk Honda team, Barcia is a two-time 250SX champion.
"The Monster Cup was an interesting race to go to because I didn't have much time on the bike and I kind of went in there thinking I would just get my feet wet and race some of the best guys in the world," Barcia said. "I knew I could go fast but I didn't know, I wasn't used to the bike, but things went really smooth."
Under the radar in 2012 are riders such as Davi Millsaps and Mike Alessi, two of the three racers who competed in every main event in 2012. Millsaps finished second overall last year and has switched back to Suzuki. Alessi's sixth gave him top privateer honors and he is still looking for his first win.
Kevin Windham is yet another rider returning from injury. A wrist injury in April ended his consecutive main event start streak at 102. He has 204 career starts, and the 34-year-old still hopes to catch his Geico Honda team manager, Mike LaRocco who has 228.
Josh Grant and Justin Brayton have moved back to Joe Gibbs Racing, and much anticipation awaits the unlikely pairing of Carmichael and Carey Hart as team owners of RCH Racing. They have selected Broc Tickle and Josh Hill as their riders.
Stats and records are fun to compile but one number the fans and industry would really like to see is "0": zero riders missing at the end of the season because of injury. It's not realistic, but, just as much as we'd love to see Windham's start record hit 300 someday, we can wish, right?