January 07, 2009

My Day at the Big A: Anaheim 1, 2009

(photo by GuyB/Vital MX)

So this was one of those years when I didn't roll with my regular "crew" to see the races, and events further conspired to keep me from getting to the stadium early enough to cruise the pits and gawk at all the new iron. After getting robbed in the parking lot ($20, up from $15 last year), coughing up almost $50 for a 200-section seat and then coughing up $10 for the program (weren't they $5 last year??), I got seated just in time to see the second set of timed practice sessions, and it turned out to be pretty entertaining, despite the light rain that fell throughout.

My first surprise was seeing Jason Lawrence. Usually when a rider wins one regional championship in Supercross, he tries to win the other... but it seems 2008 West region champ Lawrence wants to wear the number one plate. I say good for him... and for us.

The second surprise was seeing Trey Canard. Again, I thought he'd defend his East region title, but I later learned that he was "forced" to race the West series due to injuries to his Geico Honda team mates. Trey was looking pretty fast in practice, and ended up with the third-fastest time.

Along the third-base line there was a gnarly rhythm section that led to a triple jump, and there was a small single right before the triple that the riders had to contend with. It was giving a lot of the top guys fits, and it took a while for some of the lesser names to even make the triple. For a lap or two, JLaw seemed real tentative, just doubling it, but then he came around and hit it for real, throwing a whip and grabbing a tearoff just to add style points. He had the track nailed, and he set fastest time to prove it.

When the 450s started practice, there seemed to be a bit of a cat-and-mouse game, as the fastest of the fast (James Stewart and Chad Reed) did not immediately post fast times, instead they sort of circulated at opposite ends of the track for a few laps. Then Reed got on the leaderboard with second fastest time, and shortly thereafter James "quadded" the rhythm section before the triple... something no one else had done yet in that session... and took the top spot. Stewart's fast time stood until the closing minutes of practice, when Reed followed him around for a fast lap and set fast time right before the checkered flag flew. I bet that chapped James' hide!

I had noticed after practice and while waiting for showtime to roll around that all the pre-show microphone hucksterism was gone. There were no sponsor interviews, no incessant babble about stuff you should buy… there was only music, played at a relatively low volume, no less. I think this is definitely a positive step in the right direction by FMS, and I both applaud and thank them for cutting that out of the program. Some supercross videos would have been nice, though. They didn’t even take that time to hype up the night’s live broadcast.

I was in my seat by 6:45. When 7 o’ clock rolled around, nothing happened. It wasn’t until 7:05, according to the stadium clock, that Terry Boyd addressed the crowd for what I believe was the first time of the entire day. Terry immediately threw it to Rob Buydos, who went into crowd-warm-up mode, breaking out the hotties with the t-shirt guns to stoke the crowd. One of the women apparently needed on-the-job training in gun operation, but at least she didn’t kill anyone in the lower sections.

Bribing the crowd to “make some noise” with cheesy t-shirts and muted tits ‘n ass? Will this ever play out? God, I hope so. I must be getting old...

Then they played Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA”, except instead of the whole song, they just looped the title over and over… while they brought out a “color guard”, accompanied by a company of casually-dressed cadets from nearby March Air Force base. The cadets placed their hands over their hearts and started saying something, but since they weren’t mic’d, no one could hear them. I’m guessing they recited the Pledge of Allegiance, but I can’t guess why and for whose benefit they did so. I know I didn’t need to be reassured of their allegiance to the flag. At least the announcers had the good sense not to try to lead the audience into doing the same. Then the National Anthem was sung by... Mrs. Eric Kehoe? Really? Whoever she was, she sounded great.

Then they introduced the top riders with the “riders in the stands with the normal people” trick, except instead of being dressed like normal people, they were dressed like, well, riders of course. Which means they looked like intergalactic stuntmen in their shiny new riding gear. Trey Canard was first, and he even faked a quick dance step to get the crowd going. Next time, Trey, put a little more heart in it and they’ll be eating out of your hand.

And then they got to the Big Four. They rolled a pretty cute video about Chad Reed, Kevin Windham and James Stewart as three little boys on bmx bikes, and they have to welcome a “new kid” to the neighborhood… Ryan Villopoto. The video ended with them walking into Anaheim Stadium, and then the lights went up on the small circular stage in the middle of the infield… and the four kids were standing around the stage, staring at each other like a 4-way showdown. Then the lights faded to black, and when they came back up, the kids were gone, replaced by the actual racers. It was a pretty cool trick, actually, and my hat is off to FMS for trying something new here.

Finally, the announcers talked to each of the Big Four, and then they went off and did the most lukewarm hot lap I’ve seen in a while. Or maybe I wasn’t paying attention or something, but the crowd didn’t seem into it either. We were all wanting to see the first race!

And the heat races did not disappoint. Ryan Dungey had to be pissed, as I’m sure he didn’t want his season to start by having to make the main from the LCQ, but his bike quit on the first lap, causing him to crash. Jake Weimer went to win the first heat. Jason Lawrence and Canard battled for a bit, but TC made a mistake and fell, allowing Lawrence to take the relatively easy win.

Watching Ryan Villopoto go wire to wire for his first 450 heat race win was pretty cool, though I spent most of my time watching Chad Reed recover from his off-track excursion and come from way back to finish fourth.

I was pretty sure James Stewart had only managed maybe a top 5 start as they headed into the first turn in the second 450 heat, but somehow James accelerated through the very inside of the turn and surged into the lead as the pack exited the first turn. And then he was gone. Josh Grant kept close, and watched James nearly endo on the triple on the second lap, but the lead gap quickly grew after that. So the buzz in the crowd around me was like, “Uh-oh, did we just see a preview of the main? James getting the holeshot and checking out?”

For the 250 main, for me at least, it was all about Dungey and Lawrence. And since they both had problems at the start, it was about watching them work their way through traffic. Meanwhile, Pro Circuit’s Jake Weimer dominated the whole thing, winning his second supercross. I think he’s happy with his new ride. Dungey fought his way onto the box, finishing third, and Jason worked his way into fourth by the time the checkered flag flew. Yeah, he was docked a position for cutting the course, and I saw the whole thing and think that both Jason and the referees did the right thing. How about that?

And then it was show time: the 450 main. James pulled the exact same start he had in his heat and jumped into the lead coming out of the first turn, but Josh Grant and Reed were close behind. Reed quickly dispatched Grant and soon passed Stewart, who was making a bunch of mistakes. James settled down and it looked like he was going to be content to pressure Chad for all 20 laps, but he saw an opportunity and went past in the whoops.

What was interesting was that the crowd seemed to be against Chad Reed from the start; during the opening ceremonies, there was a smattering of boos when he was announced. But when he passed James a big cheer went up from the crowd, like, “Finally! Someone to race with this guy!” And then an even bigger cheer went up when Stewart re-passed Reed. The crowd was getting into the great racing, for sure.

So it looked like it was setting up to be an epic duel between 7 & 1 when suddenly Reed went down and took James down with him. For a long moment, James lay face down in the dirt, not moving. There was pandemonium, yellow flags everywhere. Reed got up and going in third place; Stewart got up and in trying to get off the track, pushed his bike in front of an oncoming rider (Kevin Windham) and THEY both went down. Everybody in the stadium was on their feet.

I have since seen the SPEED coverage of the incident, and it’s pretty clear that James took a shot to the head in the fall and got up slowly and unsure. He was still in a daze, and was struggling with basic decisions, like, “stay on the track or push off to the side?” And the flagmen and officials could have been a little more proactive about getting him herded off the course safely; instead it seems they let him do what he wanted, and that ended up costing him and Windham the race. James definitely should have looked before he moved, and I think the fact that he was dazed had a lot to do with that bad move.

Josh Grant inherited the lead with a big gap on Andrew Short. Grant kept the lead and there was no suspense, until he collected a tuff block cover in his rear wheel with 2 laps to go. The crowd got behind him and willed him to a popular win. Josh Grant presented Joe (and Cody) Gibbs his first supercross win!

After his crash, James stormed off the track, throwing his helmet down in disgust after his Yamaha failed to restart. While I don’t think he was fit to ride, I think walking out was yet another bad decision on his part. If you watch the SPEED coverage, you’ll see that Erin Bates tries to get James to talk about it as he’s walking out, and then he gets stopped by his team manager and father, and it looks like they don’t want him leaving the stadium floor.

At the end of the night, all I could think was that this first race has set the table for an absolutely electrifying supercross season. James decision to take the dnf could seriously haunt him come May, as he is now down 18 points to his toughest rival, the man wearing the number 1 plate, Chad Reed. FMS has got a tiger by the tail for real; here's hoping they make the most of it.

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