It’s safe to say that there will be plenty to watch at this year’s opening round of the Monster Energy AMA Supercross Championship, almost too much to soak in on just one night. But, then again, you can say that pretty much every year at this time, as there’s always something to get excited about, like a hot-new racer coming on the scene, the continuation of old rivals, new teams making their first showing, and so on and so forth, but this year, when you really think about it, there does seem to be more to watch than ever before. A lot more.To begin with, you have the long-awaited return of San Manuel Yamaha’s James Stewart. This will be Stewart’s first Supercross race since he broke his wrist two rounds into the season last year (he pulled out after round three), and the first race since his one-off appearance at the Unadilla outdoor National back in August, which did not go all that well for him, but that wasn’t the true James Stewart we all know. No, not even close. Stewart, as it turned out, probably wasn’t quite physically ready yet to race at that time, and he probably wouldn’t have ridden at all had he not wanted to “qualify” to represent the United States at the Motocross of Nations so badly. No, that wasn’t real James Stewart – but we will, no doubt, be seeing the real Stewart come this Saturday.After almost a year, Stewart, a two-time Supercross Champion, is hungry to race again and even hungrier to regain the 2011 Supercross Championship, and that is going to be a tough combination to be, even if you’re Ryan Dungey. But it will be interesting to see how Stewart does on the track and how his wrist holds up to its first true test. Many riders have had their careers cut short after suffering a similar injury. Our fingers are crossed he’ll be fine.Dungey, the defending champ, has a lot riding on his shoulders heading into Anaheim I. The Rockstar/Makita Suzuki team rider now sports the number-one plate, which many champions before him have said is no easy task. More than a few past champs have said that defending the number-one plate is harder to do than earning it in the first place, especially in the premier class. And, not only does Dungey have that the big number-one target on his back to think about, but he also has his critics who he’d like to silence once and for all, those who believe Dungey would not have won the 2010 Supercross title had not so many of the top contenders had fallen off the wayside due to injuries, such as Stewart, Chad Reed, Josh Hill and Ryan Villopoto. Beating the field at Anaheim I Saturday would sure go a long ways towards doing just that, not to mention giving Dungey big-time confidence going into rounds two, three, four…This will also be Dungey’s first race without his former team manager Roger DeCoster in the same pits, leaving many to wonder: just how will Dungey react on race-day seeing the man who took him under his wing and who has been at his side at every race since his Pro debut four years ago on another team, wearing different colors? Or will he even notice?Dungey, however, has plenty in his favor going into Anaheim I. He’s on a bike and team that he’s very familiar with, he has shown lately that he responds well to pressure, he’s just plain fast, and he’s now consistent. And these are many of the same key ingredients that he used to win multiple championships last year.With DeCoster gone, Suzuki will be operating under a new team manager, Mike Webb. Webb is no stranger to wearing yellow. He’s been the company’s off-road team manager for years and has double-digit GNCC Championships to his credit, so the DeCoster-to-Webb transition should be a smooth one.And then there is Chad Reed, and we all know what he’s capable of. He’s ultra fast, consistent and very determined, and the 28-year-old has two Supercross titles to show for it. But a couple of huge question marks hang over his head going into Anaheim I – how will he do on a new team and on a new bike?Unable to come to terms with any of the other established teams after the 2010 season, Reed decided to put up his own funds and start his own team, TwoTwo Motorsports (named after his long-time riding number 22), which gives him some advantages, such as being able to chose any bike of his liking to race, he rode them all and chose a Honda, a brand he hasn’t raced since coming to America in 2002. The former factory Yamaha/Suzuki/Kawasaki rider will certainly have the freedom of doing whatever he wants to do at his new gig but will, no doubt, also carry the burden and new pressures of being a team owner, something he’s not used to. But will that matter once he’s on the track?Reed finalized his 2011 plans not all that long ago, so it will be interesting to see if Reed has had enough time to prepare and test his bike properly in order to give his long-time rival Stewart, former teammate Villopoto, and current champ Dungey a race aboard non-“works” equipment? Reed has a lot to prove, but he certainly has the speed, experience and savvy to do it. But will he? Anaheim I should be a good indicator.Another interesting story is Ryan Villopoto. The Monster Energy Kawasaki rider hasn’t race since suffering a badly broken leg midway through last year’s Supercross Series in St. Louis. At that time, he was the only rider left giving Dungey a challenge for the title when he got pitched over the bars and was left hobbling around on crutches for the next six months or so.Villopoto says he’s all healed up and ready to go, and he certainly looks very fast on the Kawasaki test track, but, of course, the test track and the race track are two very different places. Villopoto has suffered serious injuries in the past and has always bounced back, but not always quickly. And this was without doubt Villopoto’s most serious injury. However, Villopoto has a new trainer, Aldon Baker, who used to be Ricky Carmichael and James Stewart’s go-to guy in the health department. Villopoto is in good hands.The Red Bull KTM team is hoping for a lot of firsts at Anaheim I. Not only is KTM looking for its first Supercross win in the premier class, but so is new KTM recruit Andrew Short, and returning team member Mike Alessi, who is making a Supercross comeback after choosing not to campaign the 2010 Supercross Series in order to concentrate fully on the outdoor Nationals. This will also be the first AMA Supercross race for the KTM 350 SX-F, which won the World Motocross Championship in the MX1 class in ’10 on its maiden voyage.
And there’s more – this will also be KTM’s first race with Roger DeCoster as team manager, and DeCoster who knows a thing or two about winning championships. The former five-time World Motocross Champion was at the helm when Ricky Carmichael, Chad Reed and Ryan Dungey all earned their Supercross and National Motocross titles while members of Team Suzuki. DeCoster and Suzuki could not reach a contractual agreement after a very successful 2010 season, so KTM quickly snatched him up. And now the question lies: Can DeCoster perform more magic at KTM?And what about Team Honda? The red squad has two new riders that are very capable of busting out a win at Anaheim I. It has the 2010 250cc Motocross Champion, Trey Canard, under its canopy now, as it does one of the only riders who was able to flat out beat Ryan Dungey in an outdoor moto last year, Josh Grant, who pulled off a win at Anaheim I in 2009.Canard has moved up to the Supercross (450cc) class this year but has some 450cc experience. During the break in the West Coast Lites Series last year, Canard filled in for the injured Andrew Short and turned a lot of heads, leaving many to believe that the 450-class rookie can be a title contender in 2011. Hey, if Dungey, who was a 450-class rookie last year, can do it… Canard’s performance at Anaheim I will be closely watched.As for Grant, he’s back on Honda, the same brand he started out his professional motocross career on a few years ago. Grant, who rode a JGR Yamaha for the last two years, was in title contention in 2009 before getting hur, and has struggled with injuries ever since. He’s healthy again and ready to impress his new team. Grant could be a sleeper. Keep an eye on him.There are other riders to watch at Anaheim I, as well, including Brett Metcalfe who is now on the Rockstar/Makita Suzuki. The Aussie rode a Honda last year and found his way on to the podium many times during the outdoor Nationals. And then there is Davi Millsaps, who, after many years on the factory Honda team, will be making his debut on the JGR/Muscle Milk/Toyota Yamaha team, filling Grant’s old spot. Another rider that should be fun to watch is Kyle Regal, the privateer who rode so well last year that he is now James Stewart’s teammate at San Manuel Yamaha. It will also be interesting to see how former Lites Champion Ivan Tedesco does on his new Dodge Motorsports/Hart & Huntington Kawasaki ride, and will it Nick Wey on his new VMS/Rockstar Yamaha.And how can you forget a crowd favorite Kevin Windham? You just can’t. The GEICO Honda rider will be starting his 17th season as a Pro when he lines up behind the starting gate at Anaheim I. Windham continues to ride fast and smooth, even at 32 years of age. He is by far the oldest full-time rider on the circuit, but he has never won a Supercross title. That’s no shame, however, when you consider the champions he’s had to race agains through out his career, such as McGrath, Carmichael, Steward, Reed. He’s come close to winning the championship many times, including last year when he finished second to Dungey! Bottom line, you can never count the “old guy” out. Ever.Unfotunately, there’s one thing we won’t see at Anaheim I and that’s Jake Weimer’s 450-class debut on the factory-back Monster Energy Kawasaki team. The West Lites champ suffered a broken arm last week while practicing and will be out of action for at least 6-8 weeks. There is talk that Jake Moss might temporarily fill in for Weimer, but if that does indeed happen, we won’t see Moss on the bike for a couple of rounds.
And the intrigue doesn’t stop in the Supercross class at Anaheim I. Not only will you have some of the regular guys going at it again in the Lites class, such as Josh Hansen, Brock Tickle, Wil Hahn, Eli Tomac and Ryan Morais, but you’ll also have 16-year-old German sensation Ken Roczen to keep an eye on. He will be riding on his new Red Bull KTM team for the first time, too, so it will also be fun to see how the MX2 GP rider does in his first AMA Supercross.So, as you can see there will be plenty to watch at this year’s first round of the Monster Energy AMA Supercross Championship at Angel Stadium in Anaheim. Almost too much. Naaaa!