Ryan Dungey will be one of three former 450 champs battling for this year’s 450-class crown. PHOTOGRAPHY BY KIT PALMER
With the Red Bull Glen Helen National just a few days away, the motocross teams and riders are making their final preparations for the beginning of the Lucas Oil AMA Pro Motocross Championship. The 12-round championship gets underway at Glen Helen Raceway on May 24 after a four-year hiatus from the world-famous facility. Early weather forecasts suggest that conditions will be ideal for Saturday’s race. In other words, not nearly as hot as last Friday’s pro practice day at Glen Helen when temperatures reached the low-to-mid 90s. As of now, they’re talking low-80s for Saturday’s race. But it’s still early.
The Jody Weisel-designed and Karl Scanlon-built track is shaping nicely. The Glen Helen racecourse is known for its dramatic elevation changes, unique obstacles and spectacular jumps, and that tradition will certainly continue. Lap times, however, are still a little on the long side at about two minutes and 20-25 seconds — they’re shooting for right around the 2:10-15 mark.
Canadian Champion Brett Metcalfe will be filling in for the injured Ryan Villopoto on the factory Monster Energy Kawasaki Team.
A few weeks ago, Kawasaki announced that Monster Energy Kawasaki Team rider Ryan Villopoto would not be back to defend his 450 outdoor title in order to take care of a lingering knee injury. This was certainly a blow to the green team and the series, but at least the Kawasaki team picked up a formidable replacement in Brett Metcalfe, a former factory team racer and current 450 Canadian Motocross Champion. The 30-year-old Aussie was originally planning on returning to Canada this summer to defend his number-one plate until getting a call from Kawasaki saying that Villopoto was out and that he was in — that is if he wanted the job. He did, of course, and he’ll be wearing the number-24 plate this summer. Metcalfe was already planning on riding the Glen Helen National before heading north and was already riding a Kawasaki, so the veteran racer should be a force to be reckoned with come Saturday. “Metty” also rode a few rounds last year in the U.S. on a privateer KX450F and did quite well, which included a fourth at Southwick. So don’t be surprised if he lands on the podium at Glen Helen or at other races down the road atop Villopoto’s factory race bike.
Of course, Jake Weimer fills out the rest of the Monster Energy Kawasaki team. Weimer has a lot to prove after a disappointing season in Supercross. He is also coming off an injury but should be 100-percent by Glen Helen.
When it comes to star power, helping to make up for Villopoto’s absence will be the return of Chad Reed. The Discount Tire/TwoTwo Motorsports Kawasaki rider turned in some amazing rides during this year’s Supercross Series before he went down with an injury. But that’s history. He says he’s healthy now and ready to ride MX again. Reed won the 450 outdoor Championship in 2009 aboard a factory-backed Suzuki. It was the last time he has won a major AMA Championship.
Muscle Milk Honda’s Justin Barcia finished third in the 2013 championship. He’s aiming higher this year.
Honda will have a strong 450 team, again. Trey Canard and Justin Barcia of the Muscle Milk Honda factory effort are both healthy and ready to go. Barcia, third in last year’s 450 outdoor championship and probably on his last stint with the Honda team, wants redemption after a less-than-stellar Supercross season, and Canard, fourth last year, wants to start a season healthy after suffering an injury just before the 2014 Supercross Championship. Canard is a former 250 MX Champion and is looking forward to getting his first number-one pate in the big-bore class.
Honda will also have Eli Tomac and Wil Hahn on the Mike LaRocco-managed GEICO Honda Team. Unfortunately, the team is banged up right now and will miss the first few rounds. Tomac is coming off a broken collarbone, suffered just a few weeks ago and Hahn is temporarily out of action with injuries suffered in the middle of Supercross. Tomac won’t return until sometime in June, and LaRocco says that Hahn probably won’t be ready until the last four or five rounds of the outdoor series. Tomac is the 2013 250 National Champion and Hahn is the 2013 250 East Supercross Champion.
Arguably, the strongest team in the 450 Championship is the two-rider Red Bull KTM squad made up of Ryan Dungey and Ken Roczen. Either one can realistically win the 450 title. Dungey is a two-time 450 outdoor Champion (2010 and 2012) and Roczen is a 250 (MX2) World Champion (2011). These guys can go fast outdoors. Dungey finished runner-up to Villopoto last year, and this will be Roczen’s first full year outdoors on the big bike.
Yoshimura Suzuki’s James Stewart is hungry for a championship. He’s got the speed to get it done but consistency has been his Achilles Heal as of late.
And then there’s James Stewart. The Yoshimura Suzuki rider is probably the most unpredictable rider on the circuit these days. There’s no doubt he can be — and usually is — the fastest man on the track, but trouble seems to follow him around these last few years of his career. He could go on a rampage and sweep the entire schedule like he did in 2008, or he could crash out or have something just plain weird happen to him at any moment. That seems to be the trend with him these days. But he knows how to be consistent; after all, he won every single 450 moto in 2008 en route to his first and only outdoor big-bike title, but after taking a breather and sitting out a few outdoors seasons after that, he’s struggling to find that consistency again. Could this be the turn-around season for him? It could very well be. He’s happy with the RM-Z450, he’s happy with his Yoshimura Suzuki team, he’s happy with the progress he and his team are making in outdoor training/testing, and he’s happy to be going for the 450 outdoor title again, and when Stewart’s happy, everyone else on the track is usually, well…not happy. We shall soon see.
Speaking of Stewart, his younger brother Malcolm will be in the mix as well. He will return on the lone Lucas Oil/MavTV/Troy Lee Designs Honda in the 450 field.
Yamaha and the Toyota/JGRMX Team are relying on Josh Grant to get the job done. Grant’s teammate, Justin Brayton, is still mending from injuries.
Once again, the Yamaha factory will be represented in the 450 class by the Toyota/JGRMX/Yamaha Team with Justin Brayton, Josh Grant and Phil Nicoletti. Unfortunately for them, though, Brayton might not be 100-percent ready for the Glen Helen opener. The Iowa-native is coming off of a pair of injuries, a broken foot and a fractured hand, but according to the team, they expect him be lining up on the start line. Meanwhile, Grant and Nicoletti are healthy and ready to make a move. Grant is looking for the form that got him his last moto win in 2010.
The BTO Sports KTM team has one healthy rider ready to go and that’s Andrew Short. Their other rider, Matt Goerke, is still on the injured list and not expected to return until High Point or later.
Davi Millsaps is finally somewhat healthy again — sort of — after missing all of Supercross this year and will be on the line at Glen Helen on the Rockstar Racing Team KTM 450 SX-F. Millsaps hasn’t race since the last Supercross round in Las Vegas in 2013, nor has he raced the KTM yet. (He rode the 2013 Supercross Series on Rockstar-backed Suzuki). Like Villopoto this year, Millsaps elected to have knee surgery after the 2013 SX season and forfeited the 450-class title run. But a new knee injury since then prevented him from suiting up for the 2014 Supercross Series. Millsaps has also been nagged by a foot injury that has kept him off the bike more than he would like lately, so he probably won’t be 100 percent yet when he lines up behind the gate at Glen Helen. Millsaps has some serious catching up to do and has to get up to speed quickly if he want a shot at the 450 title, but he is a seasoned veteran and it shouldn’t take him long to get into the swing of things.
While Millsaps was out, former 250 MX Champion Ivan Tedesco stepped in for him on the Rockstar Energy Team. His deal was just for Supercross, which gave him the chance to take over for Josh Hill who was not re-signed by the Soaring Eagle RCH Suzuki Team after the 2014 Supercross Series. Tedesco’s Ricky Carmichael/Cary Hart-run RCH Suzuki teammate will be the hard-working Weston Peick, who got the opportunity to fill in for the injured Brock Tickle, who might miss the entire outdoor series.
Mike Alessi will be racing in his backyard before heading north to compete in the Canadian Nationals.
And how can you talk about the Glen Helen National without mentioning the local “boy” Mike Alessi who always adds a bit of excitement whenever he gets on the track, especially Glen Helen, which is just a short drive from his home in Hesperia. He’s always a threat at Glen Helen but this will be our only chance to see him race outdoors this year in America. He and his Smarttop MotoConcepts Team, which includes Kyle Cunningham, will travel north to Canada after the Glen Helen race to compete in the Canadian Nationals.
Other racers heading to Canada this year include, Kyle Chisholm, Josh Hill and Robert Kiniry.
So, with that all being said, who do you think will win the 450-class opener at Glen Helen? And who do you think will go on to win the 450-class Championship?