Blake Baggett will return at Hangtown to defend his 250 title. Photography by Kit Palmer
The opening round of the Lucas Oil AMA Pro Motocross Championship officially got underway today with the traditional pre-race press conference in Sacramento, California, located a short drive from the Prairie City OHV Park in Rancho Cordova and the Hangtown Classic Motocross track.
Unlike previous years where the get-together took place on the steps of the state’s Capitol Building, this year’s event was hosted by Red Bull, just down the street at the city’s train yard, where a small makeshift track was built for the select invited riders who were able to wow the spectators and the local news cameras over some of the large jumps and whoop section. On hand included defending 450 MX Champion Ryan Dungey and 250 MX Champion Blake Baggett. Recently crowned Supercross Champion Ryan Villopoto was also in gear and made a few laps, as did two-time 2013 Supercross winner Justin Barcia, Trey Canard, West Supercross Champion Ken Roczen and new Troy Lee Designs/Lucas Oil/Red Bull Team rider Malcolm Stewart. His older brother, James, was also in town on the Yoshimura Suzuki.
For the first time, both Stewarts will be battling on the track Saturday at the same time in the same class.
After was what a fairly short demonstration, everyone packed up and headed east to the Hangtown track, where the same riders, and others, got the chance to spin a few laps on the National track.
Baggett, who missed the entire Supercross series with a wrist injury suffered at the first round, was back in action and looked like his old self – very fast. After two surgeries, Baggett says the wrist is feeling good but isn’t 100 percent yet. But he says he feels good on the bike and is anxious to get back to racing again.
“The wrist is getting better every week,” Baggett said. “We’re making small progress and doing what we can, but I’m feeling good and feeling great on the bike. I’m ready to go and ready to get it all underway. It’s time.”
His Monster Energy/Pro Circuit Kawasaki Team is over flowing with riders. Darryn Durham is back in action, as is Dean Wilson and Justin Hill. They are also joined by rookie Adam Cianciarulo, who looked fast on the track, as did Martin Davalos. And rounding out the Pro Circuit squad is their lone 450 rider, Tyla Rattray.
The Troy Lee Designs Honda Team had a major presence today with Jessy Nelson, Cole Seely and Stewart, who looked as though he’s been riding a 450 all season long. Stewart’s previous team, JDR/J-Star KTM won’t be competing in the outdoor championship, giving Stewart the opportunity to fill in for the injured Christian Craig at the TLD team.
“This has been a big transition for me,” said Stewart. “I knew sooner or later it was going to happen, I didn’t think it was going to be this soon, but I’m stoked to be on the 450. I haven’t ridden a 450 since I was an amateur three years ago. I want to go out there and have fun and get my feet wet. It’s dream come true, because I’ve always wanted to race my brother and it’s finally going to be happening. I like the bike, I fit it better, and the power-to-weight ratio is better for me. I think I’ll do better than I think I’ll do.”
In the 450 division, Dungey looked strong and confident on his number-one Red Bull KTM, as did Villopoto on the number-two Monster Energy Kawasaki. Chad Reed, on the TwoTwo Motorsports Honda, seemed re-motivated, and MotoConcepts’ Mike Alessi is back and put in some hot laps on the white and red Suzuki RM-Z450.
Alessi says he’s had the bike dialed in and ready to go for quite a while now and is ready to get back to racing again after sitting out the last few rounds of Supercross to prepare for the outdoors.
James Stewart says his wrist is strong again after re-injuring it a while back at the Minneapolis Supercross. The knee that he injured at the opening round of the Supercross Series is a “non factor” and he is without doubt ready to start racing again. Stewart didn’t reveal any secrets on the Hangtown today, never really putting in a full hot lap around the track but instead attacking sections one at a time. When he did get on it, though, he appeared ready to defend his Hangtown victory of last year.
“I’m actually doing pretty good,” Stewart said. “So far, we’re making good improvements with the bike and the wrist is doing good. We’re still making it stronger and stronger, but it shouldn’t be an issue this weekend and hopefully the rest of the season. Last year, I came in here kind of not knowing, but after a year on the bike, I know what I can do, so it’s a little bit different than last year. We’ll know where we are at come Saturday.”
JGRMX/Toyota Yamaha’s Josh Grant is back and he says he’s more than ready to go.
A few names from the past resurfaced today, including former Suzuki-supported rider Ryan Huffman who is going to suit up for the National. But one of the biggest surprises in the paddock is former 250 Supercross Champion Travis Preston, who will be wearing the number-111 plate on Saturday. Preston, now a test rider for Yamaha, will try to qualify on Saturday on a white-framed JGRMX/Toyota Yamaha in the 450 class. He hasn’t competed in an outdoor National since 2006. His last pro race was in Supercross in 2009.
The Honda Muscle Milk Team was in full force with rider Justin Barcia and Trey Canard. Both riders said they are anxious to get the outdoor season started, especially Canard who hasn’t raced outdoors since Washougal 2011 when he broke his femur.
“I’m definitely looking forward getting on the bike outdoors again,” Canard said. “I’m excited and it’s cool to have a fresh season.”
This will be Barcia’s first full-time venture in the 450-class outdoors. His last appearance outdoors was in 2011.
“Yeah, I mixed it up with the boys a little bit in 2011 and won a moto at Southwick, so I’ve ridden the 450 outdoors a little bit,” Barcia said. “I love the outdoors. It’s definitely harder than Supercross. The endurance factor his hard and the short time between Supercross and motocross makes is harder, too. We had good testing and I’m feeling good about the outdoors.”
But the man everyone will be gunning for come Saturday will be the one wearing the number-one plate in the 450 class, Ryan Dungey. But he says he’s ready to fight them off.
“I feel good with everything, we had a good couple weeks of testing and everything really seems dialed,” Dungey said. He added that he’ll continue to run the traditional spring shock on his KTM outdoors, rather than the air shock he was testing at times during the Supercross season. “There’s been a lot of testing with the air shock in Europe, until it really gets finalized – we’ll test it and try it – but for now we’re focused on the spring shock and the regular spring forks as well.”
Another rider who will be getting back in action at Hangtown is GEICO Honda’s Justin Bogle. Bogle hasn’t raced all year due to a broken wrist suffered prior to the 2013 season.
"I'm excited and feel really prepared," said Bogle who will be competing in the 250 class. "Testing and training for outdoors has gone really well. I'm feeling really good on my bike.
"Missing Supercross was a bummer," Bogle said. "But I think in the end it added fuel to the fire to make me want to come out during outdoors and ride out front. It's never good when you have to take time away because of injury because it keeps you away from what you love to do.
"It's all just a few days away now, and I can't wait to get back out there."
Many other riders are expected to get back in action at Hangtown, including Bogle’s teammate Zach Bell, Nick Wey, Nicco Izzi, Alex Martin, Jeremy Martin and Gareth Swanepoel.
The Hangtown track is very similar to last year’s design but the soil has been treated for better moisture retention.
The weather forecast for Saturday’s race can’t be much better. The weatherman is predicting sunny skies with temperatures in the mid-80s.