SALT LAKE CITY -- Just two races remain in the 2011 Monster Energy AMA Supercross, an FIM World Championship, and the competition is tighter than its even been in the history of the sport. Coming into Saturday's 16th stop of the season from Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, four riders sit within nine points of the championship lead and are well within striking distance to claim the coveted title.
Monster Energy Kawasaki's Ryan Villopoto is the rider the rest of the field is looking up at in the standings. With five wins to his credit and an impressive finishing average of 2.9 that is top in the class, on paper Villopoto looks like the rider to beat and has been for the majority of the season. With a solid outing at his home race in Seattle two weeks ago, Villopoto will look to maintain his consistency while also aiming for the top of the box, putting additional pressure on his rivals."I'm looking forward to going to Salt Lake City," said Villopoto. "I missed last year and I remember the dirt being a lot like Seattle. I just hope the weather is better to us compared to what I watched on TV last year."
This is the seventh time the gate will drop for a Supercross class race in Salt Lake City. The first race was held on April 28, 2001, and Ricky Carmichael won on a Kawasaki.
A mere six points behind Villopoto is TwoTwo Motorsports/Bel-Ray Racing's Chad Reed. The two-time champion's foray into ownership has proven successful with a win and exceptional consistency this season. Now he sits in position to claim a third title, but is also engaged in a heated battle with reigning champion Ryan Dungey, who sits just one additional point back in third.
Seattle was the Rockstar/Makita Suzuki rider's worst outing since his DNF in Anaheim 10 races ago. During that span, he has amassed eight podium finishes with one win, four runner-up finishes, and three thirds.
The combination of Dungey's results and his season turnaround has put him back into the championship picture despite being as much as 38 points out of the lead on two occasions this season. While his fifth-place effort at the previous round came with some on-track misfortune, Dungey still left Seattle with a chance to defend his crown and his focus coming into Salt Lake City remains clear.
"All in all, it was a pretty good night (in Seattle)," said Dungey. "I got off to a good start in my heat and ended up finishing third. My Rockstar/Makita Suzuki team did a good job all day adapting the bike to the conditions. We made a few changes to my Suzuki before the main; nothing too crazy - just a few suspension adjustments to adapt to the ruts. The track was really gnarly. It kind of wanted to just come up and bite you, especially by the end of the 20 laps."
"I got off to a decent start, but I fell down in the first lap and I think I was near last. But at that point, I just put my head down and tried to pick off as many guys as I could and was able to move up and finish fifth. Everyone did a great job in Seattle. My RM-Z450 ran great and my team adapted it well to this track. Going forward, we'll get into Salt Lake coming off a two-week break and will be ready to give it a hard push for the last two rounds."
San Manuel Yamaha's James Stewart is arguably the hottest rider in Monster Energy Supercross right now, and on the heels of his fifth win of the season in Seattle, it couldn't come at a better time. For much of the season, Stewart has battled ups and downs, but more often than not, he's shown the speed to run at the front of the field. Over the last two races Stewart has put together back-to-back dominant outings in which he led all 20 laps of both main events. Now, only nine points separate the former champion and the points lead and he's looking to carry his wave of momentum into Salt Lake City.
"My weekend in Seattle was great," said Stewart. "I really couldn't ask for anything better. Everything really worked out, my San Manuel Yamaha was riding great, and the technical track kind of played to my advantage. It feels great to get another win! We had a week off, and I hope to make it happen again in Salt Lake."
Red Bull KTM's Andrew Short was looking to improve on his season-best effort of fourth this season in the tricky Seattle conditions. The KTM 350SXF's shorter power band worked well in the soft, rutty soil and it pushed Andrew to a season-best fourth place qualifying effort. After another strong run in his heat race, Short's night took an unfortunate turn when he got involved in a first-lap crash, relegating him to 10th.
"I fell in the first corner in Seattle and took a while to get going," said Short." My clutch lever broke in the fall and I had a big Charlie horse on my leg from where I was struck by the bike during the crash. I was able to climb back up to 10th but it was definitely not the showing I had hoped for. On the plus side, we made huge improvements to our program and I continue to place better in qualifying times each week and am hoping for a podium in the final two rounds."
On the other end of the spectrum, Short's Red Bull KTM teammate Mike Alessi experienced one of his best rides of the season in Seattle. A strong start put Alessi in the mix at the front of the field with the leaders. He battled with several of the championship contenders before a fall in the second half of the race dropped him to sixth. Despite his get off, Alessi still recorded his best finish of the season.
"I got off to a decent start and actually passed into third early in the race," said Alessi. "I slipped back one spot and held onto fourth for the first half of the race before I had a pretty big crash. Luckily, I was fine from the crash and recovered to finish the race in sixth. I felt really comfortable on that track and am definitely feeling an improvement in my endurance as I have been training harder during the week to prepare for the outdoors."
San Manuel Yamaha's Kyle Regal finished in Seattle with a season best seventh-place result. After sitting out for four weeks due to a wrist injury, Regal has come back strong and has been training hard at Stewart's compound to get back to where he needs to be.
"All my hard work is finally paying off," said Regal. "It feels great to get that seventh. The track was pretty difficult and started to wear down, but I was able to hang in there. I've been back in Florida for the last two weeks to do a lot more training and I'm hoping to get top-10 finishes these last two races."
After missing nearly his entire rookie season due to an injury suffered in preseason testing, Monster Energy Kawasaki's Jake Weimer will make his Supercross class debut in Salt Lake City. A native of nearby Idaho, the Salt Lake City stop also serves as Weimer's home race, making it the ideal spot to kick off his 2011 season.
"I am really excited to get back out and race," said Weimer. "It's been a while since I've actually raced because I was injured at the end of last year and missed a few races. The team has been great helping me get back up to speed. I've been feeling good so I hope it goes well."
While serving as a pivotal race in the championship, Seattle also signified the return of the Supercross Lites Western Regional Championship. After seven weeks on the sidelines, the intense battle for the title resumed at Qwest Field and when things were all said and done, the entire championship landscape had been altered.
Monster Energy/Pro Circuit/Kawasaki riders Broc Tickle and Josh Hansen entered Seattle just three points apart. Following the 15-lap main event, the deficit between the duo remained the same, but the pair swapped positions as Tickle's third-place podium finish was enough to move him in front of Hansen, who recorded his second straight sixth-place effort.
To make things more challenging for the two most consistent riders in the West Region this season, both riders are battling their own respective injuries. Hansen's broken hand suffered at the final Anaheim race appeared to cause him trouble in Seattle as he fell from a third-place start to finish sixth. Despite that, he's still very much alive in his quest to claim his first-career AMA title and will do whatever it takes over the final two weekends to get it.
"I really want to win the championship and I hope I've shown that I want it," said Hansen. "I'm not giving up and I've been working hard to make sure I can be ready for Salt Lake City."
As for Tickle, he refused to let a broken collarbone suffered just two weeks prior to Seattle slow him down. A metal plate held his bones in place and Tickle endured the pain to bring home a third-place effort and take over the lead in the standings. Now he controls his own destiny to the title, something he's never had the opportunity to do before.
"I am really looking for another win," said Tickle. "I am definitely happy that I am in the points lead and that is the ultimate goal. I really liked Salt Lake City last year so I hope it's a good chance for me to get another win and extend my points lead."
In only his first season riding supercross, the third member of the Monster Energy/Pro Circuit/Kawasaki team Tyla Rattray has put in impressive results, including two podium finishes. He is looking to add to the podium count in Salt Lake City with another good ride.
"Every time I come out, I'm shooting for the podium," said Rattray. "I am happy with how the season has gone so far and I want to end the season with good finishes. I hope Salt Lake City can be where I can add another podium."
For the Rockstar Energy Suzuki team, Seattle served as a fresh start for its two veteran riders in Ryan Morais and Martin Davalos. The duo has shown tremendous speed this season, but has also encountered misfortune, hurting their consistency. At the previous round, both riders had to overcome starts deep inside the top 10 on a track that was very difficult for passing. They each made the most of their opportunities and have now set their sights on Salt Lake City in an effort to close out the year on a high note.
"Seattle went okay for me," said Morais. "I felt pretty good in practice - It was my best practice qualifying time of the year. The track was really technical and hard and my team did a good job setting up my bike. I felt good in the main event and got a good start on my RM-Z. I was battling with a couple riders and the pace was good, but it kind of turned into a little cat and mouse. I wasn't able to get past sixth over the rest of the race. It was a little frustrating, but I've come out of there healthy and we have Salt Lake City coming up. I've worked hard and will try to put my Suzuki on the box in these last two races. I like Salt Lake City and I feel like I'm where I need to be, so we'll see what we can do."
"It was a tough weekend for me," said Davalos. "I felt like I rode good but kind of got a bad start in the main and just really couldn't get around anyone. The track was really challenging, really gnarly rutted, but my RM-Z worked great. I just couldn't make anything happen. The positive thing is that I'm safe and healthy and I've gone back home to work on some starts. I need to get the start. I've never been to Salt Lake City, so I'm really looking forward to racing there. I need to put my Rockstar Energy Suzuki team on the box. We work so hard and they are so good to me."
Tickets are available at the Rice Eccles Stadium Box Office, online at www.utahtickets.com, SupercrossOnline.com, or charge by phone at (801) 581-UTIX. Tickets will also be available at participating Yamaha dealers. Practice and qualifying begins at 12:30 p.m., and the main event begins at 7:00 p.m. Gold Circle tickets: $40; Price Level 2 tickets: $25; Treadhead tickets: $10.
Fans can also get into the Pits for FREE from 12:30 - 6 PM Race Day when they recycle a MONSTER Energy Can at the stadium Pit Entrance (valid only with event ticket).