Story and photos by Jeff Kardas
Houston's Reliant Stadium will host this weekend's Round 13 of the 2012 AMA Supercross Series, which is also the penultimate round of the Lites East Regional class. A well-lit dome with retractable roof, the floor space is also relatively large and...
...this year's track seems to make good use of it. After a very short start straight (after last weekend's 5th gear pinned version), the riders jump up a short rhythm section and head straight into a fairly tough whoops section. While the track lacks a large number of 180 degree bowl turns, there are a wide variety of obstacles and other oddities that should make the track challenging and multi-lined for plenty of good passing (and racing) opportunities.
But whatever the track conditions, amount of stadium light or number of bowl turns there are, Ryan Villopoto is looking to be crowned the 2012 AMA Supercross Champion. After out-lasting and often out-racing his top competitors (Chad Reed, James Stewart and Ryan Dungey) this season, Villopoto's shown he has what it takes over and over again to come into Houston with a 79 point lead over Ryan Dungey. But wait a minute - Dungey's been out for several weeks and won't be back this weekend, so the next competitor - James Stewart - is 94 points back in 3rd. However, it's highly unlikely that Stewart will show up in Houston either thanks to a hand injury sustained in Indy. Going all the way back to fourth position we have Davi Millsaps, who's 102 points down and the only rider with any chance whatsoever of beating Villopoto for the title. However, even if RV doesn't do so hot in Houston and gathers only a few points, it's mathematically impossible for Millsaps to make up that many points by the time the season ends in Vegas in a few weeks so... we'll go out on a limb and say that Ryan Villopoto will receive the #1 plate in Houston this weekend. Be there or be square!
With a digression back to last weekend's race in Toronto, and in our musical memories as well, former Guns'n'Roses lead guitarist "Slash" played the Canadian national anthem for the 47,000 people on hand at the Rogers Centre. The reasons were simple: he's a fan of the sport and he just happened to be playing a concert in Toronto the night following the race. Slash reinforced his rockstar image by being whisked in and out with a large entourage of body guards and ignoring most requests for photos in the process. Even Blake Wharton was stiffed.
Somewhat more low-key in his address to the crowd, Team Muscle Milk Honda's Justin Brayton is enjoying his time in the spotlight as what appears to be his acceptance of "Best of the Rest". Brayton put in another great ride and led a bunch more main event laps ahead of Villopoto, looking fast enough that people were overheard questioning whether Villopoto would just back it down and let the guy take a win. He didn't. Justin has been picking it up quite a bit lately and his speed appears to be about on par with what we may have seen from a few of the other top stars who are now sitting on the sidelines. Of course that's nothing but speculation, but the feel of "top guy" speed is something you definitely get now when watching Brayton on the track - he's faster now than he was earlier in the season and doesn't waste any time getting to the front and putting the hammer down. He also doesn't back down from anyone, and that's a tough combo to beat for most riders not named Ryan.
While Brayton has earned his new spot at the front, one of a few guys giving him fits has been Davi Millsaps, who once again ran at the front in Toronto. Sitting pretty in 3rd position just behind Justin for much of the main, it wasn't until the very end that a rejuvenated and very hard charging Kevin Windham was able to push him back a spot to fourth. The only rider (expected to show up) with even a remote mathematical chance of beating Villopoto in the championship race, Millsaps is stepping into his leadership role at JGR/Toyota/Yamaha with surprising aplomb.
Team Muscle Milk Honda's surprise fill-in for Trey Canard in Canada was Wil Hahn. It's surprising because not only has Wil never raced a 450cc bike in a supercross race before, but Toronto marked only the second or third time Wil has ever finished a supercross race in either class in his entire career. Ending up eleventh on the night was a remarkable result considering his lack of experience, and it will be interesting to see how things pan out for Wil in Houston, which is about as close to a home race as he'll get. His brother Tommy is rumored to be stepping into the substitute rider role for the upcoming outdoor national motocross series.
While Hahn's stepping in, this guy - Marvin Musquin - is stepping out of the Supercross class. With a few weeks before the Lites West starts back up again (in Seattle), KTM have decided to pull Marvin out of the premiere class and get him back to riding a 250 for A) an outside at the Lites West title and B) to begin preparations for the outdoor motocross series coming up. Either way, Marvin did a stand-up job as a Supercross class racer and no doubt learned a lot in the process. His best finish was Daytona with a fourth, but he's typically been 6th - 8th otherwise which isn't terribly good but isn't much of a disappointment either.
This Lites class first turn shot spells the beginning of the end for the competition, because of Barcia starts anywhere near the front, he's most likely going to run away with it. He did this time too, although Ken Roczen was able to sneak around him for a very short bit before being shown the door to 2nd a few minutes later. Barcia ran away with it while Wharton and Roczen picked up the scraps and the rest of the field either crashed or DNF for various reasons.
This weekend this podium shot is likely to include Barcia holding a big AMA #1 plate for successful defense of his 2011 title. With a 28 point lead he's already a full race ahead, and if he leaves Houston with at least 26 points over Wharton or Durham, he'll lock it up with one round to go.
Ken Roczen may look a little green in this pic because the stadium lighting was odd, or it could be because he was sick as a dog all week and part of the weekend heading in to Toronto. Knowing that, it was even more impressive the ride and heart he displayed on his way to matching his best supercross finish this season. Not quite living up to his pre-season hype, but also putting in solid rides and avoiding injury (so far), we mustn't forget that Ken himself was recovering from a wrist break prior to the season opener. Regardless, Kenny's always a fair bet for a podium or win, and Houston will be more of the same for him.
We'll close out our Houston preview with this prediction for Darryn Durham - a win. The new smarter Justin Barcia will have his sights on the title this weekend and isn't likely to push the pace too hard for a victory. Durham, on the other hand, is absolutely desperate to bring home a win for his team manager Mitch Payton, which would make it the team's first for the season and the first time in a looooong time that Monster Energy Pro Circuit Kawasaki have not been gunning for a title as a season wound down. To see how Durham does, check out your local SPEED TV listings for coverage, and check back here for live timing and scoring, plus photo updates from practice and the races.