Off to the Outdoors: AMA Pro Motocross Starts Up at Hangtown

2012 has been a strange year in the world of professional Supercross and motocross racing. Last season was epic in many respects, where each series, both indoors and out, provided enough tension and excitement to hold everyone over for a while. Hell, I still find myself thinking about the weekly battles that ensued in the 2011 Monster Energy AMA Supercross Series amongst five of the best riders to ever throw a leg over a dirt bike (Ryan Villopoto, Ryan Dungey, James Stewart, Chad Reed, and Trey Canard). Even though the racing was unscripted, it was more polished and enthralling than a WWE match could ever hope to be. When the riders headed outdoors, the racing continued to deliver.

Contrast 2011's highs on top of highs, and this season has so far been awash with disappoint, dissatisfaction, and injuries, injuries, injuries. Even Villopoto, this year's Supercross Class champ, is already out for the rest of the year with a torn ACL. Both Canard and Reed are also out for the rest of the year, while Dungey suffered a broken collarbone midway through SX (which he has since recovered from), and Stewart had enough crashes to last a lifetime. But, there is light on the horizon.

450 Class

The opening round of the 2012 Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Nationals, sanctioned by AMA Pro Racing, is only a few days away near Sacramento, CA at Hangtown and with it comes a refreshed stable of riders. Getting the biggest news out of the way, Stewart has jumped ship from Joe Gibbs Racing and his three-plus years with Yamaha, over to the Yoshimura/Suzuki factory racing effort. The move was rumored for a long time and finally became official following the Las Vegas Supercross. James has not contested a full outdoor campaign since 2008, when he won every single moto on his way to the championship.

So, will the number seven be ready for the Nationals despite his long absence from natural terrain racing? Come on. I was always taught that there's no such thing as a stupid question, but that inquiry is proof I was taught wrong. So why did I write it? Crap, another stupid question. That's two in a row. Who taught me that rule anyways? We're going to need to have a talk.

Apparently Stewart is so ready to race that he will actually be riding without a salary from his new team, as his new contract doesn't technically kick in until 2013. What can we expect out of the new deal? On top of some great racing and ridiculous scrubs, this writer is hoping for some cool collaborations with one of Suzuki's favorite sons and James' old rival, Ricky Carmichael. Imagine an all out whip fest video from the Stewart Compound and Carmichael Ranch. Shaaaaa-wwwinnnggg!

No one expected Stewart to go 24-0 back in 2008, but in truth, he didn't really have much competition, especially after Mike Alessi got knocked out and run over at Red Bud. But this time around is different. While RV, Canard, and Reed are all out, Dungey is healthy, on semi-familiar equipment (although he's yet to race the new KTM 450SX-F outdoors), and has two motocross titles to his credit. The only time they ever lined up together for a motocross race, Dungey beat Stewart fair and square at the 2010 Unadilla National. Of course, Stewart was a little out of practice at the time, but a win is a win. Dungey knows how to bring home the W's, is as fit as a finely tailored suit, and took the fight all the way to the final round last season against Villopoto. With Dungey on the prowl, Stewart can ill-afford any crashes if he wants to be in the title hunt.

But there are more than two riders in a motocross race. Although he will be on privateer (well-funded, but privateer nonetheless) equipment, Mike Alessi could be a factor in the championship. Back in 2009, Alessi went from having a surprisingly good Supercross season on factory Suzuki's to a stellar start to the Nationals, winning two of the three opening rounds before busting his kneecap while prepping for Mt. Morris. This year, Alessi had another surprisingly good Supercross series aboard Suzuki's and...well you get the idea. Keep an eye out for the number 800 MotoConcepts machine.

Then there are the guys who have been shuffled around, such as Tyla Rattray who has not only been bumped up from the 250 Class to 450s, but is going onto full factory equipment aboard Villopoto's vacated Monster Energy Kawasaki ride alongside Jake Weimer. Tommy Hahn is another rider moving to factory equipment to ride with Justin Brayton on Honda Muscle Milk, while Kyle Regal is taking over Stewart's old JGR/Yamaha machine to be Davi Millsaps' new teammate. Add in Stewart's new Yoshimura/Suzuki teammate, Brett Metcalfe, the JWR/Kawasaki duo of Josh Grant and Kyle Chisholm, Rockstar/Yamaha's Nico Izzi and Ryan Sipes, plus Broc Tickle and Andrew Short and you have a whole slew of riders that will be fighting for podiums week in and week out. Get ready for some hardcore, big-bore, outdoor, braaap starting up this Saturday.

250 Class

Let's not forget about the little guys. Okay, so they're not little at all, and neither are the bikes, but the motors do have 200cc fewer than the premier class. The 250 Class is shaping up to be one heck of a season. While the class juggernaut, Monster Energy/Pro Circuit/Kawasaki, will have Blake Baggett, Darryn Durham, and 2011 250 Class National champ Dean Wilson in the fray, the boys in green will have to deal with the best insured team in motocross.

A rejuvenated, reinvigorated, revamped, re...umm, re'd, GEICO/Honda team has been the talk of the town lately, winning both the Supercross East and West regions with Justin Barcia and Eli Tomac. Add in Wil Hahn and 2011 AMA Horizon Award winner Justin Bogle and you have a team with the potential to make the podium run red with...Hondas.

KTM has to like their odds at a championship run with the two riders who have claimed the last three FIM MX2 World Championships in a row: Marvin Musquin and Ken Roczen. The Frenchman and the German are incredibly gifted outdoors, and will be contenders right off the bat. Some might argue that the two riders are more accustomed to GP-style tracks that tend to have a faster, more open layout. But, both Musquin and Roczen have proven they are more than capable in Supercross, so they should be just fine on the varying tracks of the Lucas Oil Pro Motocross tour.

With an enormous roster of talent, look forward to an excellent summer of motocross racing.

The first motos of the FMF Hangtown Motocross Classic will air live on FUEL, Saturday, May 19th beginning at 4pm EST. The second motos will air later that evening beginning at 12am EST on NBC Sports Network. As always, be sure to check your local listings. Outdoors, here we come.