The 125 West Season Opener is already in the history books. Who won the race? Travis Preston. Who charmed everyone with his at-once abrupt and honest acceptance speech? Travis Preston. But it was James Stewart, on his Factory Chevy Trucks/Kawasaki KX125 who won everyone?s heart in Edison Field Stadium.
When the sixteen-year-old Amateur National Champion wasn?t wearing his helmet, he was wearing a look of fascination and disbelief at the spectacle around him. But with it on, James wore the expression of tomorrow?s superstar today. Because that?s how he rode. Like he was better than everyone else and he knew it. He rode with such confidence in the main event, not even a first turn pileup could hold him back. Nor a trip over the bars through the track?s longest whoop section–while making his first attempt for the lead.
Mistakes by his competition in the same whoop section lent to his remarkable second-comeback. Like Red Bull KTM?s Brock Sellards brutal flip over the bars while trying to pass teammate David Pingree for the lead, and Chris Gosselar?s collision with Team Yamaha of Troy?s Rodrig Thain in the closing stages of the race, also while battling for the lead. Who benefited the most by all this misfortune? Travis Preston. After quietly fighting the whole race for a spot on the podium, Rider Number Twenty-Nine was handed the win with less than half a lap to go. Who was handed second-place? James Stewart, followed by Chris Gosselar.
It was one of the most exciting opening-round 125 races ever held, and would set the stage for one of the wildest, most unexpected opening-round 250 Supercrosses the world has ever seen.
The night is cool after a hot, hazy afternoon. A black sky absorbs the shine of the floodlights just over the rim of the stadium. The 250 main is on the line. It?s Edison Field, Anaheim, round one of the 2002 EA Sports Supercross Championships. The stadium is almost fifty-thousand strong. The riders have been introduced and the chaos of the crowd has begun to focus. All that remains is the release of anticipation. The AMA starter takes his thirty-second board and holds it over his head. No one cares about anything else. Fifty thousand people have stopped moving, stopped talking, and stopped breathing, perhaps, without even knowing it.
The board turns sideways over the starter as he stands alone in front of the wide multicolored line of the world?s best Supercross riders. The sound of motors rises in one smooth moment. Then it floats and the starter is running out of the way, the sound dropping down from its pitch to a growl as twenty front wheels rise over the gates, each rider, chest over the bars, elbows up, helmet visor down.
The pack surges in front of itself up the middle and then closes in upon itself. When it hits the first vertical wall in the middle of the first corner, chaos returns to Anaheim. This year?s field is full of Champions. Whether past or present, Carmichael, McGrath, Windham, Brown, Vuillemin, Fonseca, Roncada, Pastrana, Ramsey, and Larocco have all won either Motocross or Supercross titles, or both. There simply isn?t enough room for all of their expectation. As the pack slips over the first camel-back, it swells toward the outside and begins to tumble over itself. Michael Byrne has the holeshot on his Amsoil/Dr. Martens Honda while Team Chevy Trucks/Kawasaki?s Stephane Roncada struggles to get his bike off the tuff blocks. Between them lie riders like McGrath, Fonseca, Pastrana, Brown, Carmichael, Larocco, and Vuillemin. But they?re not in that order.
McGrath is running fifteenth, along with Fonseca, Windham and Lusk. Pastrana is just inside the top ten. Team Yamaha of Troy?s latest sensation, Chad Reed is in fourth, ahead of Mike Larocco. Out front, Rider Number Thirty-Five, Michael Byrne is coming under heavy pressure from Team Yamaha?s David Vuillemin. Behind them, defending 250 Supercross and Outdoor National Champion, Ricky Carmichael is setting up defending 125 Outdoor National Champion Mike Brown, through the first of two long whoop sections. He sets up to the inside of Mike as they float over the top of each peak side-by-side, motorcycles rocking. When they reach the 180 degree left-hander, Ricky has the inside line and a wheel in front of Mike. As they exit the corner, Mike has lost his position and is under heavy pressure from Number One-Hundred-and-Three, Chad Reed.
Ricky has set out after David Vuillemin for second-place. It?s lap two, the same section of the track. Michael exits the sharp left-hander as David squares off high enough to see Ricky?s front wheel inside of him at the apex. David responds by putting his head down and attacking the whoops. By they time they reach the next corner, David is half-a bike length ahead of Michael, and taken a lead he will not relinquish.
The riders leap in bursts of controlled speed and aerial finesse, repositioning themselves over their motorcycles as each upward flight turns into a controlled fall, nose-down toward the ground.
Another lap goes by and the barking sound of the race rises and falls and over it all the voice of the announcer tries to keep up with the progress of the race. But it?s impossible. Anywhere you look, there?s a battle.
But everyone is aware of what he isn?t saying. There are no descriptions of McGrath slicing through the pack. Rider Number Two isn?t moving up. Ernesto Fonseca is steadily pulling away from him while Ezra Lusk, in his first appearance on his Chevy Trucks KX250, is reeling him in.
Meanwhile Mike Larocco has come out of nowhere and blitzed past both Chad Reed and Michael Byrne. In one more lap, Mike will engage in a battle that will shatter the last of everyone?s preconceptions of what Anaheim 1 was going to be like.
Jeremy isn?t going to be a factor in this race. He?s has lost his position to Ezra and is under increasing pressure from SoBe Suzuki?s Kevin Windham. They blitz through the first whoop section, throw their bikes sideways, rear wheels spinning, drifting out as they round the apex, past the One-Ninety-Nine machine of Travis Pastrana, cased over the top of the berm. Travis is somewhere on the other side.
The race isn?t even five laps old. David Vuillemin holds a slim lead over Ricky Carmichael, putting distance on Number Four through the air, and losing ground as they enter each corner. Enter Mike Larocco. Mike has already bullied his way past Jeremy in his qualifier. He?s strong, confident, and impatient. Suddenly, Ricky is on the defensive. Corner after corner, Mike threatens Ricky with his front wheel. Ricky knows he?s there, and David does too, looking over his shoulder as he launches himself smoothly over a seventy-foot triple. The three of them force their way around the track.
Jeremy?s night is getting worse. He goes down with Mike Brown trying to gain a position. By the time he picks up his Bud Light Yamaha and gets going again, he has a charging Travis Pastrana on his tail. Who?s riding right behind Travis? Universal Studios/Honda?s Nathan Ramsey.
But don?t stare too long at McGrath, Pastrana and Ramsey or you?ll miss the 2002 Supercross season turn itself upside down.
It happens too fast to see all of it. David is leading as he lifts his YZ over the step-up jump that leads into the first of the two whoop sections. As he lands, Ricky shoots over the blind side of the jump into the air, with Mike shooting upward right after him. He reaches the height of his leap at nearly the same time Ricky does, and would be bar to bar with him, but Rider Number Four has already let go of his handlebars.
Everyone is watching this battle, so everyone stares in disbelief as Ricky waves his hands in slow motion circles, in an instinctive attempt to keep his balance as he and his Honda, still connected at the legs, spin upside down, rear-wheel-over-front. By the time he hits the ground, Ricky?s bike is completely on top of him, driving him into the ground. His body compresses into unnatural shapes. The rear wheel, still spinning from his panic-rev, flips through the air, knocking Mike?s left-hand off of the handlebars as he lands. All eyes are on Ricky as he slides to a stop after impact, knocked-out. All eyes except for the announcers?. Ricky?s bike finally comes to rest further down the straightaway at the same time the loud speakers boom: and Mike Larocco goes down as well!
No one knows where to look. Ricky is down on the ground and he isn?t moving. Mike, without enough time to regain his grip on his handlebars, has hit the first whoop of twelve, one-handed. There?s a knot of medics around Ricky. He has his helmet off now, and is feeling his body. The medics are standing and kneeling all around him and the flagmen are guiding the pack around him where he lies.
David Vuillemin is all alone in the lead. No one else is even close. Mike Larocco is picking up his Amsoil/Dr. Marten?s CR250 and rejoining the race just ahead of Ernesto Fonseca, who has done what many expected McGrath to do: battle to the front from the very back of the pack.
Jeremy has lost his position to Travis. Ahead of them, Chad Reed has gone down and let Ezra Lusk by. Team Moto XXX Yamaha?s Nick Wey has begun to reel in Rider Number Fourteen, Kevin Windham. Behind them, Nathan has gone down and been lapped by the leader, David Vuillemin. That?s when it sinks in. Jeremy McGrath is in danger of being lapped.
As the race enters its last stages, David is the only one who is still attacking the whoops and riding them smooth and strong all the way through. He gets his body as far back over the rear fender as he can, aims down his front fender with his helmet?s faceguard down level with his cross-bar pad, and opens up the throttle. His engine warbles under the strain he heaps on it. The race is winding down. Travis is out of the race, waiting beside his bike to push it across the line after the checkers have fallen. Miraculously, and to everyone?s relief, Ricky has regained his feet, and walked off the track.
The white flag is out. Jeremy has just let second-place Mike Larocco by. Ernesto Fonseca isn?t far behind him, riding solidly in third. Ezra Lusk is riding smooth and smart. Kevin Windham is too, considering his visit to the hospital the night before, suffering from a severe sinus infection, his equilibrium ruined. Nic Wey is within striking distance of Kevin, but it doesn?t look like he has enough track left to make a real attempt.
Red flames shoot from the finish-line-banner as David Vuillemin shoots out in front of the flames, his fist punching straight out, his YZ250 whipped sideways beneath him. Mike Larocco sails across the finish line, then Ernesto Fonseca. Riders leap across the line one by one. Kevin Windham rounds the second-to-the-last corner just ahead of Nick way. But Kevin enters his rhythm section off-balance, and falters, and that?s all Nick needs to take the position.
This is a new era in the sport of Supercross. Nearly all of the 250 main event riders are now fully sponsored athletes, able to dedicate one-hundred-percent of their energy to training and honing their skills. It?s tougher than ever just to qualify for a 250 main event, let alone finish in the top ten. Want to know how tough it was just to qualify? Team Husqvarna?s two-time 125 National Champion Steve Lamson finished second in the Last Chance Qualifier, the last transfer spot, when the rider in front of him bobbled off the track late in the race. That rider was former Supercross winner, Mike Craig.
Sebastien Tortelli and Tim Ferry didn?t suit up for Aneheim–both are recovering from injuries.