“Would you please point me to the Diamond Club?”
“Right this way, sir.”
With that, I was ushered into a spacious glass-walled hospitality suite behind home plate at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, California, past a long row of television cameras and into an ocean of public-relations officers, invited guests, corporate heavies, sponsor reps, and fellow members of the media.
“Welcome to the Monster Energy AMA Supercross press conference. My name is Jamie Little, also known as NASCAR and IndyCar pit reporter. Many people forget that I actually started right here in Supercross 15 years ago. My first live announcing gig was at this stadium interviewing the riders.
“A lot has changed since I left this sport back in 2006, most notably the competition. When I left, two, maybe three riders could win a main and then go on to win the championship. This year, things have changed.”
Indeed. With four-time champ Ryan Villopoto racing in Europe, only two riders, Red Bull KTM's Ryan Dungey and two-time series champ Chad Reed, will start the 17-round season on Saturday night with a premier-class title in their pocket. “We haven’t started a season with a field of riders so deep,” Little continued, “the parity so balanced as we do here in 2015.”
Seven 450cc-class riders were invited to take part in the press conference. Both of the veterans, Dungey, 25, and Reed, 32, said they are physically ready for the start of the season, no small feat in this rough sport. Some thought Reed might not return from injuries suffered last year.
“Healthy and happy go hand in hand,” said Reed, who has added a second rider, Josh Grant, to his self-owned TwoTwo Motorsports. “It’s no secret my years are running out. To be in form last year, to be comfortable winning races and feel like I had a real shot at the championship, it hurt. It took a long time to rebound emotionally. At this point, I feel like I have a lot to give. I want to be out here with these guys.”
“The last four years have been tough,” Dungey admitted. “Villopoto made it tough on us. We’ve been right there with the championship stats every year. Obviously, there is a long list of guys who can win it, but we feel really well prepared and healthy.”
Dungey will be racing a KTM 450 SX-F Factory Edition. “They did a good job,” he said about the new bike. “It’s pretty light; we have to add weight. I also started working with [trainer] Eldon Baker, which has been very helpful. It’s been one of the best off-seasons I’ve had in my whole career. I’m excited to see what the year brings.”
Davi Millsaps, like Trey Canard, is returning from injury (and a $100K paycheck at October’s Monster Energy Cup in Las Vegas). Millsaps is also riding for a new team, Monster Energy Kawasaki. “Obviously, there are nerves going on,” he said, “Getting the feeling of competition back at Monster Cup was great, especially after being off 18 months. I’m looking forward to getting behind the gate again.”
When the riders were asked about James Stewart’s controversial 16-month suspension from competition after testing positive for a banned substance, Canard was first to respond. “I’m not against James in any way,” he said. “I think the penalty is a little steep, but at the same time, they’ve got to really stick with this deal if they’re going to do the drug-testing thing. We’ve got to be on our game with what we’re putting in our bodies and be accountable for that.”
Canard also commented on Honda's increased support for Supercross. “I’ve been on Hondas my entire professional career,” he said, “and I’ve never seen the Japanese this involved. When you’ve got the company that’s making your motorcycle excited, it’s a good thing. I want to make them happy.”
Reigning AMA 450 Pro Motocross Champion Ken Roczen won last year’s opener at Anaheim, his 450 SX debut, one of two victories last season. He, too, has switched teams and is now piloting a Suzuki for RCH Factory Racing, co-owned by 15-time national champ Ricky Carmichael and freestyle motocross pioneer Carey Hart.
“I’ve been really happy with my team change,” Roczen said. “I have a lot of confidence on the bike. I’m going to go to every race and ride as aggressive and as smart as I can. Going back to my roots, being on a Suzuki, man, I can’t wait.”
Regarding Stewart’s suspension, Roczen said, “We’re all in the same boat. Obviously, there’s a heavy hitter gone, but there’s still going to be good racing.”
Justin Barcia is yet another rider who has swapped machines, moving from Honda to Joe Gibbs Racing Yamaha. Like Roczen, Barcia earned two wins in 2014. “It’s a learning process,” he said regarding his new team. “I also hired a new trainer, Johnny O’Mara. We’ve been working really hard, putting in the laps, so I definitely feel ready.”
Winner of the 2014 West Regional 250cc Supercross title, Jason Anderson is making his 450 debut on the new Rockstar Energy Husqvarna Racing entry. “Going to Sweden and hanging out with [motocross pioneer] Torsten Hallman was cool,” he said. “I think everyone is going to be surprised how good the bike is. My expectations are to get some podium finishes.”
Will a rookie win once again at Anaheim? We’ll all find out Saturday night at Angel Stadium. All 45,050 of us.