Commentary

Supercross shines at Dodger Stadium

Updated: January 23, 2011, 3:16 PM ET
By Chris Palmer | Special to ESPNLosAngeles.com

Ryan VillopotoAP Photo/Jae C. HongRyan Villopoto crosses the finish line to win the Monster Energy Supercross motorcycle race at Dodger Stadium on Saturday.

LOS ANGELES -- First the Beatles. Then the Pope. Now supercross. Those who sail two-wheeled rocket ships into the night sky now stand alongside the few who have taken center stage at Dodger Stadium without cleats and a mitt. For one night, the hallowed grounds of one of the most iconic venues in sports was the center of the action sports universe.

Five-thousand cubic yards of California dirt was brought in for the third round of the 2011 Monster Energy AMA Supercross Series. The rigorous earthen racetrack featured dozens of waist-high moguls, hairpin turns and jumps that sent riders sailing 30 feet high.

As mechanics made last-minute adjustments, spinning wrenches and tweaking suspensions, fans lucky enough to secure pit passes jockeyed for glimpses of their favorite two-wheeled gladiators. Teens with skinny jeans and Vans adjusted pristine ball caps that covered mops of hair. Energy drinks with bold names and bold claims were chugged by the caseload.

But this was a day unlike any other in the sport's 39-year history.

Fergie and Josh Duhamel were given a tour of the track. Dodgers great Orel Hershiser brought his sons.

"I've never felt this kind of electricity in the air," said Eric Johnson, who's covered the sport for nearly two decades. "Everyone I've ever owed a favor is calling it in to try to get tickets. Being here at Dodger Stadium is a transcendent moment in the sport."

The lazy afternoon sun retreated behind the Santa Monica Mountains, giving way to the stadium lights that have illuminated so many indelible Dodger moments.

In one of the most thrilling races in recent memory, Ryan Villopoto beat James Stewart in front of 41,107 enthusiastic fans at the inaugural race at Chavez Ravine.

Supercross
AP Photo/Jae C. HongRiders fly through the air during a practice session at Dodger Stadium.

Stewart led the main event for 10 of its first 20 laps before sliding out in a turn. Then 21-year-old Washington native Villopoto sailed by and never relinquished the lead, earning his second victory of the season and propelling him to the top of the points standings. Stewart picked himself up and mounted a furious charge from fourth place in an attempt to catch the new leader, but had to settle for second.

"I just washed out on some loose dirt," said Stewart, the winningest active rider. "I tried to save it but the bike just got away from me."

For Stewart, a two-time supercross champion, it was a blown opportunity. But considering the circumstances, it was a brilliant ride. Stewart was less than enthused about his performance.

An hour after the race, he tweeted, "Just a weird night of racing. Don't like to let y'all down. I'm ok and well but won't let that happen again. Everyone rode great except me. Stunk it up tonight. Sorry."

Tough critic. Save for his ill-timed bobble, Stewart displayed the blazing speed that has branded him the fastest rider on the planet and showed grit by picking himself up off the ground and charging back to second place.

"Any way you look at it, he's the fastest rider ever to throw his leg over a motorcycle," said Travis Pastrana. For Stewart, it's often feast or famine. In 89 percent of his starts, he's either crashed or won. Sometimes both. He's crashed 10 times while in the lead.

"I just want to regroup and get everything clicking again," said Stewart.

Stewart's pain was Villopoto's fortune. And the night was his showcase. Few riders have shown the inclination or audacity to challenge Stewart. Few have the speed or daring. Like Mike Tyson in the mid-'80s, Stewart often has opponents beaten before the gate drops.

But Villopoto came of age on Saturday. His willingness to bang bars and trade paint pushed Stewart into lines he wasn't comfortable with. That pressure forced Stewart into a mistake.

"I felt really good out there," Villopoto said. "Just a great ride. Man, I'm just so happy tonight."

Said Johnson, "This was a race for the ages."

But the evening was more significant than Villopoto's statement win.

Saturday's race in Los Angeles marked supercross' return to its birthplace. The first supercross was held at the L.A. Coliseum in 1972. Until that point, off-road motorcycle racing in America was relegated to the deserts and hills of Southern California. Then concert promoter Mike Goodwin arranged a deal to build a track inside the Coliseum. It's been 14 years since Los Angeles last hosted a supercross.

The 17-race supercross season runs from January to May, with the finale in Las Vegas' Sam Boyd Stadium. Through three rounds, the 2011 series is averaging roughly 43,000 fans per race.

Whether supercross will return to Dodger Stadium remains to be seen. The show will go to Oakland next week and eventually to the season finale in Vegas. But conjuring up this kind of magic will be tough. Though there were none in the sky, the stars aligned to make the inaugural race at Dodger Stadium one of the most memorable.

The champagne had yet to be drained from the Moet bottle in Villopoto's victorious throttle hand -- most of it ending up on his mechanic and team manager -- before crews began removing banners and Tuff blocks to prep the dirt to be transported back to a storage facility in Carson where it will remain until the X Games in July.

On Saturday, supercross shined. Inspired racing on an elegant stage.

Chris Palmer

ESPN the Magazine