Like an Apollo moonshot, the 2011 AMA Supercross season has counted down and reached blast off - there were a host of big names vying for supremacy but the Neil Armstrong of the first race of the ‘11 SX season was Ryan Villopoto.
Kawasaki’s factory star was coming back from an enforced eight month layoff following a terrible crash last April and showed that the plates and pins in the badly-broken leg that kept him out for so long are absolutely no hindrance.
It just may be that there was no more highly-motivated rider out there.
Ranged against Villopoto was one of the strongest fields for a long time. Suzuki’s Ryan Dungey held the number one plate after a stellar 2010 season, James Stewart was back and looking in terrifying form after an even longer break than Villopoto’s - in fact, Stewart ran down and passed ‘Poto to win their heat race -, Chad Reed was making his US debut for his own team, Kevin Windham was back for yet another tilt at the crown, and there were a host of riders ready to step up to the challenge - 2010 250 MX champion Trey Canard, American Honda’s Josh Grant, speedy veterans like Ivan Tedesco, Brett Metcalfe and Andrew Short, even former Next Big Things like Mike Alessi and Davi Millsaps.
Realistically, Dungey and Stewart had to be favourites with Reed and Villopoto right behind them, but no-one had told Villopoto that.
It was Tedesco, riding a Dodge Motorsports Hart & Huntington Kawasaki who led the pack from the start ahead of the traditionally fast-starting Alessi with Villopoto in third, but ’Poto was by far and away the class of that particular trio, wasting no time in charging his way through to the front and leading by the end of lap four, working to make a break before the rest of the competition could make their way through the pack behind him.
Dungey made an average start and took some time to get into his groove, and Villopoto was down the road by the time he took second place. Stewart had an awful start and was mired deep in the pack - Reed’s start was even worse, and he was waaaaay back.
The cream always rises, however, and both Stewart and Reed worked their way forward.
As Dungey took second and vainly tried to catch Villopoto, so Stewart made his way into second and tried to catch Dungey, but the gaps were too big and they ran out of laps.
Canard took fourth to mark an excellent debut aboard the big bike indoors, whilst Reed managed to climb all the way up to fifth, ahead of Windham.
As races go, it lacked a head-to-head battle to make it a classic, but then A1 is rarely the best race of the season - ring rust and opening night nerves tend to put paid to that.
But the lap times tell a story - both Villopoto and Dungey clocked 58.8s as their fastest laps, with Canard just a tenth off the pace and Tedesco the only other rider to record a lap under a full minute.
Stewart, however, logged a time a full eight tenths faster than either of the riders ahead of him on the podium.
Roll on Phoenix next week, and let’s hope all the main protagonists gate at least roughly together. The Lites class opened with the traditional Pro Circuit dominance.
Team newcomer Broc Tickle led from the start before teammate Josh Hansen took the lead on lap nine, gradually edging away to win by three seconds from Tickle.
Another teammate, Tyla Rattray kept a watching brief in third to seal a podium sweep for the squad to complete a fairly spectacular weekend for Team Green - not only did they win both main events, they also led every lap of both races.
Euro uberkind Ken Roczen made his US debut aboard a KTM and came away with a creditable 7th - fingers crossed that he can build on it and improve at Phoenix, but it’s to be more fervently hoped that he survives the season and comes back to the GPs safe and sound.