In 1972, rock concert promoter Mike Goodwin tried something that had never been done by bringing motocross -- a European form of motorcycle racing that was just starting to gain a foothold in the U.S. -- into a stadium. He called it the Super Bowl of Motocross, an appropriate title considering it was run in the Los Angeles Coliseum, the site of the first Super Bowl.
It caught on immediately and by 1974, stadium motocross had grown into a series sanctioned by the American Motorcyclist Association called Supercross. It's a Federation Internationale Motocycliste-sanctioned world championship today, perhaps the premier series in the world and certainly the top motorcycle series in the United States.
For much of its history, Supercross has seen periods of dominance by one rider. Bob (Hurricane) Hannah was the first, winning three straight championships from 1977 to '79. Jeff Stanton won three of four from 1989 to '92, Jeremy McGrath took seven of eight from 1993 to 2000 and Ricky Carmichael won five of six from 2001 to 2006. They all had challengers, usually one rider in any given season.
The years from 1985 to 1988, however, saw intense competition between two evenly matched championship riders in top form. Jeff Ward won in '85 and '87, Ricky Johnson in '86 and '88. It was the best multi-season rivalry in Supercross history.
Without a clear star in the field, 2011, unlike the years before, is up for grabs.
James Stewart seemed destined to be the next rider to rip off three or four championships in a row. When Carmichael, making a transition to NASCAR that has taken him into the Camping World Truck Series, decided to run a partial schedule in 2007, the acrobatic and blindingly fast Stewart won his first Supercross title. But he was injured in 2008, opening the door for Australian Chad Reed to take the crown. Reed also won in 2004, when Carmichael was out of action with an injury.
Stewart and Reed were injured early in 2010 when they crashed together, and that made last year's championship a two-rider race between Ryan Dungey and Ryan Villopoto. Dungey was leading the series 277-265, but Villopoto had been closing fast and had seven victories in 13 races, the most in the series. At St. Louis, Villopoto crashed and broke his right leg and ankle. Dungey cruised to the championship, the first by a rookie in Supercross since the legendary McGrath.
With Stewart, Reed and Villopoto healthy and Dungey the defending champ, the stars have lined up to produce the deepest field in Supercross history in 2011.
"We've never had a season like this one for the fans," Villopoto said. "We usually have two guys battling for the championship, not five. It's good for the sport and it's fun."
Villopoto has upstaged Stewart, Dungey and Reed with a series-leading four victories going into Saturday's 10th of 17 rounds at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. The 22-year-old from Poulsbo, Wash., has won the past two to take a 196-173 lead over Stewart. Reed is third with 172, Dungey fourth with 165 and Trey Canard fifth with 154.
Many regarded Stewart as the favorite and Dungey the primary challenger entering the season. Villopoto and Reed were considered outside threats.
Villopoto's problem has been staying healthy. He won two races in his rookie season of 2009, but missed three races with health issues. "I've always been on the same level as those guys [Stewart, Reed, Dungey], Villopoto said. "I ended up getting hurt."
Villopoto started his comeback from the broken leg and ankle by winning the opener at Anaheim Stadium. "It was a great race to win for sure," he said. "I knew I wasn't going to lose anything. The only thing you lose is endurance, and the preparation I've done has made me really ready for this year. My speed has gotten better."
Villopoto has been a Kawasaki-backed rider since he was 13. Kawasaki signed him to its Team Green development team, and then moved him up through its system. Villopoto won three straight 250cc motocross AMA national championships from 2006 to 2008 and also was the Supercross Lites winner in 2007. It earned him a promotion to the 450cc bikes of Supercross and 500cc motocross.
Villopoto also has won at Dodger Stadium, Atlanta's Georgia Dome and Daytona International Speedway. He's been second to Stewart at both Phoenix's Chase Field and the second event at Anaheim, and he finished third at Houston's Reliant Stadium and fourth at Oakland-Alameda Coliseum. Villopoto's worst race was at San Diego Qualcomm, where he fell and finished seventh.
Stewart's third win was at Oakland. The Yamaha rider was leading at Atlanta on the final lap when Reed, a bitter and longtime rival, drove deep into a turn and collided with Stewart. Villopoto passed them both to win. "It was a gift and I'll take it," Villopoto said.
Last week at Daytona, Stewart was leading by six seconds, but crashed hard on landing from a long jump. He recovered to finish ninth.
"I was out there riding as hard as I could," Villopoto said. "When I saw the way he [Stewart] went out there, I kind of figured it wasn't going to last. I was riding my own race and whatever was going to happen was going to happen. The Daytona track is a lot longer than a normal Supercross track and I knew the end of the race counted and not the beginning."
Canard, on a Honda, took his first Supercross victory at Houston. Fellow Honda rider Reed won at San Diego. Dungey, a Suzuki rider, doesn't have a win this season, but has four seconds, three thirds and a fifth in the nine races.
Villopoto's 23-point lead is substantial, but it's not safe.
"It's gone well for sure and it's nice to have those 23 points, but I know I've got to get out there and win more races to win the championship," Villopoto said. "I don't think I can ride conservatively and go through the motions against the guys I'm riding against."