Ryan Villopoto ended his 2010 Supercross season on a stretcher, his leg mangled after a hard-to-watch crash at St. Louis.
A year later, he’s on the verge of finishing off a cool comeback story, heading into this weekend’s series finale in Las Vegas as the front-runner to win his first Supercross championship.
All Villopoto needs to do is get off to a good start, run near the front and stay on his bike.
The way this strange, jumbled season has gone, that could be tougher than it sounds.
“It’s been gnarly because there’s five guys that can win every race and you have to be on your game every weekend,” Villopoto said “You just have to go out there and do nothing different, show up like it’s a regular race.”
This season has been arguably the most competitive in Supercross history, with four riders heading into Las Vegas with a shot at the title.
Villopoto has a nine-point lead over Chad Reed, also back from being injured last season. Defending series champion Ryan Dungey is another three points back and James Stewart, another rider back from an injury, has an outside shot at the title, 23 points behind Villopoto.
This final showdown was set up by a 17-race drama filled with crashes, close finishes and bizarre performances.
Stewart, a two-time champion who broke his wrist last season, has five wins, but was derailed by a crash that knocked him out of the Jacksonville race. He also crashed while leading at Salt Lake City, wrecked at Daytona and was arrested in March for impersonating an officer in Florida.
Dungey, the first rookie to sweep the Supercross and motocross titles in the same season, got off to a slow start in his second season before coming on strong. His chances at repeating took a big hit at the second Anaheim race, though, when something got into his sprocket, derailed his chain and knocked him out of the race.
Reed has bounced back after breaking his hand and suffering from a bout of Epstein-Barr virus last season. Racing while running his own team, TwoTwo Motorsports, the Australian has been consistently near the front, but has just one win and had problems at both Texas races to keep him out of the series lead.
Villopoto has been the dominant rider, winning a series-high six races, but hasn’t been perfect, either, inexplicably missing the main at Jacksonville, which cost him a big chunk of points.
Rookie Trey Canard was in the mix, too, but he broke his leg while testing last month.
In all, five riders have won races and the points lead has changed hands five times, making for a wildly entertaining season.
“The season, it’s been kind of surprising because one guy won, then another guy won, then one guy had a tough break and another guy had a tough break, and the racing’s been really close,” Dungey said. “It’s just been kind of surprising with everything going on.”
It all comes down to this weekend along The Strip, where Villopoto can finish off a remarkable comeback story.
The 22-year-old from Fontana, Calif., suffered a horrific crash at St. Louis last season, flying over the handlebars at the bottom of a jump as his bike flipped through the air. The wreck left him with two broken bones and wiped out the rest of his season.
Villopoto won seven races before the crash and picked up where he left off this season, winning the Supercross opener at Anaheim, then again at the next race in Phoenix. He shook off the hiccup at Jacksonville with some strong runs and put himself in position for a first Supercross title.
“It’d be huge, for sure,” he said. “Last year, I won seven races and ended up getting hurt. That was a bummer, but I made sure I came in ready for this season.”
He’ll need to be ready for Las Vegas, where, if the season is any indication, anything could happen.