Ryan Villopoto has spent six months working his way back from a severe injury to his left knee, rehabilitating, rebuilding stamina and, just recently, riding again.
Now he’s ready to start racing and it couldn’t come at a better time.
Healthy and eager to race again, Villopoto returns this weekend to defend his title in the sport’s most lucrative event: The $1 million Monster Energy Cup in Las Vegas.
“It’ll be good to be back out there,” Villopoto said. “I’m not saying I’m itching to get back out there because there’s a 17-race (Supercross) season that starts after this, but I’m looking forward to getting back to racing.”
The Monster Energy Cup debuted last year in Las Vegas, offering $1 million to any rider who could win all three motos on a hybrid track inside and out of UNLV’s Sam Boyd Stadium.
Bucking the odds, Villopoto pulled it off, getting the hole shot to win the first two motos, then overtook the leader on the first lap of the third to take down his sport’s richest prize.
“I never thought anyone would be able to do it last year,” said motocross icon Ricky Carmichael, who co-designed last year’s track with Jeremy McGrath.
Carmichael has designed this year’s track solo and he’s made some interesting changes.
The track will be shorter this year and feature more 180-degree switchbacks. It again will have a section that goes up into the stands, but the turn will be at a much wider arc so the riders will be able to generate more speed.
There also will be what Carmichael is calling joker lane, a gnarled, sand-filled stretch that riders will have to go through at least once in each of the three main events. The lane, which will take about six seconds to go through, could add a bit of strategy and drama as riders try to figure out when in the race to dance with the joker.
Perhaps the most intriguing change from last year will be the start.
Instead of the entire grid funneling into the first corner, the riders will be split into two 11-man groups in gates located 220 feet apart before converging at the apex of the starting straight.
The split start has the potential to make things a little chaotic as 22 riders come together in the same spot from opposite directions.
“It should be pretty interesting,” Carmichael said with a chuckle. “I think it’ll be pretty safe. These guys are professionals in what they do and, first and foremost, we’re not going to design anything that’s going to be dangerous, but it’s going to be good.”
This year’s Monster Energy Cup will have a deep field, including Ryan Dungey, who won his second outdoor title this summer, and former champion Chad Reed, making his first appearance since a devastating crash at Cowboys Stadium in Texas during the Supercross season left him with multiple broken bones and a torn-up knee.
It also will be the 450cc debut of up-and-comer Justin Barcia, the two-time defending 250 champion.
They’ll all be chasing Villopoto as he comes back from a second major crash in three years.
The first one was in St. Louis during a Supercross race in 2010. Going over a section of multiple jumps, he got caught in a rut, came up short on a jump and had to let go of his bike in midair. He crumpled to the track and was done for the season after breaking his leg in two places and crushing the cartilage in his sternum.
Villopoto came back strong from the horrific injury, sweeping the 2011 Supercross and motocross titles, then capped one of the best seasons in motocross history by winning the Monster Energy Cup.
The 24-year-old from Poulsbo, Wash., was dominant again during this year’s 2012 Supercross season, wrapping up the title with four races left, the earliest any rider has clinched in the 39-year history of the indoor version of motocross.
Despite having the title locked up, Villopoto kept racing and found trouble again at his hometown race in Seattle in April, when his front tire washed out on a turn and sent his left knee twisting under his bike. Villopoto ended up having surgery and missed the entire outdoor season, which Dungey won in a runaway.
After a sometimes-grueling rehab, he’ll be back on his bike Saturday night under the lights, hoping to ride off with another $1 million paycheck.
“Everything came together well last year, the bike was good and I had no problems, so hopefully this year we can do the same,” he said.