Ken Roczen had completed just five races aboard a fully-fledged 450cc motorcycle before the gates dropped at the opening round of the AMA Supercross Championship in Anaheim, California on Sunday night, while only three weeks prior his right arm was in a cast up to his shoulder.
If that wasn’t tricky enough, if Roczen was to become the first rookie to win on opening night since Josh Grant in 2008, he would have to overcome four of the greatest riders the sport has ever produced: James Stewart, Chad Reed, Ryan Dungey and Ryan Villopoto.
And as the night got underway, it was a familiar story at the start of the race as Villopoto got the snap on everyone out of the gate, while the heat race's fast-starter, Mike Alessi, was left stranded.
No walkover for Villopoto
Despite his 34 career victories, however, Villopoto wasn’t able to pull off his usual disappearing trick on the Kawasaki up at the front. The 2013 champ was clear, yes, but not as terrifyingly distant as we've seen in previous seasons.
Also on a Kawasaki, albeit a very different, privately-assembled number, was Chad Reed. When Villopoto sensationally dropped his bike in one of the Anaheim course’s tricky corners, Reed suddenly found himself in second behind Roczen with his rivals, Stewart and Dungey, just behind.
The Stewart vs Reed square off was a tantalising prospect, following some titanic struggles over the years, and made all the more delicious because of Stewart's $100,000 victory at the pre-season Monster Energy Cup, which hinted at the Suzuki rider’s return to form.
Stewart goes after Roczen
But it wasn’t quite the battle royale we might have hoped for, and as Stewart dropped Reed and reeled in Roczen there was a vintage feel to the performance. With the German rookie being hauled in by several bike lengths in the rhythm sections, it looked like a case of 'when' not 'if'.
But then in the whoops section, Stewart’s Suzuki caught a rut and shot one way, then the other before finding grip and shooting itself, riderless, off the track. Luckily for Stewart, by the time he hit the deck he'd cleared the whoops and walked away relatively unscathed.
With three laps to go, Dungey passed Reed to establish a KTM formation finish, with Roczen claiming his impressive victory while Villopoto recovered to fourth place.
So can K-Roc go all the way? Seventeen times in the past, the rider who has won the opener has won the championship, while it only takes one mistake at race pace to end a season. Supercross, despite it's precision and physicality, is a sport of attrition, not just over a weekend but over all 17 weekends. If Roczen is to take the championship in his debut season, he'll need more nights like A1 on his scorecard by the time the championship arrives in Las Vegas in May for the season closer.
Anaheim 1, 450SX class
1. Ken Roczen (KTM)
2. Ryan Dungey (KTM)
3. Chad Reed (Kawasaki)
4. Ryan Villopoto (Kawasaki)
5. Justin Barcia (Honda)