The starting gate at Fox Raceway in Pala, Calif., stands empty with one day to go before two classes of elite athletes line up for Saturday’s first round of Lucas Oil Pro Motocross.
It’s the 50th anniversary season of Pro Motocross and without a lap completed, the emerging storylines are already stacking up to make for a legendary season.
In the premier 450 class, several top title contenders are battling minor injuries, other could-be winners are returning from retirement and a few unpredictable riders are anxious to prove themselves.
The most unexpected announcement to hit the industry during the preseason came from Red Bull KTM in late April, when its team lineup was released.
While KTM riders Marvin Musquin and Cooper Webb were missing from the roster, three-time Pro Motocross champion Ryan Dungey and nine-time MXGP champion Antonio Cairoli were the wildcard names that accompanied KTM’s Aaron Plessinger.
Ryan Dungey’s last visit to the Pro Motocross series was in 2016, before he retired in 2017. (Spencer Owens/Align Media photo)
“This is, for me, a challenge I’ve wanted to pursue for a while,” Dungey said.
Both Dungey and Cairoli are rising out of retirement to race motocross, though Cairoli only has a few months of retirement to Dungey’s five years.
The veteran riders are taking their season preparation seriously, with Dungey maintaining the same mental approach he had during his all-star career.
“Go out there, apply myself, put in the time, the training and the riding,” Dungey said. “I want to be in it to win it.”
On the other hand, Cairoli’s appearance in Pro Motocross is more about chasing an American dream — and he’ll only have the first two rounds of the series to do it.
“It’s always been a dream to ride Pro Motocross nationals,” Cairoli said. “I preferred to do it when I was at the height of my career, not when I was 37 years old, but it’s still fantastic that I have the chance to be here.”
For the remaining field of riders who have 24 motos ahead of them, the start of the season signals a welcomed reset where the opportunity to put the past behind them is waiting.
Returning Pro Motocross champion Dylan Ferrandis has ridden slightly under the radar this year, after spending the last few months recovering from a minor wrist injury.
However, the Monster Energy Yamaha Star Racing rider is feeling ready to contend for a back-to-back championship.
His main motivation this season: keep the No. 1 plate.
The returning Lucas Oil Pro Motocross champion Dylan Ferrandis is looking to keep his No. 1 plate another year. (MX Sports photo)
Ferrandis’ teammate under the Yamaha tent is the newly crowned Monster Energy Supercross champion Eli Tomac, who has his own injury to keep an eye on this summer.
A late-season knee tweak kept him from riding the last round of supercross in Salt Lake City; a strategic decision that gave him maximum recovery time before Pro Motocross began.
“I’m probably close to 90 percent,” Tomac said. “I would have to catch it in a weird way for it to be an issue. But it’s been strong at home the past two-and-a-half, three weeks.”
One key factor to his title contention this year involves his confidence in the bike — one that has already proved to perform on a championship level in both Supercross and Pro Motocross.
Honda HRC’s Ken Roczen finds his confidence in another area: his core drive to race.
After nearly a three-month break from competition, the two-time motocross champion is ready to put in the work to climb back to the top.
“As much as I needed that break, it kills me being outside of racing,” Roczen said. “I’m a racer and I want to be out there.”
There are 11 different tracks across the country featured on this summer’s Pro Motocross schedule. (MX Sports photo)
Other top-10 riders in the series have their own challenges to confront on the track this weekend at Fox Raceway.
Two of them — Plessinger of Red Bull KTM and Rockstar Energy Husqvarna Factory Racing’s Shane McElrath — are running out of time to get comfortable on their respective bikes.
“I’d like to say I’m gonna come in and light the world on fire, but with only just over a month on the bike, it’s hard to say that,” Plessinger said, the characteristic mullet and mustache making an appearance in the Zoom press conference. “I’m looking forward to racing my new teammates I got and just having a good, long, fun summer.”
On the other hand, McElrath signed with Rockstar Energy Husqvarna in mid-May, giving him only two weeks to learn a new bike and prepare for his first season of motocross in the 450 class.
“For me, it’s about starting out the best I can,” said McElrath, who is currently contracted for only four rounds of the series. “It’s important for me to lay a good foundation in the first round.”
For the rest of the 450 class, there are 24 moto wins and a championship on the line.
Add Monster Energy Kawasaki’s Jason Anderson and Troy Lee Designs/Red Bull/GasGas’s Justin Barcia to the mix, and it’s about to be one hot summer of battles between legends and legends-in-the-making.