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Who will slay ‘monster’ at Hangtown Classic? Motocross seeks next hero

Ryan Dungey practices before the Hangtown Motocross Classic on May 14, 2015, at the Prairie City State Vehicular Recreation Area in Rancho Cordova. Dungey, a three-time 450cc champion, announced his retirement this week shortly after capturing his fourth Supercross championship.
Ryan Dungey practices before the Hangtown Motocross Classic on May 14, 2015, at the Prairie City State Vehicular Recreation Area in Rancho Cordova. Dungey, a three-time 450cc champion, announced his retirement this week shortly after capturing his fourth Supercross championship. aseng@sacbee.com

Lucas Oil Pro Motocross season commences at the Hangtown Motocross Classic on Saturday. For riders in the premier 450cc class, the slate is cleaner than usual.

Ken Roczen, last year’s champion, is out for the season due to injury. Ryan Dungey, a three-time 450cc champion, announced his retirement this week shortly after capturing his fourth Supercross championship.

That means that of the riders convening at Prairie City State Vehicular Recreation Area this weekend for the 49th Hangtown Classic, one will emerge from the 12-stop motocross gantlet this summer a first-time champion. Roczen, Dungey and Ryan Villopoto – who is also retired – have combined to win the last seven 450cc championships.

“For us it’s just like an open field,” said Monster Energy Kawasaki rider Eli Tomac. “Those two guys were really big targets when you’d go racing.”

Tomac enters the season as a prohibitive favorite, having finished second last season in the 450cc standings to Roczen. In 2015, Tomac won the first two events of the season and had a lead in the third when he suffered a shoulder injury that cut his season short.

Coming off a narrow second-place finish to Dungey in the Supercross championships, Tomac knows there will be expectations this season each time he gets on the bike.

“I need to just really focus on myself and not worry about the other guys,” said Tomac, 24, of Cortez, Colo.

“For me, it’s just racing. There’s going to be a lot of good guys as usual, and there’s a few new guys too. For us, we’re just looking forward to a more successful season. Last year Kenny put a good whipping on us, so we’re going to try to get more wins this year.”

Tomac has had success at Hangtown, winning his first pro motocross race there in 2010 while competing in the 250cc class and dominating the 450cc event in 2015. This week he described the track as “kind of a monster,” saying it sets a strong precedent for the rest of the motocross season.

“It’s one of the roughest (tracks), as there are a lot of big bumps and a lot of lines going everywhere,” Tomac said. “It’s rutted. And it really just wears on you physically.

“I think there’s a big momentum swing out of this race. It kind of puts the field into kind of a pecking order, so it’s important to have good momentum out of this weekend.”

Riders are facing a quick turnaround from the Supercross finale in Las Vegas on May 6. But Tomac said he’s had “a few good days of testing” between and feels “farther ahead than we were last year at this point.”

With Dungey’s retirement still fresh, his absence was a popular topic in the preparation for Saturday’s race. Though he never won at Hangtown, Dungey ended his career with the second-most 450cc wins behind Ricky Carmichael and possessed cross-sport appeal, appearing on a Wheaties box and in ESPN’s Body Issue.

With Dungey gone, though, riders agreed the competition is wide open – even for a new 450cc competitor like Cooper Webb.

“It makes it definitely exciting for all of us,” said Webb, last season’s 250cc champion. “It’s anybody’s game, really. I think it kind of adds to the excitement and the motivation for everybody. Nobody really knows what can happen.”

Matt Kawahara: 916-321-1015, @matthewkawahara

Riders to watch at Saturday’s 49th Hangtown Classic

450cc class

Eli Tomac, Monster Energy Kawasaki: Tomac won two motocross events last season while finishing second in overall points to Roczen. While Roczen won 20 of 24 motos, Tomac captured three of the remaining four. The 2015 Hangtown winner also just completed a strong Supercross season, winning nine of 17 races.

Marvin Musquin, Red Bull KTM: Musquin was Dungey’s teammate until this week. Now, the Frenchman is the new top rider on the Red Bull KTM team. Musquin finished third in the Motocross standings last season with nine top-three finishes and won two events in the just-completed Supercross season.

Cooper Webb, Factory Yamaha: Webb, 21, will be making his 450cc debut after winning the 250cc motocross championship last season. Webb notched seven career wins in the 250cc class. He had a rough Supercross season at 450cc, recording one top-five finish and suffering a shoulder injury, but said the missed time has him “feeling fresh. “

250cc class

Jeremy Martin, GEICO Honday: Martin has won the 250cc class title two of the past three seasons but missed three rounds last year. He was also limited by injury in the Supercross season, competing in just four rounds. But he’ll still be a favorite with Webb gone, given his past success. Also keep an eye on his older brother, Alex, who finished second last season in 250cc.

Zach Osborne, Rockstar Energy Husqvarna: Osborne finished seventh in 250cc Motocross last season but is coming off his first Supercross championship. A Virginia native, Osborne raced for a while in Europe and said that might make him more naturally suited to the outdoor racing of Motocross.

Joey Savatgy, Monster Energy/Pro Circuit Kawasaki: Savatgy finished third in 250cc last season with three event wins. One of those came at Hangtown, where he notched his first career moto win while overcoming rainy conditions early in the day. He’s coming off a third-place finish in Supercross.

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