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Supercross gearing up for its 40th season

The first Supercross race was held in 1972 when a racing promoter held what was called the Super Bowl of Motocross inside Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles.

Two years later, AMA Supercross became a series with four sanctioned races spread several weeks apart.

Now, as Supercross gets set for its 40th anniversary season, everything about the sport has become bigger and better: The tracks, bikes, riders, money, support and TV coverage.

“The sport has really gown,” said Dave Prater, director of Supercross for Feld Motorsports. “But we want to keep growing it bigger and take it into the mainstream.”

The first points race in Supercross was held in 1974 and won by Pierre Karsmakers, who went on to win the first season championship.

On Saturday, Ryan Villopoto will start defense of his three straight championships in Anaheim, Calif., the kickoff to a 17-race season that will span 18 weeks and zigzag to some of the biggest arenas in the country.

Nearly everything about the series will be different from Karsmakers’ day to now.

The motorcycles are far more powerful and have much better suspensions than those bone-jarring bikes of the early days.

The tracks are no longer just a couple of loops, but massive circuits that cover the entire floors of the stadiums with parallel lanes and more jumps in one straightaway than the entire courses of the early days.

The series has become one of the most popular motor sports in the country, drawing an average of 850,000 spectators per year.

The sport should continue to grow, too, with the series’ recent signing of a five-year deal with Fox Sports 1 and 2 to show every race live on television.

Even the riders have changed, no longer just guys who have other jobs on the weekend, but full-time competitors who are among some of the fittest athletes in any sport, with personal trainers to keep up.

“You think they’re just riding dirt bikes, but they’re muscling those machines around the track,” Prater said. “It’s amazing the physical shape they’re in. They all train year-round; it’s their job. They’re like any elite athlete, all in the gym every day with trainers.”

Supercross has gone through a few cycles where single riders have dominated the sport for long periods of time.

Jeremy McGrath set the standard in the 1990s, winning seven Supercross titles in eight years. When his run ended, Ricky Carmichael took over, winning five of the next six Supercross championships.

Now, Villopoto has taken over the mantel of dominating the sport.

Despite a couple of serious injuries, including two broken leg bones in a horrific wreck in 2010, the 25-year-old from Poulsbo, Wash., has been almost uncatchable over the past four years, racing off with the last three Supercross titles and eight total championships when combined with outdoor motocross.

“He is really the only guy, besides Ricky, who at this point in his career has a chance to reach McGrath’s record,” Prater said. “And he’s kind of doing it quietly. I know it sounds strange when he’s that dominant, but he’s kind of snuck up on everyone. It just seemed that McGrath and Ricky were a bit louder, if you will, but Villopoto has been just as dominant at the start of his career.”

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