NEW ORLEANS (AP) — In the seven years since AMA Supercross last visited New Orleans, the motorcycles have changed as have some of the stars who ride them.
Still, the first race in the Louisiana Superdome since the stadium’s post-Hurricane Katrina renovation will be a big one — with a familiar star. Defending season champion Chad Reed, who won the last time he raced in the Superdome, is trying to hold off 2007 champ James Stewart for the final seven races in one of the closest competitions in years.
"You’ve got two guys battling it out, week in and week out for a championship, and I think people are excited to get out and see it," Reed said.
The sluggish economy does not appear to have slowed the flow of fans through the turnstiles at Monster Energy Supercross events this season, perhaps because the race for the title has been so close. In New Orleans, officials said they were hoping for a crowd exceeding 50,000.
Part of the draw will be Kevin Windham, who grew up 80 miles away in Baton Rouge and has consistently been among the top riders in the sport for much of the past decade. Windham is usually a threat to race near the front, but isn’t in contention for an overall championship this year.
Reed and Stewart were tied until last weekend’s race in Daytona, when Stewart, who has the most victories this season (seven), fell and could only climb back up to seventh place before the race ended. Reed, meanwhile, took his second straight victory, giving him an 11-point lead and 224 points overall.
Stewart by no means thought that he’d thrown away his title chase with his crash, however.
"I’ve definitely been the fastest guy this year, it’s just that Chad’s been really consistent," Stewart said.
Stewart, 23, of Haines City, Fla., gained notoriety as a teenager, when he began to show the type of promise that made his sport’s insiders believe he’d be the first black racer to win a top-class motor sports championship in the United States. That promise became reality a year before Lewis Hamilton became the first black driver to win the Formula One world championship.
Now, Stewart is known simply for being dominant — when he stays on his bike for a whole race.
He comfortably won his 2007 championship, then a knee injury caused him to miss last season, when Reed won his second AMA Supercross title. Reed’s first championship in the top class came in 2004, when Ricky Carmichael, then the most dominant rider in the sport, also was out with an injury.
Reed’s fellow riders, Stewart included, say injuries to competitors should not diminish the luster of winning an AMA Supercross crown.
"It’s a tough situation, but I always believe a win is a win," Stewart said. "He won his championships and who’s to say? Maybe he would have won anyway. He’s won two championships, which is well deserved."
Still, Reed has heard some critics say otherwise, and hasn’t had the easiest time ignoring them.
"Hopefully James stays healthy and we fight it out to the end. I want to win this one more than ever," said Reed, who turns 27 on Sunday. "I don’t know how long I’m going to do this for so I’ll try to take advantage of it while I can. If I win this one, it will be my best one — kind of shut up the critics a little bit and kind of show them I can win."
The 17-race season began in January in Anaheim and winds down May 2 in Las Vegas. All the races are held on temporary tracks made from dirt dumped in large stadiums. The tracks often consist of long straights, tight turns and high jumps.
In the summer, some riders go on to race in the AMA Motocross series, which runs on more traditional outdoor tracks carved from rolling terrain.
Reed, a native of Australia, won the last time Supercross came to the Big Easy in 2002. Back then, Reed was riding a 125 cc motorcycle with a two-stroke engine. Carmichael won the marquee event in the 250 cc class.
Since then, the series, like its road-racing MotoGP counterpart, has switched to four-stroke engines. Now the top-class riders are on 450 cc engines, while the lower class, known as Supercross Lites, features 250 cc motorcycles.
Reed remembered his last trip to New Orleans fondly, but figured he’d never come back as a racer after seeing the very stadium in which he’d once triumphed surrounded by floodwaters after Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005.
"After that it seemed like there was no chance we’d be back, but I’m happy we’re back," Reed said. "New Orleans is different than the rest of the U.S., so for someone not born and raised in America, it’s definitely fun to come and visit."