Ryan Villopoto has all but clinched his third straight AMA Supercross series championship, but there's still plenty of intrigue as the big bikes and their courageous riders roar onto the temporary dirt track at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday night.
The weather is supposed to be close to perfect high 60s, no rain or snow in the forecast prompting Jeff Robbins of the Utah Sports Commission to declare in Thursday's news conference that one of the biggest crowds in Supercross' nine-year history in Salt Lake City is expected.
The venue "is one of the most beautiful settings and stadiums we have on our tour," said Todd Jendro, Supercross senior director of two-wheel properties.
But the focus should be on the racing, with all of the top riders in the 450SX (main event) class scheduled to compete.
Villopoto, the rider from Seattle who had to miss last year's race in Salt Lake City due to a broken leg, has 321 points in the race for the series championship, 25 ahead of second-place Davi Millsaps. After Saturday's race, the 17-race tour concludes next week in Las Vegas.
"I know we can wrap up the championship up here in [Salt Lake City]," Villopoto said. "But my main goal is to go out of this race as good as possible. If I don't wrap it up, I know I'm in good position heading to the finale in Las Vegas."
Sounds like a good time to let Villopoto's Kawasaki teammate, Jake Weimer, slide into the winner's circle.
Weimer, the rider from just across the border in Rupert, Idaho, is racing close to the place where he grew up and will be looking to improve on his No. 12 position in the standings.
"I like the atmosphere that's there in Salt Lake," Weimer said earlier this week. "I always have a lot of friends and family there, and that always makes it exciting to race there. I generally see a lot of people that I haven't seen in a while, and just in general it is a fun event for me."
Opening ceremonies begin at 7 p.m., and racing begins at 7:30 p.m. with the Supercross Lites class heats. The Supercross main event 20 riders going 20 laps on the 450cc bikes begins at approximately 9:30 p.m.
Dirt may be dirt, but riders on Thursday said the kind they dump at Rice-Eccles Stadium has a bit more gravel in it than they are accustomed to riding and jumping on. They also have to adjust to the high altitude, which generally means less firepower from the bikes, and less speed around the track.
After some Kawasaki riders mentioned the slower, less-powerful bikes on Thursday, longtime Supercross veteran Chad Reed, who sits on a Honda, joked that his bike "never has a problem" in the altitude of Salt Lake City and he doesn't know what their issue is. The remark drew loud laughter from the crowd.
Reed later acknowledged that the altitude is a problem for everybody.
Another rider to keep an eye on is Trey Canard, who is on the comeback trail after a serious injury cut short his 2012 season. Canard sits in sixth place in the standings, with 202 points.
"It has been an amazing year for me," Canard said. "At this time last year, I was facing a lot of uncertainty."
Honda rider Justin Barcia won last week at Seattle, and sits fourth in the standings. The newcomer to the 450 class said the win taught him just how difficult it is to race against the likes of Villopoto, Millsaps, 2012 SLC champion Ryan Dungey and Reed.
Supercross in Salt Lake City
O At Rice-Eccles Stadium
First race • Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
TV • SPEED
Supercross season standings
450SX Class (Big bikes)
1. Ryan Villopoto, Seattle, 321
2. Davi Millsaps, Murrieta, Calif., 296
3. Ryan Dungey, Belle Plaine, Minn., 295
4. Justin Barcia, Pinetta, Fla., 245
5. Chad Reed, Dade City, Fla., 213
6. Trey Canard, Shawnee, Okla., 202
7. Andrew Short, Smithfield, Texas, 189
8. Justin Brayton, Cornelius, N.C., 162
12. Jake Weimer, Rupert, Idaho, 131