By Broc Bridges

Jeremy McGrath left Honda just before the start of the 1997 season, leaving the Honda team scrambling to find their next title-chaser for the first time since 1993. Kawasaki’s Jeff Emig would deny them the crown that year, with McGrath all but running away with the title in 1998 for Yamaha. Hungry to regain the title back in 1999, Honda built an all-star roster that included Ezra Lusk, Sebastian Tortelli, Kevin Windham, and Mickael Pichon. With Mike LaRocco also riding for Amsoil Honda (albeit separate from the factory team), Honda’s Red roster was poised for victory at the dawn of the new millennium.

Newly-refurbished Angel Stadium became only the seventh venue at the time to host multiple races in a season, a tradition that carries on to this day. Competitive murmurs emanated from non-red and blue tents in the pits; Suzuki lauding the powerful prowess of team members Greg Albertyn (who would later that same summer take the Motocross title) and Larry Ward (who would go on to win round 4 in Seattle, right before A2). Kawasaki also felt they had a Championship caliber team with ’97 victor Emig and a rookie Ricky Carmichael who already had three titles under his belt (1998 125SX & 1997-1998 125MX). In fact, a host of competitive Premier Class riders such as Damon Huffman, Tim Ferry, Robbie Reynard, and Steve Lamson were included in the January 9th season opener in Anaheim; the first of many A1’s to come.

When the dust settled on qualifying it was Lusk and McGrath with heat race victories, Pichon and Windham in the semis, and a beleaguered Emig and Huffman coming across 1-2 in the LCQ. Also qualifying were Honda’s LaRocco, Tortelli, and Brock Sellards; Yamaha’s John Dowd, Stephane Roncada, Jimmy Button, David Vuillemin, Lamson, and Ferry; Suzuki’s Albertyn, Ward, Reynard and Phil Lawrence; and Kawasaki’s Carmichael meant there were no less than 16 full-on factory-backed racers lining up for the Main Event and four others with factory support. This opener was a true who’s-who of 90’s Supercross racing as it made up 61 percent of wins in the 90’s and 70 percent of the titles. Jeff Stanton, Damon Bradshaw, and JM Bayle dominated from 1990-1992 before leaving the sport to the new generation which weighs the percentage down a little bit. As it seems to be year after year, this was one of the strongest gates Supercross has seen so far.

“I’m pretty surprised, to be honest with you. I didn’t expect to win. I hadn’t really reached my peak yet. I haven’t been training as long as I did last year, because I just came back from the arm injury. I just figured to get stronger as the season went. To go out and win the first race, I guess I was as strong as everybody else was.” Despite being a factory-backed favorite to win the race, audiences were stunned that that quote wasn’t delivered by the 7-time Anaheim winning, five time Champion McGrath, nor the 1997 champion Emig nor even the rookie phenom Carmichael– it was south Georgia’s own country boy Ezra Lusk.

Mickael Pichon, winner of the 125SX Eastern Regional titles in 1995-1996, got the hole-shot on his Honda and would soon be passed by Larry Ward. Wardy led for almost the entire first half of the 20-lap main before Lusk charged from third-place to take the lead and never looked back. Pichon eventually moved into second while Amsoil Honda’s LaRocco nabbed the final podium spot to complete a Honda podium sweep in the Opener, the fourth time in history that had happened, and since then only once in 2004 for Yamaha with Chad Reed, Vuillemin, and Ferry.

Kevin Windham, Honda’s newest addition to the squad, bounced around from fifth to seventh but would make a late charge to finish in fourth completing an unheard of “ultra-sweep” with Honda finishing in 1st-4th place, the first time ever in Supercross history, and still the only ultra-sweep there has ever been in an incredible 742 rounds of the sport. If McGrath continued to perform at a seventh-place level as was the case in this particular opener, it would be safe to say that Honda could sweep the season.

However, McGrath reeled off five straight wins to put Lusk, LaRocco, and Pichon behind him in the points for an impressive 2nd-4th point standings finish for Honda by season’s end. It wouldn’t be until Kawasaki rookie Carmichael jumped on red before they would capture that elusive title three seasons later in 2002. Carmichael and McGrath would come together multiple times during this 1999 A1 Main Event, foreshadowing the 2000-2002 seasons where they became fierce competitive rivals. McGrath T-boned Carmichael and went down ending his seven race win streak in the stadium.

In almost every Supercross race there is a portent, crazy one-off stat, or just downright incredible race (if not all three at a time). Having included all three by the century’s end, the 1999 Anaheim Opener dawned a new future for the sport.