By John Basher
The Ryan Villopoto, who just retired from the sport, is
pretty much the same person that he was when I first met
him in the summer of 2005 at Ponca City. Yes, his look has
changed. In those days he was a shy, introspective redhead
with a mop-top (see photo below). A puka-shell necklace was
stretched around his neck. It’s hard to imagine the Ryan
Villopoto of today wearing a puka-shell necklace.
Villopoto, the youngster, was reserved and quiet despite
capturing three titles at Ponca City. He wasn’y cocky or
self-absorbed once he warmed up to my brother Michael and
me. The Basher brothers were at Ponca to cover the future
stars of motocross. Villopoto was our number-one choice.
Once we tracked him down outside his modest motorhome,
it was my job to convince Ryan to walk beyond the Ponca City
pits, hop a barbwire fence and stand in the scorching sun
to shoot a few photos for the interview. RV wasn’t exactly
excited about the idea, but he faked it well in the photos by
cracking a sheepish smile.
“My parents and I have never talked
ourselves up. We just go and race
and then are done with it. I’ll let my
actions speak for themselves on the
track. Whatever happens, happens.”
In the years that followed, I interviewed Villopoto numer-
ous times. He was accessible early on, unlike the Ryan that
we came to know later in his career. By the time he was a
super star he didn’t need to take time out to make nice with
the media. He was winning. I should point out that Ryan’s
approach to publicity throughout his entire Pro career goes
back to what he said when I interviewed him as an amateur:
“My parents and I have never talked ourselves up. We just go
and race and then are done with it. I’ll let my actions speak
for themselves on the track. Whatever happens, happens.”
He followed those words to the bitter end, much to the
dismay of the media and fans. It doesn’t help that the media
landscape has changed so drastically in the past decade.
Thanks to the popularity of social media, people thirst for
every tidbit of information they can find on their favorite rider.
For many Supercross fans, Ryan Villopoto was their guy.
Yet he didn’t use his popularity to turn his Instagram page
into an empire like Adam Cianciarulo has (did you know that
Cianciarulo has more Instagram followers than the Orlando
Magic NBA basketball team?) or reveal the most
personal details of his life. Was that to Villopoto’s detriment?
Or was he smarter than the rest of us?
Villopoto hinted at retirement back in 2013 after he won
the Utah National and wrapped up his second 450 National
title. His remarks fell on deaf ears, because RV was on a hot
streak. He was winning races, collecting checks and virtually
unstoppable. There was no reason for him to quit. The 2014
Supercross series wasn’t exactly a walk in the park, but still
Villopoto won seven mains and took the title by 62 points
over Ryan Dungey. Then something strange—at least from
an outsider’s perspective—happened. RV didn’t line up to the
gate for the AMA Nationals, citing a bum knee at the very
last second. It became obvious during 2014 that Villopoto
was burned out and contemplating retirement. Of course,
everyone shrugged off that notion, because who wouldn’t
want to make history as the first-ever five-time consecutive
450 Supercross Champion? Ryan Villopoto for one.
One thing we have all learned about Ryan Villopoto during
his 10 years on the Professional circuit is that titles meant
very little to him. He was paid to win, so that’s what he did.
The record books will speak for themselves. Ryan was not
the type to daydream about knocking off greats like Hannah,
Johnson, McGrath and Carmichael. Nope. As long as the
checks cleared and he had time to go hunting (an activity he
spoke less and less about in recent years, probably due to
how touchy people are about political correctness), it didn’t
matter where he stood on the all-time win list.
Villopoto’s decision to opt out of the final year of his
AMA contract and race the Grand Prix series was not
popular among many of his fans. Ryan had come to represent
Supercross, and that’s where the people cheered the loudest
for him. Knee injuries held him back from dominating the
outdoors over a long stretch. It’s too bad his accomplishments in the Nationals are overlooked by those who stop
paying attention to the racing after the final Supercross of the
year in Las Vegas. To me, Ryan was always most impressive
under the summer sun in some field far away from the
concrete jungles of Supercross.
We’ll never know what might have been had Ryan remained
healthy in Europe. Instead, he got hurt only four rounds into
the MXGP series, and his last moment as a professional
racer will forever live on as a fluke loop-out crash that left
him with a broken tailbone and bum back. However, that’s
merely an unfortunate moment in a long series of wonderful
memories created by Ryan. Remember his dominating
performance on a 250F at the 2007 Motocross des
Nations? To this day I still haven’t seen anyone ride a 250
four-stroke as fast as he did in Budds Creek that weekend.
How about his Monster Energy Cup trifecta where he secured
a cool $1 million bonus? Of course, I can’t forget his victory
this year at the Thailand GP. It seemed like he would rule the
world…only no one knew it would be his last win.
Personally, there’s one Ryan Villopoto story that stands out
for me. Way back in 2005, shortly after I had first met Ryan,
he was putting in motos at Glen Helen on an open practice
day. The 250 Nationals had just ended, and RV was working
on adapting to the Pro ranks (remember when he finished
second at the Glen Helen finale?). I wasn’t at the track to
shoot Ryan, but instead was focused on a bike test photo
shoot for MXA. Stationed in a bowl turn at the far corner of
the track (which, by the way, is no longer there), I watched in
awe as Villopoto hit the corner wide open and shot up a wave
of roost. The next time around he did the exact same thing.
I was lucky enough to capture his perfect style in the photo
shown on page 160. It’s still one of my favorite photos that I
have ever taken.
As race fans we cling to the hope that our favorite
riders will have one last glory race that will forever be etched
in memory. I’m sure there are those among us who would
pay to see Roger DeCoster race Namur again, or Ricky
Johnson at Carlsbad. Sadly, sports don’t work that way. It’s
impossible to know when
a racer’s last race will be,
which is why we should
enjoy every moment we
get to watch a guy like
Ryan Villopoto twist the
throttle. I don’t care
that Ryan wasn’t very
outgoing, because that’s
not who he is. Instead
I’ll revel in the fact that
I saw Villopoto do something extraordinarily well
that 99. 99 percent of the
rest of us cannot do. In
the end, Ryan Villopoto’s
actions on the track
spoke loud and clear.