- Associated Press - Friday, October 17, 2014

Ryan Villopoto made winning motocross racing’s biggest prize look easy, taking the checkers in three straight races to win $1 million.

Claiming a cool $1 million has proven to be much more difficult since that inaugural race in 2011; no rider has been able to win the second race, much less take three straight.

This year’s Monster Energy Cup, Saturday night in Las Vegas, figures to be no different.

“It’s going to be difficult for someone to win the $1 million,” rider Ryan Dungey said. “If a guy wins that first moto, everyone will be gunning for him. Everything has to fall just right to do it.”

It certainly worked out for Villopoto in the event’s first year.

Since then, no one’s been able to match it.

Justin Barcia came up just short in 2012, winning one moto and finishing second in the other two. James Stewart won two motos last year, but those came after Villopoto won the opening moto.

But even if the $1 million is off the table, the Monster Energy Cup has a pretty nice payday: $100,000 to the rider who has the highest combined finishes in the three races.

“Even if you don’t win the $1 million and get the hundred grand, a hundred grand ain’t nothing to laugh at,” said Ricky Carmichael, who has designed the Monster Energy Cup course for the fourth straight year.

The Monster Energy Cup falls between the outdoor motocross and Supercross seasons, and is raced on a course designed to have elements of both disciplines.

The hybrid course starts inside UNLV’s Sam Boyd Stadium with a unique, 200-yard start the goes over an incline, then splits into two directions before the riders merge back together at the other side of the stadium. Carmichael’s design will include plenty of big jumps and tight cornering in the style of Supercross, then travels outside the stadium for a speed section that’s more like outdoor motocross racing.

There’s also 150-yard sweeping turn that goes up into the stands of the stadium and a devious, sand-filled joker lane that adds a level of mental toughness and concentration.

“It’s fun, but at the same time it’s challenging,” Carmichael said of designing the course. “The No. 1 priority is safety, but then you try to create something that’s going to be fun for the racer and challenging enough, as well as something that’s going race good and create great racing for the fans.”

If last year’s race was any indication, the joker lane could have a big impact on the races.

Essentially a rolling pit stop, the joker lane is filled with sand and ruts to slow riders down. Each rider has to go through the lane once during each of the three races, requiring an extra boost of strategy as they try to figure out whether to take it early or late in a race.

But because the joker lane is unique to the Monster Energy Cup, the riders also have to remember to take the lane, which, as last year’s race showed, isn’t always an easy thing to do.

In the first moto, Dungey was racing Villopoto for the lead when he noticed Villopoto had dropped back suddenly. After the race, he nonchalantly asked what happened and Villopoto told him that he had taken the joker lane.

Dungey’s heart immediately dropped and so did his position; race rules require any rider who doesn’t pass through the joker lane to drop five positions.

Even after watching Dungey lose the first race because he didn’t go through the joker lane, Villopoto made the same mistake in the second race and later wrecked after his chance at the $1 million was gone.

“It can really mess with you,” Dungey said. “It through a huge curveball last year. I was like, ‘I can win, I’m catching him.’ Then, ‘Shoot!’”

Carmichael designed this year’s course so the joker lane will blend in more with the regular lane, so it could get even more interesting.

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