Grant Langston barely had his No. 8 Yamaha up to speed Sunday when it appeared his motocross championship hopes were in trouble.
The Murrieta rider arrived with a slim lead in the series' points but got a poor jump off the starting line in the first of the season's final two races at hilly Glen Helen Raceway in Devore.
But he tenaciously climbed through the pack and eventually passed leader Mike Alessi of Victorville to win the first round of the Giant RV AMA Motorcross Nationals.
Langston then needed only a top-five finish in the second race to clinch the title, and he finished third behind winner Kevin Windham and second-place Alessi to earn his first AMA Toyota Motocross championship in front of 26,200.
"When I won that first moto it took a big load off," said Langston, a 25-year-old native of South Africa.
"I didn't really panic" at the start of the first race, he said. "I just put my head down, really concentrated and found my lines" around the 1.5-mile circuit.
Langston won the title by 16 points over Alessi, and became only the second rider in the last eight years to win the off-road motorcycle racing championship.
That's because motocross legend Ricky Carmichael had won the title for the last seven years. But Carmichael, moving toward a new career in stock car racing, ran only a limited schedule this year.
The sport's other top rider, James Stewart, was leading the points this summer and appeared headed toward the title until he suffered a knee injury in July that ended his season.
That opened the door for Langston, Alessi, Tim Ferry and Andrew Short, who arrived at Glen Helen for the season's 12th and final event with only 15 points separating them.
"I never would have expected this coming into the season, but it's the nicest gift," Langston said. "James was going to be the guy to beat."
In the first race, or "moto," Langston beat KTM rider Alessi by 10.7 seconds. They were followed by Honda's Short in third and Kawasaki's Ferry in fourth.
Windham, 29, led the second race from start to finish, then said he wasn't sure he would return to motocross next year as he considers other options.
"There's a legitimate possibility that this is my last moto . . . so I just gave it my all," he said.
In the lower-tier motocross lites class, Ryan Villopoto won his second consecutive series title for Kawasaki by winning one of the two motos.
The Poulsbo, Wash., rider won the first race after passing teammate Ben Townley of Tallahassee, Fla., on the fifth lap of the 14-lap race. Villopoto then finished second to Townley in the second race to win the championship by 19 points over Townley.
The Glen Helen layout, just west of Interstate 215, is one of the series' most difficult circuits with three hills that are among the steepest in the sport.
Riders make a vertical climb of about 20 stories on one hill, dubbed Mt. St. Helens, then make a sharp right turn and plunge down the same hill.