By Colin Smith Bay of Plenty Times

Rotorua is hosting a round of the national series for the first time in five years and Ben Townley will line up his Honda CRF 450 on an international quality MX1 start gate that features series leaders Cody Cooper (Papamoa) and John Phillips (Rotorua), along with four Australians and top Kiwi racers.

Defending champion Cooper leads the series following a fourth place start at the New Plymouth series opener and then an impressive unbeaten effort during the second round at Timaru.

Cooper leads Honda Shop Racing teammate John Phillips by three points with Australians Kirk Gibbs (KTM) and Kade Mosig (Yamaha) next, ahead of first round winner Scott Columb (Yamaha) of Queenstown.

The Rotorua round is, in every respect, a home race for John Phillips. The Rotorua Motorcycle Club track is built on his family property at Horohoro, on State Highway 30 between Rotorua and Atiamuri.

Australian rider Jay Wilson (Yamaha) holds a 20-point advantage in the MX2 (250cc) class at the half-way point of the championship, chased by Takaka's Hamish Harwood (KTM) and Amberley's Micah McGoldrick (Honda).

And looking for a front-running home track effort to build on his fourth position in the championship will be Rotorua's Scotty Canham (Kawasaki).

The Australian contingent expands further this weekend with two more riders joining the series. Geran Stapleton will contest the MX2 races on a Honda Shop Racing entry while Suzuki rider Jayden Conforto will ride in MX1.

When former world champion Ben Townley retired from fulltime motocross almost two years ago, he left the door open to making occasional race appearances.

Mt Maunganui-based Townley, 30, specified his professional career was over but racing for fun remained on the radar, alongside his coaching and rider management interests.

So far the dirt bike fun-factor has been highlighted by back-to-back wins in the mid-winter Tarawera 100 endurance race and competing at three major Australian events last year.

Townley has also kept his skills honed at cross-country events and contested the iconic "River Race" at the an-nual Woodville Motocross GP.

Now the "101" race number, which is the signature of the 2004 MX2 world champ, has appeared on the entry list for round three of the New Zealand Championship at Rotorua this Sunday.

Townley is taking a relaxed approach.

"It's a different outlook for me now. I don't put the pressure on myself like I used to and I'm not preparing for anything," he said.

"Actually I've only been on a bike about three times since Labour Weekend."

Townley has been busy on the sidelines at the first two rounds of the championship, providing guidance to a visiting Japanese rider.

"HRC [Honda Racing Corporation] sent Makato Okato out for 30 days to train with me and to ride at the first two rounds of the nationals," said Townley.

"He went home the other day, so now I have the chance to go out, have a blast and enjoy a few motos.

"It's purely to have fun. It's the closest round to home so it's the easiest one for me to do."

JT Racing NZ Motocross Champs (after round 2):

MX1 (450cc): Cody Cooper (Papamoa) Honda, 124pts, 1; John Phillips (Rotorua) Honda, 121pts, 2; Kirk Gibbs (Australia) KTM, 114pts, 3; Kade Mosig (Australia) Yamaha, 101pts, 4; Scott Columb (Queenstown) Yamaha, 99pts, 5; Brad Groombridge (Taupo) Suzuki, 93pts, 6.

MX2 (250cc): Jay Wilson (Australia) Yamaha, 140pts, 1; Hamish Harwood (Takaka) KTM, 120pts, 2; Micah McGoldrick (Amberley) Honda, 105pts, 3; Scotty Canham (Rotorua) Kawasaki, 85pts, 4; Campbell King (Dunedin) Suzuki, 83pts, 5; Hamish Kanters (Otorohanga) Yamaha, 82pts, 6.

125cc 2-stroke: Josiah Natzke (Hamilton) KTM, 138pts, 1; Cohen Chase (Taupo) Yamaha, 127pts, 2; Benjamin Broad (Ngatea) KTM, 118pts, 3; Kurtis Lilly (Karaka) Husqvarna, 104pts, 4; Courtney Duncan (Palmerston) Yamaha, 101pts, 5; Nick Hornby (Hawera) Yamaha, 82pts, 6.

By Colin Smith Bay of Plenty Times