Anaheim 1 shows promise for Yamaha’s Justin Barcia, Aaron Plessinger

Anaheim 1 is often the tone-setter for how the Supercross season will unfold, at least in terms of who is fast.

So what did we learn from Saturday night, when veteran Justin Barcia broke through for his first 450SX win in nearly six years?

It’s tempting to say “not much,” thanks to a persistent rain that created muddy conditions and made for a slick track. Riders like defending Supercross champion Jason Anderson (14th place) and 2018 runner-up Marvin Musquin (eighth) had surprisingly disappointing races — which surely won’t be the norm this season.

On the other hand, Barcia was fast before it rained, too. And the riders who joined him on the podium — Ken Roczen and Eli Tomac — aren’t exactly flukes.

“Shoot, I probably could have told you (Barcia) was going to win this thing two weeks ago,” Barcia’s Yamaha Factory Racing teammate Aaron Plessinger said after the race. “He’s been on the gas at the test track.”

Barcia ran a patient main event and passed Dean Wilson with roughly five minutes remaining on the clock. After that, he was never challenged.

So how much can we read into Barcia’s performance given the weather?

“It wasn’t like an insane mud race,” Barcia said. “It was slippery, but we were able to do all the jumps. I think this is a good sign for the rest of the year.”

If that’s the case, Anaheim could be the start of a dream season for Barcia. In 2018, Tomac had the early lead in an Anaheim 1 main event that ultimately saw a 1-2 finish from Musquin and Anderson. Those three fastest riders of the night went on to sweep the top three spots in the point standings — though not in that order.

Even if Barcia doesn’t win another round, he still has a fantastic story. The 26-year-old wasn’t sure he would be able to continue in Supercross at the end of 2017, but was selected for fill-in duty for the first six races of 2018 when Yamaha’s Davi Millsaps got hurt.

But after Barcia podiumed in three of his first four starts, Yamaha gave him a shot for more races and set him up for a season that would revitalize his career — that is, until he injured his hand and required surgery.

Nevertheless, the team signed Barcia to a two-year deal in the offseason and he now enters 2019 as the lead rider alongside Plessinger, a rookie.

“I’ve been through a lot the past couple years, with injuries and being in a difficult place with motorcycles,” Barcia said. “I wasn’t having fun with racing. I got the opportunity last year, made the best of that. More than anything, I’m just super grateful for the opportunity to be here racing; I know it could have went a different direction.”

If you’re looking for even more signs about how the season will go after Anaheim, Barcia’s teammate happens to be another good one. Plessinger finished sixth, the best among a strong rookie class that is expected to quickly compete with the veterans.

The charismatic 22-year-old grinned while talking about competing against the likes of Tomac and Roczen.

“I’ve watched them for years now — before I went pro,” Plessinger said. “Racing them now, it’s like, ‘Oh my God. I’m out here. I’m really doing this.’’

He shook his head for a moment, reflecting on the race, then laughed.

“I’m still in a ‘Holy shit’ moment,” he said. “To get sixth against world-class Supercross racers is a good night for me, I’ll tell you that.”

Risks, rewards of Supercross racing offer unknowns heading into 2019 season

Supercross is one of the most dangerous and difficult sports on the planet, but the formula for winning a championship seems quite simple: average a podium finish while staying healthy.

Easy enough, right? Just be consistently fast and don’t get injured. No problem!

Except that logic makes no sense because in Supercross, high speed often requires high risk of crashing. And if you crash, you’ll be lucky not to get injured — which means a great season can be derailed in one small moment.

Just look at Eli Tomac. Last year, he had a three-second lead at Anaheim 1 (this year’s version takes place tonight on NBCSN) and seemed headed toward a dream start to the series.

But then Tomac suddenly went down with no one around him, injured his shoulder, finished last and had to miss the next round in Houston.

Despite going on to win eight times — double the nearest competitor — Tomac ended up third in the standings.

Meanwhile, Jason Anderson won his first career title by being consistently good without necessarily being great — the Ryan Dungey Model, if you will. Sure, Anderson won four races. But it was his reliable top-five finishes (15 of them in 17 events) combined with a lack of injury (he was the only one of the top riders to make every start) that earned him the title.

Marvin Musquin won as many races as Anderson and actually had a better average finish — 3.1 vs. 3.6 — but lost the championship in large part because he got injured and missed a round.

“You can’t cruise around in fifth every week and get a championship. There’s no way,” seven-time Supercross champ Jeremy McGrath said Friday. “But if you know it’s not in the cards tonight and you’re not feeling it and it’s, ‘Oh, I’m going to take third,’ then third should be what you take.

“I don’t believe you should push all the way through and take that risk of wrecking or hurting yourself to get the win that night. There’s going to be another opportunity. What you want to do is live to fight another day.”

Five-time Supercross champion Ricky Carmichael echoed that sentiment and seemed mystified as to how some of today’s riders approach the championship. He said half the battle is staying healthy for the entire season, which he estimated only three to five riders will be able to do.

But those mistakes are often avoidable, Carmichael said.

“Unless something happens with the bike or a backmarker takes you out, you’re in control of your own destiny,” he said. “If you have one mental slip, boom. That’s what happens. You have to have personal awareness, and if you don’t know where you’re at and aren’t paying attention all the time, that’s when stuff goes wrong.”

All of that is to say this: Supercross has more unknowns that most forms of racing, mostly because so much depends on the human element — both physical and mental.

So after an offseason of guessing, Anaheim 1 will finally offer some major clues to how this season will go.

Who put in the work during the offseason to get better? Who is in the peak condition required to go fast? Who can make it through the 17 rounds without an injury? Which teams made improvements to their bikes?

And those are just questions for the likes of Anderson, Tomac and Musquin (who is still healing from an injured knee as the season begins).

What about Ken Roczen, a star who has had consecutive season-ending arm injuries but says he’s healthy again? What about veteran Chad Reed, who moves from privateer back to a team (Joe Gibbs Racing)? What about the incredibly promising rookie class, led by 250SX West champ Aaron Plessinger and JGR’s Justin Hill, who seems more competitive on a 450cc bike than a 250 for some reason?

Oh, and then there’s this: Rain is in the forecast, which could make for a muddy Anaheim Stadium track and throw an extra wild card into the whole thing.

How will it all end up? It’s anyone’s guess, and that’s the most intriguing thing about this gritty sport.

Supercross: New Triple Crown format has potential

Supercross is already built for short attention spans with its brief, action-packed races. But what if the entertainment value throughout an entire night could get even better?

That’s clearly what officials were going for when they implemented the new Triple Crown format, which debuted Saturday night at Anaheim 2.

Did it work? Well, it was certainly interesting. By having three races of varying lengths — short, medium and long — it shook up the field a bit and made it harder for the best riders to dominate (longer races benefit the elite riders who are in the best shape, which isn’t a bad thing).

Preseason championship favorite Eli Tomac ended up winning the night, so it’s not like the format produced an upset. But points leader Jason Anderson struggled in the first moto before winning the last one (he finished third overall), so that made for an extra storyline to watch. And Ken Roczen, who was second in points coming into the race, never really found his footing the way everyone expected — though it was unclear how much of that had to do with the format.

In NASCAR, officials have tweaked both the race format and playoff format to emphasize parity and make it harder for one driver to dominate. So if that was one of the goals for Supercross, it worked.

But the primary motivation for the change was entertainment — and it only was partly successful there. There were two issues that could be improved upon: One was the long delay between races — teams needed time to go back to their pits and prepare for the next moto, but it seemed like forever on the broadcast — and the other was the math.

Let’s talk about the second one, because that’s an easier fix. With adding up points for each race, it put a huge emphasis on the third main. But although FS1 did a great job of telling fans the situation, it fell short in getting graphics on the screen that showed a constant points as they run (it appeared a few times, but wasn’t consistently there).

The points as they run is the key to the whole night in the Triple Crown format, and viewers needed to visualize what was at stake. It would have been helpful to see a graphic that said “Cole Seely: Needs two positions to claim overall win” — and leave it there as we saw him chase the riders in front of him.

The Olympic-scoring format isn’t very complicated once it’s explained. But for people just hearing about it for the first time (which may have been the majority of viewers), it’s good to both over-explain and over-emphasize it with graphics on the screen. Plus, many of us can’t do math like that on the fly.

If FS1 can do the calculations and the race organizers can cut down some of the time in between the events (I know it still has to fit in a three-hour TV window, so that’s not easy), then the Triple Crown has a shot to be a long-term hit.

It’s easy to see why people love Supercross so much

Ricky Carmichael’s No. 1 tip for a first-time dirt bike ride was pretty simple: Whatever you do, don’t twist the throttle in a panic.

That would cause the bike to shoot out from underneath you, likely leaving you on the dirt and staring up at the sky wondering what just happened.

“If you feel like you’re in a position where you don’t want to be and you’re uncomfortable, just take your hand off the throttle,” Carmichael said. “Got it?”

He said it like five times, so yeah. Got it. No problem.

Except I didn’t get it. In the very first minute I sat on the bike at Angel Stadium, I did the complete opposite of what Carmichael said. I accidentally squeezed the throttle down, gave it way too much gas and almost lost the bike from underneath me.


Fortunately, I didn’t lose total control — barely — and Carmichael was a very patient teacher. And it got much better from there. Only a few minutes later, I was making mini-laps on a 70cc bike that was probably a good fit for a 7-year-old. The GOAT ran alongside my ride like a proud papa watching a kid steer his bicycle for the first time.

Then I graduated to a more respectable 125cc bike that had a clutch (shifting!) and I even got enough speed to feel a breeze in my face — an accomplishment by my standards! (I have to be honest, though: Carmichael still had to shift the bike for me on the fly.)

Anyway, that brief ride (full video here) generated my biggest takeaway from a Monster Energy AMA Supercross immersion experience last weekend at Anaheim 1: Dirt bikes are awesome. Holy crap! I wasn’t even good at it, but I already miss it. In the two nights since I got off the bike, I’ve had dreams about riding — and this was after only 15 total minutes of seat time, in which I probably never touched 20 mph.

No wonder people love this stuff. And I can’t even imagine going all-out on a 450cc bike and getting major air time at full speed over a jump — side-by-side with another rider. Insane.

Supercross is an impressive sport, and though I had been to a couple races previously, this was the first time I really got to spend more than a few hours around it.

Here are a few other things I learned over two full days at Anaheim:

They keep the 7,000 yards of dirt buried in the parking lot. What!? No joke — at least at Angel Stadium. Supercross Director of Operations Tim Phend said after the two Anaheim races are over, Supercross will stash the dirt in a giant hole behind the stadium, cover it up with a firmer base layer and leave it for 11 months. Angels fans park on top of it all summer, and then Supercross comes back to dig it up in late December. Oh, and they have to buy the Angels a whole new baseball field each year because they destroy the grass by putting all the dirt and equipment on top of it.

Supercross riders have to be in world-class shape to be successful because of the high cardio stress required during the races. The monitoring devices they wear show heart rates soar into the 190-beats-per-minute range during races and consistently stay at that level through the event. “When we race, you’re red-lined (for maximum heart rate),” rider Cooper Webb said. And that’s mostly due to effort and exertion. Eli Tomac said heart rates increase during a race compared to practice — due to adrenaline and the competition — but that only accounts for an extra 10 beats per minute. Because of the cardio demand, those who aren’t in top shape tend to fade about halfway through the 20-minute main events.

The riders are insanely tough. Ken Roczen had the spotlight heading into the season — deservedly so — after overcoming 11 surgeries and a potential arm amputation to make it back (and finish fourth on Saturday!) after a year away. But while his story was extreme, the attitude toward injuries is not uncommon among riders. Just look at two-time champion Chad Reed, who broke both ankles last year and was supposedly still two weeks away from being cleared to ride before Anaheim. Reed had only been on the bike three times since getting hurt, and returned to not only make the main event (no sure thing, given his injury), but finish 15th on Saturday. I was also taken aback seeing how many times riders would go down super hard and then hop right back up and finish the race.

— Marvin Musquin looked fantastic on Saturday night, but he’s not the championship favorite just yet. It still figures to be a wide-open season in the wake of the dominant Ryan Dungey’s retirement. After all, it was Tomac (runner-up for the championship last year) who appeared to be cruising toward a win when he crashed all alone and failed to finish at Anaheim. He’ll have plenty of good nights ahead, as will Musquin training partner Jason Anderson (who finished second Saturday) and Roczen. It’s a good bet the points will stay close throughout the spring.

— Even though it has a much smaller audience than NASCAR (Supercross averaged a record 343,000 viewers last year compared to NASCAR’s 4.1 million per race), Supercross may ultimately be better-positioned for the future. Supercross has bite-sized races (six-minute heats and a 20-minute main event) that aren’t long enough to get boring, and it has an extremely desirable demographic making up the bulk of its fan base. There were more people under the age of 25 stuffed into a sold-out Angel Stadium on Saturday than NASCAR might get in a month (and so many kids!). Supercross excels at a comprehensive fan experience from start to finish: The pit party (akin to the fan zone) is stellar; the opening ceremonies, with unique videos for each rider, do a great job of building the hype; and there are mega pyro displays set to current music booming through the sound system. Plus, the racing is not only excellent, but it has natural breaks built in for trips to the concession stands (or checking Snapchat, which shouldn’t be overlooked). NASCAR has taken steps in the right direction — with stage racing, for example — but the races are still way too long and there’s still much work to be done on turning the drivers into stars.

Anaheim 1 set to serve up unpredictable Supercross opener

No matter what form of motorsport you’re talking about, the best racing is always the most unpredictable.

That’s why I’m stoked for the AMA Monster Energy Supercross opener tonight in Anaheim (10 p.m. ET/FS1). The fans, media and riders themselves all don’t know what to expect, and the race tonight — as well as the championship — seems the most wide open in years.

Ryan Dungey and Ryan Villopoto had combined to win the last eight titles, but they’re both retired now (Dungey retired in the offseason after three straight championships). The only past champion left in the field is Chad Reed, but he hasn’t won since 2008, has two still-healing broken ankles and is now a privateer instead of racing for a factory team.

So that leaves Eli Tomac — who came oh-so-close to the title last year, Marvin Musquin, Jason Anderson and — oh yeah, Ken Roczen.

Roczen, in case you haven’t heard, is an early candidate for Best Comeback Story in all of sports for this year. After winning Anaheim 1 last year, he shattered his left arm in the second Anaheim race.

He’s had 11 surgeries since then. Eleven! It would have been an accomplishment for him to ever hold a pencil again, let alone get back on a bike and race.

But there he was Friday, sitting in the annual preseason press conference with a suit and tie and proclaiming himself ready to not only compete — but contend.

Could Roczen actually go out tonight and win the season opener?

“My arm, if it would be fragile and I could barely do a pushup or put any weight on it, I feel like I wouldn’t really sit up here,” he said. “The people my team and I have hired to go through (physical therapy) for months and months, they did a pretty phenomenal job.

“It’s never going to be the same, but it’s definitely good enough to race dirt bikes and, in my eyes, have good strength to handle the bike and do whatever with it.”

That said, Roczen said he will ride with a wrist brace tonight. So how competitive he’ll be is a giant unknown.

Asked about Roczen, the other riders offered restrained praise on Friday. They seem happy for the guy they call “Kenny” to return, but they also aren’t anxious to see him win.

After all, the door is wide open for Tomac to claim his first title, but Musquin and Anderson should be right there as well.

But if Roczen’s arm is truly fixed enough, all of them might be chasing the German on his comeback tour.