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.