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.

BEARDEN: Consistent Jason Anderson marches toward Supercross title after Indy recovery

By Aaron Bearden

For a short time on Saturday night, it appeared Jason Anderson had finally opened the door for a true championship fight.

As it turns out, he was just making things interesting.

Anderson continued his consistent march toward his first Monster Energy AMA Supercross title in Indianapolis, clawing his way back to a fourth-place finish despite rolling out of the race’s first turn in 21st after an early crash.

As a result, he retained his heavy championship advantage, leaving the Hoosier State a full 35 points clear of race winner Marvin Musquin with only five races remaining in the season.

In many ways, Saturday’s snow-filled afternoon in Indiana served as a microcosm of the entire 2018 Supercross season.

A few of Anderson’s closest competitors excelled to make minor gains on his lead, while at least one rider threw away his title dreams with a big accident.

Through it all, Anderson soldiered on in his usual position — quiet, focused and consistent. In other words, he did what was required of him in this season’s unusual championship race.

In a year marred by attrition, consistency has been as more important to sustained success than race wins.

Eli Tomac continued to prove that point in the 450SX main event, suffering another big blow  — both physically and in the standings.

The veteran Tomac started the event with a surge to second, and then proceeded to stalk Musquin through the opening laps. But the Coloradan’s race quickly went awry in spectacular fashion mid-race when he missed a quad jump, landing hard and falling off of his bike.

For a moment Tomac sat on the track, stunned and showing signs of pain. He continued on after assistance from the track safety team, but limped home a subpar 15th.

Issues like Saturday’s crash have been the plight of Tomac’s title chase this season. The 25-year-old’s five wins lead the tour, but it’s been an uneven campaign — to say the least. He crashed while leading by three seconds in the season opener at Anaheim, missed the second race of the year at Houston with the resulting injury and in Indy he tallied his fourth finish of 13th or worse.

Those results have marred what once appeared to be a promising title campaign, leaving Tomac fighting off disappointment as he chases race victories.

“Last year was our breakout year,” Tomac told JeffGluck.com prior to Saturday’s race. “We really started clicking off race wins and barely missed the championship by a handful of points. This year’s goal was to get those race wins again and be in the title hunt.

“We’re a ways out of it, so it’s a bummer that way. Now we’re just racing every weekend looking for a win.”

Musquin finds himself in a similar position.

The 2018 season has been arguably Musquin’s finest run, with two wins and a recent stretch of nine consecutive top-five finishes that have elevated the Frenchman to second in the standings.

He’s been the strongest rider in the field for the better part of two months, running within sight of the leaders every week as the season slowly winds down. But unfortunately for Musquin, the push appears to be all for naught.

Musquin started the season off with a victory in Anaheim, but a crash in his heat race kept him out of the main event in Houston before returning the following week with a quiet 13th-place showing in the second Anaheim date.

In the weeks since then, Musquin has had the best average finish in the field. But thanks to a 10-race winless stretch and Anderson’s impressive year, it hasn’t mattered.

The 28-year-old Musquin is still happy with his results, and at 35 points out his title chase is far from over. But his early issues have left this season with lingering thoughts of what could have been — a storyline reminiscent of his quest for an outdoor title last year.

“If you look at last year outdoors, it was the same,” Musquin said. “I was winning a lot at the end, but it was too late and I came up short on the championship.

“This season has been crazy. A lot of guys have gotten injured. I got injured in the second round and was far back in the championship, and I came back when the other guys got hurt. I know it can be easy to say that the other guys got injured, and that’s why I’ve come back in the championship to second place. But it happened to me at the beginning also.”

Sitting between Musquin and Tomac in the standings is a rider in the opposite situation — Justin Brayton.

The 2018 season has been the best of the 34-year-old Brayton’s life, yielding his first 450SX victory at Daytona International Speedway earlier this month.

It’s also been his most consistent year to date. Brayton has finished no worse than 10th over the entire 12-race stretch thus far, elevating himself into the championship discussion by avoiding the issues that have plagued his fellow competitors.

“The season has been really good, even from the beginning,” Brayton told JeffGluck.com. “We’ve been top 10 every race, top five quite a bit. Won several heat races. Practice times have been in the top five pretty much all year.”

Brayton’s been the most consistent rider in the paddock, but he hasn’t managed to rattle off race wins or podiums at the same clip as the riders around him.

The veteran has just three podiums compared to the seven and eight the other riders in the top four have mustered, and after Musquin’s Indy triumph he’s the only rider in the group without multiple victories.

So despite the career season, Brayton he knows he could do better.

“I’m really happy with everything right now, from my riding to the team, everyone involved,” he said. “It’s been a really fun year, and I’ve enjoyed it. But I also want to continue to have the success and try to win another race.”

Other riders put in strong efforts early in the year — Justin Barcia, Ken Roczen and Cole Seely among them. But they’ve all been lost to injuries in the midst of a chaotic Supercross season.

The only one who’s been able to pair success with consistency throughout the entire 12-race stint thus far has been Anderson.

The 24-year-old Anderson hasn’t been flawless, but he’s managed to avoid any significant setbacks to build a near-insurmountable advantage in the standings. His 2.75 average finish this season is easily the best in the field, and his four wins are topped only by Tomac’s five.

Anderson’s run has been impressive, elevating the New Mexico native to the top of his sport and forcing his competitors to acknowledge his improvement.

“He’s improved his consistency,” Tomac said of Anderson. “He hasn’t had that bad finish yet.

“That’s what’s winning our series right now, is guys that are consistent. Last year’s series winner won two races, maybe three. That’s just the way it’s been.”

That consistency was on full display in Indianapolis, despite the best efforts of the field.

As long as Anderson can keep it going for five more weeks, it appears nothing will stop him from marching on to his first Supercross 450SX title.

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.