A viewer’s guide to Supercross: Five things to watch in Salt Lake City

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The Monster Energy AMA Supercross Series is back, and there’s much to discuss.

Start with the parameters for the conclusion of the 2020 season – seven events in 22 days all held in one stadium but with varying layouts for each race.

Add in the challenges of riding at the elevation of Salt Lake City, which is more than 4,000 feet above sea level.

And then mix in the fact that a full line of several dozen elite riders who have had three months to get fully healthy while also having their edges understandably dulled by the layoff from the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

INFO, PLEASE: TV, start times, information for Supercross’ return

WORKING VACATIONJustin Brayton on the job and at play in Utah

It could make Sunday’s “reopener” at Rice-Eccles Stadium (3-4 p.m. ET on NBCSN; 4-6 p.m. on NBC) highly watchable.

“I think it’s super important to start strong,” Justin Brayton, who rides for Team Honda HRC in the 450 class, told NBCSports.com. “I think you’ll see a lot of people pressing the issue at Round 1 and definitely making some mistakes.

“It’s going to be interesting but will be fun to be part of and fun for the fans to watch for sure.”

With the events closed to the public, fans will be watching entirely on NBCSN and NBC over the next three weeks.

Culled from interviews with riders and a Zoom news conference this week, here’s a viewer’s guide of five things to watch during Supercross’ return:

Template for the future: Supercross normally races on Saturday nights, holds a prerace track walk for its riders and takes a week off between each race.

But all of that will change over the next month as riders adapt to radically compressed schedules and much less recovery time between events.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just ask the NASCAR industry, which has discovered during its return over the past three weeks that there were positives to shorter distances, midweek races and inverted starts with the elimination of practice and qualifying.

Ken Roczen, who is ranked three points behind Eli Tomac in second, believes it could be a road map for the future.

“Racing Sunday and having Monday-Tuesday off and going back to racing is the perfect amount of time of rest before going to the next races,” he said. “We have a little longer break Wednesday-Sunday, which gives us a chance to ride in that time as well. I don’t really think it’s going to be a problem. We might all be enjoying this.

“Who knows, in the future, maybe there will be a similar schedule for a couple of weeks and give us an off week further down the road. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out and how all the riders and mechanics like it.”

There also will be interest in how Sunday afternoon/evening and Wednesday night races perform in the ratings.

“Hopefully, we do get into the mainstream,” Tomac said. “It just brings attention and that’s what you hope for, so hopefully we draw it. We have a good class for the audience. A lot of good 450 riders and a lot of us healthy. Hopefully that creates the good racing for that TV time and get some people watching us.

Said Roczen: “It’s very interesting and also maybe for future talks. We’re racing on Sunday, and with football, it’s always tough, but I think for the future, we’ll see how it ends up. Racing on Wednesdays is a work day. Everybody’s going to be home, there’s not many sports going on, so hopefully that’ll be on our side, and everything goes smoothly. Saturdays when we race, most of the time people are going out and partying and probably not at home. It’ll be interesting to see what the ratings do racing on Sunday and Wednesday.”

Higher ground: When Salt Lake City, Utah, was announced as the location to end the season, conventional wisdom held that it would favor Tomac, who was raised and still lives in Colorado. Training at higher elevation allows the points leader to get acclimated to the cardiovascular challenge and the diminished horsepower that will be felt at altitude.

“I’m based out of Colorado so it’s kind of just normal for us,” Tomac said. “We’re even higher at home. We’re at 5,500 (feet) in Cortez (his Colorado hometown), and I live at like 7,000. Shouldn’t be an issue for us. When you go to the race weekend on a normal Saturday, now Sunday, it does feel different that first time around, but most of us will adapt pretty quick.”

SILVER LININGS: Eli Tomac finds positives in 2020 interruption

Roczen has been riding in California over the past week and staying in an elevation tent to try to simulate the conditions he’ll face. He also is a fan of Utah.

“I’ve spent a lot of time even recently up here,” he said. “We haven’t raced that often at altitude, but I feel I’ve acclimated and prepared myself well. So should be solid. Everyone does their thing to get ready for it as good as possible. We’ll see if we have an edge on the competitors or not.”

His teammate, Brayton, believes it could be a fairly straight fight even if Tomac has an edge.

“He’s used to it bodywise- and heart rate- and breathing-wise,” Brayton said. “He practices at altitude all the time, and your bike is significantly slower. So he’s used to that type of power characteristic, those two things add up. Tomac definitely has an advantage.

“But in saying that, it is racing. Things happen. Kenny and I were talking that when it came down to Eli and Ken in a 250 championship (at Salt Lake City) several years ago, Ken didn’t qualify here and Tomac had a horrible night where he went backwards and had a terrible race. So they both had extremely bad nights here. I’m not saying that’s going to repeat, but anything can happen. Especially seven races in three and half weeks.

“On paper, Tomac for sure has an advantage, but I think Ken kind of likes that. He likes being the underdog and proving people wrong, so I think it’s a good position to be in.

Feeling good: Motorcycle riding can be a punishing sport, and the three-month layoff has allowed several riders to get healthy.

Brayton has recovered from a wrist injury at Daytona that would have sidelined him for a minimum of four races. Adam Cianciarulo, who moved to 450 after winning the 250 title last year, is back after February surgery on a broken collarbone. Dean Wilson has healed from a nagging offseason hip injury, and Cooper Webb is over injuries from a crash in Texas.

“This break has been great for me; I’ve been able to heal the body,” said Webb, who is 29 points behind Tomac in third place. “I want to get in mix and win as many as I can. Things can turn quick. There’s a lot of pressure on (Tomac and Roczen). There’s money to be made, and dreams to be chased. I feel like I’m more under radar and don’t have the spotlight of the championship on me.”

After the break, Cianciarulo said he is viewing the rest of his rookie season as his second year in 450. “From a mental standpoint, that’s beneficial to me,” he said. “I’ve had time to assess things I did well and didn’t do well. It would be cool for me to finish season out getting a win or two and getting that under belt going into next year. But I’m still a rookie and have to take my bumps and bruises and continue to learn.”

Wilson, a Scotsman seeking his first 450 victory, also has extra motivation of riding with an expiring contract as a Husqvarna rider.

“That’s what a lot of people don’t really see: I’m fighting for a job next year,” he said. “Obviously, I’d love to stay where I’m at, but nothing is guaranteed, so I just need the results speak for themselves. That’s why it’s important for me to do well. I’ve got to get the best results I can and beginning of season was just a little unfortunate coming back from that Monster Cup injury.”

COVID-19 testing: Many riders underwent their mandatory COVID-19 testing Thursday after arriving in Utah. Supercross is requiring everyone on site to test negative for initial entry to Rice-Eccles Stadium, but further testing won’t be required unless a rider leaves the state.

While waiting in a car with Roczen for their drive-thru testing, Brayton said it was like “almost being in line for a roller coaster, and you’re not sure about how the big drop is going to be. You’re a little nervous. That’s how it felt. It was fine, though. It was no big deal.

“As long as the test is negative, you’re good to go. You hear of people who don’t have any symptoms and test positive, so that’s what’s a little bit scary. I feel 100 percent fine and never had any symptoms, but you just never know. It’s kind of a weird situation.”

Other series (such as NASCAR and IndyCar) aren’t testing for COVID-19, and Brayton, a former rider for Joe Gibbs Racing who still lives in the Charlotte area, said he had a few text messages from those in the NASCAR industry. “I guess they’re just (checking) temperatures and stuff” in NASCAR, Brayton said. “I feel like that would be fine (for Supercross), as long as you don’t have a temperature. That’s the thing. If a bunch of us test positive (for COVID-19) but have no symptoms, it might backfire on (Supercross).”

Supercross is allowing riders and teams to rent houses and Airbnb properties after initially considering selected hotels, which Roczen said would have been “a terrible idea. I think it’s great we’re all able to stay in Airbnbs and houses because ultimately we have a full house and kitchen, so all we do is go to grocery store, come back, stay at home, cook our food. So really try to limit the people we’re around. We’re all in the same boat.

“Is it ideal this whole thing is still going on? No. But it’s not something I’m not thinking about right now. I’m trying to stay away from it. I think I speak for everybody. We’ll talk again if and when we get that far. Let’s just try to limit our contact with other people and go racing.”

Said Tomac: “Just got to be somewhat smart. Try to keep risks to a minimum, and that’s all you can do is try to stay healthy. I think our age group is healthy. Just got to go with it.”

Empty grandstands: The pandemic precautions also will result in no fans being present in the stadium, which will mean racing without cheers but also a missing energy from the team paddock areas that normally are filled with a daylong buzz Saturday.

“Obviously it’s got to be weird for all of us,” Roczen said. “It’s never happened before. It’ll be odd but still better that way than not at all.”

Said Brayton: “You just have to put it aside. If you think about it, there’s literally nothing we can do. It’s either we go racing under these circumstances or don’t go racing at all. I think it’s best we go racing.

“Best for everybody, riders, teams, NBC, (Supercross). It’s the best thing. We just have to deal with it. It’ll be unique and strange but also be kind of cool because we’re in some different TV time slots, so that’ll be cool to hopefully get some new eyeballs on our sport.”

Ken Roczen (94) wins the 450cc main event at the Monster Energy AMA Supercross race on Feb. 29, 2020 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia (Charles Mitchell/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images).

Strong rebounds for Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi amid some disappointments in the Indy 500


INDIANAPOLIS – Alex Palou had not turned a wheel wrong the entire Month of May at the Indy 500 until Rinus VeeKay turned a wheel into the Chip Ganassi Racing pole-sitter leaving pit road on Lap 94.

“There is nothing I could have done there,” Palou told NBC Sports. “It’s OK, when it is my fault or the team’s fault because everybody makes mistakes. But when there is nothing, you could have done differently there, it feels bad and feels bad for the team.”

Marcus Ericsson was a master at utilizing the “Tail of the Dragon” move that breaks the draft of the car behind him in the closing laps to win last year’s Indianapolis 500. On Sunday, however, the last of three red flags in the final 16 laps of the race had the popular driver from Sweden breathing fire after Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden beat him at his own game on the final lap to win the Indianapolis 500.

Despite the two disappointments, team owner Chip Ganassi was seen on pit road fist-bumping a member on his four-car team in this year’s Indianapolis 500 after his drivers finished second, fourth, sixth and seventh in the tightly contested race.

Those are pretty good results, but at the Indianapolis 500, there is just one winner and 32 losers.

“There is only one winner, but it was a hell of a show,” three-time Indianapolis 500 winner and Chip Ganassi Racing consultant Dario Franchitti told NBC Sports. “Alex was very fast, and he got absolutely caught out in somebody else’s wreck. There was nothing he could have done, but he and the 10 car, great recovery.

“Great recovery by all four cars because at half distance, we were not looking very good.”

After 92 laps, the first caution flew for Sting Ray Robb of Dale Coyne Racing hitting the Turn 1 wall.

During pit stops on Lap 94, Palou had left his stall when the second-place car driven by VeeKay ran into him, putting Palou’s Honda into the wall. The car sustained a damaged front wing, but the Chip Ganassi crew was able to get him back in the race on the lead lap but in 28th position.

Palou ultimately would fight his way to a fourth-place finish in a race the popular Spaniard could have won. His displeasure with VeeKay, whom he sarcastically called “a legend” on his team radio after the incident, was evident.

“The benefit of being on pole is you can drive straight and avoid crashes, and he was able to crash us on the side on pit lane, which is pretty tough to do, but he managed it,” Palou told NBC Sports. “Hopefully next year we are not beside him. Hopefully, next year we have a little better luck.”

Palou started on the pole and led 36 laps, just three fewer than race leader Pato O’Ward of Arrow McLaren Racing.

“We started really well, was managing the fuel as we wanted, our car was pretty good,” Palou said. “Our car wasn’t great, we dropped to P4 or P5, but we still had some good stuff.

“On the pit stop, the 21 (VeeKay) managed to clip us. Nothing we could have done there. It was not my team’s fault or my fault.

“We had to drop to the end. I’m happy we made it back to P4. We needed 50 more laps to make it happen, but it could have been a lot worse after that contact.

“I learned a lot, running up front at the beginning and in mid-pack and then the back. I learned a lot.

“It feels amazing when you win it and not so good when things go wrong. We were a bit lucky with so many restarts at the end to make it back to P4 so I’m happy with that.”

Palou said the front wing had to be changed and the toe-in was a bit off, but he still had a fast car.

In fact, his Honda was the best car at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway all month. His pole-winning four lap average speed of 234.217 miles per hour around the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway was a record for this fabled race.

Palou looked good throughout the race, before he had to scratch and claw and race his way back to the top-five after he restarted 28th.

In the Indianapolis 500, however, the best car doesn’t always win.

“It’s two years in a row that we were leading the race at the beginning and had to drop to last,” Palou said. “Maybe next year, we will start in the middle of the field and go on to win the race.

“I know he didn’t do it on purpose. It’s better to let that pass someday.”

Palou said the wild racing at the end was because the downforce package used in Sunday’s race means the drivers have to be aggressive. The front two cars can battle for the victory, but cars back in fourth or fifth place can’t help determine the outcome of the race.

That is when the “Tail of the Dragon” comes into the play.

Franchitti helped celebrate Ericsson’s win in 2022 with his “Tail of the Dragon” zigzag move – something he never had to do in any of his three Indianapolis 500 victories because they all finished under caution.

In 2023, however, IndyCar Race Control wants to make every attempt to finish the race under green, without going past the scheduled distance like NASCAR’s overtime rule.

Instead of extra laps, they stop the race with a red flag, to create a potential green-flag finish condition.

“You do what you have to do to win within the rules, and it’s within the rules, so you do it,” Franchitti said. “The race is 200 laps and there is a balance.

“Marcus did a great job on that restart and so did Josef. It was just the timing of who was where and that was it.

“If you knew it was going to go red, you would have hung back on the lap before.

“Brilliant job by the whole Ganassi organization because it wasn’t looking very good at half-distance.

“Full marks to Josef Newgarden and Team Penske.”

Franchitti is highly impressed by how well Ericsson works with CGR engineer Brad Goldberg and how close this combination came to winning the Indianapolis 500 two-years-in-a-row.

It would have been the first back-to-back Indy 500 winner since Helio Castroneves in 2001 and 2002.

“Oh, he’s a badass,” Franchitti said Ericsson. “He proved it last year. He is so calm all day. What more do you need? As a driver, he’s fast and so calm.”

Ericsson is typically in good spirits and jovial.

He was stern and direct on pit road after the race.

“I did everything right, I did an awesome restart, caught Josef off-guard and pulled away,” Ericsson said on pit lane. “It’s hard to pull away a full lap and he got me back.

“I’m mostly disappointed with the way he ended. I don’t think it was fair and safe to do that restart straight out of the pits on cold tires for everyone.

“To me, it was not a good way to end that race.

“Congrats to Josef. He didn’t do anything wrong. He is a worthy champion, but it shouldn’t have ended like that.”

Palou also didn’t understand the last restart, which was a one-start showdown.

“I know that we want to finish under green,” Palou said. “Maybe the last restart I did, I didn’t understand. It didn’t benefit the CGR team.

“I’m not very supportive of the last one, but anyway.”

Dixon called the red flags “a bit sketchy.”

“The Red Flags have become a theme to the end of the race, but sometimes they can catch you out,” Dixon said. “I know Marcus is frustrated with it.

“All we ask for is consistency. I think they will do better next time.

“It’s a tough race. People will do anything they can to win it and with how these reds fall, you have to be in the right place at the right time. The problem is when they throw a Red or don’t throw a Red dictates how the race will end.

“It’s a bloody hard race to win. Congrats to Josef Newgarden and to Team Penske.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500