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 VACATION: Justin 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.
— Supercross LIVE! (@SupercrossLIVE) May 31, 2020
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.
— Supercross LIVE! (@SupercrossLIVE) May 30, 2020
“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.”
WE. ARE. BACK. 🔥
— Supercross LIVE! (@SupercrossLIVE) May 30, 2020
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.
— Justin Brayton (@justinbrayton) May 28, 2020
“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.”