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).

Tom Blomqvist keeps eye on IndyCar during impressive rise: ‘ I would love to give it a go’


DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – In between two of his latest superstar-driver-in-waiting performances, Tom Blomqvist walked through the Daytona International Speedway garage in anonymity.

“Nobody knows who the (expletive) I am,” he said to a team member with a laugh (and without a trace of being miffed), evincing the cheeky humor of someone born in England, raised in New Zealand and also of Swedish descent.

The lack of recognition in the garage might have been because he was clad in a relatively nondescript shirt, hat and sunglasses instead of a colorful firesuit covered by sponsor logos. But he also was on the way to a Friday race eve media availability where his entrance was greeted by only one reporter (after a few minutes).

During a news conference a day earlier, he sat patiently on the dais while his Indy 500-winning teammates and car owner fielded nearly all the questions – even though Blomqvist had turned maybe the most impressive lap of the month to win the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole position in the debut of the Grand Touring Prototype category.

The Meyer Shank Racing driver still might lack the attention commensurate with his already world-class CV (which expanded Sunday with his second consecutive Rolex 24  victory for MSR), but Blomqvist, 29, clearly isn’t bothered by it.

He carries the quiet confidence of knowing his immense talent will ensure results that will make him impossible to ignore.

“To a degree, I guess, it’s definitely ramped up a lot for me,” Blomqvist told NBC Sports. “In America, I’m starting to get a lot more (attention). In the last year, I’ve quite often got a lot of maybe what you’d call the glory moments. It’s been fun. And within the paddock, there’s a lot of respect for me anyway. It’s been good.”

There have been several moments of acclaim since he joined MSR barely a year ago in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. In his first start for the team at last year’s Rolex 24, Blomqvist turned in a Herculean performance to position the No. 60 Acura for the victory (giving way to Helio Castroneves because he was too “cooked” to complete the last 74 minutes).

He was even better this year at Daytona.

He ripped off a monster “one and done” pole-winning lap to beat the clock in qualifying on the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course. During the race, Blomqvist was as dominant in his first stint as his last in the ARX-06 while taking the checkered flag. He set the mark for the fastest time on Lap 6 that no one topped over the final 755 laps.

The 10 fastest laps in the race belonged to Blomqvist, carrying over his speed from the 2022 when he won the Petit Le Mans season finale to clinch the premier prototype championship at Michelin Road Atlanta.

A year earlier at the same track, he had burst onto the radar of car owner Mike Shank, who was intrigued by Blomqvist’s results as a BMW factory driver in the Formula E and DTM series. In 2014, Blomqvist also finished between second in F3, between champion Esteban Ocon (now with Alpine’s F1 team) and Max Verstappen (who has won the past two Formula One championships).

“He did a lot of high-level stuff, and then kind of fell out of favor, or I don’t know what happened, but he was a free agent,” Shank said. “I started looking at his numbers, and I’m like, ‘We should test this guy. So I take him to Road Atlanta in the fall of ’21, and he got in the car and just slayed it.”

Within minutes, he had called co-owner Jim Meyer.

“I’ve got our guy,” Shank said. “This is our guy. There’s no question about it.

Honda Performance Development president David Salters hugs Tom Blomqvist after the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).

“Now what’s happened, though, and I think if you look back at the Rolex here last year (and) what he did, he’s a gold nugget. He reminds me a little bit when (Robert) Wickens came into IndyCar out of DTM (as a rookie in 2018).

“He truly believes he’s the fastest guy out there, and he proved it (at the Rolex 24).”

Said David Salters, president for Honda Performance Development: “We love Tom. He’s the real deal, isn’t he? Immensely talented, super smart, and on it.

The great thing about our teams, the strength in depth is tremendous. But if you look through the sports car racing now, that’s the standard you have to have. Tom, brilliant, Filipe (Albuquerque), brilliant. Ricky (Taylor). You can go through that list. They’re all superstars. Tom is awesome. His lap in qualifying quite frankly was unbelievable.”

Having conquered one of the world’s greatest endurance races twice with Acura, Blomqvist could be ticketed for the world’s biggest race next – the Indy 500 — with HPD’s primary brand.

He tested a Dallara-Honda for MSR last October at Sebring International Raceway, and while he plans to focus solely on IMSA this season, he remains very intrigued by IndyCar.

And with Castroneves, 47, beginning a one-year deal with MSR’s IndyCar team, there could be an obvious opening in 2024.

“Obviously, it’s not in the cards this year,” Blomqvist told NBC Sports the day before the Rolex. “Yeah, I would love to give it a go. To be honest, I think that would be an amazing step for me in my career. I enjoy the sports car stuff so much. It’s been really good to me lately. I really enjoyed the style of racing.

“But I feel like IndyCar would be a step up for me and my career. It would be fantastic if I could get that opportunity. But yeah, I guess I have to keep pushing Mike or something to give me a shot. But obviously for now, the focus is here in the sports car stuff. It’s not really down to me at the end of the day. And I’ve got to do my job and then the people who pay the bills and make the decisions obviously have to decide if that’s something worth pursuing.

“But yeah, I’d love to give it a go, and I definitely would be up for it.”

Tom Blomqvist after winning the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole on the final qualifying lap (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).

A transition from IMSA to IndyCar naturally would be easier than switching teams, but it also would be comfortable because Blomqvist already seems such a good fit at MSR.

It might have seemed an unusual pairing given his European-heavy background, but Blomqvist likes the Midwestern culture that’s been built at MSR. Based just outside Columbus, Ohio, the team’s shop has “no egos, and that just enables each and every one of to reach our potential.

“Obviously, with Honda, we obviously have some great resources, but we’re up against Porsche, BMW and some big heavy hitters in the motorsports world,” he said. “I wouldn’t say we’ve got a huge team compared to them, but we’ve obviously got a very capable team, and I think that’s what has been so impressive and really, really nice to see about the work that’s been done. No stone has been left unturned.”

Blomqvist still is living in Europe and planning to commute for the nine-race GTP schedule (which has a nearly two-month break after the Rolex 24 until the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring). But though he’s “got good friends in America, so I do have places to stay,” he seems open to being based more permanently near MSR in America.

“Let’s see what the future brings, and if that means me spending more time over here,” he said. “It’s a fantastic team. It’s a different environment to what I’m used to. It’s obviously now a hugely successful team, but it is a small team. It does feel like a very small family-operated team, which it is.

“I think Mike’s really just built this thing. It hasn’t happened overnight. Mike’s a great guy and put a lot of trust and faith in me, and I played a relatively good part in some of the success last year. I was able to reward him and give him my all every time I’m on track, and he respects that. But we are still a small team. In the grand scheme of things, we still are a really, really small team.”

Blomqvist said the BMW factory program would have two or three times the staffing of MSR – just on one of its two GTP cars.

“But it’s not the number of people that makes a difference, it’s the quality of people, and obviously Mike and HPD are a fantastic operation to go racing,” Blomqvist said. “We’re racers at heart.

“I’ve been part of some big outfits, and the European way of working is very, very different to how people go about racing in America. I’d say it’s more seat of your pants. A lot of emotion and kind of rides on that competitive spirt, competitive nature and on their personalities. It’s a lot more pure. It feels very pure. You want to win, so we go out and don’t cut corners on trying to win.”

Though it’s aligned with Liberty Media and has big-budget backing and support from Honda Performance Development, MSR also is much less corporate than most GTP teams.

A longtime and respected team owner who has built a sponsor portfolio, Shank also describes his maniacal dedication to success as “messed up,” and he’s known for dropping vulgarities into postrace interview with his blunt and self-deprecating sense of humor.

Meyer Shank Racing co-owner Mike Shank congratulates Tom Blomqvist on the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole position (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).

With a more laid-back but sometimes just as biting demeanor, Blomqvist has become the team’s unquestioned leader behind the wheel

“I definitely feel a lot more immersed,” he said. “Within the team, I was a bit more of an unknown quantity the start of last year. Obviously after last season, the team trusts me a lot. And that gives me a lot of pleasure, pride and confidence. In this sport, confidence is a huge aspect of drivers’ psychology in a way. We’re in extremely high-pressure moments where my job is to perform under the pressure of these organizations and the brand as well.

“It’s just a good, healthy team to be a part of. It’s a high-pressure environment, but the team obviously have put a lot of faith in me, and I’ve been able to deliver for them on occasions.”

Rolex 24 starting lineup
Tom Blomqvist celebrates after winning the pole in the No. 60 Acura ARX-06 (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).