Eli Tomac celebrated his first Supercross championship in the most appropriately unintended way for 2020: An impromptu low-key gathering at an Italian restaurant in downtown Salt Lake City.
Because of the COVID-19 limitations of social distancing and paddock access, his Monster Energy Kawasaki team and family members were unable to join in his joy during the immediate aftermath of reaching a career pinnacle.
“The whole podium part was a bummer,” Tomac told NBC Sports in an interview this week. “I’m using that as my motivation for next year. I’m like, ‘Man, I want to get another championship so we can have a real podium celebration for all the guys, for all the team and family,’ so it was weird that way.
“The whole year’s just been weird.”
WATCH PRO MOTOCROSS ON NBC, NBCSN: Broadcast schedule for Pro Motocross
NBC SPORTS GOLD SCHEDULE SATURDAY: Qualifying (11:10 a.m. ET), Moto 1 (2 p.m. ET), Moto 2 (6 p.m. ET)
His experience with the bizarre – running the final seven rounds of the Supercross season at an empty stadium in Utah – could be an unusual advantage as he begins his quest for a fourth consecutive championship in the Lucas Oil Pro Motocross series.
Delayed three months by the pandemic (which caused a nearly three-month hiatus for Supercross), the nine-race Pro Motocross season will begin Saturday at Loretta Lynn’s Ranch in Hurricane Mills, Tennessee (click here for broadcast information).
There will be a limited crowd of 5,000 fans, but the pits will remain closed to the public as they were during Supercross, which closed out its season without any fans.
In Salt Lake City, that made a normally bustling environment feel much less frenzied, forcing riders such as Tomac to adapt.
“The whole day just feels more like a big scrimmage,” Tomac said. “So you kind of lose that big hype factor of the energy of the crowd, so that’s the bummer part. What we missed in that Salt Lake event was just the energy from the people. That’s what’s changed.
“It’s like the first round at Salt Lake, you had to really tell yourself this is the real deal. It was really weird not seeing people in the stands. You have to be good at firing yourself up, even though you don’t see people on the fences.”
Marvin Musquin won’t need much motivation. The Red Bull KTM rider has been sidelined from competition for nearly a year after suffering a knee injury last December that required major surgery causing him to miss his first Supercross season in years.
The extra time off has aided the recovery for Musquin, who was the 2017-18 runner-up to Tomac in motocross and third in the points last year. Working with famed motorbike trainer Aldon Baker, Musquin has been riding regularly with championship contenders Zach Osborne and Cooper Webb (his KTM teammate).
“It’s good to push each other and see where I’m at compared to them,” Musquin told NBC Sports. “It was a very big injury and took a very long time to heal and get strength and confidence back. I know practice and racing is different, but I want to say I’m pretty happy and definitely excited to finally get back racing.”
Having missed the Salt Lake City novelty, though, he has been pondering what it’s like to ride without feeding off the juice of a full crowd.
“Especially outdoors, you definitely get that from the fans,” Musquin told NBC Sports. “They get loud, and you can definitely hear them when you ride, and that is pretty cool.
“Hopefully there’ll be enough fans so we can hear them around the track, but when you’re standing on the podium, especially a race like RedBud, it’s so special because there’s so many fans. I don’t know how it’s going to be. But the most important thing now is to get back racing and see how it goes and hopefully in the near future, get back to normal.”
Musquin believes the pandemic transition will be less jarring than it was in Supercross, a Saturday night staple that held all of its Salt Lake City events during the daytime and three on Wednesdays.
“To race when it’s sunny out and no fans must have been really, really weird,” he said. “Outdoors, we always race during the day, and there’ll be some fans, so we’re going to get back some normality.
“For me, it won’t change much compared to what I know. The only difference will be less people and very quiet, very calm in the pits with nobody there. Hopefully, we’ll see a lot of people safe but around the track.”
They could be treated to a highly competitive season if it’s similar to Supercross, which featured four winners in the final seven races.
Though perennial contender Ken Roczen is out, Musquin’s return will mean another challenge for Tomac, who also is expecting Jason Anderson, Osborne, Webb and teammate Adam Cianciarulo to be title rivals.
All will benefit from extra time to heal unlike past years when motocross often began on the weekend after the checkered flag fell in Supercross.
“It was crazy close to the finish of Supercross, so you were so rushed on just getting ready because you’re so focused on one series, and you have to switch right to the next one,” Tomac said. “I think everyone will be a little bit more prepared, but overall, it’s actually been good for our bodies as athletes to have a little bit of time off. We can regroup.”
Said Musquin: “That extra time gives all of us riders time to try things on the bike if we needed to and adjust a couple of things and heal from injuries. Everyone is dealing with something at this point. This sport is very tough.”
Can the Frenchman immediately return to form and win his first championship in an AMA premier class?
“I hope so,” he said. “That’s a good question. Obviously, I’ve done everything I could during this off time and getting back to shape. I would love to say yes, I’ll be out there and be able to win, but I know it’s going to be a very tough championship. A lot of good guys out there. Two extra months of preparation, everyone is going to be on point. It’s going to be an awesome championship.”
Leading the list of favorites of course will be Tomac. At 27, the Cortez, Colorado, native became the oldest first-time Supercross champion as well as the first father to wear the crown (daughter Lev was born April 26). With a series-high seven victories bringing his career total to 34, Tomac also moved into a tie with four-time champion Ryan Dungey for sixth on the all-time win list.
History now awaits in Pro Motocross for Tomac, who will try to become the 13th rider to sweep the Supercross and Outdoors titles in a single season and also join Ricky Carmichael as the only rider to win four straight Pro Motocross championships.
All of the accolades are just gray, though for Tomac who said the Supercross title took “some weight off the shoulders for sure.
“It’s driven me crazy. I’ve had all these wins, and the wins were just wins,” he said. “It was getting old. I would always hear that chatter of ‘He’s got 30 wins and no championships,’ so now it’s really nice to have that.
“I haven’t lost motivation because I’ve won both series now. I feel like I still have the same drive. It’s nice to have (the championship) to validate those wins and not be a guy that could just win or crash. At least I can put a series together, so that’s nice.”