A viewer’s guide to Supercross: Five things to watch in the 2021 season and Houston opener

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Just before the 2020 AMA Monster Energy Supercross season was turned upside down, Eli Tomac and Ken Roczen were the riders to watch last year. Three points apart in hot pursuit of a career-defining first championship, they seemed destined for an epic title battle before the brakes got slammed on their showdown.

Ten months later, some parallels remain for Roczen and Tomac. The longtime renowned dirt-bike riders are enjoying first-time fatherhood. They are trying to stave off a wave of rookies and rising stars who threaten to supplant their status as perennial championship contenders.

But there also is a notable difference: Tomac broke through for the 2020 Supercross championship with a steadily victorious run through the final seven races in Salt Lake City (where the season ended because of the COVID-19 pandemic).

That leaves Roczen, the articulate and dapper German known for wearing a full suit and tie to news conferences, as unquestionably the most accomplished active 450 rider (15 event victories) without a crown.

SATURDAY’S OPENER: All the details for watching the Houston event

SUPERCROSS ON NBC: Full TV schedule for 2021

The Honda rider’s career has been defined by comebacks from illnesses and injuries (he ended a three-year winless streak in 2020 after nearly losing his left arm to amputation). But a championship still looms as the validation needed for being remembered as one of the greats.

“I wonder about Ken Roczen; I feel like this year he has got to get it done,” 48-time Supercross 450 winner and five-time champion Ricky Carmichael said during an NBC Sports segment previewing the 2021 season, which begins Saturday night in Houston. “Otherwise, his best years have passed him by.”

After four victories and a third in the 2020 Supercross points, Roczen, 26, took the Pro Motocross season off to get healthy (he raced through a bout of shingles in Salt Lake City) and await the birth of his son, Griffin, with wife Courtney.

He returns for 2021 with renewed dedication and spirit, having spent the offseason training on a new bike.

“I think this was the best decision for me and the team essentially,” Roczen said. “I just wanted to be around the team and wanted the team to see the work I put in and the progression I’m making. This is definitely what we’ve accomplished. I’ve been super stoked being out here and for the first time in a long time, I just started enjoying what I’m doing again.

Ken Roczen was all smiles after winning the June 14 event in Salt Lake City (Feld Entertainment, Inc.).

“I was able to put in a good amount of work, have some consistent days and felt really comfortable on the bike. I think taking time off for the Outdoors season was definitely the right call. I’m just stoked to be where I’m at and obviously with the little one, being able to race as a dad now is super rad, so I’m looking forward to it.”

His presence also will be welcomed by Tomac, who said he missed lining up next to Roczen at Pro Motocross Outdoors events last summer during a season that served a wakeup call after his Supercross title. Heavily favored to win his fourth consecutive Outdoors championship, Tomac, 28, struggled to third in the points.

But the low-key Colorado native, whose daughter, Lev, was born last April, still enters 2021 without the weight that admittedly affected him in past seasons when championship promise and victories were wiped out by crashes from riding too hard. He became the oldest rider to win his first title in the 450 division of the Monster Energy AMA Supercross Series.

Eli Tomac celebrated his 2020 Supercross championship with family and team in Salt Lake City (Feld Entertainment, Inc.).

“For now, I would say less pressure because that was the big carrot I was chasing was the first championship,” Tomac said of his outlook. “That first one was hanging over me for so long, being so close in two or three seasons there. To finally close it out in 2020 was everything for us. This year I have huge motivation to defend it and keep that plate red as long as we can.”

The competition – and not just Roczen — should be especially motivating. Tomac finished the Pro Motocross Outdoors season behind champion Zach Osborne (who won the 2020 Supercross finale) and Adam Cianciarulo. Both riders will return for 450 Supercross, along with Marvin Musquin and two-time 250 champions Chase Sexton and Dylan Ferrandis in a budding group that will make it tougher than ever for the veterans.

“There are a lot of new faces coming into this year that will raise the bar,” Sexton said. “Last year, Adam and I in Outdoors just pushed the older guys more, and I feel the racing was really good. I hope the same for the upcoming season.”

The possible changing of the guard will be the overarching narrative among many storylines in Supercross 2021.

Here are four other things to watch this season:


–COVID-19 adjustments: After testing once prior to the Salt Lake City rounds, Supercross will be ramping up its COVID-19 protocols in 2021. All essential industry personnel (athletes, team members, series staff, media) will be tested at least weekly in each race city.

Houston will have three events in eight days, so a negative test will clear entry for Saturday and Tuesday races with another test mandatory before the next Saturday race. Departing and returning to a host city also will require a negative test to enter the bubble (limited crowds will be permitted at races and in a FanFest area but won’t have access to the paddock where teams are set up).

The more stringent policy should be lauded for helping prevent spread of the novel coronavirus, but it also will be a major worry for teams. Dan Fahie, the team manager for the Monster Energy Kawasakis of Tomac and Cianciarulo, said the COVID-19 testing is “probably our biggest concern” entering the season.

“Normally this time of year, you’re just hoping the guys show up, you’re hoping everybody stays healthy, you’re hoping your bike was good,” Fahie told reporters during a Zoom news conference Monday. “You’re hoping all the decisions you made were good. You’re hoping your guys are feeling good. You hope the mood was right.

“Right now, all I hope is that everybody gets through Thursday when we’re getting tested. It’s a nerve-wracking experience because it’s totally out of our control. There’s no homework we can do other than try to stay clean, but since no one really knows (when they might contract the virus), it’s a tricky deal for us. We’ve taken as many precautions as we can. We’ve isolated ourselves the best we can and still do our work, and we’re going to have to do the best we can when we get to the track.”

Though riders were able to avoid missing any events last year because of the pandemic, at least one rider, Brock Tickle, had COVID-19 during the offseason. Tickle since has recovered. “I’m feeling good,” he said. “I’ve had a good couple of weeks on the bike.”


–Hungry riders: After posting strong Pro Motocross results, Osborne and Cianciarulo are among several riders who seem poised to fulfill championship potential. After missing the 2020 Supercross season with a major knee injury, Musquin (an eight-time winner) is back after racing in Outdoors.

The overall mindset of winning a championship in the premier class has changed a little bit for me,” Osborne said. “Getting the Outdoors win and just some clutch overalls I needed to make that happen just helped my mindset and goal. That’s the biggest thing is I just checked some of those boxes that needed to be checked, and I can move forward with that in my back pocket.

Pro Motocross champions
Zach Osborne celebrates after winning the 2020 Pro Motocross Outdoors title (Align Media).

“I feel really good. I got lucky with a couple of weeks of weather (delays), I could get mellower riding and training. That helped with my mental state. I was just really tired after outdoors. I’m in a good spot. It’s come around. I can put myself in positions to win races and hopefully be in it to win the title at the end.”

Musquin has been training with Osborne and Cooper Webb in Florida after a fourth-place points finish in the Outdoors season that “didn’t finish the way I wanted to. Now that the offseason is over, I’m pretty happy. I’m excited to go racing and see where I’m at, but training and racing are two different things. If you asked me if I was back to 2018 and ’19 speed, I’m close but not quite there. Racing will tell me if I’m back to my full potential.

Past champions Cooper Webb (2019) and Jason Anderson (’18) also seem extra driven this year to prove their titles weren’t flukes.

“I won in 2018 and haven’t won since,” Anderson said plainly when asked if he feels the need to answer critics. “So they’ve got some facts to back that argument. I’m hoping to get back to that level. It’s tough with the younger guys coming up, and the level just keeps getting gnarlier year after year. The competition is deep. I feel better, but there’s a lot of guys firing on all cylinders. I’d like to get back to that level.”


–New vs. old bikes: With the season starting outside Southern California for the first time in a quarter-century, a schedule full of midweek races and multiple stops in the same city has spiked worries about short turnarounds – particularly with those on new equipment for 2021.

In the pre-pandemic era of opening the season at Anaheim and weekly races on Saturdays, riders and teams had ample time to test and tinker with their bikes.

The opening stretch of three Houston races in just over a week will preclude those options. Several riders said they wouldn’t be able to make major adjustments during their extended Texas layover.

“That is going to be hard,” Tomac said. “I’m on the same motorcycle as last year, so that’s nice going into that knowing what I’m working with. That’s huge for me not really guessing and being like I don’t really know if this is going to work in race conditions, so I’ll going with what I know last year.

“That is a huge deal, though, if you have to make an adjustment, can you adapt to it? That I don’t know yet.”

Osborne, who is carrying over the same Husqvarna from last year, said “it’s huge” to have the same bike. “We’re all used to this ‘go to the first race, see how it goes, we’ll be at the shop and test track and fix whatever we need and rectify any issues,’ ” Osborne said. “This year there is no time for that and probably no resources for that. I think it’s huge to have a bike you know well with no huge changes to it and go on something you feel pretty comfortable with.”

Roczen will be on a new No. 94 Honda CRF450R but said he is “trying not to focus too much or get too wound up on settings.

“We all know that we always go to the races, and there are going to be some changes happening,” he said. “At the same time, I’m just trying to go enjoy what I’m doing and make little changes here and there. I think we had a really good plan in the offseason and getting the bike solid. I’ve been on the same stuff for quite a few weeks now.

“Once we go racing, we’ll know a lot more, but the bike is a lot more consistent. We haven’t tested too much because I was pretty comfortable right away. That means a lot compared to last year I was chasing things a lot more, especially going to different types of dirt and different types of tracks. The bike’s a lot more consistent. I’m looking forward to putting it to the test at the first few rounds.”

Malcolm Stewart, who is moving to his first factory 450 ride with the Star Racing Yamaha team, also is on a new bike but isn’t concerned. His offseason testing has been strong, and “I’ll admit I’m not a guy that changes much (aside) from a couple of clicker settings.

“Everybody’s been like, ‘What are you guys going to do about suspension settings and things like that?’ ” Stewart told NBC Sports. “Well, the cool thing about Star Racing Yamaha is even though we’re in California, and everyone talks about how hard the dirt is there, we put our bike in a lot of different terrains and tested it at different times throughout the day. I got my bike really good in every condition that’s been thrown at it. I feel like we’ve had a pretty good setup going into H1.”


The rookie class: For the first time in more than a quarter-century, the Supercross Series will have two two-time defending 250 champions moving up as Ferrandis and Sexton lead an impressive group of freshmen. Shane McElrath, who has nine 250 victories, also has been promoted, along with Brandon Hartranft. The biggest challenge will be bike setup, which is more complicated and critical for 450 riders.

The supremely confident Sexton, who vows he immediately can win and finish on the podium, has hired two-time Supercross champion James Stewart as his coach. “It’s not so much pressure, but James does draw a lot of attention, and for me, he’s been a really big help so far,” Sexton said. “I had him in Outdoors, and he helped a lot with bike setup. He’s pretty brutally honest, and he kind of calls it how it is. He knows where these guys are at and has raced most of them.”

Having suffered an injury midway through offseason training, Ferrandis said he’s healthy again but missed a lot of time to get acclimated to his Yamaha. “I rode full time last week and haven’t lost much strength,” he said. “It’s part of the job I have to deal with (injury). I feel good, and the team did a good job making the bike fit me. It’ll be a big challenge, but the season is long, and we’ll take it race by race.

McElrath could miss the opener as he tests his pain threshold recovering from an injury. “The job stays the same, but it’s harder to gauge where myself and the other rookies fall,” he said. “It’s still the same mentality as the 250 class. It’s going to be a big year of just learning. In the 250 class, I could expect to be at the front and get good starts and know I should be good if I stay away from mistakes. In 450, some guys I’ve never raced. I’ve been able to study the class, but it’s a big undertaking to step up.”

2021 Supercross rookie class
Supercross 2020 champions (left to right) Chase Sexton in 250 East, Eli Tomac in 450 and Dylan Ferrandis in 250 West. Sexton and Ferrandis will move to 450 in 2021 (Feld Entertainment, Inc.).

A deep dive into the new GR Cup as Toyota branches into single-make sports car racing

Toyota GR Cup
Swikar Patel/Toyota Racing Development
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MOORESVILLE, N.C. – Inside this former textile mill, a retro building built in 1892 with massive floor-to-ceiling windows and sturdy brick, Toyota has planted a future seed with the GR Cup.

Once a hub for making cotton dye, the first floor has been turned into a factory that churned out spec sports cars for the past year as Toyota Racing Development prepares to launch its first single-make series.

The inaugural season of the Toyota Gazoo Racing GR Cup will begin this weekend at Sonoma Raceway, the first of seven SRO-sanctioned events (each with two races) featuring a field of homologated GR86 production models that have been modified for racing with stock engines.

Under the banner of its Gazoo Racing (a high-performance brand relatively new to North America but synonymous with Dakar Rally champion Nasser Al-Attiyah), Toyota will join Mazda, Porsche, Ferrari and Lamborghini as the latest automaker to run a single-make U.S. series (with Ford recently announcing plans for its own in the near future).

It’s grassroots-level amateur racing for manufacturers that are accustomed to racing at motorsports’ highest levels, but there are many benefits through competition, driver development and marketing despite the lower profile.

“It’s not the easiest thing or cheapest thing to do,” TRD executive commercial director Jack Irving told NBC Sports. “But there’s massive value to be a part of it and have our DNA in the cars. You get to race a bunch and get a bunch of data. You get to engage directly in feedback from the people beating those cars up.”

The GR86s being raced are very similar to the street versions that retail for about $35,000 at dealerships that annually sell several thousand.

“It’s a test of the car and your design,” Irving said. “We take an engineered vehicle designed to spec for the road and then apply our resources to make it race ready. Some of those things cross over.

The first floor of Toyota Racing Development’s Mooresville facility that finished the vehicles for the new GR Cup (Swikar Patel/TRD).

“Everyone approaches it differently. It’s a marketing piece for us. It’s a development piece for drivers. We’re supporting grass roots racing. This is a very long-term deal for us. This isn’t something we’re doing two years and done. It’s got a long-term vision. There’s big value in it, and there’s a lot of responsibility with that, too.

“You’re ultimately supporting it. You’re not just selling cars into a series and hoping it goes well. You have to be involved in a very material way to make sure it goes off well and has your fingerprints and represents the brand.”

Early indications have been solid. The GR Cup cars were rolled out on iRacing in January and immediately became one of the platform’s most popular vehicles (with 212-horsepower engines, the cars handle well and are difficult to spin).

TRD’s GR86 factory floor (Swikar Patel/TRD).

TRD has sold 33 cars for GR Cup with 31 racing in Sonoma, easily surpassing initial expectations.

“Our target was to sell 20 cars in the first year, and we could have sold 50 if not for supply chain issues with some vendors,” TRD president David Wilson told NBC Sports. “We basically came up with the idea of taking the GR86 and looking at what it would take to turn that into a little race car and do it affordably and competitively, and what’s come along with that is just a tremendous interest level. It seems like a market that perhaps has been underserved right now.”

Here’s a deeper look at the Toyota Gazoo Racing GR Cup and how the manufacturer built the new series:


THE CARS

The race cars start as production models that are shipped directly from the factory in Japan to a port in Charleston, South Carolina. After being trucked to the Mooresville facility, they are stripped and sent to Joe Gibbs Racing to be outfitted with a roll cage.

Upon return to TRD, the transmission and stock engine is added. The body remains virtually the same as the street version with a slightly altered hood, decklid and splitter for ride height and aerodynamics.

Jack Irving (Swikar Patel/TRD)

The cars mostly are customized to help manage the heat – the stock versions aren’t designed to handle the oil that sloshes around in the high-speed left- and right-hand turns on the road and street courses of the GR Cup schedule. TRD puts about two dozen parts on the cars, using Stratasys 3-D Printers to manufacture many on site (which allows flexibility for adjusting on the fly during R&D). In addition to help with cooling, many of the tweaks focus on allowing a limited number of setup changes.

“You don’t have a lot of ability to adjust these cars,” Irving said. “It was done on purpose. The intent was you have three spring sets, and you can adjust the shocks and do air pressure. That’s it. We seal the engine and components of it. We dyno everything. Everyone is within range to create as consistent a series as we can.

“Some of that is to mimic what Mazda did. They’ve done a really good job with their series. Porsche, Ferrari and other OEMs have done it very well. We had a learning that was easier to go through their book and see the Cliffs Notes version to get where we are.”

After taking delivery, GR Cup teams are responsible for transporting the cars to each track (and can buy up to three sets of Continental tires per event). Toyota brings two parts trucks to each track


THE SCHEDULE AND SCENE

After Sonoma, the GR Cup will visit Circuit of the Americas (May 5-7), Virginia International Raceway (June 16-18), the streets of Nashville (Aug. 4-6), Road America (Aug. 25-27), Sebring International Raceway (Sept. 22-24) and Indianapolis Motor Speedway (Oct. 6-8).

Though Nashville (IndyCar’s Music City Grand Prix) and Indy (SRO’s eight-hour Intercontinental Challenge) are part of weekends with bigger headliners, the GR Cup mostly will be the second-billed series (behind SRO’s Fanatech GT World Challenge) for events that will draw a few thousand. Sonoma had a crowd of about 4,000 last year, and SRO Motorsports America president Greg Gill said its events draw a maximum of about 13,000 over three days.

“There are some iconic venues, and the SRO it’s not IMSA,” Wilson said. “It’s got a different feel to it. It’s not the show. IMSA is kind of the show. I actually think it’s a good place for us to start, because it’s a little bit under the radar relatively speaking. It’s not a venue where you see the grandstands full of fans. It’s very much racers and their families. It’s got a neat vibe to it because it’s kind of small. So for our first effort as a single-make series, it’s the right place for us.”

Toyota GR Cup
The interior of the GR86 that will be raced in the GR Cup (Swikar Patel/TRD).

Though the attendance will be much smaller, Toyota still is bringing a large hospitality and marketing activation area with two 56-foot trucks that will provide a central gathering area for the series.

Teams’ entry fees will include meals there and provide a place to connect with Toyota engineers and other officials.

“I think we have a very different way of engaging with our group of drivers, and this series is similar to that,” Irving said. “Knowing that this isn’t going to get 100K people watching, but we want to have a direct connection with the drivers and understand their feelings about car, how do we make it better and empower them to be brand ambassadors for GR.”


BUDGETS, PURSES AND TEAMS

Toyota has positioned the GR Cup as filling a price gap between the Mazda MX-5 Cup (a spec Miata Series known for high-quality racing at very low costs) and the Porsche Carrera Cup

“If you look at the ladder of MX5 to Porsche Cup, the difference in cost is massive,” TRD general manager Tyler Gibbs told NBC Sports. “We slot in closer to Miata than Porsche. We’ll slot another car in potentially in the future above that. It’s a good place for us from a price point perspective. Our road car is slightly more expensive than a Miata, so it makes sense our performance on the car is higher than Miata.”

A GR Cup car will cost $125,000. Full-season costs will vary depending on how much teams spend on equipment and transportation with estimates from $15-35K per event. So a competitive full season probably could be accomplished in the $250,000-$300,000 range.

Toyota GR Cup

“The goal was if you can ‘Six Pack’ it like Kenny Rogers and throw it in the back of a trailer, that would be amazing for us,” said Irving, referencing a movie about being an independent racer in NASCAR. “That would make it more of what we hoped it would turn into, just being as accessible as we possibly can make it.”

Toyota has tried to bridge the gap by posting a purse of $1 million for the season. Each race pays $12,000 to win (through $5,000 for eighth) with the season champion earning $50,000.

“Our hope was if you won, the prize money would cover the cost of that weekend,” Gibbs said. “We’re not all the way there. But almost there.”

Toyota also has posted an additional $5,000 (on top of prize money) to the highest-finishing woman in every race (which dovetails with SRO’s 50 percent female-led executive team structure).

GR86 Manufacturing at GRG before the first 3 cars are picked up.
—Swikar Patel/TRD

“If you’re a female driver who wins, you could get very close to sustainable” and cover a team’s race weekend costs, Irving said.

There are four women (Mia Lovell, Toni Breidinger, Cat Lauren and Isabella Robusto) slated for the full schedule.

The 31 cars will be fielded across more than a dozen teams including Smooge Racing (which fields GT4 Supras in SRO) and Copeland Motorsports (with Tyler Gonzalez, a four-time winner in MX-5 Cup). After a test last month at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval, teams began taking delivery on Feb. 24.


THE SANCTIONING BODY

Toyota fields Lexus in the GT categories of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship but elected to go with the SRO Motorsports Group (“SRO” stands for Stephane Ratel Organization; Ratel is the founder and CEO) as the sanctioning body for the GR Cup.

With a heavy focus on GT racing, SRO’s marquee events are 24-hour races at the Nurburgring in Germany and Spa in Belgium. In the United States, SRO primarily is focused on GT3 sprint racing, and Gill said it’s viewed as a “gateway to IMSA” and its endurance events.

In choosing SRO, Gibbs said “the schedule was a big part of it.” GR Cup races will be held almost exclusively on Saturday and Sunday mornings in a consistency that would have been difficult with IMSA (which runs a greater volume of bigger series).

“Our people can show up Friday, race Saturday and Sunday and be on the way home Sunday afternoon,” Gibbs said. “For our customer for this car, that was important. They still have jobs and particularly the younger drivers have to go to school. The SRO really fit us. They were very interested.”

Irving also was drawn to SRO’s flexibility with digital media right and free livestreams of races that Toyota can use on its platforms.

Toyota GR Cup
The SR86 in testing at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (TRD).

Said Irving: “It’s hard to get a schedule that made sense and having a break between races so an amateur can repair their cars and have a month to regroup was a big deal. The long-term vision of SRO was a big part of that. IMSA runs a lot of classes. How we fit in was difficult. Would they have done things to make it work, yeah. But they just didn’t work for the vision we were doing. This is its own thing for us.”

Gill said the SRO is focused on “customer racing” that balances individual interests against factory programs – while still putting an emphasis on the importance of manufacturers such as Toyota.

“We were very impressed with the development of sports car racing at Toyota and what they wanted to do for the brand and the very strategic way they looked at things,” Gill told NBC Sports. “We had enjoyed real success and had a lot of admiration for the programs that Honda and Mazda developed with sports car racing at the grass roots and entry level. We thought they’d done an excellent job. Toyota has taken it to another level and should be commended because it’s good for the entire industry.”


GAZOO RACING AND THE FUTURE

Irving said Toyota has set a goal of turning Gazoo Racing into the premier performance brand in the United States within a decade, and the GR Cup is part of that thrust.

Gazoo Racing is the baby of Toyota Motor Corp. president Akio Toyoda, who founded a separate company called “Garage Racing” while racing under a pseudonym for many years.

Toyoda, who eventually would race a Lexus LFA at Nurburgring, eventually transitioned the program into Gazoo Racing (Gazoo translates to photographs in Japanese; Toyoda often took pictures of vehicles he wanted to build and race) as he rose through the ranks of Toyota.

Toyota GR Cup

“The concept of the brand is we’re going to build cars that are fun to drive, not just for accountants,” Gibbs said.
Irving said the intent of GR is “the car is born on track and not the boardroom.” In order to be certified by Toyota for Gazoo Racing, the GR86 had to decrease its lap time by a certain percentage over its street model.

In the long-term, Irving said Toyota could work with another series to adapt the GR86 to endurance races. But in the short-term, there are plans to roll out a “dealer class,” possibly by its COTA round in May.

“That’s our version of a softball league with dealership principals who purchase cars and race against each other,” Wilson said with a laugh. “As competitive as dealers are, we’ll sell a lot of spare parts. It becomes a way to generate competition amongst our dealer body, and we’re going to have some fun with it.”

Toyota GR Cup
Toyota Racing Development’s fleet of GR86s shortly before GR Cup teams began taking delivery (Swikar Patel/TRD).