Eli Tomac erases ‘scary’ deficit in bid to repeat as Supercross champion


It would have been easy for Eli Tomac to panic after finishing 13th in the 2021 Supercross season opener, especially when he saw the first- and second-place riders fall early in Round 2, but patience and finesse carried the day and landed him on the top run of the podium.

Now the question shifts to whether it will carry the year.

Championships are contested over long seasons. In an evenly matched series with top-notch riders like Monster Energy Supercross, they are incredibly difficult to win once. Over the past several seasons, repeating has been impossible.

The past three Supercross titles have each been won by a first-time champion with Jason Anderson taking the honor in 2018, Cooper Webb in 2019 and Tomac last year.

Before then, the previous eight seasons had been claimed by only two riders. Ryan Dungey won the title in 2010 and then again from 2015 through 2017 in three consecutive seasons. Ryan Villopoto had four consecutive titles from 2011 through 2014 wedged in between Dungey’s successes.

If Tomac is able to back up his 2020 title with another in 2021, it would be a badge of honor and elevate him to the status of Dungey and Villopoto.

On Tuesday night, Tomac scored his 35th career Supercross win – notable in that it broke him out of a tie with Dungey for sixth on the all time winner’s list. The next rider in sight is Villopoto with 41.

Suffice it to say: Back-to-back championships are already on Tomac’s mind.

But his bid for that got off to a slow start at Houston – literally.

Being mired mid-pack at the close of Lap 1 of Round 1 was not unfamiliar ground for Tomac. He has struggled leaving the gate for the past couple of seasons, but is able to overcome that deficiency before the race is over. Proof? In the past two seasons, Tomac has finished outside the top five only once in 27 races. Notably, that came in the season opener last year when he finished seventh in Anaheim.

There is a huge difference between seventh and 13th in a 22-rider field, however.

“I was stressing out, to be honest,” Tomac said after winning Round 2 in Houston. “Sixteen points is horrible after Round 1. That’s a terrible hole to be in.

“I was pulling my hair out all day, even in practice. I was still a little bit behind. I practiced better at Round 1, but then obviously we had different results in the races.”

Eli Tomac lost the red backing on his No. 1 plate after finishing 13th in Round 1. Feld Entertainment, Inc.

In Round 1, Tomac fell twice during the race and never found his rhythm. Tomac did not get the hole shot in Round 2, but he had a much stronger start and was third at the end of Lap 1.

“Saturday was pretty scary for the points chase there, so tonight there was no choice but to rebound to stay in this fight,” Tomac said. “The start there was huge for us. I moved outside for the main and it paid off. I was able to sweep around the outside.

“The two guys in front of me, Chase (Sexton) and Adam (Cianciarulo) were laying down the laps – burner pace. I knew it would be a long race.”

This season, the Supercross schedule is made up of mini-pods. These two- or three-race groupings cut down on travel for the riders and teams, which makes it easier to create and enforce protocols to battle the ongoing novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. In order to maintain the variety of the season that normally come naturally with the change of venues, Feld Enterntainment’s Dirt Wurx team tears down and rebuilds the track between rounds to create unique layouts.

Round 2 featured a tricky sand section that encompassed a corner and acceleration lane for the next straight. Cianciarulo crashed out of second-place when his nose got buried in the soft segment that required a lot finesse. Two laps later, the leader Sexton went down exiting that same section.

“All I know is the opening laps were crazy fast,” Tomac said. “Chase was going really fast; Adam was going really fast. I’m just like, this is going to be insane for 29 laps. They both made mistakes. That pace was pretty wild early on.

“Then in the middle it was kind of like trying to manage (second-place) Zach (Osborne). He was creeping a couple tenths a lap on me and I couldn’t really figure out where I was losing the time. Then I got to four or five minutes (to go). … I’m like, all right, I have to go now, and I pushed a little bit harder.

“That’s what really got me through to the end.”

One reason defending a championship has become so difficult is that the competition has stiffened in the past few years. Of course, perspective can be difficult to manage because one rides against the rivals at hand. When they are win, it is easy to elevate their stature.

But the proof of how tight the competition is can be found on the clock.

“Everyone is getting a little bit faster and everyone’s getting a little bit closer to each other,” Tomac said. “If you just look at the times in practice, how close tenth is, everyone is on the same second. If you look down the list, it’s like 12 guys who are in the same second.

“In the past there were maybe two or three guys that really were at the next level. So as we saw tonight, a whole different podium. So that could easily be the case this season.”

And it was not just Tuesday night. Through two rounds of Supercross action, the podiums have revealed some interesting faces. Justin Barcia won Round 1 over Ken Roczen and Marvin Musquin. Neither Roczen nor Musquin could be classified as a dark horse, but both of them missed one of the two major motorcycle seasons last year. Roczen skipped outdoors in the summer; Musquin spent the entire 2020 Supercross season healing from a knee injury.

Following Tomac across line in Round 2 were rookie Dylan Ferrandis and Justin Brayton. It was Ferrandis’ first podium in the 450 class and Brayton’s first in three years.

The only rider to earn top-fives in both opening rounds is Roczen who was penalized four points in Round 2 for jumping in an area that displayed a red cross flag.

The result of this parity is a very tight grouping among the top points contenders after two rounds. Before his penalty, Roczen had a one-point advantage over the field. After the penalty, the difference between first and second is still a single point, but Barcia stands ahead of Ferrandis. Fifth-place Roczen is three points behind.

And Tomac? His 13th-place finish in the opener hurt, but not nearly as much as it might have. He is sixth in the standings, but only four points out of first heading into Round 3, which will be the final race of the Houston pod that will be contested this Saturday, Jan. 23.

Ryan Hunter-Reay hired as replacement for Conor Daly at Ed Carpenter Racing

Ryan Hunter-Reay Carpenter
Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Ryan Hunter-Reay was named to replace Conor Daly in Ed Carpenter Racing’s No. 20 Dallara-Chevrolet, starting in the NTT IndyCar Series event next week at Road America.

Hunter-Reay is the 2012 series champion and 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner. He finished 11th for Dreyer & Reinbold last month in the 107th Indy 500, his first start since the 2021 season finale. He drove full time for Andretti Autosport from 2010-21.

“We need to improve our competitiveness and I wanted to add a fresh perspective from a driver like Ryan who has a massive amount of experience and success as well as a reputation as a team leader. I am excited to welcome Ryan to the team,” team owner Ed Carpenter said in a team release. “We have worked together in the past as teammates and he tested for ECR at Barber Motorsports Park in October 2021, where he made an immediate impact as we were able to qualify one of our cars on the pole following that test. I am confident that his experience and technical abilities will be an asset to ECR as we move forward toward our goals as a team.”

Hunter-Reay has 18 IndyCar victories, most recently in 2018. He also is a winner in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, having been a part of winning entries in the 2020 Twelve Hours of Sebring and 2018 Petit Le Mans. Last year, he was an endurance driver for Cadillac Racing while being on standby for Chip Ganassi Racing.

He replaces Daly, whose departure was announced a day earlier in what the driver and team said was a mutual decision.

“I was surprised when I got the call from Ed,” Hunter-Reay said in a team release. “He described how frustrated he was that his team has not been able to realize its potential despite their efforts, investments, as well as technical and personnel changes over the past few years and asked for my help. Ed and I are very close friends and have been for a long time. I’ve worked with the team in the past and they are a very talented group with high expectations and a committed partner in BITNILE.COM.

“This will certainly be a challenge for me as well. It’s a tough situation jumping in a car in the middle of the season without any testing in what I believe to be the most competitive series in the world. Certainly, part of my motivation in saying ‘yes’ to Ed is the great challenge ahead. The last time I turned right driving an NTT IndyCar Series car was in October of 2021 with this team at Barber. However, I remain very confident in both my driving and technical abilities and believe by working with the talented people at ECR and Team Chevy, while representing BITNILE.COM, we will make progress. I am going to do everything I can do to help the team achieve its long-term objectives.”

Said Milton “Todd” Ault, the chairman of sponsor BitNile.com: “It is great for BitNile.com to be aligned with an Indy 500 Winner and an NTT IndyCar Series champion. I have followed Ryan’s career for years and I am confident he will challenge the entire ECR team to perform at higher levels. I wish everyone luck at Road America.”