Ask Ken Roczen why the Supercross star is “enjoying racing like I haven’t in a long time,” and his answer mostly doesn’t involve racing at all.
It certainly involves 6-month-old son Griffin and wife Courtney. Whether at home or as traveling companions, “my family is always with me,” the No. 94 Red Bull Honda rider says.
On the road, there is a camping vacation vibe (Roczen, a noted chef, loves cookouts at the bus where he stays as the circuit crisscrosses the country). And at their beachside house in San Clemente, California, Roczen enjoys strapping Griffin Savage Roczen into a new child seat on his e-bike and tooling around the neighborhood.
“It’s super enjoyable,” he said. “It’s the best.”
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Roczen just as well could be talking about his professional existence. The man who recovered from nearly having his left arm amputated after a devastating crash four years ago and since has weathered insidious maladies is enjoying perhaps his greatest 450 season. A career that once seemed destined to be cut short finally could be crowned after the May 1 season finale in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Though he trails Cooper Webb by 16 points entering the final two rounds of his eighth season in Supercross’ 450 division, Roczen is quick to remind he never has been in a premier class title race that’s this tight so late in the schedule.
“Even the best year I had in 2016, I started winning at the end,” he said. “But I was 40 points out of the championship halfway through the season. The real fun begins when you’re in it all the way to the end because it just gets so exciting.”
But a week before he turns 27 (on April 29), his contentment after an oft-agonizing stretch of “super tough” years is as much about becoming a man in full as potentially winning his first 450 championship.
Why has he loved racing dirt bikes so much this year?
“Well, it was coming in with low or no expectations and getting to do this as a family,” Roczen said. “Of course we did really good, too. I had some wins. And it seems like everything was just kind of clicking. Of course that makes racing a lot more fun when you don’t have too many problems, and you can kind of just focus on your racing.
“And then coming in and seeing your family. That’s where I feel like the fun in the game has been a lot higher for me. Because it’s not just me and my wife and our dog. It’s a lot bigger. And in between all the races, getting to see our kid grow up and all these new adventures that he sends us on and him learning new stuff that we haven’t been in this position before. That’s what makes it so fun.”
In learning that “sometimes you have to care a little less to be better,” all of this helps explain what Roczen means when he says a Supercross title would make him feel complete as a rider but also wouldn’t necessarily have much meaning beyond that. His future plans seemingly will be determined as much by his life outside the dirt.
“Right now, I’m kind of open ended,” Roczen told NBC Sports in an interview from his Southern California home when asked if he wants to continue riding long enough for Griffin to understand what his adrenaline-loving dad does for a living. “I don’t really know what’s going to happen in the future because I have one more year after this with Honda and then … I don’t really know. I’m going to kind of let this season go by and marinate on a couple of things.
“Because in the past couple of years, there have been some times where I was thinking about – not that I want to retire – but I’ve been kind of thinking about maybe I need to take a step back just because I was always held back by physical difficulties. It’s not fun racing like that.”
Roczen entered 2021 after skipping the AMA Lucas Oil Pro Motocross championship last summer “because I was on my last legs. If you’re already drained of energy and trying to train, but then you get disappointed. I had to kind of re-find the fun in all of it and managing it a lot better.”
Since missing motocross (he is a two-time 450 Outdoors champion, including a dominant 2016 in which he won 20 of 24 motos) and entering the AMA Monster Energy Supercross season on a new Honda CRF450R, Roczen has stayed healthy “most of the time.”
Last year, he gritted through a bout with shingles and still battles complications from the Epstein-Barr Virus. They’re just the latest rounds of adversity for Roczen.
Sidelined for nearly a year by a horrific January 2017 crash in Anaheim that left him with a compound fracture of his left arm, he suffered a serious injury to his right hand that required surgery after a February 2018 crash while trying to pass Webb in San Diego.
“Those injuries for whatever reason, came with a bunch of other shit,” Roczen said. “I haven’t been feeling normal like how I did before the races. That’s just how it is. But it’s always just about managing it. Sometimes I wish that this wasn’t the case. Because I would love to just go race and not always have to worry about, ‘Oh, I’ve got to take it easy like at home so these things don’t catch up with me.’
“So I can’t really train like how I used to; I have to be conservative. I can manage it well, but unfortunately it is what it is. I’ve got to be thankful that I can race in general. I feel like we’re almost trying to win with a handicap, which is not a fun spot to be in, but at the same time, it is what it is. And I’ve just got to be thankful that I have my arm. And that I’m actually racing, and we get to do this and have fun while doing it, too.”
In the middle of a three-year deal with Team Honda HRC in a sport where riders often are year to year, there is much to be grateful.
“I’ve got to be thankful that I have these contracts, and I can make my money, because our careers in general are so short,” Roczen said. “So I was thankful to be able to re-sign at one point, but then sometimes I did really question (signing) when I was so low on energy and had no fun. I was literally just about to get out of here just because I couldn’t deal with this anymore.
“So sometimes I was like, ‘Man I kind of jumped the gun on re-signing a three-year extension,’ or something like that. Because then once that is signed, too, you’ve got to stick to your guns, right?”
Roczen feels pangs of similarly conflicted emotions when he mulls what happens after his deal expires in 2022.
“Those are the conversations I’m going to have to have with my family and with my agent,” he said. “Because I’ve talked about it with my agent, too. I know if I retire at a young age, there will be a time when you’re like, ‘Man, crap. We’ve always had a busy lifestyle. Now I’m not really having anything to train for.’ But at the same time, I have so many other hobbies and activities, it could work out good. Especially with our son, but at the same time there could be a time of, ‘Man, I should have just stuck to it.’
“So I don’t really know what I’m going to do. I don’t know. I might have a much longer career, or not so much. But I also haven’t really thought about it that much, because I was just so focused on what’s right ahead of me, which is just racing on a weekly basis like that to try and get the job done, that I haven’t really thought into it like that deep.”
Roczen’s place in life somewhat parallels defending series champion Eli Tomac, who became a first-time father three months before finally breaking through for his first Supercross 450 championship last year.
When they rented a jet together to fly to the 2021 Supercross opener three months ago in Houston, Roczen and Tomac, 28, had a brief conversation about being at a similar point in their careers – particularly with the influx of youth into the 450 division this season.
As Chase Sexton (Roczen’s Honda teammate) and Dylan Ferrandis –2020 champions in 250 — have joined Adam Cianciarulo as the young bucks of 450, Roczen believes the clock could be ticking on a group of older veterans. Premier level riders reaching their late 20s or older include Roczen, Tomac, Marvin Musquin (31 years old), 2018 champion Jason Anderson (28), Dean Wilson (29) and Justin Barcia (29).
“I’m interested to see what his plan is,” Roczen said about Tomac (who told NBC Sports last year that he would miss racing Roczen during the 2020 Outdoors season). “Because a lot of riders in the sport right now are getting up in age. Some of them are quite a bit older than me, so I think everybody is in this time of, ‘Hey, I kind of do a year-to-year basis, maybe another year, or a maximum of two?’
“I have this year and then one more year, and I don’t know what I’m going to do. I feel like there will be a time when the field will kind of thin out real quick, within a year or two. Right now we’re super stacked. There’s some older riders that have been in the sport a while. We have young blood and fresh blood coming in, but at the same time, there’s some riders in their 30s now. I’m only turning 27, so I’m pretty young still. But they may race another year or two, and they’re out, and I don’t know what I’m going to do.
“I just feel like there will be a time. For how stacked it is right now, I feel like within a year, there will be a bunch of riders missing just due to retirement and stuff. If you look at (Ryan) Villopoto and (Ryan) Dungey (both four-time 450 champions), they retired when they were like 27, so that’s my age.”
Whenever Roczen decides to hang it up in Supercross, it’ll mostly be about hanging ten.
The native of Mattstedt, Germany, has lived full time in the United States for a decade, and his slightly accented English is the only giveaway that he didn’t grow up as a beach bum with an insatiable passion for the waves.
“That’s like what I want to do after I retire,” said Roczen, who lives near the surfing meccas of Trestles Beach and Cottons. “Just surf every day, have a good time. It’s what I love to do. I love the ocean in general. Yeah, surfing, that’s my thing.”
Supercross’ “residency” schedule (driven by COVID-19, multiple events have happened in the same city) allowed him to check off a bucket list item by hitting the BSR Surf Ranch, a wave pool in Waco, Texas, during the lengthy three-race stay in Arlington.
“I was so pumped to get to surf there,” he said. “Because you don’t expect to go to Texas to go racing and then you can go surfing. That was the first time I’d surfed in 2021. I was stoked.”
The Roczens also hit the Magnolia Market in Waco (Courtney is a big fan of the home improvement projects of Chip and Joanna Gaines), and an extended stay in Florida permitted introducing Griffin to family boating time on the lake adjacent to their primary home in Clermont, Florida, west of Orlando.
“When you go to these cool spots, there’s some things to do around them,” Roczen said. “We’re so focused on recovery between the races that there’s not much training going on, so you actually have the time to go places as well.”
And of course, more time to spend with Griffin, who has become a frequent face (“the main show of the band, pretty much,” Ken Roczen laughs) for the 1.5 million followers of Roczen’s Instagram feed.
“Oh yeah, it’s so awesome,” he said. “Especially now we’re past this time of him being super, super tiny and not doing anything. He’s just looking at me right now trying to swim here on the ground. He’s almost starting to crawl. It’s great.”
Maybe even better than the riding for Roczen, who has four 450 victories this year to raise his career total to 19.
“I think what pretty much saved my career, is my mindset toward my family and now almost sometimes not caring as much makes me ride better and makes me have more fun,” he said in an NBC Sports sitdown at Atlanta Motor Speedway. “(Griffin) doesn’t care whether I come in first, fifth or 10th. Sometimes you have to care a little less to be better.
“Some people think (family) slows you down. But if you’re ready for it, and that’s what you want, it’ll make you better. In my case, it made me better.”