Supercross is at its best when showcasing mano a mano title rivalry, and this season has delivered an entertaining matchup with Cooper Webb, Ken Roczen and a pair of dueling storylines.
Webb, 25, is the 2019 series champion whose refuse to lose attitude has been evident in his comeback from two major injuries last season and a major points deficit this year.
Roczen, who turns 27 next week, also knows about rebounding from adversity and has added another dimension with a growing family becoming his favorite “hobby.”
The duo has won 11 of 15 races this year in the AMA Monster Energy Supercross Series with Webb leading by 16 points on his No. 2 KTM over Roczen and his familiar No. 94 Honda.
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And along the way, they’ve tangled a few times (notably at Daytona) with the contentious spats that are a cornerstone of any compelling dirt bike showdown.
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Heading into the final two races of the 2021 season (both on Saturday night at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, Utah), NBC Sports spoke with both Red Bull-sponsored riders. Here are the thoughts of Roczen and Webb as they face off for the 2021 championship:
THEIR 2021 SEASONS
Roczen and Webb both entered the Supercross season recovering from maladies that took them out of the Lucas Oil Pro Motocross season. Roczen rested after being “dead on his legs” battling shingles and Epstein-Barr; a back injury sidelined Webb for much of the Outdoors schedule. Both are pleased with how the 2021 season has unfolded.
Roczen: “Well, here’s the thing, you sometimes have to think back. I came into the season with no expectations, really. Just because obviously my last couple of years have been super tough. And then you start doing really good, and obviously, you’re scratching your head a little bit on the days where it doesn’t work well. But then you look back, and it’s just the bar gets set so high when we do so good, that it’s easy to forget the things that we’ve gone through.
“So of course, I’d like to be a little bit higher (in the standings), but there’s nothing really lost yet, and if you look at it, I’m 16 points down now. I for sure got robbed by four points when that whole flagging incident went down (a penalty after Round 2in Houston). So then we’d be 12 points (behind) right now. And it’s super close, and we’re in the championship, and there’s only two guys. So in the end, coming in with no expectations, we’re in the championship battle. I haven’t ever really been in a championship battle all the way to the end in Supercross. So we made a step in the right direction. I know I’m doing this to win a championship. But at the end, I still look back, and I’m proud of the team and everybody supporting me, around me. There was a big change of pace here. And nothing’s over yet.
“I just, of course, can’t take it easy now. I feel like I’ve got to win. But I’m super relaxed right now, because it is what it is, and I just enjoy racing. I’m going to go out there and try hard, and he’s the one who has to ride defensively, and I just got to go out and hammer a little bit and see if I can win. But you never know what’s going to happen. The one Atlanta round, we did a nine-point swing, so those points can go real quick, so I’m just going to go out there and enjoy the moment that I’m in, being in the championship hunt. And if it happens, that would be a next-level experience, but at the same time, the fun about competing is these butterflies in your stomach that you get when you’re trying to win. Right now, that’s really only two guys that can really say that. Eli isn’t too far out, but far enough to where it’s kind of come down to a two-man battle. So out of all these fast guys, it’s only us two. It’s pretty cool to look at, you know.”
Webb: “(Winning the championship) would be extremely special. Last year with the crazy crash I had (at Arlington, Texas), that in my opinion kind of took me away from the (2020) championship. The back injury that took me out of the whole motocross season this year. That’s racing, and you have those adversities. I always feel super rewarded when I can fight back from adversity and not lose that faith not only in myself but just that things are going to work out. This one has been a very trying year. I was at one point 20-something down in the championship. I felt like it’s been a great year to obviously claw my way back into the points lead, but then be able to take the red plate and lead it is always huge, but if I can execute and keep things going as planned and win another one, it would mean the world.”
THEIR RIVALRY IN 2021 AND WHERE IT STANDS
Roczen was angry with Webb after they nearly collided on the first turn at Daytona International Speedway last month. Though they mostly have raced cleanly around each other since then, Roczen still is wary of Webb playing games.
As fellow Red Bull-sponsored riders, Roczen and Webb also have been co-stars of “Moto Spy Supercross Season 5,” a behind-the scenes docuseries that just released its sixth episode that focused on their championship battle (the previous five episodes are available on the Red Bull Motorsports YouTube channel).
Roczen: “Yeah, for me, there’s no holding back. I just have to go there and enjoy myself. When I do that, it’s when I ride the best. I just got to go out and win and try to put as many people in between me and Webb as possible. The exciting thing about racing, points can go down real quick. So it’ll just be interesting to see how the days are going these last couple of rounds. Especially races. If I get a good start, and he doesn’t, it’s going to be fun. Because it’s so much of the unknown. I have to win and go for it. He can not have a big mistake by any means, or else I’ll be right on his tail, and that’s when it gets real interesting.
“I feel like when he (plays games), it’s him being worried. When his confidence is low, that’s when he tries to do these kinds of games. I kind of know that by now. I feel like it’s happened in the past, and I’ve been kind of watching it. Honestly, I’d love for him to do that (at Salt Lake City). I’m better off just focusing on myself to be honest. But yeah, I’ve kind of noticed in certain times. When everything’s going his direction and everything’s going good and he’s winning, he doesn’t do any of that. I feel like when things get kind of tricky, he tends to want to do that. I just kind of know. I’m almost hoping it comes down to it because I’ve seen it also in Indianapolis when he kind of gets uncomfortable. He tries to pull these things and then it also can bite him real quick, because I ended up winning at that point. So yeah. It’ll be interesting.”
Webb: “Yeah, it’ll be interesting, man. It’s nice in a way that we’ve made ourselves the two contenders, that it’s just me and him really as far as the points go going into these last two rounds that can potentially win. There’s a lot of respect on my end for him. And racing him. He’s super talented and amazing on a dirt bike. Like I said, moving forward, it’s situational. Obviously I think there’s a bit of urgency on his side to try to make it happen. But for me it’s just going out and doing what I do and kind of executing. I really want to go out and get some more race wins. I feel like I can achieve that. For me, it’s going out there with the same strategy I have every weekend, and that’s every time we’re on the track, trying to be the best I can and get the best result.
“If we were under the same tent, Red Bull KTM, I think it would be kind of difficult, but we’re entirely separated. We share that one sponsor (in Red Bull), but it’s totally different with different people and everything, different sponsors. There’s a lot of respect there. Obviously we keep that in mind, but yeah, it’s game on as far as that goes.”
THEIR STYLES AND APPROACHES TO SALT LAKE CITY
Though they have been the clear-cut championship front-runners throughout the season, there are divergent styles.
Roczen is the more naturally talented of the pair, but Webb is one of the grittiest riders of his generation. As Supercross analyst Ricky Carmichael described on a recent edition of NASCAR America MotorMouths, Webb is “a warrior, a fighter. He will wear you down. He plays games with you and just irritates you. He’s got every facet of the game figured out, and that’s what makes him so tough. It always seems like he races with a chip on his shoulder.”
Webb said he “absolutely” agrees with Carmichael’s characterization: “I take a lot of pride in that for sure. I feel like I have really good race strategies, and I just feel I have a lot of confidence in myself. Whether practice doesn’t go well, or I have a bad heat race or gate pick, or whatever the consequences are, I just feel like every time I line up on the starting line for a main event, I have a chance to go win. I think that’s hard to do at our level. It’s such a physically demanding sport, but it’s more even mentally demanding sport.
“Yeah, I feel like that’s a fair statement. I’m not always the fastest. I’m not always the flashiest, but I feel like no matter what, when I’m on that starting line that I have a shot to win a race and be on the podium, so that’s what I try to pride myself and remind myself. This year, I think I’ve gotten a lot better as a racer and racecraft but also with my speed and technique. I think it’s all experience, too. Every season you complete you learn more, and I’m only 25, so I’m kind of just hitting those golden years.
“I feel good going into these stadiums again. I felt a lot more comfortable in these environments under the real Supercross tracks. So yeah, I’m looking forward to it. Last year in Salt Lake, we finished the last seven rounds here, and I was very successful here. So yeah, I feel good about it. I know it will definitely be a battle, and things could get tight and tense, but we’re just kind of sticking to course and see where it ends up.”
Roczen said his objective for Salt Lake City is simple: Win both rounds, and everything will take care of itself. Last year during Round 15, he seemingly willed a victory into existence when he followed up on a vow to his father, whom he was texting the morning of the event.
“It’s kind of funny, I did the same thing in Atlanta, too” for Round 14, Roczen said. “I’ve done it multiple times, where I just woke up, my dad was texing me, and I said, ‘I’m winning today,’ and then I did. So yeah, I’m going to try to do the same thing.
“What I like about Utah is that it kind of has a sense of home for me just because I spend a lot of time in St. George, Utah, because it’s my wife’s family up there, so I spend quite a bit of time up there. And yes, I’ve won there before. There should be nothing in the way of me riding well. So I’m looking forward to getting up there, and especially for a couple of rounds.
“We had some good juju up there last year with getting the win and stuff. Eli (Tomac) is going to be good up there as well just because he lives at altitude. And it’ll be interesting to see how the tracks shape up this year. Last year, we had a little bit of everything, but the dirt has been the stadium so long that it got really dry. And it’ll be interesting to see what the conditions will be like this year. Just because I believe it’ll be actually cloudy and cold up there, so hopefully we get some good moisture in it and make a good track.”