When Austin Forkner entered the 250 East season opener in Minneapolis in February, he was determined this season would be different and that he would ride all nine rounds injury free. A hard crash in Texas ended that resolve, but healing from a collarbone injury wasn’t the hardest part; it was dealing with the bad thoughts that followed.
To start the 2022 season, Forkner couldn’t afford to let go of the aggressive riding style that landed him in the Supercross and Motocross series, but he could control it. And he needed to.
Several injuries over the past few years kept him from making a legitimate run at championships and for a while, that seemed to only amp him up more – make him more aggressive and prone to mistakes.
The 2019 season was his to lose. Through the first six rounds, Forkner beat the 250 East competitors in every race. The only time he failed to win outright was in an East/West Showdown and even then, he was the top rider in his division. He had a full-race lead in the points and might have cruised to victory.
But then came Nashville. He had a hard off in qualification and injured his knee.
He tried to return to racing a few weeks later – perhaps too soon. He landed hard on a jump and tore his ACL to put him out for the season.
His 2020 campaign went much better. Forkner won four races in the 250 West division, but two bad rounds in which he finished outside the top 15 was too much to overcome and he landed third in the standings.
The 2021 season didn’t last long. Forkner broke a collarbone ahead of the third race and was out for the season.
So Forkner knew he could not keep doing things the way he had. At Minneapolis, he finished fourth in his heat and second in the Main. Round 2 brought the 250 East riders to Arlington, Texas, where he dominated Race 1 of the Triple Crown, finished fourth in Race 2 and was set to challenge Jett Lawrence for the overall win.
Forkner and Lawrence were battling for the third in Race 3. When Forkner completed the pass just before the finish line jump, Lawrence kept the pressure on. Lawrence clipped a Tuff Blox at the top of the jump and his bike was pushed to the right – and into Forkner.
Forkner was slammed to the ground hard and rebroke his collarbone where it had been repaired with a screw.
— Supercross LIVE! (@SupercrossLIVE) February 27, 2022
“You know, this isn’t my first rodeo as far as injuries go and this wasn’t really a bad injury,” Forkner told NBC Sports prior to the season finale in Salt Lake City. “I mean it’s a broken collar bone. Broken bones are never good. But I was only out for four weeks. Relatively speaking it’s not that bad of an injury.
“It wasn’t really a hard thing to come from, the harder thing was coming back and not being at the top right away. I didn’t want to take any steps back from before I got hurt.
“The injury is never the hardest part: it’s everything that’s around the injury – the not racing, everything you’re dealing with mentally, the negative thoughts that come along with it. ‘Why did this happen again?’ In my case getting hurt over and over and over again and feeling like I was going to have a good year this year and then something out of my control happened. It wasn’t really the actual injury that was hard to get over, it was the mental things that came with it.”
Regarding his performance, Forkner had no reason to worry. Less than two months after breaking his collarbone, he returned to action in Atlanta and immediately won his heat.
He won the main in his next outing in Foxborough ahead of Lawrence, fueling speculation about how closely the title might have been contested.
“A lot of people said, you know, you look so much different riding from the first couple or races, before I got hurt,” Lawrence said “I agree, but at the same time I was just trying to get the season started, I knew it was going to be a long season, I wanted to be there at every race, and make smart decisions based off how I felt that night and how I started. Make smart decisions based on what was handed to me throughout the race.”
Forkner rode aggressively, but with a great degree of control
“At Foxborough, I didn’t really do anything crazy,” Forkner said. “I didn’t get a great start and was just working up through. A couple of guys made mistakes and I got into second and then got off on Pierce [Brown] and he missed that rhythm and I went to the front.
“A lot of people said that they hadn’t seen me ride like that, with that sort of aggression, but I would argue that you saw me ride like that at the first race at Arlington, when I won the first of the three-race format there. It comes with the injuries and the level of maturity that you have to take what’s given to you sometimes, not always try to force the issue. Because that is when things can go wrong.”
If 2019 was the championship that never happened, 2021 may have been even more so. It was a new Forkner that mounted his Monster Energy / Pro Circuit Kawasaki – a Forkner who bore the scars and had the hard-earned maturity that went along with them. He was determined to show his critics what those scars taught him.
“As much as you don’t want to think about that, there are times when you just have to make smart decisions and that comes with time. I’ve made changes on the mental side of things this year – being okay with not being the fastest guy at times.
“I feel like it worked and it’s why I was really bummed to miss the middle of the season due to something that wasn’t really my fault. I felt like mentally I made good changes coming into this year and I didn’t really get to show them that much. Which is why right now, I want to show what could’ve been this season. Atlanta, obviously the A Main didn’t go that well, but the heat race was pretty impressive and then last weekend, winning the main.”
As disappointing as it was, the second broken collarbone is one more building block for Forkner.
“To be honest this (injury) was easier to take than past ones where it was my fault,” he said. “I’m not the type of person that has to get yelled at to get a point across. I can walk the track and my trainer, my dad, or whoever, never had to get in my face and yell at me that I rode bad. I would come back and be pissed if I didn’t run well. I’m self-motivated.
“It was almost easier this time because it wasn’t my fault. When the crashes were my fault, I would be kicking myself. I’m destroyed after, ‘Like dude why am I making these mistakes? What do I have to do to quit making these mistakes’ and that would annihilate me and get into my dark places, thinking ‘why can’t I figure this out?’
“The bad thoughts start to creep in. But this time it wasn’t my fault and it was almost easier, because the changes that I made to try to prolong my season and get hurt less seemed like they were working. A lot of people said that they saw maturity, they saw the changes I was trying to make. They were notable. I just had to chalk this one up to it being what it is and this sport is brutal. This sport is not golf, it’s not tennis. Sometimes things happen that are out of your control. It’s just bad luck – the card I drew that night.”