Sitting on the sidelines will change perspective for an athlete, and with Adam Cianciarulo, it brought a new attitude.
In 2020, Cianciarulo was propelled onto dirt bike racing’s biggest platform. After winning the Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship in 2019 and finishing second in the 250 West division of Monster Energy Supercross – strong showings that ended a streak of five consecutive podiums in the combined championship standings. – he landed one of the most coveted rides in the sport.
Cianciarulo climbed onto a factory Kawasaki as a teammate to Eli Tomac in 2020 and finished second to Justin Barcia in the season opener.
In the first seven rounds of that season, he ran well and led a lot of laps. But he also had a tendency to push too hard and crashed a lot.
Round 7 at Tampa epitomized his rookie season. He took the lead on the first lap of that race, led the majority of it until Tomac passed him and then crashed hard in the whoops trying to make up the lost ground. The only thing that mattered at the time, was that he earn his first 450 SX win.
The next week in Arlington, Texas, he crashed in qualification and injured his shoulder. He would not return until one of the final races at Salt Lake City after the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the season.
“I kind of feel like I got momentum going that first year in 450s, a few hiccups, but still kind of rolling.” Cianciarulo told NBC Sports. “And then the last couple years, I feel have kind of been unfortunate – just kind of stopped my momentum, stopped my progression and now it’s kind of like back to the drawing board.
“I would be an idiot to come into this season being like, ‘Oh, now it’s time to win the title, right?’ It’s like I haven’t really raced in a while.”
Cianciarulo returned to run the full motocross season in 2020 and finished second in the standings. That has been enough to prove his worth both to himself and Kawasaki, but the past two seasons have challenged his resolve.
Cianciarulo once again made eight starts in 2021 Supercross before suffering an injury. In July of the outdoor season, he exited the to repair an ulnar nerve.
He came into 2022 with a lot of confidence despite healing from a shoulder injury during the off-season. That didn’t last long as he made just two rounds before declaring he would not race the remainder of the season with an injured knee.
“Coming from that place to where I’m now, I’m just super-stoked to be here.” Cianciarulo said. “More grateful, but feeling like I don’t have to do anything.
“That’s the worst type of mentality to go on the racetrack with: To feel like you have to win, have to do this, have to do that.
“Of course, being on factory team, there’s pressure. I’m still results driven and still determined to do my best. But I have more of an inner peace. I’m excited to be here and not so goal reliant.”
Life’s Still Fine
But that is only part of the story – and a small part at that.
Eight months of self-reflection between his knee injury and the beginning of off-season testing for 2022 gave Cianciarulo a lot of time to think. Understandably, he considered retiring. Turning 26 in October in a sport where 30 is considered old brings those thoughts to the front of one’s mind – especially when the thought-process is clouded by pain.
This would be a completely different story if Cianciarulo had not figured a few things out and developed his new attitude.
“There’s always been this negative self-talk and like this super load I put on myself with all that stuff,” Cianciarulo said. “I found a spot where it’s like I failed so many times in row and it’s like rock bottom, but it kept getting lower and lower and lower.
“And then one day I looked around and it’s like, ‘my life’s still fine’. I’m still okay. I’ve still got people. When you just get older and you realize there’s a little bit more, you just get a little perspective really. It sounds crazy, but when you’re so in it from so young, it’s like [you have to] retrain everything.
“It’s either sit there and wallow in self-pity and feel bad or figure it out. Obviously, I still have a lot to learn, but I just feel like I’m not so reliant on this for everything. I’m not one of those athletes that’s like, so down on perspective – like this has taken away from my determination or my love for [racing]. I’m not bitter at it. I still want it so bad. I still want to do really good and there’s many things that I feel I can accomplish, but I had to find that perspective in order to survive.”
A positive attitude was easy at first for Cianciarulo.
He won his first pro race in Arlington at the age of 17 – almost a decade ago, which began a streak of five first- or second-place finishes. It was easy to feel enthusiastic, energized and strong enough to take on the world. When he crashed in that race, he popped his shoulder back into its socket and gutted out the remainder of the laps.
Cianciarulo finished fifth in the 250 West points’ standing that year.
“I think of some of the lessons I learned,” Cianciarulo said. “I don’t know how cool my place in the business is, but I’ve learned some things. In my childhood I was a training machine. Go out and win and everything’s okay. If not, it sucks. Figure it out.
“Your value is directly connected to all of this, which is what funnels you into this little place where if you fail, everything sucks. The sky’s falling. And then you win and you run around like a six-year-old kid. This part of my career has forced me to do is like kind of deal with all that stuff most people deal with in retirement. You have to retrain that whole value system.
“That’s what I did like these last couple years because the feedback was gone. I couldn’t race.”
But it’s not time to retire. There is still a lot of unfinished business and a drive to show his untapped potential is still worthy of his respected standing in the sport.
“I just need to get back in there and I need to race all the races,” Cianciarulo said. “That’s my goal first. My big thing has always been winning is all there ever was for me since I was a kid.
“So it’s kind of getting away from the win-or-crash mentality. In the past I would just legit kill myself to try to win a race. There’s no filter in there. But there’s a filter now. I’m older. These last couple years have definitely changed my outlook on things.”