With the elusive Supercross 450 championship finally in his grasp, Eli Tomac could admit how far away it once had seemed.
As he celebrated with his newborn daughter and family on Father’s Day at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, the usually stoic Tomac had some joyful moments, but there was one overriding emotion.
“It was really just relief,” he said Sunday night on a Zoom media conference call. “I’m up to 34 (career) wins. I’m like I better get one of these (championships) before I’m done.
“Just relief. Just really relief. It just drove me crazy. It’s been driving me up the wall — seriously.”
The wait lasted more than three years since 2017 when Tomac had a series-nine victories but finished runner-up in points to Ryan Dungey, who had only three victories but no finishes lower than fourth.
The following season might have been even tougher, as Tomac won a series-high seven times but also scored only two points in the first two rounds and finished outside the top 10 in three other events. He finished third in points.
Last year marked his third second-place finish in the points and a nagging sense that the window already might have closed in a racing series with a very limited shelf life. Examples such as Chad Reed (who retired Sunday from full-time competition at 38) are extremely rare. Most riders leave the starting gate before their 30s.
Though Tomac was in his typically low-key demeanor Sunday night, he predicted “I’ll really wake up tomorrow and feel it.
“I really thought I was getting to maybe be running out of time (to win a championship) when you look at the past,” he said. “I’m 27 and there’s some people that doubt you, and I have blown it a few times. Being able to fix that inconsistency was a huge relief that way.”
Tomac’s title proved one for the ages: The oldest first-time champion in Supercross also is the first father to wear the crown (daughter Lev was born April 26).
He won the title by 25 points but still rode wisely to a fifth-place finish Sunday.
It was his second-worst finish of 17 races in a season in which he finally blended consistency with his penchant for winning.
With a series-high seven victories, Tomac moved into a tie with four-time champion Ryan Dungey for sixth on the all-time win list. “That’s really what kept me in it was I can still win races,” Tomac said about how he overcame doubts he could win the title.
A newfound mental toughness also helped.
“I almost feel like I’ve had to put ice in my veins,” he said. “Not care about what other people say or think and try to improve on those weaknesses. Emotionally, just have ice in your veins. You have to block everyone out, all the negative comments or thoughts, and that’s it. You got to be just cold but steady.”
That might be easier for Tomac, who concedes he’s “not the most outgoing for my everyday lifestyle. But my emotions have changed for racing. I feel I’ve matured more in my racing mindset and when on the starting gate and on the track. That’s changed from 2017-18.”
Some things haven’t changed, namely his love for riding dirt bikes. Though his father, John, was a world-class mountain biking champion, but a Supercross 450 championship was always Eli’s dream.
“That’s what you chase,” he said. “That’s why you get up in the morning and get up out of bed with motivation. I still love riding my dirt bike. I love racing. I just love being competitive.”
He virtually was lights out in Salt Lake City, where he stared with a victory in the May 31 opener. Even when he started poorly, Tomac always was a factor.
His victory over title runner-up Cooper Webb on a mud-splattered track in the June 7 race might have been the turning point for Tomac, who entered Salt Lake City with only a three-point leader on Ken Roczen.
“The first three races were the time to get ahead,” Tomac said about finishing first, second and first. “It was big to (win) the first race. And then the mud race with Cooper. I rode my frickin’ heart out on that one.”
Tomac was thankful just to have the opportunity after Supercross’ season was in doubt during an 85-day layoff for the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. It became the first major pro sports entity to conclude a complete season and crown a champion, albeit several weeks late.
“You’re so pumped that we can just finish the series,” Tomac said. “It would have been just terrible to end at Daytona like that with just really no one be crowned. Having them give us the opportunity to get these seven in … we did have multiple surfaces and conditions. It seemed a little repetitive, but at the same time it wasn’t. We got all these different tacks in. For being stuck in one spot, it seemed it worked out OK.”