The frenetic dirtbike races taking over baseball and football stadiums known as Supercross are a blast to watch on their own, but this year the sport promises to be particularly hot. The two riders who claimed all eight titles between 2010 and 2017 have retired, leaving a highly competitive field to put their mark on the championship.
The 17-round Monster Energy Supercross championship gets underway at Angels Stadium in Anaheim on Saturday and runs up to the final event in Las Vegas on May 4.
(Full Disclosure: Supercross wanted me to soak up the full effect of a race weekend, so I got flown out to Las Vegas, put up in a hotel, and introduced to some riders and organizers.)
Watching a Supercross race is almost an assault on the senses, complete with pyrotechnics, blasting music, buzzing motorcycles, and bikes launched to heights of up to 30 feet.
The pandemonium gets going when the gate drops. Riders kick up huge roosts as they barrel toward the first turn, trying to secure the all-important holeshot to take the first lead of the race.
With 22 bikes in the field, getting out ahead of the pack early is essential. Holding off rivals is a lot easier than making a pass, hence, the holeshot is coveted and some of the most aggressive riding can happen in the first few seconds of a race.
Racers can spend half of each lap airborne as they maneuver rhythm sections and massive jumps that can can send them sailing through the air for seemingly impossible distances.
“There’s not many people that can say they took a 220-pound metal motorcycle and launched it 70 feet over a Supercross triple in front of 40,000 people,” longtime privateer Adam Enticknap, who has since signed with H.E.P Motorsports Suzuki, told me at the Las Vegas event in October. “And we get to do it week in, week out.”
That makes it worth the inherent risks involved, said Enticknap, who was recovering from a broken femur suffered in practice crash last summer.
“It sucks,” he said. “But we all know what we signed up for.”
With all this action happening in the contained space of a sports stadium, Supercross is one of the easier forms of racing to watch in person because you can keep any eye on the whole field at once.
It takes about 5,500 cubic yards of dirt to put together a Supercross track. All that dirt actually gets stockpiled at each venue, so the track it can be reconstructed every year. In Anaheim, the stadium paves over four feet of dirt for employees to park on during the off season.
Over the last couple of weeks, crews have peeled off the asphalt and poured the dirt into the stadium for the two Supercross races in January and several Monster Jam events (which are put on by the same promoter). When it’s all over, the dirt goes back out to be paved over for another year of employee parking.
Over the last 25 years, there have been all of eight Supercross champions. Jeremy McGrath won seven titles beginning in the early 1990s, Ricky Carmichael then claimed five of six championships starting in 2001, Ryan Villopoto won four straight titles beginning in 2010 and Ryan Dungey took the next three after winning his first in 2010.
With Villopoto and Dungey retired, Husqvarna’s Jason Anderson won the 2018 championship. But he will have to fend off a pack of hungry competitors if he expects to be competitive again, including Kawasaki’s Eli Tomac, KTM’s Marvin Musquin and Honda’s Ken Roczen.
Tomac, an intense Coloradan, is widely considered to be the fastest rider in the series (he won the $1 million prize for winning all three heats in non-points paying Monster Energy Cup in October), but has had trouble with consistency over the course of the long season.
Roczen, of Germany, is one of the sport’s biggest stars, but is still working on coming back from a series of horrifying accidents.
Musquin, of France, brings a hard edge to racing that can ruffle other riders.
“It’s a very intense sport,” Musquin said, especially at the starts. “To be first you have to push the limit and sometimes you have to have to make it happen by being aggressive.”
Not exactly. The Lucas Oil Pro Motocross series starts in May, after the Supercross series concludes. The outdoor series has a different promoter but features many of the same riders.
Tomac, who won last summer’s outdoor championship told me at the Las Vegas event that there’s one major difference between the two series: “It’s the jumps.”
“Your Supercross is a lot tighter environment, the majority is jumping. When you look at the data, you’re in air 40 or 50 percent of the time you’re on the track,” he said. “In a Moto, you’re laying the power to the ground the whole time and you’re battling the natural terrain.”
The Supercross series has its origins in a 1972 one-off production at the LA Coliseum, dubbed “the Superbowl of Motocross.” Sportswriters soon tired of that lengthy title, and started simply calling it “Supercross.” Organizers weren’t happy about it, but the name stuck.
The American Motorcyclist Association sanctioned the first three-race Supercross championship in 1974, and the series took off from there.
Thanks to a new multi-year TV deal, all Supercross races will be broadcast on NBC or NBCSN (though some will be on tape delay). If you’re a cord-cutter or just want extra content, there’s now an online Supercross Pass available to U.S. viewers that costs $75 a year.
Nashville gets its first-ever Supercross race after only hosting the defunct Arenacross series in the past. Supercross also returns to Broncos Stadium in Denver for the first time since 1996.
There will be three “triple crown” races (Anaheim on Jan. 19, Detroit on Feb. 23 and Houston on March 30), which involve three short races rather than the typical single main event. Championship points are awarded based on the overall finish.
Bottom line: It’s worth catching a race near you, even if you’re not otherwise interested in dirtbike racing. It’s fast-paced, dramatic and just a fun show to take in. And for me, it was a relief that I was the one in the stands, and the riders were the ones tearing up the track and launching themselves through the night sky.
Here’s the full 2019 schedule of races:
Jan. 5: Anaheim.
Jan. 12: Glendale.
Jan. 19: Anaheim.
Jan. 26: Oakland.
Feb. 2: San Diego.
Feb. 9: Minneapolis.
Feb. 16: Arlington, Texas.
Feb. 23: Detroit
March 2: Atlanta.
March 9: Daytona.
March 16: Indianapolis.
March 23: Seattle.
March 30: Houston.
April 6: Nashville.
April 13: Denver.
April 27: East Rutherford.
May 4: Las Vegas.