2017 Supercross preview: Of stats and curses

Jan 04, 2017

Since fake news is now common on the internet, I can now report the outcome of the 2017 Monster Energy Supercross Championship: Ken Roczen did not win the title.

But wait. I have solid (though possibly obscure) statistics to back up my reasoning for why 2017 (and maybe beyond) won’t be his year.

  1. The fourth-year curse
  2. Brand loyalty = titles
  3. The birthday curse

Before I explain what those mean, first I’ll boastfully remind everyone that one year ago I accurately called Ryan Dungey to be the easy favorite for the 2016 title and made a case for why fewer than five different riders would win main events in 2016. Both happened.

Story lines for 2017

As the first gate of the season is about to drop, the Supercross story lines to get revved up about are many.

  • The 2017 racing format will now include main events of 20 minutes plus one lap, instead of 20 laps, which will benefit the fittest riders who get bad starts. On average, each main event will be between two to four laps longer.
  • Roczen will be riding the all-new Honda CRF450R in his first of three years with American Honda. This marks the third different bike brand since he switched to the premier 450SX class in 2014 (note: foreshadowing – see below).
  • Cooper Webb, the two-time 250SX champion and 2016 Lucas Oil Pro Motocross (250) champion, is making his highly anticipated debut in the top class.
  • Eli Tomac and his Kawasaki appear to have synergy, Trey Canard is on KTM after nine full seasons with Honda and Chad Reed, who will turn 35 years old in the middle of the season, is proving to be timeless.
  • Dean Wilson, Malcolm Stewart (the 2016 250SX East Champion) and Jake Weimer were left out when the race teams filled up.
  • Will James Stewart race? Hard to say, but he had a nice Christmas tree(s). In late December, GoPro released an episode of “Driven” that didn't answer your questions.

Despite all of the above, I believe 2017 will still end with Dungey on top, but it’s going to be his toughest test yet and (no, I wasn’t paid by the promoters to say this) it will come down to the last round, which hasn’t happened since 2011.

Yes, Dungey is nearer the end of his career than the beginning and, if he wins again, he’d be 27 and a half years old, just one year younger than Jeremy McGrath was in 2000 when he became the oldest champion in the sport, a record that stands. Still, I’m a conservative gambler and I like safe bets. Ken Roczen entered the 450SX class in 2014. In his three seasons, he’s been on the podium 24 times and has finished 15th or worse five times. Dungey, in that same time span, has finished first, second or third 42 times and only once finished worse than 15th. His consistency is so strong that he forces his competition match it or be thwarted.

Roczen will no doubt be the fastest rider of 2017. He’ll probably win the most races but, just like Damon Bradshaw in 1992, there will be costly errors and races where he scores few-to-no points. That exact scenario was displayed at the recent Monster Energy Cup when Roczen, in his first race with Honda, made what appeared to be a bad judgment in timing and crashed while leading, costing him a $1 million payout.

Here are the three stats that might prove my prediction:

The fourth-year curse

In “modern” SX racing, if a rider has not won the championship after three seasons, the odds against winning a title increase. Roczen is entering his fourth season in the 450SX division.

Some history: In 1985, the 12th official year of what is now considered the Supercross series, it was expanded to include a regional support class (then called 125 East/West, in the two-stroke era). Prior to that, the premier 250 class (now 450SX) was the only option. (There was a 500 class for two years early on, but it was not considered the premier class.) When icons like Jeff Ward (1979) and Ricky Johnson (1981) raced their first Supercross main events, they were in the 250 class at 17 and 16 years of age, respectively, and didn’t win titles until their seventh and sixth years.

Number of years to win first title
Jeff Stanton 3
Jean-Michel Bayle 3
Jeremy McGrath Rookie
Jeff Emig 6
Ricky Carmichael 3
Chad Reed 2
James Stewart 3
Ryan Dungey Rookie
Ryan Villopoto 3

The first Supercross champion to win the premier class title after graduating from the regional support class was Jeremy McGrath in 1993. Ward and Johnson won all the titles between 1985-1988 and Jeff Stanton (1989-1990, 1992) went straight to the 250 class in 1987 (But he did win the title within three years…). In 1991, Frenchman Jean-Michel Bayle won the title but also never bothered to compete in the support class. Again, however, he won the title within three years of competing in his first premier class main event.

The only rider to graduate from the support class and need more than three years to win the Supercross crown was Jeff Emig (1997). Emig’s first premier class year was 1992.

This is a good place to note that Eli Tomac is also entering his fourth year in the 450SX class and Justin Barcia his fifth.

Brand loyalty = titles

Not a single rider in the history of the sport has won his first championship after switching bike brands more than once. Roczen will start 2017 on a Honda, his third different OEM since his 450SX rookie year in 2014. In fact, only four riders — David Bailey, Jeff Stanton, Ricky Johnson and Jeff Emig — raced full seasons on brands different from what they won their first championships on.

The birthday curse

Want your kid to be a Supercross champion? Increase his chances by making sure he’s born in early August or late November to early December.

There have been 43 Supercross championships handed out since 1974 and never, not once, has a rider born in the months of January, February or May won the title. This would explain a lot for big names like Kevin Windham, Guy Cooper, Mike LaRocco and Davi Millsaps, who were all born in February. Or Mike Kiedrowski and Micky Dymond (January). Broc Glover, Robbie Reynard, Brett Metcalfe and Mike Brown were all unlucky enough to be born in May.

This is great news for Yamaha’s next great hope, Cooper Webb (Nov. 10, 1995). This is tragic news for Jason Anderson (Feb. 17, 1993). And, even though Tomac could get bitten by the fourth-year curse, at least his birthday is in a good spot (Nov. 14, 1992). KTM’s Marvin Musquin (Dec. 30, 1989) could have many reasons to be thankful he’s not a New Year’s baby.

Supercross champions by season of birthday
Spring 5
Summer 12
Fall 20
Winter 6

Roczen was born in the spring, the thinnest season for yielding SX champions and he’s two days away from having a completely doomed D.O.B. He was born April 29, 1994. There has only been one rider to win the title who was born between March 26 and June 17: Jean-Michel Bayle (D.O.B. April 1).

Over half of the 43 Supercross titles have gone to riders who were born in a span of time that totals just over three weeks. Ryan Villopoto, Mike Bell, Jimmy Weinert and Pierre Karsmakers, the first-ever champion, were all born between August 8 and 14. Jeremy McGrath, Ricky Carmichael, Jeff Emig and Ryan Dungey were all born between Nov. 19 and Dec. 4.

This could all be seen as fancy facts manipulation or statistics skewing but I like to think of it as bench racing material. Honestly, a rider’s birthday has nothing to do with his ability to win races or number one plates. Or does it? Is it odd that the two greatest champions of the sport were born just over a week apart? Or that the greatest rider never to win a title had a February birthday? Maybe, maybe not.

We start writing the next round of stats at at Anaheim Stadium in Anaheim, California, on Saturday.