All the speculation in the world cannot make up for some good, old-fashioned racing, but we will need to speculate a little more until race day arrives Saturday. So, for some useful insight I went straight to the very ground on which the riders place their knobbies: the fabled factory test tracks of Southern California, where I talked to track builder Bryan Wallace about who is looking good on the very tracks he builds and maintains on a daily basis.
From the moment the AMA outdoor national motocross season ends until Monster Energy Supercross concludes in May, Wallace, who works for Dream Traxx, scrapes away and reshapes terra firma so that the Supercross elite and their teams can hone skills and equipment for the grueling 17-round series. Bryan himself has held a pro racing license, qualifying for a handful of nationals and has been a test rider for a number of manufacturers and magazines. In other words, he is more than adept at both heavy equipment and on a motocross bike and is a great recruit for some speculation about the 2019 Supercross season.
The difference between practice and racing
What many fans may not realize is that most practice tracks are quite different from the courses Dirt Wurx builds for Feld Entertainment for each round of the series. Sure, the same general rules apply to all tracks (75-foot triples, standard sizes for dragon back, table tops, etc.) but the way they are built and linked together can vary greatly.
"They ride them [practice tracks] week in and week out, lap after lap after lap, whereas the race tracks are really only good for one night," Wallace said. "Often, they will have their settings from testing, but when they go to race, their settings can actually be way off. I see a lot of the rookie kids coming up and they will look really good at the practice track, but then when they go to the races they will scratch their heads a little bit because of how different it is.”
Even take a top rider can be affected. A couple of years ago, Ken Roczen went to the effort of having a practice track built by the Dirt Wurx, the very crew that builds the Monster Energy Supercross race tracks. However, as Wallace recalls, Roczen found that pounding lap after lap on a race course was a bit brutal for practice.
“I had to drive up there and go fix it for him," Wallace said. "It was almost unrideable. He could only do three or four laps, and that was before he got injured.”
The four horsemen of 2019 Supercross
When talking about the upcoming 2019 SX campaign, there are four riders who must be included in the conversation, based simply on past accomplishments and recent results. Sure, there are other potential dark horses, perhaps more than we’ve seen in a decade, but when it comes to the riders expected to win at least once, it really comes down to these four.
Defending champ Jason Anderson perhaps surprised even himself last year by bringing home the biggest piece of bacon in the motocross racing world, the 2018 Monster Energy 450 Supercross Championship. This rider’s ragged yet somehow effective style, combined with his easy-going attitude, has made him a crowd favorite since he first began getting wins in the 250 class.
It took the New Mexico native a few years to come into his own on the 450, but he has more than shown his speed on the big bike. At times he will make moves that need to be replayed in slow motion just to understand how the heck he saved a near crash while simultaneously making a pass.
Anderson won the title by learning from one of his now retired riding partners, four-time champion Ryan Dungey who holds of record of 31 consecutive podium finishes.
“It’s really an art, what Dungey was doing, and I think we’re all trying to get that race craft that he had," Anderson said. "He always avoided the carnage, and that’s not by luck.”
Anderson figured it out in 2018, minimizing mistakes, improving his consistency, and bringing home four wins on his way to the title. Sometimes he was the fastest rider on the track, but when he wasn’t, he was still up there in the hunt. His average finish was just off the podium at 3.64.
With a championship and another year under his belt, Anderson will be a very tough competitor for 2019.
Some riders seem to go fast with little effort, but not Eli Tomac. When he is on, which is most of the time, he will ride the bike so aggressively that he appears to be angry at the track itself and aims to beat it into submission. So far, though, that aggression has yet to yield a 450 Supercross title. He’s been oh so close in 2017 and 2018, while capturing more wins than any other rider, yet crashes and a few mechanicals have kept the coveted title away from the Monster Energy Kawasaki star.
At Anaheim One in 2018, Tomac lost the title before it really began with a crash while leading the main event. In 2017, he had the points lead with only three rounds remaining, but another crash while in first place during the New Jersey round knocked the title out of his grasp. Tomac has proven his speed and his ability to win the most races. If he can learn from his past, there is little standing in his way.
Back in the early 1990s, Jean-Michel Bayle started the wave of French riders applying their often unique and smooth riding styles to the stadiums of American Supercross racing. Marvin Musquin is the latest Frenchman to stand tall among the SX elite and has proven to be a true championship threat over the last few years.
A slender rider, Musquin relies on his skill and superior fitness to make the 450 cc Red Bull KTM machine work for him. His nimble riding style allows him to excel on technical track layouts with tight turns; the more technical the better.
Last season, he began strong, capturing the opener after Tomac hit the ground. But only one round later, the biggest thorn in Musqin’s side struck to bite him hard: the whoops. It is no secret that Marvin has long struggled in whoops section, those small jumps that are ideally skimmed across.
Wallace believes it’s actually not a technique issue with Musquin.
“The whoops are not built the same way every time at the stadium," Wallace said. "Sometimes they build them with a loader, sometimes with a dozer. They either break down too much or they become little walls. Every time I’ve seen Marvin go through a set of whoops at the test track, he looks solid. I think it’s a confidence thing. Maybe he’s thinking ‘I can either jump through those whoops or I can skim them with the risk of falling down.’ At that point I think it’s coming down to the most rational decision.”
Marvin is already a true contender. With former French factory star David Vuillemin now in his corner as a riding coach, in addition to continuing on the time-tested Aldon Baker training program, Musquin has to be among the favorites.
The fourth horseman, Ken Roczen, appeared destined for Supercross glory. Then he had a horrendous arm injury that could have ended his career in 2017. He came back strong and ready for 2018, although clearly a little hesitant in his riding. Still, he had the speed, and just when his confidence once again began to show, another arm injury struck. Ups and downs and ups and downs. Ken Roczen is ready to go up again and stay up for 2019.
After a successful 2018 AMA Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship campaign, which saw him remain healthy and capture an ego-boosting moto win, the German rider has shown that he is ready to once again take on the tight confines of Supercross.
“Kenny looks really good," said Wallace, who has seen him on the practice track. "There has never been a time when I’ve thought, ‘Maybe he’s looking a little off today.’ He and Cole Seely (Roczen’s Honda HRC teammate) too. They don’t give much credit to Cole, but he’s a solid guy, too. They’re always smiling and just happy to be out there riding."
The rookies and the dark horses
There are more factory-supported rookies entering 450 SX than any year in recent memory. Among them, they have more than 20 250 Supercross victories, four 250 Supercross titles, and two 250 outdoor national championships.
Zach Osborne will be riding alongside Anderson out of the Rockstar Energy Husqvarna rig. Ever since he began training with Aldon Baker, Osborne has been a completely new rider. Others moving up include JGRMX/Suzuki’s Justin Hill (who nearly won a 450 race last year during a break in his 250 racing schedule), Monster Energy Kawasaki’s Joey Savatgy, who will ride alongside Tomac and nearly won a main event during the Monster Cup in October, and Aaron Plessinger, the newly minted 2018 250SX West Champion and 250 MX national champion who will be Justin Barcia’s teammate on Monster Energy Yamaha.
In addition to the rookies, the four horsemen will have to watch for several other contenders in a stacked field. Justin Barcia, for example, reinvented himself last year as a replacement rider on the factory Yamaha squad. Now he is full-time and could very well be in the hunt for the championship, much as he was during the first half of 2018.
Others like BTO/KTM’s Blake Baggett, Cole Seely or Cooper Webb (who has switched teams for 2019 and will be Musquin’s Red Bull KTM teammate) could easily upset the power balance. And of course, one can never count out Chad Reed. The very seasoned veteran, now in his 21st year as a professional racer, just signed with JGRMX/Suzuki as Weston Peick’s fill-in (injured during an off-season race and currently in recovery) and will pit alongside Justin Hill. 2019 is going to be one hell of a year for Supercross!
Even harder than speculating about the 450 class is predicting what will happen in the 250 East and West Regional Championships. It has become a tradition that factory teams not name which of their riders is doing either coast until the first round, partially to keep other teams guessing and partially to make sure all of their riders are in fact ready for round one, should someone get injured. West begins first, then the East championship begins about a third of the way through the series.
The Pro Circuit roster can never be counted out. Seasoned riders Adam Cianciarulo and Martín Dávalos will lead up-and-comer Austin Forkner and rookie Garret Marchbanks on their green machines.
GEICO Honda has been a solid team for more than a decade and boasts an impressive roster. Chase Sexton is one rider who many have pointed to as showing impressive speed at the track.
Star Racing Yamaha will have another strong roster headed by French rider Dylan Ferrandis and New Yorker Justin Cooper. Both claimed wins during 250 motocross nationals and both looked strong in Supercross last year.
Now Suzuki’s official factory team for both classes, JGRMX brought on Alex Martin for this year and are hoping for big things out of the 250 class veteran. Jimmy Decotis is another strong rider who could very well have a breakout year on the all-new RM-Z250.
Husqvarna has transferred Thomas Covington over to the United States after the American raced the MXGP World Championships for several years. According to Wallace, who also manages the Husky and KTM tracks, Covington has been a quick study for Supercross. Michael Mosiman and rookie Jordan Bailey complete the Husky roster.
Finally, the TLD/Red Bull/KTM squad will once again be lead by Shane McElrath, who has been in championship contention for the past two seasons. Jordon Smith is another able rider and the two will help guide rookies Sean Cantrell and Mitchell Falk.
Where to see it
Feld Entertainment also announced a new TV package, with Supercross moving from Fox Sports to NBC Sports Network. All 17 rounds of the 2019 Monster Energy Supercross we be shown on NBCSN, 12 of them live and the others same-day or next-day delayed. Additionally, all rounds and all qualifying races can be seen live via the NBC Sports Gold app for a subscription fee. Event tickets are available online.
Get your fantasy racing team lined up because the gate drops on Anaheim One Saturday.