Just when we thought the Supercross debate couldn’t get hotter, it went nuclear.
This weekend? Potential mutiny. The season finale hasn’t actually mattered since 2011, when eventual champion Ryan Villopoto entered with a nine-point lead over Chad Reed. This weekend, Ryan Dungey rolls into Las Vegas with a nine-point gap over Eli Tomac, who fought all season to overcome a 29-point deficit, only to give a third of it back in one disastrous race in New Jersey.
In a championship season that has taken more twists than a Twizzler, the scenario I couldn’t have foreseen is the one where Ryan Dungey loses even if he wins. It’s been that strange of a year. If popular online opinion chose the 2017 Monster Energy Supercross Champion, Tomac, the Kawasaki-riding, camouflage-wearing, elk-hunting, risk-it-all racer, who has won nine (more than half!) of the 16 points-paying main events run so far, would be the overwhelming favorite.
The worst of the vitriolic (and horrendously spelled) venom being spewed online labels Dungey as a fake champion who hasn’t earned a single one of his seven national Supercross and motocross titles going back to 2009. Something tells me, however, that Ryan Dungey doesn’t care too much about the comments being left on his Instagram account this week.
Attitudes toward the top two riders in the series were only just beginning to calm down following the dustup over the Chad Reed/Dungey situation from St. Louis on April 1. That incident showed a clear split in support. There was plenty of animosity for Reed’s interference but just as much for Dungey, who was labeled by many fans as a crybaby.
At the penultimate round of the series on Saturday, the hatred ramped up when Dungey’s teammate, Marvin Musquin, made a “mistake" on the final lap of the race, giving Dungey another three championship points going into Las Vegas. Tomac, meanwhile, found a piece of Kryptonite when he fell in the Jersey soil three laps into the race. He fumbled his way to an eighth place, his worst finish since his 15th at round six.
The “rules” on team orders
In searching for the most sensible of reactions from fans, what I found was acrimony at KTM and its riders for not simply owning up to the fact that team orders were in play. (Skip to 2:05 in the video to see “the moment.”)
"That sweeper, that rut was really difficult. It was hard to feel the front end right here and I made a mistake. At the end, it’s a KTM that wins so it’s good for us,” said Musquin in the press conference. That explanation made it even worse for fans who feel like the series they love is rigged.
Team orders are as old as racing. It happens in Formula One, NASCAR, cycling, etc. Auto racing has had to implement rules about deliberately crashing to cause caution flags with intent to help out other drivers. Ricky Carmichael and Kevin Windham both weighed in on Musquin’s move on Twitter, not so much in support of, but to let fans know that this type of stuff happens. In 1990 Honda even benched a rider who was not willing to help out a teammate in a close battle with a rider of another brand.
That was a good business decision by Musquin. 😂😂😂— Ricky Carmichael (@RickyCarmichael) April 30, 2017
Not 1factory racer hasnt been told that if ucan help teammate out, then do it 4 championship. Few r in a position like MM25 #partofthesport— Kevin Windham (@kdub_14) May 1, 2017
The question of whether it’s legal isn’t so simple. There are five areas of the 2017 AMA Rulebook that could be applied to what happened Saturday night:
Section 4.16 “On Track Regulations” -
I. During a race or qualifying session, a rider must always attempt to succeed. If not, he or she shall not be allowed to continue the race or qualifying session and may be penalized by the Race Director.
Appendix 2: General Offenses and Penalties
This section outlines actions that are deemed to be detrimental to the sport of motorcycle racing and which may result in a range of disciplinary actions.
3. Abetting or knowingly engaging in any race in which the result is "fixed" or prearranged.
5. Accepting or offering to accept any bribe in any form from any person in an attempt to circumvent AMA Supercross, an FIM World Championship rules or procedures or to otherwise gain an unfair advantage.
9. Engaging in any unfair practice, misbehavior or action detrimental to the sport of motorcycling in general, whether or not related to a specific competition event.
22. Any other act or actions deemed by the Race Director to be detrimental to the sport of motorcycle racing and the competent bodies.
For an explanation on what all this means, I called Race Director, John Gallagher. One of the intents of the rule from section 4.16 is to prevent riders from waiting on the track to retaliate against other riders. The leader is in control of the race. Is it technically illegal to deliberately allow a teammate to pass as long as he’s not directly interfering with other competitors? Gallagher doesn’t say yes or no but he says that even if he were to try to penalize KTM, it would be impossible to 100 percent prove Musquin didn’t make a mistake and an appeal would surely fall to the team’s favor. This is why it’s best for Musquin to maintain that he made a mistake. Even if Marvin or KTM were to outright admit team to team orders, Gallagher said he still isn’t sure what would happen, but he’s confident it will be discussed in future meetings.
Red Bull KTM’s Team Manager Roger DeCoster isn’t going to admit anything either, but the five-time World MXGP champion might just deserve a lifetime achievement award as he prepares to win his sixth Monster Energy Supercross title as a race team leader for Suzuki and KTM. On the same day he and KTM re-signed Musquin to a two-year contract extension, they needed that same rider to gift three points to a teammate. Amazing.
“I think Marvin, he didn’t know what to do,” DeCoster told VitalMX’s Steve Giberson after the race in New Jersey. “I think he was more concerned about Ryan’s race than his own race."
But what about Tomac?
What’s not being discussed is what in the hell happened to Eli Tomac? In his first-ever Supercross race with sole possession of the red number plate, which indicates he is the points leader, he was as off key as a soprano with a head cold. One week prior, he came from 20th place to first in only 18 (of 27) laps. More than just fast, he seemed to be encased in a force field doused with Raid bug spray. The riders he encountered on his march to the front just withered as he approached.
In New Jersey, he fell in a left-hander while leading and didn’t react like someone desperate to win his first 450SX championship. He wasn’t disoriented (he didn’t hit his head) but he was definitely slow. Only 2:19 into the race, it took him 17 seconds to ride away from the moment he hit the ground. The Chicago Blackhawks won the 2013 NHL Stanley Cup by scoring two goals in 17 seconds late in the third period of game six. I’ve seen kids solve Rubik’s Cubes in less than 17 seconds. That's an eternity in a race and 15 riders passed him. When he did get moving again, he lacked the fire and urgency he had shown since he won his first race of the season at round four (Phoenix).
For the first time since round six in Arlington, Texas, Tomac failed to set the fastest lap time in the main event (he was third fastest). He was also only fourth fastest in overall qualifying and finished fourth in his heat race.
Obviously, the only thing left for Tomac to do now is win this weekend. While “1” is the only number on ET3’s mind, here is a list of other very important numbers to note while you’re watching the race on Saturday night:
4: This is where Dungey must finish in order to win the championship if Tomac wins. Fourth place is worth 18 points vs. 25 for a win. That means Dungey would win the title by two points, which would further enrage the fans angry about the three points Musquin allegedly handed over.
6: The number of KTM and Husqvarna riders currently in the top eight of the points standings. Musquin and Jason Anderson (HSQ) train with Dungey under Aldon Baker, who is exclusive to KTM and Husqvarna riders. Basically, if Dungey finds himself outside the top four late in the race, this could get interesting.
51: The number of consecutive top-four finishes by Dungey. The last time Dungey finished worse than fourth was more than three years ago (seventh, April, 2014, East Rutherford).
9: This is how many races Tomac has won heading into Las Vegas. If he gets a 10th win but doesn’t clinch the championship, he will set a new record for the most season victories without winning the title. In 1992, Damon Bradshaw won nine races and lost the title by three points to Jeff Stanton.
0: The number of times Ryan Dungey has needed to compete in the final round to clinch any of his six 450 class championships in Supercross or motocross. This will be the first time he’s had to go down to the wire.
1976: The last time Yamaha didn’t finish with at least one rider in the top 10 of the premiere class points standings. Chad Reed is tied for ninth place but with an unfortunate night, he could easily fall to 11th overall.
My unsolicited opinion
Those questioning whether Dungey “deserves” this championship should also ask if Tomac does. When Ken Roczen won the opening two rounds, Tomac was back in fifth and sixth. If Roczen hadn't been injured at round three, would Tomac still have won nine races?
Nobody ever said Jeff Stanton didn’t deserve his title in 1992 when Damon Bradshaw won nine races but could only muster fifth in the final round. He didn’t need help from a teammate, but Stanton was far from the fastest. He only won three main events that season.
There was no social media in 1992, either.
Ryan Dungey will one day be inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame whether he wins the championship or not on Saturday night. Those who feel he hasn’t always been the fastest rider have a valid argument. He hasn’t. Motorcycle racing, however, isn’t a 100-yard dash. The fastest doesn’t always win the title. Consistency is not as exciting but neither is surgery on broken bones, something Dungey has experienced very little of in his career.
It’s not sexy or flashy, but I also know that you have to be in it to win it.