For as long as I can remember, I’ve associated January with a distinctive male voice heard on the radio and television. As my mother drove me to school or during my father’s evening ritual of TV zone-out, a guttural tone — achieved only, I imagine, by speaking with a mouthful of rocks — would instantly grab our attention: “Sunday, Sunday, Sunday,” it would grunt. “Supercross is back at Anaheim 1 with the fastest riders, the biggest jumps, and the best action of the year.”
To a Southern California kid, this voice was prophetic. “I need to go see this Supercross stuff,” I’d decide. Alas, my parents lacked sufficient interest in extreme sports to heed my entreaties to go. Instead, they preferred to take me to Europe (the nerve). And so, time marched on. The mystique of Supercross held my attention for a while, but eventually, I too lost interest.
Then something remarkable happened: I attended a race.
Anaheim 1 is both the kickoff to the Supercross season and arguably the most exciting stop on the sport’s U.S. tour. Around 45,000 fans pile into a transformed Angel Stadium to watch the most talented 250cc and 450cc dirt bike riders duke it out. Each year, the course layout changes, assuring new thrills for fans and new challenges for riders. It’s fitting this is the stage — right in my own backyard — for my first Supercross experience.
My itinerary for the event is a bit unusual. True to the iconic announcer’s message, race day is Sunday, but I’m here on a Saturday. Why? Seven-time AMA Supercross champion and five-time AMA Motocross champion, Ricky Carmichael, has agreed to teach a few members of the media how to ride dirt bikes. Not only am I attending the best event of the season; I’m learning to ride from the nicknamed GOAT (Greatest Of All Time).
As I suit up in boots, pants, gloves, goggles, helmet, and jersey, I can’t help but notice the lack of padding in each rider’s uniform. Flying 20-feet off the ground or barreling into a corner surrounded by dozens of competing riders takes guts — even more so without protection. For a case study on what can happen when things go wrong, look at Ken Roczen, the Honda team rider who shattered his arm in a crash last season. In my case, the danger level is rather low. I am, after all, mostly concerned with staying upright.
The man who needs no introduction offers a friendly welcome before diving into the basics of dirt bike riding. Carmichael shows us how to operate the bikes before sharing some critical tips for riding on dirt. Balance while cornering, judicious use of the front brake, and smooth throttle input are his emphasized takeaways. Following our riding demo, Carmichael and his helpers let us choose between standard-size 125cc dirt bikes and “pocket” 49cc motos.
Given my decade of experience on street bikes, I choose the big boy ride. Sure enough, operating the gears and working the clutch is a cinch. Things get a bit trickier when negotiating corners. Years of riding on tarmac has me somewhat addicted to grip, however dirt bikes operate largely on a sliding scale of no grip to very little.
Slowly, I allow the bike to slide more and more, gaining speed and confidence. At this point, Ricky motions for me to pull over. “Your front tire is washing out a bit. Try using more rear brake for better control mid-corner,” he instructs. Dutifully, I follow the legend’s commands, and sure enough, the bike’s rear kicks around nicely to tighten the corner.
Thirty minutes later, the session ends. Good thing, too — I’m exhausted. Tomorrow, I’ll see how the pros manage, but for now, I’m feeling rather self-assured.
It’s amazing how quickly your perspective can change when faced with overwhelming truth. Yesterday, I thought I had a good grasp of Supercross. Today, watching riders pass each other in mid-air and funnel from 22-wide to a single-file arrangement in corners, my confidence is crumbling.
My view of the qualifiers, heats, and finals for 250SX and 450SX classes starts on the third level of Angel Stadium with a clear view of the entire field. From here, I can see battles for position all over the track. Riders are especially tenacious thanks to this year’s elimination of semi-finals racing, thereby refining the number of opportunities for each rider to make it to the main event. Also new this year is the introduction of Triple Crown events, where main event finishes at three venues over the course of the season (Anaheim 1 being the first) determine a victor (separate from the championship title).
Following the 250SX main event, where Shane McElrath notched his second consecutive win at the Anaheim opener, our small media contingent walks down to field level and on towards the center of the track. Here, a small stage sits in the shadow of the start/finish jump. This VIP trackside suite offers an entirely unique — and infinitely more impressive — view of the action.
From this vantage point, I watch each 450SX rider shake out his pre-race jitters, say a quick prayer, or otherwise contain his nerves as he waits for the starting grid gate to descend. When the countdown hits zero, every bike digs into the metal grate (another change for 2018) and rockets towards the first corner. This is the main event and everyone wants the podium.
For much of the race, it looks like Eli Tomac will pick up where he left off last season (where he finished just four points down on champ Ryan Dungey) with a victory at Anaheim, but a mistimed jump on the seventh lap bucks him off his bike as a dozen riders pass by. From here, it’s a battle between Jason Anderson, Justin Barcia, and Marvin Musquin.
Musquin, following up a million-dollar victory in the Monster Energy Cup, secures the win at Anaheim, but it’s Ken Roczen who impresses me most. It’s been almost a year since his last competition, his arm isn’t fully healed, and he settled into 12th place after the first corner of the race, yet he manages a fourth-place finish.
In a way, Roczen’s performance sums up my view on the sport of Supercross. I had completely ruled it out as worthy of my attention, but out of nowhere, it’s blown me away. You can be sure, the next time ol’ gravel-mouth heralds the start of the season, I’ll be ready for more.