SEEING RED: Roczen dominates the track, but KTM dominates the podium
Anaheim, CA - After months of waiting, preparation, stress, hard work, sweat, tears (you know how it goes). One of the most important nights in the motocross calendar finally rolled around – the season opener of Monster Energy Supercross.
After a week of dreary, rainy conditions teams and fans alike were uncertain how the weather would impact the track for A1. With the work of the Feld crew, the track was kept dry and carefully maintained to try and achieve optimum conditions for one of the biggest nights of the year.
Coming into Anaheim, there was a buzz of excitement and anticipation as riders had made recent announcements of new equipment and new teams. One of the biggest announcements included Ken Roczen’s move to HRC Honda for the 2017 season. While fans buzzed about what this might mean, some other important changes may have been overlooked. Justin Brayton and Davi Millsaps have joined the newly formed HARD TOP JT Racing Honda team. Ronnie Stewart and the Microbilt team have gone full pro with their very own semi and race set up. Jeremy Martin is now riding under Geico Honda, Trey Canard has gone orange with Factory KTM, Cooper Webb has moved up to the 450 class (and factory Yamaha) – and Malcolm Stewart and Dean Wilson are both flying solo, Stewart was not in attendance, and Wilson was pitting alone.
With all of these new, unknown elements coming into play, A1 is the defining moment that sets the tone for the season. A1 is the single event that can determine whether these changes will be for the better, or could be the start of an uphill climb for some riders.
The 2017 Monster Energy Supercross season opener kicked off with its world-famous pit party. Thousands of fans streamed into the pits at Angel Stadium at noon and spent hours drooling over bikes, rigs, and waiting for a chance to meet their heroes. As the pit party raged on, riders made their way to the track for qualifying.
It was obvious that many of the riders were affected by the sanctioned decision to cut free practice due to the condition of the track. Without the time at practice, riders did not have the additional time to familiarize themselves with the distance and size of the jumps and elements of the track. During the first few laps of qualifying, some riders struggled with over and undershot jumps and sections of the track as they searched for fast lines. As qualifying continued, the riders got more comfortable, and spectators began to see the full speed of the athletes. In the 450 qualifying group, Marvin Musquin and Ken Roczen grappled for fastest lap time – but many fans were rooting for “the most underrated privateer in motocross” TPJ Fly Racing team rider Nick Schmidt – who had the fastest qualifying time of 450 group B.
In the 250 qualifying, it was unclear if there was one rider who stood out among the rest. Aaron Plessinger showed a lot of aggression and speed; Martin Davalos had a consistent smoothness around the track, and other riders like Shane Mcelrath and Austin Forkner just looked plain fast.
As riders headed back to their pits, they worked feverishly to make adjustments for the night show and the track conditions. Fans funneled into the stadium and waited anxiously for the event to begin.
The night show kicked off with a powerful moment of respect for the national anthem and the flag. As the last of the fireworks lit up the stadium, the 250 class riders stacked in the gate for the night ahead.
The 250 class was expected to be a tight match after Shane Mcelrath and Rockstar Energy Husqvarna rider Martin Davalos dominated their respective heat races. Other riders like Mitchell Oldenburg, Star Racing Yamaha rider Aaron Plessinger and Pro Circuit Kawasaki rider Austin Forkner showed a lot of speed and skill that could’ve potentially spelled trouble for the seemingly untouchable heat race winners. The 250 main had an incredible ignition as Davalos broke away from the pack after a clustered start. But not long into the race Troy Lee Designs KTM rider Shane Mcelrath would take advantage of an opening and run away with the race – taking it all the way to the finish. Davalos and Plessinger would continue to battle behind Mcelrath as he slipped away. Plessinger would ride to second place and Davalos slid into third. The real story may have been the rookie-phenom Austin Forkner, who front flipped over his Pro Circuit Kawasaki and still rode his way to a top ten finish. While the podium at A1 may be set in stone, at this point it is unclear if any one rider will truly stand alone in the 250 class. With a stacked and fast field of talented athletes, we may see any given rider on the podium each weekend.
Fans waited on the edge of their seats to watch the 450 class battles to begin at Angel Stadium. With so many of their favorite riders on new bikes and teams, no one knew what could happen. In the semis, fans watched as one or two riders broke away from the pack and went on to take solid wins. However, the LCQ had fans on their feet as several privateer riders battled with the likes of Factory Kawasaki rider Josh Grant and Factory KTM rider Trey Canard. Fans were on their feet as TPJ Fly Racing rider Nick Schmidt made advances on Trey Canard to make a pass eventually and rode wildly to try and catch Josh Grant in the short LCQ race.
All of the day’s events came down to the final 450 main event. As the fire split the sky under the “Big A” and the gate hit the mud, fans saw nothing but a blur of mud and colorful plastics as the world’s best riders charged for the first turn. From the blur came a flash of red, and HRC Honda rider Ken Roczen took off ahead of the competition. For the first lap, Musquin would be hot on Roczen’s rear tire, but Roczen would slip out of reach. Musqiun would continue to try and real him in until he was passed up in a strategic move by Eli Tomac. It seemed like no one would catch him as he stretched his lead, but the crowd roared as Factory Kawasaki's Eli Tomac began to advance on the leader a quarter of the way through the race. Fans cheered on the Kawasaki rider in hopes that he might cut Roczen’s lead short, but halfway through the race Tomac began to slip back into the pack – succumbing to the advances of KTM Factory riders Marvin Musquin and Ryan Dungey. Defending Supercross champion Ryan Dungey was caught in the chaos of the start and began picking off riders throughout the race, advancing through the crowd every lap until he set his sights on his teammate, Musquin. Musquin’s careful riding would hold Dungey off and let Roczen slip further away, but a strategic pass by Dungey sent the crowd into a frenzy as he slipped into second place and Musquin fell to third. The top three riders seemed to be running their races, Roczen weaving his way through lap traffic and the KTM pair fighting with each other. After a strong first half, Tomac fell to fifth place, behind Rockstar Energy Husqvarna rider Jason Anderson. Factory Yamaha rider Cooper Webb was under a lot of pressure coming into the first round as a 450 class rookie and one of the youngest riders on the track, but he proved that he has the guts. After a rough start, Webb made his way through the pack of seasoned 450 riders and grabbed a spot in the top ten. It was a rough night for other riders like Mike Alessi who was carried off the track after a gnarly crash in the second half of the 450 main.
At the end of the night it was Ken Roczen on the top of the box in the 450 class. But it may have been KTM who took the real victory. With two riders on the podium in the 450 class who showed a great deal of consistency and smooth riding as well as the two extremely fast riders on the TLD KTM team (one of which one A1) – KTM is definitely increasing their chances of winning yet another Monster Energy Supercross championship. As the season goes on, it is likely that we may see a very familiar group of people on the podium – but only time will tell. It was safe to say that as the 450 riders crammed into the first turn – all they saw was red.