Eli Tomac | AMA Pro Motocross 450 Champion
It was anything but a cruise-control year for Eli Tomac, but tough determination and gritting performance netted the now-veteran motocross the 2017 outdoor 450 MX Championship.
On Saturday afternoon, August 26, 2017, Monster Energy Kawasaki race Eli Tomac flashed across the finish line at Ironman Raceway in Crawfordsville, Indiana, to complete the second and final moto of the AMA Pro Racing season, and upon doing so, fulfilled a lifelong dream of winning a 450cc-based championship. 2017 was something of a torrid racing year for the 24 year-old from Colorado, replete with dramatic ups and downs and moments that could be, depending on the day, triumphant and heartbreaking. Nonetheless, in his eighth year of professional racing, he kept pushing and kept punching, losing one title by way of an ill-timed miscue in New Jersey and winning another by keeping to the plot both he and Kawasaki had meticulously crafted and fine-tuned as the months went by.
“I would say that other than Supercross, where we barely missed that championship, it has been a year of a lot more ups than downs,” said Eli Tomac a few days after the running of the 2017 Monster Energy Cup, which is where and when the interview you are about to cast your eyes upon took place. “It was a very positive year and we were happy with everything and all of our teams worked well together. Everything went smoothly the whole year. And to win the 450MX championship is what I’ve dreamed of and what I’ve looked up to as a kid. Getting a 450 championship is the top pedestal of the sport. It was great for us to get it done and 2017 will be an awesome year to look back on.”
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By Eric Johnson
PHOTOGRAPHY BY STEVE COX AND HOPPENWORLD.COM
Eli, 2017 is now in the books. A very broad stroke question here, but all things considered, what do you think about the year that was for you?
Well, as a whole, 2017 was a pretty good success with Supercross and having nine wins and barely missing out on that championship. And winning the motocross championship and getting a podium at the MXGP was also very good. The only thing I would have liked to close out a heck of a lot better was the Monster Energy Cup. You saw what happened there! But as a whole, 2017 was a pretty big success for us.
At the Monster Energy Cup I was standing on top of that locker room section and looking down on Monster Alley when you came flying down toward the stadium, got sideways and went flying. It was a pretty high-speed miscue. Did the bike just skip out on you?
Yeah, it was kind of funny. The lap before I was actually a little more in the middle of that section where there was actually more mud. On the next lap I went outside to bounce off of a little bit of a cushion of dirt there and it didn’t hold me at all. I thought there was more there and the back end stepped out and that was it.
Your team guys said that you bonked your head a bit in the fall and even cracked the back of your helmet. True?
Yeah, I hit my head pretty good. Luckily, everything else was fine. It’s never good to hit your head, but yeah, I was a little dingy after that crash, for sure.
2017 was your second year with the Monster Energy Kawasaki race team. You’ve spoken before about what a major and sweeping change the 2016 season was as everything was so radically new. How was everything going into this new season back in January?
Yeah, there was a lot of change. The first year was just a whole year of learning each other. You had super high extractions, for one, and we obviously should have. But it was learning. It was learning each other. You learn what fits in the right place and what works for you and what works for them. You know you have to work as a team and that’s when you have the best results. We did that pretty good this year. We finally got in a good position and it showed with results. It’ll be nice to also take that into the 2018 season, you know?
The Monster Energy Kawasaki race team is, for all intents and purposes, built around you. To that end, it takes a crew of upwards of 17 people to get you and the works KX450F out on that track and running competitively. There is a lot of pressure that goes along with all that. The crew of people around you and the bike reminds more of a MotoGP team now than a motocross team.
It really is. There is someone specifically assigned to a certain position on the motorcycle—from suspension to ECU and chassis and engine. And then you have mechanics. There is a mechanic for every big hard part on that motorcycle. Then you obviously have the rider and the managers. It’s a massive group effort to go out there and run a successful team.
And there is a lot of pressure on a rider such as yourself to get the results for the team and the company, isn’t there?
Yeah, you know there is the pressure there, but for me, I enjoy that pressure. I love it when you’re on the start line and you’re expected to win. For me, it’s a good thing and, yes, it can wear on you, but, hey, that’s what separates the best guys.
Downshifting a bit and going back to the beginning of the 2017 Monster Energy Supercross Series, you started the season off with a fifth at Anaheim, a sixth in San Diego and an eighth back at Anaheim. It took you a little while to get up to speed.
Yeah, it did. Those first three rounds were actually really disappointing because we had great preparation leading up to Anaheim. We put plenty of laps in, we were healthy and I could get through those 20-minute motos just fine on the practice track. Once that race situation came around a lot of things popped up that didn’t pop up at the racetrack. And we learned from that. We learned that you have to go test in different environments for your bike set-up and to be prepared for all conditions, and that was something that I wasn’t prepared for. As soon as we went and expanded our program and went and tested at a different track, and just like that it was like a flip of the switch and we started clicking off race wins from there.
What did you make of Ken Roczen’s amazing speed he displayed right from the drop of the gate at the opening Anaheim round?
He was obviously at the top of his game before he crashed, but now it’s going to be a big hurdle for him to get back. I had to step over a big hurdle in 2015 when I hurt my shoulders. It takes a while to get back going full steam again.
After you won your first race of the season at round four over in Phoenix, you immediately fired off nine wins in the next 11 races. Everything just seemed to click for you and the team.
Yeah, and the first one is the hardest one. Once you get that first one, then you believe. And once you start believing, you just keep rolling. And as long as you don’t make that mistake, like I said, it gets easier and you have more confidence and you’re literally clicking. That was that position that we all hope to be in.
Like at the Salt Lake City round. It’s pretty rare these days when a rider comes flying through the pack to win like you did that night.
Yeah, that was exciting. That was cool because, for one, the 450 class is so deep now. And you don’t see that very often now—you know, for a guy to come through the pack. That was awesome at Salt Lake. If you can do that, you know you’re pinning it.
And the penultimate round at East Rutherford, New Jersey. That obviously didn’t go as planned. What happened?
Yeah, the New Jersey race, to be honest, we were struggling a little bit throughout the day. It was a softer tack and had more of a spongey surface. I was struggling with comfort kind of all day. Come race time we actually got in a little bit better position and in the main event, shoot, we actually came out around top three and got into the lead for about two laps or so and then I had a tip over in a turn and because it was early in the race, I was at the back of the pack.
I just struggled. It was really disappointing. Especially after the weekend we had the week before at Salt Lake. New Jersey was probably one of the hardest days that I’ve ever had as a professional racer because we were so close and I knew we couldn’t get those points from Dungey.
It took you a little while to get rolling after you tipped over. Were you stunned a bit when you went down?
I was. For one, I knew it was bad because when you crash on, say, lap two, there is still a train of guys all lined up, basically. You go down early and you’re getting passed by 15 guys instead of three guys or whatever. That’s a position you don’t want to be in, so yeah, that was bad.
Then the final round of the series at Las Vegas. You wanted to win and the Red Bull KTM team wanted to play it safe for Ryan Dungey and to, understandably, protect what they had.
Yeah, I mean that was tough to see how there were some team tactics. I mean there were even some team tactics after that crash I had and at the end of that race in New York. Going into Vegas, that was already a monster and all that kind of added to it. We were just going all out for that race. We tried everything we could and that was to get out front early and maybe try cause a mistake by even bunching up the field. I literally tried to make it happen and I did everything I could without being completely crazy or getting disqualified. I did everything in my own power to do everything I could. But man, it came right down to it. That was something else.
On the upside of things, you won nine of the 17 races in the series. That’s an amazing number of victories.
It is. With the 450 class, like I said, there are a lot of good guys. There always is, but it seems like nowadays you don’t ever really get that total domination by one person. It was pretty cool that we were able to go out there and basically win half of the races, which was nine out of 17.
What your mindset, as well as the mindset of the team, leading into the opening round of the Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship at the Hangtown Classic? Talk about a second chance at a second season another shot at a 450 title.
For one, I obviously had a huge amount of motivation from the Supercross series. And two, we had a really good base. We were healthy and there was no nagging injury or anything and it was another year on the bike for me. We were already starting with a really good base. We went out to Hangtown and clicked off a one-one. It’s always good to make a statement there. We had very good preparation for motocross.
You didn’t hit the podium at the next three rounds at Glen Helen, Thunder Valley ad High Point. Nonetheless, you appeared to have things reasonably under control. How was that opening phase of the season for you?
It wasn’t total domination, but we were getting the job done. We were just trying to learn from our mistake in Supercross and not have those big hiccups, you know? We really just wanted to focus. Yeah, we did have a couple not-so-good rounds, but they weren’t really bad rounds like we had in one or two Supercross races. I tried to minimize that kind of thing and it ended up paying off. We did have a couple of good one-one days like at RedBud and Southwick. It was good.
How do you like racing two motos in a day? We all know Supercross has a main event, but to go out and perform at one hundred percent in two 35-minute races in heat, humidity, or anything else that is thrown at you is not an easy way to make a living.
Yeah, well, I always swing back and forth on this—whether I’m better at supercross or motocross. I like to say I’m pretty equal between the two. There are different challenges in each one. Motocross, it tests you differently and in a different way than supercross. Motocross is the endurance. Supercross is the big sprint. I mean now we are going 20 minutes there, so it’s really intense and long. Motocross, you know, it can really drain on you throughout those two motos, and you have the heat and humidity. It really shows the true grit there. I would say, yes, for motocross, I do enjoy those two motos.
During the twilight phase of the Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship you had a few off-song motos. Unadilla, in particular, comes to mind. Did any sort of fear creep into the back of your mind?
For us, our biggest hiccups I would say would have been at Unadilla. That was the mud race and at that race I was definitely in the management mode and that’s something I’m going to take away and learn from. At the end of the day you still have to go out there and just do your thing. And that day at Unadilla showed that I was in protection mode and I ended up going 10-5 and we had another big chunk of points taken out of us.
But I never had the doubt in my mind that we were going to lose it, like, say, we lost Supercross. I knew we could finish it off and I knew we had a good bike and my body was good. I knew we could get it done. There was definitely some panic around the team and everyone, but deep down inside I knew we could get it done after that race. You know, when you’re riding, you’re at your best when you’re not really thinking about anything else other than being in the zone and racing.
Anytime you get that second thought in your head of, “Oh gosh, don’t tip over! Don’t blow this moto!” When you have that mindset when you’re racing, it’s not a good thing. Those races you’re winning, you’re not really thinking about anything. It kind of sounds weird, but that’s actually when you do perform your best.
Winning the 450MX title, that really is a career achievement for you, isn’t it? I mean going back to when you were a kid racing minicycles, to win that big-bike title through all that you and your family put into the sport and through such deep commitment, really has to be something for you.
It is something. Especially when you look at the big picture and how long it took to actually get here. When you look at the big picture, and like you said, when you start riding when you’re four or five years and then you race all the amateur nationals and then you actually get to this point, it’s something else. Looking back now, I’m grateful for everything that’s happened.
The 2018 Monster Energy Motocross of Nations will take place at RedBud next October. Would you like to be a member of Team USA at the event?
I would. I would like to do it. The schedule does allow for us to kind of catch our breath after our supercross and motocross season, so if I do well enough and I do get chosen, then I will say, as of now, I would represent us and go race there. Yeah, that’s my answer for that! CN