Empire of Dirt
It’s been since 1990 that teammates ran 1-2 this late in an AMA Supercross Championship. At that time, it was Team Honda’s Jean-Michel Bayle and Jeff Stanton. Now, it’s Red Bull KTM’s Marvin Musquin and Cooper Webb.
Back in 1990, Stanton ended up beating Bayle by seven points for the title, but it sparked a rivalry that has become legendary. Stanton and Bayle hated each other’s guts. Bayle was an astonishing talent on a motorcycle and could do things Stanton couldn’t ever dream of doing, while Stanton had the heart of a lion and had to defeat Bayle by sheer force of will—when he could beat him at all. With Bayle being so good on a motorcycle, he would often find settings during testing that worked well, and then he would sit and watch while Honda gave those same settings to Stanton. He was employed by Honda, after all, and Honda didn’t care who won as long as Honda won. This took away one of Bayle’s weapons for defeating Stanton—the ability to create a perfect base-setup. By 1991, Bayle figured out a way to use it to his advantage. He’d test new chassis/suspension settings, and if they were didn’t work, he’d say they were great, and Honda would give Stanton those settings. Bayle was so talented that he could still be competitive, and win races, on these settings, but Stanton had a much harder time.
Bayle ended up winning a record (at the time) eight supercross races in 1991 to take that title, and he retired from motocross after the 1992 season having proven his point, then went road racing. Stanton won the 1992 title, then retired after the arrival of a young man named Jeremy McGrath—once again, on the same team, but there was no stopping “Showtime” for anybody.
However, there are a few key differences between Honda in the early ’90s and KTM today. First, Honda was pitted out of individual box vans, so the racers didn’t have to share a common area at the races. The big-rigs began showing up in 1992, starting with Kawasaki. Bayle and Stanton would’ve never even thought about training together, and even if they did, Stanton would’ve run the Frenchman into the ground. Stanton was a bulldog and went at everything head-on, so he needed to be strong and fit, but Bayle was all about finesse, so he didn’t need the fitness Stanton had (and neither did McGrath). However, today, trainer Aldon Baker has an exclusive contract with the KTM/Husqvarna motorcycle group to train their racers, so Webb and Musquin train together, practice together, etc. This is a much tougher situation for these guys to deal with nowadays, because no matter how much a racer smiles and congratulates their rivals, on the inside, every single one of them wants to strangle their competitors any time they lose.
Many 450SX race teams have a definite top racer, and then one or two other racers who are less of a focus for the team. In many ways, in hiring Cooper Webb, KTM expected he’d be a really solid number-two guy, but credit to KTM for not treating Webb like he’s less important than his teammate Musquin, who has been with the team for a decade. Some teams wouldn’t bother doing much special testing with the number-two guy, but KTM treated the two like equals in that regard. The result is what we have now: Both of them fighting it out for the title.
It’s also a credit to KTM that their team works together so well. There have been mechanics for top-tier racers who have sabotaged the second-tier racer’s motorcycle during testing to make sure they retained the status of being the mechanic for the top racer on the team, or even to make sure they looked smart to the team brass. However, that’s a subject for a future column.
The point is, there is a lot of jealousy and self-interest on any team, and for a team to work well, it takes all of the members of that team to set that stuff aside and work in harmony, being more loyal to the team than to their racer. That’s not always a given, but KTM has it.
The question is, though, where does KTM go from here? We have Marvin Musquin, who waited patiently as the team’s number-two guy for Ryan Dungey to retire, then became the number-one guy. Now, he’s in the last year of his KTM contract, and one could definitely argue that Webb has overtaken him as the team’s number-one guy, since he’s got a 21-point lead in the title chase (at press time, prior to the Denver Supercross) with only three rounds left in the series. Everything about the team is familiar to him; he knows the people, he knows the motorcycles, he knows the trainer and the training regimen, and all of that could go out the window if he leaves KTM. The only option to keep much of this intact, without staying at Red Bull KTM, is for him to move to Husqvarna, but the Rockstar Energy Husqvarna team already has the 2018 450cc Supercross champ on its roster there, too.
So, maybe Musquin will stay, but then again, perhaps he’ll end up on a Japanese team for the first time in a decade, but which one? Honda’s got Ken Roczen, and likely they’ll still want to keep him. Eli Tomac just signed a new contract with Kawasaki (rumor has it that the exit of the team’s crew chief, Mike Williamson, was a prerequisite for Tomac to sign back on), so he’s not going anywhere. That leaves JGR Suzuki and Yamaha. Yamaha is unlikely, since Justin Barcia is in the first year of a three-year deal there, and Aaron Plessinger has a multi-year contract with the team, too. So, Suzuki?
However, there’s a lot of racing between here and there. CN