Empire of Dirt
What Just Happened?
Back in February, I wrote a column discussing the arrival of the Cooper Webb Era.
Three months later, he’s the 2019 Monster Energy AMA Supercross Champion. This is an unusual occurrence in myriad ways, starting with the fact that before this year he had never won a single 450SX Supercross. I believe he might have only had one podium in his first two injury-riddled 450cc seasons. On top of that, it’s his first year on a new team and a completely new motorcycle. Frequently, in the first year on a new bike, it can take a season to sort things out before a racer is really able to compete for a title.
There wasn’t a much “normal” about the 2019 Supercross season. Some stuff was downright bizarre.
Webb got a little bit of a gift when both his teammate Marvin Musquin (knee) and title favorite Eli Tomac (back) were injured before the start of the season. This gave him a little more time than he might have usually had to build a head of steam as two of the top athletes in the sport came into the season at less than 100 percent. There’s also Ken Roczen who came down with a mysterious illness just past the halfway point in the series and defending champ Jason Anderson getting hurt and exiting the championship after a mostly lackluster start to the series.
But the truth is, that stuff may not have mattered at all. Webb may have done exactly what he did anyway. And what Webb did was put up 13 podium finishes (seven of them victories) in 17 rounds. On top of that, he had just two crashes in main events all season long, and both of them came in the first five races: He fell in the first turn at Anaheim 1, and he fell in the mud in San Diego. That’s it!
And down the stretch, Webb showed he thrives under pressure, consistently grabbing holeshots, wins and podiums in less-than-ideal situations. His ability to perform under pressure is why I said back in February that this could be the start of the Cooper Webb Era. I know I’m counting chickens before they hatch, but nobody else—at least right now—has Webb’s mental strength. Nobody.
But the one thing I didn’t factor into my thoughts of this new era was Eli Tomac getting his motorcycle/team situation straightened out and returning to the ridiculous, blistering speed he had become known for in the past. Tomac certainly hasn’t ever shown the mental strength that Webb has, but when he’s on, and his setup is on, Tomac can get around a racetrack faster than anybody on the planet. After a shakeup within the team, Tomac won three of the last four races of the year, and he fell twice (in the same spot) in the one he lost (New Jersey, where he got third after two crashes), but was outright faster than anybody there, too.
If this is the new normal for Tomac, it may not matter how mentally strong Webb is. Speed like Tomac’s is undeniable.
But all that said, here’s the thing that blew my mind more than anything during this particular AMA Supercross series: I thought for sure we were witnessing a return to the top for Mitch Payton’s Monster Energy/Pro Circuit Kawasaki team. They had everything together like they haven’t had in a decade, or maybe longer. Adam Cianciarulo, at 175 pounds, was ripping holeshots, and it seemed like the only guy who could beat Cianciarulo in the West was AC himself. The same could be said for his East-coast cohort, Austin Forkner. Somehow, the Pro Circuit team won 11 of the 17 rounds (five each for Forkner and Cianciarulo, and one for Martin Davalos in the race where Forkner blew out his knee (Nashville) but still managed to come away without adding any more number-one plates to the PC team’s hauler doors.
Racing is a cruel mistress.
Forkner would’ve likely been a contender for the outdoor title, too, but he’s out until his knee works again.
In hindsight, those titles should’ve gone to Forkner and Cianciarulo solely for the fact that Cianciarulo was ready to move up to the 450cc class in 2020. (He may stay down another year now to collect that elusive title.) And Forkner has been around long enough that defending his title in 2020 would’ve left him well prepared for the move to the 450cc class in 2021. But now, because of this ridiculous rule that causes racers to “point out” of the 250cc class, the two new 250SX champions—Chase Sexton and Dylan Ferrandis—who have a total of four years of supercross experience between them, will be forced to move up to the 450cc class in 2021.
There may not even be 450cc factory rides available in 2021 for either of them. Roczen just signed a new three-year deal that carries him through 2022, and Tomac’s deal is at least through 2021. Barcia’s deal at Yamaha takes him through 2021, and KTM isn’t letting Webb go any time soon, either.
A lot can happen between now and the end of the 2020 racing season, but it’s possible that Forkner’s injury and Cianciarulo’s Vegas crash could effectively seriously disrupt the careers of the guys—Sexton and Ferrandis—who took the titles they were supposed to win. Ferrandis is in his mid-20s and has been around a while so he may be fine, but Sexton is unlikely to be ready for the 450cc class by 2021 regardless of whether rides are available or not.
But, at least for now, all of this is water under the bridge, because this coming weekend is Hangtown, and everybody gets to hit the reset button (if they’re healthy) and get after it all over again. CN