2020 Monster Energy AMA Supercross Champion Eli Tomac Interview
“ET” finally got his long-awaited Supercross Championship. You knew it was going to happen. (But doubts were beginning to creep in, weren’t they?) But, really, it was just a matter of time. Well, that time is now.
By Eric Johnson
A few days before the teams of the Monster Energy AMA Supercross encroached upon Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City for what would be the final stretch of what was a somewhat calamitous and unprecedented Supercross season, 16-time AMA Champion Ricky Carmichael, ruminated about just what might be lurking in the immediate future.
“Well, it’s not charted waters,” the 16-time AMA champion said. “First and foremost, of what I can say is that whoever wins this championship, in my mind, will be and should be crowned as the winner of the hardest Monster Energy Supercross Series Championship in history because of what we’ve been faced with as far as the pandemic. Being in championship form and then having to be forced into a 12-week shutoff and then to now be forced to get right back into it, both mentally and physically, I feel, is going to be a really tough challenge. The guy that is able to do that the best and continue the consistency and the good racecraft and being up front when he needs to be up front, is going to be the guy who is going to be victorious. And I’ve been in some great championship battles throughout my career. 2006 comes to mind where it was basically winner-take-all at Vegas for the title, and I still think this is going to supersede that season as the greatest championship in supercross history. I’m excited, but at the same time, it’s uncharted waters for everybody.”
As we all know now, Eli Tomac and his Monster Energy Kawasaki Team, ended up barreling through those uncharted waters better than any, which resulted in the 27-year-old veteran racer from Colorado winning the 2020 Monster Energy AMA Supercross Championship for the first time in his career. He’s the 23rd different person to do so, and he is also the oldest to win the championship for the first time.
We spoke with Tomac over the Fourth of July weekend when he was kicking back at home, reflecting on what had to be one of the wildest and most bizarre Supercross title fights ever.
Now that you’ve had some time to think about it, what does it mean to you to be a Supercross Champion?
Oh, it’s everything. The 450 Supercross Championship is the pinnacle of our sport, I believe. So, man, it was everything to me. We’ve been so close two or three times and there were times where I was thinking in my head, ‘Man, will I ever get this done?’ It was so cool to finish it off. You look at the past history and guys haven’t won and it’s a relief, and there is some truth to that. When you look at the past and when you look at the statistics, guys haven’t won past age 26. We broke that track record. I’m the oldest guy to win his first championship in the premier class. Numbers are numbers and I was always competitive for wins, and I never settled. I always kept saying, ‘I don’t want to settle. I’ve gotten so many wins and not having a Supercross title has been a huge empty spot in my career.’ Yeah, sometimes you second guess it, but one thing for sure, we’ve been competitive, and we still won races and we got it done. Yeah, to win it was relief.
How are you now? Have you been able to catch your breath and reflect back on what shook out at Salt Lake City last month?
We’re great. Getting home was when it was so cool. That’s when we realized what we all accomplished as a team and with that good run we had at Salt Lake. It was awesome. It is so cool when you win as a team. It’s just that much better, you know? It was cool to see how excited everyone else was. It’s awesome when you can win as a team that way.
It is a team effort, isn’t it?
Oh yeah, it is a team effort. Once you go racing, it’s the racer, but there are so many hours spent in the shop. I think a lot of the riders don’t realize how many hours those guys put in the shop and all the commuting they do going in and out of the shop. It’s easy to overlook those guys. Later on, as you mature, you start to appreciate that stuff more. Salt Lake was unique with those two races a week, but our sport is different that way. We’re always riding and most of the time, it is in between the races where we are getting in our practice laps and fine-tuning things. I mean it was a perfect scenario for us that we were even able to just go racing. We were really fortunate to be able to go do that.
Salt Lake City seemed like the ideal place to finish it off like that.
Salt Lake City was a good place to have down time, and we could get outside, and we did have one track and a place to ride. And what was really cool about the Salt Lake thing was that we got really different conditions there even though we were stuck to one stadium. We had a hard-pack track, we had a dusty track, we had a late-night race, we had a muddy race, so even though we were stuck in one stadium, we had different surfaces and environments, so I think as a whole, it all went about as well as it could have.
What did you do in between races? You didn’t have a lot of down time with two races every week.
Day to day, it was a really good city to be in. We could do so much outside. There were great trails to go riding bicycles, and that’s what we mostly did. That was the unique situation with Salt Lake. I never did any practice laps because those race efforts were so big. I was like, ‘I’m going to keep myself fresh for the race days!’ I never felt rusty on the bike that way. And with the elevation, with us it wasn’t too bad. We have some of that in Colorado here, so I was able to do deal with that. For what it was, I think Salt Lake went really, really well as a whole, and I’m really glad we were able to finish those rounds off [there].
Your consistency, be it in Utah or throughout the entire 2020 series, was really remarkable. You won seven races and strung together and average finish of 2.5. You said earlier you were calmer and steadier this season, right?
Yeah, calm and steady, that’s what I really focused on this year. I didn’t want to have those huge swings, you know. I would be in those bad situations and not be able to recover, and this year I was a lot better at recovering in those situations. There were a few races there this year where I had to get back to the front, and we were able to do that and just maximize those bad race days. That’s what makes a difference. I mean you have to be so consistent to win the Supercross Championship now.
There were never really any bad nights for you this year, were there?
No. No, I look back and the only race I didn’t feel great at was Anaheim 1. After that, man, it was solid from there on out. Anaheim 1 was probably the only race where I kind of felt stuck and I couldn’t go forward. After that we kind of just got on a roll.
Round 10 at Daytona was a big win for you. How important was it getting that victory just before the pandemic kicked into high gear?
For one, I love that race. It’s just so cool. I look forward to that race every year. It’s one of the best races to win so there is always that motivation there to win that race, and it was good for the points swing, too. That was a big night between me and Ken [Roczen] and we came out on top in that one. That was an important moment. That was before we went on the delayed schedule. Daytona was a good moment at that point.
Then, almost immediately upon leaving Florida, everyone got sent home to ride out the coronavirus. What was all of that like for you?
As far as going home right after Daytona, it was unique and everyone was in the same boat, but what was difficult was the timing—the timing on knowing when we were going to go race and staying ready for that. That was the huge unknown for us. Then we got the call saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to go back to Supercross.’ That was only a two-week heads up when we got our official go time to go back to racing. That’s what was so gnarly about this championship.
You could’ve clinched the title at the penultimate round, but a bad start ultimately prevented that from happening. But you had an—another—amazing comeback. How important was that race?
What happened there was that I was starting on the inside, and I was being a little bit defensive on the start line. That didn’t pan out at all. A lot of times those situations don’t pan out, and I got shuffled back on the start, and I was way back there. I looked to the front and Cooper [Webb] and Ken were leading that race and I said to myself, ‘I cannot let these guys get away. I don’t want to give any of these guys any hope for that last race.’ That’s when I was super focused and said, ‘Let’s get this going.’ I made it all the way up to second by the end of the race. You know, really, you just can’t give anyone that extra hope of feeling like they have a chance. That was my mindset, ‘I can’t let these guys have any chance at the last round.’ It was so important to get that result. Even if it was Cooper getting first and me getting second, I just minimized the damage and made sure there wasn’t light at the end of the tunnel for the last round. Like I said, that’s where we improved so much this year. Even if we were in the back, we knew we could make it to the front.
I always kept saying, ‘I don’t want to settle. I’ve gotten so many wins and not having a Supercross title has been a huge empty spot in my career.’
You’ve come close to winning the championship before, but something always seemed to happen. What was the difference this year?
I think my racing emotions were a lot more steady. I’ve used that word this year—steady. I felt like I could control my racing emotions a lot more in a positive way. When little things on the racetrack would happen mistake-wise, I was able to recover from those mistakes. Also, really, my bad races weren’t 10th- or 15th-place finishes, they were fourth-place finishes. I never really had those bad races, so that’s what has changed. My racing was a lot more steady on track this year.
Did you feel that you had the championship under control while in Salt Lake City?
Yeah, I felt like it. I wasn’t looking behind my back or over my shoulder. The motorcycle, as a whole, was working really well. We had all sorts of different conditions there and the bike was working in all of them. Gosh, there were days where I wasn’t even touching clickers on my suspension. That’s just how solid we were and the position we were in. We could just focus on the race, and that’s when things come so much easier and then you get those results that you want.
Your family, including your baby daughter, were all there to celebrate the title with you. What did that mean to you?
It was special. You know, we weren’t all able to be there every race day. The last race day, they allowed us down onto the stadium floor, and it was really cool that my family was able to be there that day. My mom and dad were there. My brother was there. Jess and our daughter Lev were there, and it was very cool and very special for us to finish the series that way. Nothing beats family.
What does it take to be a Supercross Champion?
The commitment in this spot is unbelievable. It starts at such a young age in that way and you have to have such great guidance and then you have to have the passion for it as a rider, as well. A lot of things have to go the right way, but at the end of the day, it’s all about passion. 2020 has just been kind of a wild year in that way with everything. There’s been a lot of good and a lot of squirrelly and a lot of crazy. Yeah, it’s been a wild year that way.
Even with locking down the Supercross Championship this year, I want to keep racing as long as I’m competitive.
I still love riding my motorcycle, and I’m still motivated to race. Even with locking down the Supercross Championship this year, I want to keep racing as long as I’m competitive. I hate not being able to win, so as long as I can still win races and be competitive, I think you’ll still see me out there. I don’t want to put a time limit on anything—at least not for a couple years. Yeah, I’m looking towards the future and hopefully things get sorted out and we can go back to racing normally again. CN