Over the past decade, Monster Energy AMA Supercross has seen a welcome rise in attendance and popularity. The ever-evolving series has changed quite a bit from the days of Jeremy McGrath and Ricky Carmichael to an increasingly data-driven sport with exclusive factory team trainers producing elite athletes. Much like their four-wheel motorsport brethren, factory riders train full-time on and off the track, giving them a distinct advantage over privateers while narrowing the competitive gap to fractions of a second between teams. I had the opportunity before Round 16 at the MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, to talk to some of the riders, managers, trainers, and Carmichael himself about what goes on behind the scenes to ensure success.
Potential riders are often spotted at amateur races. Interested teams will back a candidate as young as 12 or 13 with sponsorship, even bringing them to train alongside signed riders. “What we do is we bring them to the group and they’re around these guys, training with these guys, involved with their program… maybe not to as high a level… time-wise, maybe not on the bike as much… but it’s getting them used to that. Riding with these guys during the week is the biggest thing, I think, because they see that, they kind of have that carrot they’re always chasing… that’s always bringing them closer and closer,” said Wil Hahn, Star Racing/Yamaha Racing team manager and former pro rider. “We might not have a kid sign when they’re on the 60’s or 80’s, but we’re trying to help them.”
Training to track time ratio is around 50/50. Gareth Swanepoel, the trainer (and also a former rider) for the Yamaha team said that while the training depends on each rider’s needs, during the racing season they’ll ride three times a week, two bike rides a week, two days of gym, plus active recovery days with lights rides, running, yoga, or other stretching. This all evolved in the sport when Ricky Carmichael, looking to gain an edge over physically bigger riders in the 450SX class, hired a trainer. “He took it to a whole new level of training, so now, everyone has to train because he was beating everyone so bad, everyone had to start training to keep up with him,” commented Jeremy Albrecht, JGRMX Yoshimura Suzuki Factory Racing Team Manager. “Everyone follows what the top guy is doing, so when he started training like that, then the next guy does it, and now everyone does it.”
In training, moto-specific LitPRO as well as GPS combined with On-bike data loggers capable of pulling in up to 12 data points gather information from the motor and shocks that is downloaded after completion then linked to video. Teams then use propriety software pinpoint mechanical performance then adjust as needed after practice or a heat. As an example, “We’re able to measure how much suspension’s used in corners and whoops and obstacles and if [a rider] comes in and says, ‘Hey, my bike’s really soft’, we can look… on the computers to kind of say, ‘Well, you didn’t use all your travel’”, said Yamaha Supercross/Motocross Supervisor Jim Perry in the paddock on Saturday. “So if he says one thing, we’re able to look at the data and say, ‘Maybe that isn’t what you’re feeling’… then our suspension engineers and chassis engineers can analyze that and make some changes.” Unlike many of the automotive racing series, communication between the rider and team is verboten during the actual race. Instead, riders rely on communication with their mechanic and a white board.
All of this data gathering and training comes together at the starting gate – staying calm, keeping the heart rate low combined with muscle memory to get out of the gate as quickly as possible when it drops. Getting a good position on the track, ahead of the field, is key. In an informal meeting with H.E.P. Motorsports 450cc riders Kyle Chisholm, Alex Ray, and Adam Enticknap on media day, Ray told us “The only that’s going through your mind is you want a good start, you want to start up front, because if you’re in the middle or in the back, it creates more risk… you have more people, everyone’s bunched up in a group, you don’t know what all these other people are doing, if you’re up front, you sort of have control over the race.”
During racing season, meetings are on Monday, ride and train during the week, travel, practice on Friday, race on Saturday, travel on Sunday… meetings, train, race, repeat.
A quick primer: In Monster Energy AMA Supercross, there are two classes – the 250SX bikes are the “Lites”, the younger riders’ development series. This class is subdivided into East and West regions for the entire season until the Las Vegas championship, where 22 riders race in the East/West Showdown over 15 minutes plus one lap. The 450SX is the top level of the Supercross series and race nationally, where the main even features 22 riders racing for 20 minutes plus one lap. Each division goes through qualifying on the day before the finals, and the 40 fastest riders advance to the race day events. On race day, both classes have two heats of 20 riders each, and the top nine advance to the main event. Everyone else has one more chance in the Last Chance Qualifier, and the top four LCQ finishers round out the 22 final competitors. The bikes are all from six manufacturers – Honda, Husqvarna, Kawasaki, KTM, Suzuki, and Yamaha. The dirt track, like its rallycross counterpart, has a series of obstacles; small, waist-high bumps called “whoops”, a table top, a rhythm section with no drummer but larger jumps of varying size and interval, and the ultimate finish-line jump assuring a spectacular airborne end to the race.
The 2019 season has seen its share of crazy weather, most notably torrential rain in San Diego and snow in Denver before the race. New Jersey was no exception; the track was covered for rain on Friday, scuttling the opportunity to practice for many of the riders. The track wasn’t too much of a mess for a cold but sunny race day, though looking at my clogged sneaker treads after a track walk, there was a lot of packed mud. In the 250SX class, Chase Sexton won the race, with Mitchell Oldenburg and Justin Cooper in second and third. Going into the 450SX finals, Cooper Webb was the points leader. After an exciting race with several overtakes and mistakes by the riders in front, Cooper Webb ultimately triumphed with Zach Osborne and Eli Tomac in second and third.
The Las Vegas Championship where the 250 East and West divisions race and a new 2019 450SX champion will be crowned takes place Saturday, May 4th. Check your local listings for viewing times and channels.