Justin Brayton embraces role as Supercross elder statesman
Every sport needs an elder statesman and although once reluctant to claim the honor, Justin Brayton has decided to embrace that role in the Monster Energy Supercross Series in what may be his final season.
Over the past few years, the makeup of the Supercross field has changed. Still dominated by riders in their teens and early 20s, the longevity of riders has increased. In 2022, 20 riders in their 30s will climb aboard their motorcycles to challenge the Young Guns.
It’s a challenge Brayton knows all too well. The overall number of older riders has increased, but Brayton has more experience in this arena than many of his colleagues.
Brayton has not always been the flashiest rider during his American Supercross career. A fourth-place finish in 2012 marks the high point of his championship standings, but that season he was tied with third-place Ryan Dungey and in sight of second-place.
He finished fifth in points twice, most recently in 2018, and has been a rider the field knows must be taken seriously every time when he qualifies for the Main.
So, what is the story that Brayton wants told after two decades of racing?
"(It involves) being the oldest rider out there, being the oldest ever win a Supercross race in Daytona a couple years ago,” Brayton told NBC Sports. “Still being able to compete at the highest level at 37, I’ll turn 38 in March, I would say that’s the biggest thing for my goal.
“Just to inspire people at home that think really anything is possible despite your age. In other sports, obviously football right now with Tom Brady, every sport can have their elder statesman. I think it’s cool to have a guy almost 40 years old still being able to potentially win a race or really compete at the front and at the highest level. I think that storyline is great.
“A few years ago I was like, I don’t want to be the old guy, where right now I love it. I’m proud of myself that I’m still here; I’m still competing.”
Brayton can still get the job done. On March 10, 2018, four days prior to his 34th birthday, he became the oldest rider to win a Supercross race. Brayton stood on the top step of the podium and looked down at 2020 SX champion Eli Tomac and 2021’s titlist Cooper Webb.
Of all the tracks Supercross races, Daytona’s configurations are typically the hardest on a rider’s body.
And while the top-10s have been less frequent in recent seasons, one of the highlights of his recent career was a podium in 2021.
“If I was just running around 15th-place, there’s no storyline right? It’s like, ‘Ah, he’s old - he’s kind of washed up,’ but I really feel like I can still win a race,” Brayton said. “I just got on podium this past year at 36 years old, so I think it’s really achievable to win or for sure be on the podium again and race up the front of the field.”
No racer ever hits the track without thinking he can win. But as the miles accumulate and accidents are stitched across their bodies like an insane treasure map guiding them through the land of experience, focus shifts. There are several keys to success and racing smart is one of the ways to climb onto those podiums.
Brayton continues to be competitive because of his mindset.
With nothing left to prove to anyone other than himself, 2022 will be about riding hard, looking to extend his oldest-wining-rider record and enjoying the process. He feels lucky that the Smartop Bullfrog Spas Motoconcepts Honda team shares his goals.
It is one thing to think of age as just another number, but to go out and beat riders who were not born when one debuted in the sport is a notable feat.
Motorcycle racing is about balance. Riders need to balance on the bike and athletes need balance in their lives. Racing Supercross only since 2017 has allowed him to achieve that.
“In every other sport it’s proven that, the mid 30s is your peak if there is performance,” Brayton said. “I feel like the biggest thing for our sport is the mental burnout, so I’ve really paid a lot of attention to that and if I’m mentally ready to go and mentally ready to train properly for the things that it takes to compete at a high level here, I think that’s all that has mattered in the past several years.
“It’s not rocket science. The biggest thing is just mental rest - not being so stressed out and so bloated with family, kids, training, travel and all of that. And then do that for 12 months out of the year and then do that for 10 plus years. I think it’s almost impossible.
“So right now, the stress of racing is enough. To be able to have that for 17 races is a lot easier than 12 months.
“I’ve been able to manage my career by having time off - just letting my mind rest - not having to be at the gym, not having to do this obligation, not having to stress about the upcoming weekend for the race. That just wears on you, and being able to get three or four months of rest mentally and physically (is important). Now my mind is ready to go into fight mode and I’m able to sustain that until the end of May with Supercross.”
Most importantly, wins and podiums are still being accumulated - not only in his mind, but on the box scores as well. Only a few weeks before NBC Sports caught up with him at a media event in Anaheim, California, Brayton finished third in the Supercross de Paris. Before he left for France, the only request from his children was to bring home a trophy. It was a proud moment when he gave it to them.
Brayton won the 2018 and 2019 Australian Supercross championships, so there is plenty of rationale for his confidence entering 2022.
Now, there is that one last goal, which is to pad his stat of being the oldest winner in Supercross.
“I think this is this will probably be my last year,” Brayton said. “I think as I sit here today, I’ve got one more full season in me as a high-level guy. I’ve had a lot of people ask why would you be done if you’re still racing at this level. My come back to that is most things end because they go bad.
“I don’t want them to go bad.”