A viewer’s guide to Supercross: Five things to watch in the 2023 season and Anaheim opener
With the 2023 Monster Energy Supercross season set to open Saturday night, a viewer’s guide to five key storylines when the gate drops at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, California (10 p.m. ET, USA and Peacock):
New era brings big decisions: “Anaheim I” is synonymous with kicking off the Supercross season (as the event will for the 32nd time), but Saturday night also will harken the start of the SuperMotocross World Championship.
Running across 10 months, the 31-event season will encompass the Monster Energy AMA Supercross and Pro Motocross series. The SuperMotocross World Championship will conclude with a three-event playoff at a mix of new and storied venues that will be designed to determine an overall champion who blends the best skills of dirt bike racing -- the technical precision needed at indoor stadiums and the grueling, wide-open endurance at outdoor layouts.
While there always has been plenty of crossover between Supercross and Pro Motocross -- Eli Tomac won both 450 championships last year -- this will create a more seamless bridge between the disciplines.
They now are bonded by a $1 million bonus for the 450 SuperMotocross world champion ($500,000 for the 250 crown), and that already is making an impression on how riders view their seasons before the first gate even drops.
Tomac initially hinted this Supercross could be his last and has yet to commit to defending his Pro Motocross crown -- but would he pass up another opportunity at motocross greatness if he shines again in SX? He at least seemed open to continuing to ride beyond May during Friday’s preseason news conference.
“I’m not going to say right now if I’m going to be done this season or not,” Tomac, 30, said. “As you just get older in general, you start seeing things differently and enjoying it more. The racing has at least been that way for me. That’s just kind of happened since the middle of my 20s. We’ll see where it takes us, and obviously, I’m going to enjoy the moment as much as I can.”
SUPERCROSS 2023 OPENER: How to watch Anaheim I on USA, Peacock
Rising star Jett Lawrence also might be adjusting his career trajectory. The defending 250 East SX and Pro Motocross champ recently told NBC Sports announcer Leigh Diffey that he hopes to run the SuperMotocross playoffs as a 450 rider (and move into the premier category for good).
“I’m intrigued by what the racers’ mindsets are going to be into this new phase of the sport,” Diffey said in an SMX Insider interview with Jason Weigandt and Daniel Blair. “Do you just think about getting through the Supercross season, or are you in a season long mindset thinking about three playoff rounds at the end to have a chance at being the inaugural SMX world champion and $1 million on the line for the 450 winner.
“Does your mindset of just getting through January and having a solid foundation to build on? Will you compartmentalize this part of the season. There are a lot of topics to talk about for over 10 months.”
Battle at the top: After switching manufacturers, Tomac had a dream 2022 season with Yamaha that solidified his reputation as one of the all-time greats.
The Colorado native became one of a dozen riders with multiple championships in Supercross’ premier division. His 44 career victories (including seven last year) now rank fourth all time behind Jeremy McGrath, James Stewart and Ricky Carmichael after Tomac passed Ryan Villopoto (41) and Chad Reed (44) last year, and he ranks fifth all time with 84 podiums in Supercross 450 (passing Stewart, Kevin Windham and Mike Larocco last year).
Only three years after Tomac admitted the lack of a title would have marred his legacy, his place in the Supercross pantheon is more than secure.
So how does will he stay motivated in 2023?
Perhaps because he is being viewed by some as an underdog to Chase Sexton, who seems poised to reach championship superstardom with Honda.
Jason Anderson (who finished second to Tomac in the 450 standings by nine points last year) also is being mentioned as a major title contender after the 2018 champion’s sudden resurgence with Kawasaki.
But Tomac vs. Sexton has been the primary focus when the topic arises of potential rider rivalries in 2023.
Sexton, 23, scored his first premier class victory last year, but the two-time 250 East champion again was hampered by an inconsistency that nullified his blinding speed. After taking six holeshots and leading seven main events in 2022, eliminating mistakes might be the simple key to Sexton’s first Supercross 450 crown.
“I’ve wanted to be in this position since I got on a 450,” Sexton said. “Winning only one race (last year) wasn’t enough. In Outdoors, I learned a lot about myself and racing Eli taught me something I never could have been taught otherwise. I’m looking forward to bringing that into the new year, taking everything from last year and putting it into a solid Supercross season.”
Aside from Anderson, who won the final four events of 2022 to match Tomac with a series-leading seven victories, there are other contenders lurking in the field.
Marvin Musquin also was a ’22 winner, and it seems like a matter of time before a winner’s circle appearance for Aaron Plessinger (who returns after ranking fifth in 2021), Malcolm Stewart (third in the 2022 standings) and Dylan Ferrandis (a past 250 and Pro Motocross champion who should be back at full strength).
But as Racer X editor and NBC Sports host Jason Weigandt also has noted, the past four seasons have delivered only five winners annually. So the top step of the podium likely will remain difficult to reach.
Return of Roczen: The biggest X factor entering the 2023 season also is one of the most intriguing and compelling personalities in Supercross.
After a stunning split from Honda, Ken Roczen tried virtually every other bike in the offseason before settling on a return to Suzuki (which he rode in 2016 to a runner-up Supercross finish and then bulldozed to the Pro Motocross championship). The affable and colorful Roczen has overcome so much career-ending adversity while being dogged by questions about whether he ever will win a 450 title.
But that pressure might have lifted with the weight of being a factory Honda rider gone. “The lack of pressure on him maybe will yield results we’ve all wanted to see,” Diffey said. “The less people are asking about it, maybe it’ll put him in a more relaxed state of mind and carry him through the season. With SuperMotocross, you just have to be there at the end. It might work out well for him.”
Telling RacerX that “I just think it could make a super cool story if I can do what I think we can do,” Roczen, 28, seems buoyed by the move.
“I like being the underdog,” he said during the Friday news conference. “The expectations are a bit different. I feel I’ve shown in the offseason I still have got some speed.
“It was a change that was definitely needed for me. It kind of came out of nowhere, to be honest. But overall, I’ve been feeling really good.”
He has been riding his new Suzuki for only a month, and Roczen concedes it could take a while to find his form (though he has done more offseason races that have helped keep him in shape).
“I just want to reestablish myself because last year was really rough,” said Roczen, who won only the 2022 season opener. “The results weren’t there. A lot of struggles. Throughout this offseason, I have put in a lot of work. I started loving riding and especially racing again and traveling all over. So this change, I didn’t care if I was faster or better. It’s just I needed something.”
Roczen also will have the support of vaunted team manager Larry Brooks, who returns with Suzuki to the 450 category (where he previously worked with champions such as McGrath and Stewart).
“Going back to Suzuki, I’ve had really good results with them before, and I really want to put them back on the map,” Roczen said. “We might start off slow or might be right in the mix. I don’t really know, nor do I really care. I want to take it step by step and put in the work and re-establish myself and get back up to the front and just not let go. And charge hard.
“This entire offseason, I was able to charge more toward my goals and dreams. I’m mentally in a completely different spot than I was in years past. Overall, I’ve been feeling great on the bike. I’m going to have some fun with it and try to get back up to where I belong.”
Cooper comeback? Two-time Supercross champion Cooper Webb was seated on the last row for the Friday news conference.
“I’m washed up,” he joked when asked about the arrangement.
Certainly, few are doubting that Webb has the ability to rebound from a disappointing winless 2022 season for one of the toughest competitors in Supercross. But this will be a critical season for the North Carolina native, who re-signed with KTM on a one-year deal for 2023 and could find himself in the unsettling silly season with a slow start.
Webb’s biggest strength always has been his steely mental game, but a move away from renowned trainer Aldon Baker seemed to hurt his physical side.
Webb is back with Baker’s Factory this year, and he also has gotten hands-on about improving the bike for his fifth season with KTM.
“We’ve made a lot of progress,” said Webb, who outdueled Roczen to win the 2021 championship and also won the 2019 title. “I’ve definitely been very difficult this offseason with the team. I made it very clear that we needed to change a lot and started this summer. We got to work early.
“We went back to the basics, stepped back to a standard and have been going from there. That’s been good. I know what I felt in ’21 and what it takes to win. Where a bike needs to be. We got there within this last month. I’m really excited to get to it. Being back with Aldon, getting back into getting in good shape.”
After the 2022 Supercross season, Webb mostly stayed off his bike to clear his head (while also becoming a new father).
“I feel like I retired last year and took a year off,” Webb said. “It was much needed to regroup and come back to try to win. That’s really the only reason we’re racing. I feel we’re back at that point.”
Cianciarulo’s health: Once viewed as a surefire superstar, 2023 could be the last chance for Adam Cianciarulo to prove himself in 450. Since winning the Pro Motocross championship and finishing second in the 250 West Supercross in 2019, the injury-prone Cianciarulo has missed 33 of the past 51 events in the 450 category.
The Kawasaki rider considered retirement but has entered the 2023 season with a new philosophical attitude and measured expectations about becoming a championship contender (“I would be an idiot to come into this season being like, ‘Oh, now it’s time to win the title, right?’ It’s like I haven’t really raced in a while,” Cianciarulo told Dan Beaver last month).
“I think we all have this idea of the way our career wants to go,” said Cianciarulo, whose No. 1 goal is remaining healthy after battling some recent arm problems.
“Everyone wants to do what Eli has done. As far as my results, it’s been unfortunate. I’ve had some crashes, injuries and taken time off.
“I love this stuff. These are my people. I like being here. It’s not fun to be away from it. Overall, I’m proud of the body of work and how I handled things. I still feel I have a lot left to give and a lot left in the tank. I’m excited to be here and present in the moment and be grateful.”