Talk to just about any Supercross pundit or die-hard fan and they’ll quickly tell you Eli Tomac is the fastest rider in the sport. But ask them if they think he’ll win the 2019 Monster Energy AMA Supercross Championship and that’s when opinions start to differ.
So how is it that the almost universally agreed upon fastest rider in Supercross is not the unanimous preseason pick? History.
The history of Supercross tells us the fastest rider does not always win the title. There were a lot of years the fastest rider in Supercross failed to lift the trophy at the end of the season. Ryan Dungey was not always the fastest rider when he won his titles and looking back the same could be said about Ryan Villopoto at times, Chad Reed, Jeff Emig, Jeff Stanton and so on.
One would also look at Tomac’s history in stadium competition.
Everyone knew Tomac was going to be fast. Right out of the gate he scored victory in his AMA Pro Motocross debut at Hangtown in 2010. He then went on to win 250 championships in both Supercross (West Region in 2012) and AMA Pro Motocross in 2013.
Conversely, as soon as Tomac moved up to the 450 class full time in 2014, it became a roller-coaster ride — amazing performances punctuated by equally aggravating injuries. And that up-and-down ride started from day one. In his rookie SX season of 2014, he came together with Jake Weimer on the opening lap of his heat race during the first race of the season at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, Calif., and hurt his shoulder in the crash. That forced him to miss the first four rounds.
After returning to action, Tomac showed flashes of brilliance with runner-up finishes at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis and Met Life Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
In 2015, Tomac won his first Supercross main event inPhoenix and won twice more en route to a runner-up finish to Dungey.
By 2017, Tomac was coming into his own. He entered the season poised to play the role of spoiler for both of his main rivals, Dungey and Ken Roczen. His relentless determination and aggression made him a legitimate title contender. After a sluggish start to the season, Tomac went on a tear, winning a series-leading nine rounds, including a five-race winning streak. He ended up second in the standings, five points behind the ever-consistent Dungey.
Then Dungey retired, leaving Tomac the heavy odds-on favorite to win the championship last season.
Once again Tomac showed blazing speed that was unmatched when he was on, but then the roller-coaster ride kicked in. He was leading the season opener when he crashed and injured his shoulder.
That meant Tomac was playing catch-up all winter. He went on a charge during the middle portion of the campaign, leading the bulk of laps and scoring the most 450SX victories for the second season in a row with eight, yet inconsistency was his undoing for the title.
Husqvarna’s Jason Anderson became the first Supercross champion of the post-Villopoto/Dungey Era. Tomac had to settle for third.
For a perspective on Tomac going into 2019, we talked to one of the most veteran observers of the sport out there, Cycle News Editor Kit Palmer, who’s been covering the sport for more than 30 years.
We asked Palmer what he thought it would take for Tomac to break through and finally win the Supercross title he’s been on the verge of claiming several times in his five seasons in the series.
“Tomac is a little tough to figure out,” Palmer said. “I think, one, he needs just a little bit of good luck, really; I believe he’s lost a few championships just because of weird mechanical failures that were beyond his control. Two, he simply needs to get better at his starts. I don’t know how many hole shots he got this year, but I don’t think it was many. This has been a problem throughout his career.
“I don’t think he’s won a Supercross championship mainly because he gets poor starts way too many times, and all kinds of bad stuff can happen when you’re buried in the pack early in a Supercross race,” Palmer continued. “I also think that he has James Stewart-kind-super-speed that’s great for winning races but not championships. I don’t think he’s managed his speed in the past as well as guys like Dungey and Villopoto.”
Tomac is now 26. The clock is ticking, especially in Supercross where it’s rare for riders to be competitive past 30. While he still has plenty of time, it’s got to be in the back of Tomac’s mind that his predecessors like Villopoto, Dungey, James Stewart, Ricky Carmichael and now even Anderson had all won the Supercross crown by the time they were 25 — several of them multiple titles.
Palmer sees one advantage for Tomac, the field is perhaps not quite as deep as it has been in the past.
“I think Tomac will be competitive for a few more years, especially if he does start dominating Supercross and builds his confidence,” Palmer noted. “I don’t see too many young kids coming up at the moment that will knock him off, maybe (Aaron) Plessinger; if so, I doubt that will happen right away. (Ken) Roczen will probably be the biggest thorn in Tomac’s side the next few years. Musquin will be a pest, as well, and maybe, Cooper (Webb) too.”
Tomac, who won this summer’s Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship with nine victories, is generally regarded as the fastest Supercross and motocross rider racing in America, but the 2019 Supercross season specifically, will go a long way in determining his ultimate legacy in the sport.
“Legacy, that’s tough,” Palmer continues. “His legacy will probably be more about the races that he’s won than championships. He’s won some amazing come-from-behind races, more than anybody that I can remember. He’ll be remembered for his over-the-top speed when he’s on his game, but he’ll need a few SX championships to really rate among Dungey, Villopoto, Carmichael and McGrath when it comes to legacy — but he still has time.”
Which leads to the question, if Tomac keeps stacking up wins in motocross but can’t get it done in the stadiums, will he still be viewed by fans and history as one of the elites?
“No,” Palmer flatly says. “He needs to win a Supercross championship; it will be a big deal if he retires without one.”