The tracks this season haven't been as technical as past years, and passing has been difficult. Whether this was a tactic to keep riders healthy after a injury riddled 2012 season, or just the way the tracks have played out, there has been mumblings throughout the paddock of easy tracks. While it has tightened up the field at a few races, it has also frustrated riders and teams if they get stuck in the pack early. For the first time this year, weather was a factor as rain saturated the Seattle course and added another dimension to the race equation. While rain is never a welcome variable to a supercross race, it certainly changes the dynamic of simple tracks and "follow the leader" type racing.
For example, I felt that Seattle was one of the easier tracks to pass on, but that was attributed to the circumstances more than the track design. With the rain wreaking havoc to the manicured confines of CenturyLink Field, the rhythm sections looked like someone stuck a massive hair comb on the front of a bulldozer and went to work. There were three or four lines in every turn and just doing the simplest of doubles was a true task of balance and patience.
If a rider could get close enough to another rider, a window to pass would almost always appear on that treacherous northwest staple. Watching the races Saturday, there were many charges from the back of the pack that would have been less likely in other weeks in my opinion. Ryan Dungey and Cole Seely both were able to move up without too much difficulty, nothing like the multiple laps of following slower riders that we have seen in previous weeks.
"More aggressive. And being the front-end rider that I am, it wasn’t a good idea. Because it started raining so I’m like oh, it’s going to keep raining; it’ll be great. But it stopped." - Davi Millsaps on his decision to go with a more aggressive front tire for the main.
Simon Cudby photo
As the ruts got deeper, making a bad decision on line choice had a much more significant consequence and could leave you on the ground just as easily as being passed. In fact, it seemed the riders were more concerned with racing the track than they were with engaging the other riders. This was very similar to the early 2000s, when tracks were extremely difficult and passing was prevalent due to different rhythms and skill level separation. Of course, tracks that build separation may not be ideal for close racing, but it was definitely preferred by racers. Starts weren't 90 percent of the race and strategy could really pay off mid-race. Whether it is a good change or bad, it was nice to see an old school type of track in play.
What’s it like to ride a track like we saw in Seattle? Putting in perfect laps is not really practical. Supercross riders are used to pounding out laps on dry, hardpack tracks that don't typically break down too much. In this new era of track maintenance, most riders keep their practice tracks almost perfectly groomed and will try to ramp up the intensity and speed on the flawless courses. Therefore, a track like Seattle requires a big adjustment. Sprint speed is much less of an issue, because consistent laps take precedence over blinding pace. Being able to go a second faster in lap five is irrelevant if you make a huge mistake the next time around and lose four seconds. Pushing too hard in these conditions is a problem, although a common one. This is where you hear the phrase, "He was overriding the track." Everyone has a limit that they can maintain for 20 laps and on a rutty, slippery track like Seattle, it is key to stay in those limits.
Just as an "Observation", I saw many riders choosing to go with very aggressive front tires on Saturday. I was never a big fan of going in this direction when conditions are rutty but not completely sloppy. Every time I heard a rider complain about the front end being "grabbed" by the ruts, I just smiled as I knew it was due to the tire. I learned this the hard way in Europe, as most tracks have uber amounts of traction, and much like Seattle, ruts abound. While the more aggressive front tires (soft terrain tires) will theoretically work better in mud and softer conditions, for jumps and supercross, I always found that the hardpack tires work better as they let the tire float a bit. If I was still racing, I would not even mention this as I felt it was a huge edge for me in Germany. I could literally watch guys zig zagging down rhythm sections as their front tire pulled them sideways. Hey, who was I to tell them any differently!
The weather in Seattle played a big part in the main for a number of riders. Mike Alessi (above) had his best finish since Oakland on Saturday.
In all seriousness, I could see riders this weekend struggling with this same issue. While it may seem silly, running a harder terrain tire has its advantages in certain muddy situations. On the other end, had it started raining more and the track turned to slop, then the advantage would have flipped to the aggressive mud tire. In those conditions, the hardpack tires can’t "clean out" and all traction is lost. There is a fine line for this strategy but I think it was appropriate for last Saturday.
All in all, weekends like Seattle change it up for everyone. Strategies change, results fluctuate and it gives a different perspective on a series that can look very similar week to week. Riders usually have ample time to prepare with weather reports and the general reputation of the race gives them a heads up (you know what to expect in Seattle). Still, with racing being all about pure speed these days, it is a nice throwback to the days when tracks resembled a war zone more than the perfection we see today.