I remember it well: in 1995, the ever-determined Mike Kiedrowski launching a new plan to take down Jeremy McGrath in supercross. The highly underrated “MX Kied” is one of only two men (the other being Jeff Ward, the all-time master of versatility) to ever capture AMA National Motocross Championships on a 125, a 250, and a 500, but supercross was tougher on Kiedrowski, especially with MC around.
Kiedrowski swapped trusty mechanic Shane Nalley for Brian Lunniss, considered the best wrench in the game at that time. Lunniss tried new things with Kiedrowski; in interviews, he’d repeat, “race the track, not the riders.” This was yet another idea lifted from the McGrath playbook, and obviously in those days the competition was doing a lot of lifting from MC.
Riders tried to learn his BMX technique, or figure out what was so special about that 1993 Honda frame he kept using every year, or get to the bottom of his starts or his mental approach or whatever else the guy was doing right. Racing the track was just another McGrath trick. If you just race every section as hard as you can, not even thinking about what position you’re in or anything else, you’ll ride better. But that trick worked only for McGrath. When you’re the greatest supercross rider ever, if you race the track to your best ability for twenty laps, you’re going to win most of the time. McGrath did, a record seventy-two times. You never saw much in the way of strategy from MC besides getting a good start, burning for eight laps, opening a huge lead, and cruising. There was rarely any rough riding or controversy or even worries or thoughts about any other riders, because he didn’t need to do that to win. For everyone else, well, it was a great concept, but the King could ride the track better.
The theory of racing your own race continues to this day. It’s the reason riders try to tame down the hype we want to see at the opener. We’re fired up, and so are they, but they also know adding more adrenaline and buzz isn’t going to make their race go any better. They’re barely able to avoid puke and arm-pump as it is. Why talk-trash and make it worse? Why add pressure to the most pressure-packed environment of their lives?
So out come the mind games. The following are statements you’ll hear as riders try to diffuse the pressure of the opener.
“I just want to see where we’re at.”
“You can’t win the title in the first race, but you can lose it.”
“Just try to have fun with it.”
That’s what the guys say. It is not what they mean or what they want. What they want is to win the race—heck, to win all of the races, dominate, and take the title with ease. I mean, have you see the reaction when guys win Anaheim? They go crazy. They laugh. They cry. They practically injure shoulders doing fist pumps. Watch Davi Millsaps in 2013 or Ken Roczen the next year or Josh Grant’s crazy epic 2009 triumph. Anaheim is the supercross victory no one forgets. Does anyone not remember where, when, and how Josh Grant scored his only SX win?
Anaheim 1 is this sport’s Daytona 500, more so than the Daytona Supercross itself. But while every NASCAR driver is glad to hype the importance of a Daytona 500 win, every supercross rider wants to reduce the importance of Anaheim 1. Pressure impacts supercross racers much more so than race car drivers. In fact, it impacts them more than the competitors in just about any sport. This is a very mental game, and staring the opener in the face can make even the toughest men weak in the knees. That’s why you hear references to “opening-night jitters” at Anaheim when you don’t hear that type of thing at the opening event in other sports. Everyone gets nervous when they roll a bike to the starting gate. Doing it at Anaheim 1 multiplies it times a million, especially for those who consider themselves title contenders. This is four months, if not a lifetime, of work, and results are coming in just a few minutes.
That all leads to the most famous trick in the book:
“All I can ask is to do my best. As long as I put in my best effort, I’ll be happy no matter what the result.”
That’s the big ticket right there. That’s the ultimate pressure-relief valve. That quote is not the stuff you put on posters or carve into wood and hang over the foyer. You won’t see it in inspiring Instagrams or Tweets. It is, though, a mantra you’ll hear a lot, and one riders will repeat in their heads much more.
There’s a real danger in putting an expected finishing position out there for public consumption, especially early in the season, when there’s a chance the bike won’t work in race conditions the way it was expected to after testing. If you say a win or a podium is the goal and you finish sixth, you’ve already started in the negative. But to say you just want to see where you’re at … well, it takes the pressure off. And when the pressure is off, the results usually get better.
Another season is set to begin, and it should be awesome. We would like the riders to admit as such. We would like them to sound excited, talk trash, make brash statements and predictions. But to do so is dangerous. So they’re going to worry about no one else but themselves this weekend, and not really focus on the results. They’ll just race the track the best that they can and see where they’re at when it’s over. As long as they put in their best effort, they can’t be upset.
In other words, let the mind games begin.