While a heavy favorite coming into the race, Jason Anderson was out of his element. New Zealand culture had thrown him a curve, and he had to adapt, quickly, because people in the stands were focused almost entirely on him. But Anderson has won big-pressure races like Anaheim 1, and a moto at the Monster Energy FIM Motocross of Nations. Champions step up when the spotlight is on him. So he went to work.
He sheered a sheep.
We were hanging out at Sheep World, a place about 45 minutes north of Auckland, New Zealand, all part of the cultural experience of this year’s Monster Energy S-X Open Auckland. As with most high-profile off-season races, this one is a mix of serious racing and also some cultural intake, and as one of the first “big” races ever in New Zealand, the race promoters from AME management, and New Zealand’s tourism group in general, wanted to make sure it was done right. So they sent the invited riders to Sheep World to see how real sheep farming—a staple of New Zealand’s economy—works. Then it was time to play, so they sent the riders on a brewery tour downtown, and even for some ice cream. But, riders being riders, when the day was over everyone split to get back to the hotel and get in a workout.
Who are these riders? The Auckland race is part of the five-round Australian supercross championship, with regulars like Justin Brayton, Dan Reardon, Brett Metcalfe, and Luke Clout. But this race, and the AUS-X Open in Melbourne, Australia, (on November 30) bring in extras. Anderson, Chad Reed, Joey Savatgy, and Ricky Carmichael are headliners (Dean Wilson was on the list but his injury at Monster Energy Cup kept him out of action), and in New Zealand, local legends Ben Townley and FMX star Levi Sherwood were also part of the group. In New Zealand, Brayton, Reed, Savatgy, Anderson, Townley, and Sherwood (and Anderson’s #TeamFried mate Tommy Tenders) were all shuttled around the country together in one small van. This is always an unusual part of these off-season races. What are the chances a bunch of racers cruise through SoCal together in a van around Anaheim? Zero. Off-season races are laid back. The whole vibe is much different.
Thursday’s hijinks wrapped with a poker tournament. Brayton, in my books, officially clinched “greatest human” status when he handed me all of his chips and let me play some hands. I promptly lost all of his money within five minutes. By then, Brayton was gone, wisely avoiding the coming tsunami. He knew the night life would begin as soon as poker ended. When you’ve got an evening in a city and Chad Reed is around, you’d better be tough…let’s just say I felt HORRIBLE by the time I woke up on Friday morning.
Friday was press day, where the Oz series regulars and the invitees got to do a few sections of track for the cameras. I also hosted a press conference and some TV interviews while desperately fighting off all of my regrets from Thursday night. At one point, while we were all standing in the hallway of the stadium, Anderson asked if anyone could get him a bottle of water. Someone showed up with a case of water, and we all tore into it instantly like wild animals. Head hurting, much?
One cool thing about this race is the inclusion of Townley and Cody Cooper into the races. There’s not much supercross in New Zealand, but Townley, the 2005 MX2 World Champion and 2007 250SX East Region Champion, is hoping to change that. BT built a supercross track at his house so locals could get in some prep laps before this event. And while Ben himself is now retired and was only competing against Carmichael in an exhibition race, well, BT is gonna BT, and he busted out the triple as soon as he hit the track for the press ride. Carmichael joked that they should sign a contract and agree not to hit any quads or big rhythms. In fact, RC himself says he prefers to ride on a completely stock Suzuki at this point, because if he had supercross suspension he would be tempted to go faster. Still, these guys, even retired, are at a different level. RC told me he wishes he had works brakes on his bike more than anything. At his peak, some likened RC to a road racer for the kind of feel he had for his front tire under braking, even on dirt. He still wants to have that feel today, even while riding just for fun.
Saturday dawned race day. Brayton told me that track conditions vary wildly in the Australian series. The promoters are trying hard, though. The dirt was so bad at the previous event in Wollongong that they trucked it in, decided it wasn’t good enough, then trucked it back out, then trucked in new dirt, didn’t like that, and brought in a third sampling of dirt! By then it was too late to really get enough moisture in it, and the track ended up being weird. Here in Auckland, the dirt looked okay early, but it dried out quickly, and there was dust in the air during the final practice. So then they soaked the track before the night show, which made it super slippery.
You know what? That led to great racing! The slick conditions led to mistakes that mixed up the racing, plus, as the track dried out and began to develop more traction, riders had to keep adjusting lines and jumping rhythms. There were three rhythm lanes that kept the riders on their toes, even Anderson wasn’t able to nail everything clean on every lap throughout the night, saying the track would have traction in some areas, but be slick in others, and have wet and spongy parts in others.
Coupled to the interesting track was a crazy race format. Both the SX2 (250) and SX1 (450) classes raced three short mains, essentially what we know as the Triple Crown format. To really mix it up, there was a shortcut lane that cut off a ton of time, but a rider could only take it once all night. I really like this concept, because it makes it almost impossible for anyone to sweep the races—winning a race when you don’t take the shortcut is really, really hard. The shortcut chopped so much time off of a lap that I thought I was seeing ghosts out there. A rider would get a bad start, or crash, and then five laps later he would come from nowhere and be running in second! Then two other guys would take the shortcut and the order would change again!
The shortcut really put strategy into play. Most riders at least say they would only use it if they got a bad start, but racers are racers and in the second SX1 main, Josh Hill got a good start, was running in second, and took it to get the lead. For Hill, the American who races in half the Australian events for Monster Energy/CDR Yamaha, the chance to win a main event was too good to pass up. It looked like Hill, who can still go really, really fast for a few laps, was going to take the win in main event two, until his teammate Luke Clout used the shortcut with a lap to go to steal the lead and the win.
Meanwhile, Brayton, who is battling Clout for the points lead in the championship, chose to wait until the third race to use the shortcut. It worked brilliantly when he and Dan Reardon ducked into the shortcut in the final race and emerged with a huge lead on everyone else. Then Brayton, while leading, threw it away! Surprising to see Brayton do that, and the crash cost him a race win, an overall podium and the points lead. He should have just come out with us Thursday night!
Clout finished second overall, or first “non Jason Anderson.” Like, for reals yo, Clout literally said he goal coming into this race was to beat everyone not named Jason Anderson. Expecting to beat JA21 straight up was a bit of a stretch, and Anderson showed why during the superpole lap time competition, where Brayton led and looked really solid, and then Anderson crushed a time about a half second faster and blew minds with his corner speed. I was in the TV booth with Carmichael and while we both wanted to slow our roll and not make any “Man Anderson is looking good for 2020!” claims, by the end of the night we had a tough time containing ourselves. Anderson looked really, really fast, okay? In the final race, he managed to catch Reardon for the lead and the win despite not taking the shortcut, which, you might remember, I thought would be impossible. The shortcut is worth a good ten seconds and the race was only eight laps, and also, Anderson’s starts completely sucked. So this was an impressive charge.
(Note to self: Don’t read anything into Anaheim results from off-season races. Don’t read anything into Anaheim results from off-season races.)
Clout took second overall and now leads Brayton by a point heading into the finale. I figured Brayton would be all bummed, but then he and Clout were hanging out together after the race in the pits! JB is well beyond the point of living and dying off of his race results anymore. He’d love the big bonus that comes with winning the championship again but he’s not going to sulk about a crash. As for Clout, an Aussie I remember battling up front at Loretta Lynn’s years ago, he told the story about suffering through two femur breaks, folding teams, and more, and thinking he might just want to retire. Now he’s back, rejuvenated, and legit riding awesome. I think Brayton might still had a slight edge on him, but remember, Brayton is a top-ten AMA 450SX rider. If Clout is in his range, that’s impressive. Clout says he has a deal for 250SX West in 2020 in the U.S. I wouldn’t say his success is guaranteed, but he has a shot. Keep an eye on him.
In the SX2 class, well, if you mix three short sprint races, a tricky track, and a shortcut lane with young 250 riders, what do you think you’re going to get? The racing was insane. Out of control. I could barely even keep track of what was going on at times, highlighted by a wild battle during the first main event that saw five riders in the air on a triple jump at one time. I tried to type notes in during all of this, and it began to look like the text convos 13-year-olds have during class. Just run on sentences and lots of shorthand and typos:
Osby led first race almost got passed didn’t and won but crashed second race in the shortcut but still won overall Blose won last race the old guy saved the shortcut for the end but Osby had more points.
Osby is from Indiana. He has always had good supercross speed and skills. He’ll be teammates with Jacob Hayes on the Gas Monkey Energy/AJE Motorsports Husqvarna team next year, so he should have a good shot to up his game in the U.S. Hayes, incidentally, won the first Australian race of the year but then suffered a dislocated shoulder and is back in the U.S. recovering.
Osby is the SX2 points leader in Australia with a round to go. But he has Chris Blose right behind him in points. You can’t kill Zombie Chris Blose and with the craziness that is SX2, nothing is over in this championship. The final, the AUS-X Open in Melbourne, is next weekend. It’s expected to be no less than the biggest Australian supercross race ever, with 35,000 or so fans. Previously, the AUS-X Open took place in a small area in Sydney, which only fits about 14,000 people. This is a big, domed stadium, so it’s going to be as legit as legit gets.
In the days since the race, my family kidnapped me and took me as far away from moto culture as I can get. Townley offered to take me on one of his trail riding tours, which would have probably been the greatest thing ever, but instead we had purchased very expensive tickets to tour Hobbiton, where they shot the Lord of the Rings movies. Shoot me. Um, I mean, I love my family!
New Zealand consists of two islands. Auckland is a highly-underrated city in the North Island. I’m not even sure I had heard of it before this trip, but the city is huge, modern, clean, and, jammed with traffic just like we’re used to here in the U.S.! Really, there’s nothing in the North Island that feels very foreign, but the scenery and beaches are amazing. Just realize that they don’t do hiking here. They call it tramping. Tramping is good and acceptable.
On Tuesday, we boarded another flight to the South Island to do more tramping. The South Island is much more exotic, and you can drive hours seeing nothing but mountains and sheep, and very few cars or people. Queenstown, however, can give any mountain town a run for its money. I can’t even possibly describe how amazing this place is. It’s so good, it compels people to just run off of the mountains and jump! Like, seriously, bungee jumping feels like a national sport down here.
Also: They don’t saw NZ here, it’s N-Zed. You can add the word “mate” to the end of every sentence and it always fits. The toilets don’t drain the opposite direction like they say in Australia, they just flood the bowl with tsunami like force. You can also injure yourself with the fire-hose water pressure in the showers. Everything is a bit more gnarly and hard core. Today, we have some sorta’ boat cruise booked for Milford Sound, but there’s a 50/50 chance the only road there will be closed due to avalanche. If that happens, you’re out of luck. That’s just how it goes.
If you ever fly to the South Island, you’ll be greeted by signs telling you, “New Zealand roads are different.” Indeed, everything is different. That’s a big part of the appeal.
Main Image: AME Management