I couldn’t tell if Justin Brayton was trying to convince us, or himself. For two weeks, JB10 had maintained that he was happy to sit second in points heading into the final round of the Australian Supercross Championship. For three years, he had dominated the series, but an injury had slowed his fourth season just as Australian Luke Clout found his own footing. Momentum and the points lead had switched hands, but Brayton said he was fine with it. Heck, at the end of the night at the previous round, I saw Brayton and Clout hanging out and bro-ing down with each other! Finally, he would come into the final round needing to win the race and not simply trying to ride conservative to protect a points lead. He said he liked that. He even preferred it.
Really? We’ve heard riders say all kinds of things to take the pressure off themselves. We’re four weeks away from watching a dozen of them sweat it out on the press conference stage at Anaheim while also claiming they don’t even care about the result at the opener—even while their insides are churning. Plus, riders are really good at making excuses. Brayton has been the best rider in the Australian Supercross Championship for years, but he had never won the prestigious AUS-X Open finale. He claimed that having to ride conservatively to protect the points lead had hurt his chances of winning the big race. Is that a reason or an excuse? Over the year, AUS-X has brought in ringers like Jason Anderson, Cooper Webb, and Chad Reed. Could Brayton really win races against guys like that?
Hard to say. Few can truly classify where Brayton sits all-time as a racer, his career is unique and it’s tough to draw parallels. Think of it this way: Brayton never won a 250 supercross race. His 450 supercross career has been much better than many riders that have. It’s so hard to figure out what his goals should be, or where his ceiling is. So when he said his goal was to win the AUS-X Open and also the championship, it seemed like a tall task, especially with Jason Anderson around. But, as it turns out, Brayton wasn’t just taking the pressure off or giving himself excuses. He really meant it. He intended to win the race and the title. They he went out and did exactly what he said he would do.
He got an assist when Reed knocked Anderson over early in the night, but Brayton didn’t luck into this. The AUS-X track was slippery beyond belief, and the 35-year-old never put a wheel wrong. In the short, intense main events, he never put himself in position to be block passed. He let the other make the mistakes, managing a chaotic format and a tricky track with veteran calm. It’s not an American title, but now Brayton can forever say he faced a game seven, do-or-die clutch moment, and performed best under that pressure.
I don’t know if a 24-year old Justin Brayton does as well under that circumstance. The whole night at AUS-X, really, became an infomercial for the aged, because Clout, ten years Brayton’s junior, managed the title situation exactly the opposite. He saw an opening on the inside on the first lap of the first race, went for the pass, and washed his front end in the slick stuff. That set a course for a chain of unfortunate events, and he never even had a shot at Brayton after that. Same thing had happened in the SX2 (250 class), where the young kid (Josh Osby) crashed a bunch while the veteran (Chris Blose) rode steady to snatch the points lead and the championship.
Then you have Chad Reed. Oh my, Chad Reed. In what is probably the 176,450th episode of the series, Reed overcome many doubts and long odds to perform better than expected when it counted. This is the pillar Chad has built his career around, and he came through again. Reed is now really, really old, he had barely ridden all summer, then crashed in Paris and broke ribs, keeping him off the bike even more. You could tell just looking at him that Chad isn’t in fighting shape. His bike, by the way, is part of a new team he’s been piecing together, and the machine wouldn’t run right on press day or in practice due to electrical problems. The stage was set for Chad to struggle. Still, like Brayton, he said the right things in advance of the race. In this case, he said he has pride on the line when he races in Australia, and events like this mean as much to him as any race in America—even races when he was going for an AMA Supercross Championship. He said he would give it his all.
So that stubborn, proud bastard did it again. Reed pulled the damned holeshot in his heat race and led for a bit. Then, he was right behind Anderson on the first lap of the first main. Then, “Wait, that’s Chad Reed’s music!” He stayed close to Anderson for a few turns and then dialed up one glorious run through the whoops. Chad actually outpaced Anderson for a few seconds, got inside of him, and stuffed the 2018 Monster Energy AMA Supercross Champion to take the lead! Chad Reed is out of shape, hurt, 37 years old, and had barely even ridden before the night show. And yet, for a moment, he could still summon up the speed to get Jason Anderson.
I was talking to Anderson in the tunnel after the race about this. He wasn’t mad at all about getting knocked over by Chad, because he said he probably had it coming from some previous bumping, and he'd have done the same thing if he were in that position. He also said it was really his fault for not getting away quickly once he had the holeshot, but, then he paused, and said that, man, Chad can still really go fast!
He even posted this on social media afterwards!
I’ve long said that as athletes get older, the first thing to go isn’t their peak powers, it’s the ability to do it every time. In the NBA, the super vet will summon the goods for one 30-point throwback playoff game, but he can’t back it up when his body is in the hurt locker two days later. The stuff is still in them—they just can’t do it every week, every game, every race, all the time. Some days they wake up hurting. Some days they’re not comfortable and can’t just throw caution to the wind like they did when they were younger. Young Chad Reed couldn’t help but go fast in every race. No matter what, he was gonna podium or win. Now we’re down to smaller and smaller bits of that, first a win or two a year, then a podium or two a year, then one podium (in a triple crown race) in 2019. In Australia, the throwback machine could only muster a few seconds over a set of whoops to block pass Anderson for the lead. Still impressive. Keep stacking the odds on Chad, and he’ll keep straining against them. It’s his brand, it’s his life, it’s what he does.
In fact, that became the second theme of the weekend (after the “old guys rule!” talk). Reed used Australia to officially announce that 2020 will be his final full season as a supercross racer. It brought him to tears several times. It also opened the flood gates on old Chad Reed memories in Australia. On the world stage, we didn’t know much about Reed before his one strong season in MXGP (he finished second in points in the premier 250 GP class in 2001, which, considering how young he was, and that Chad was always more of a supercross guy, is an early example of defying the odds). By ’02, he was in the U.S. In Australia, you’ll find people who remember him in the late ‘90s, challenging for pro wins as soon as he was 16, already with greater ambitions of conquering America. I’m sure even then Chad’s goals seemed perhaps too much and probably just straight cocky, but he made good on his word. It’s what he always does, so for Australian fans in 2019 to see him get Anderson for the lead, well, it seemed like a greatest-hits reel of Chad’s against-all-odds American moments summed up in one glorious three-second charge. Good on ya’ mates.
Look, here in the U.S. we really don’t know much about Australians. We’re not really very good at knowing a lot about anything outside of our borders. So, while I’m far from an expert on foreign culture, I do feel like Chad’s self-assured mentally tough rebellious desire represents the Aussie sprit pretty well. We long ago stopped defining Chad Reed as an Australian. We just know Chad as Chad. But, to see Chad in his old element and hear war stories from people who knew him way back when, it was a nice reminder of where he’s come from. You can take the Chad Reed out of Australia, but the Australia never left Chad Reed.
|1||Justin Brayton||Fort Dodge, IA||1 - 2 - 3||Honda|
|2||Jason Anderson||Edgewood, NM||7 - 1 - 1||Husqvarna|
|Yoncalla, OR||3 - 4 - 2||Yamaha|
|4||Brett Metcalfe||4 - 6 - 4||Honda|
|5||Chad Reed||Kurri Kurri||2 - 7 - 5||Honda|
To complete the Australian story, Jett Lawrence was on tap for his first professional supercross. This was quickly pitched as the full circle narrative, Reed beginning the end while Lawrence begins the beginning. However, I was a little worried for Jett in this position. The 16-year-old has already shown a remarkable appetite for the microphone and spotlight, but he’s still just 16 and a complete rookie to supercross. At this point, Jett’s potential is a given, but there are always cautionary tales about things that could come along to derail it. Can he stay grounded? Can he stay healthy? Can he avoid the pressure?
To that end, I was happy that the kid just acted normal—and maybe a little bit nervous—when I interviewed him on press day on Friday. The constant jabs at his brother Hunter are fun, the donut jokes are good, but you can’t be funny and clever in every interview ever. Sometimes you just have to plod along, low profile, and learn the ropes. Also, Jett is a bit early in his development in supercross. The goal right now is just to not mess up the future.
That said, yeah, the kid made plenty of mistakes on the slippery race track, but he showed marked improvement each time out. There are literally five minutes between each of the three SX2 Mains (they run the three 250 races back to back to back, unlike a Triple Crown in the U.S. where you alternate classes). Jett somehow looked months more experienced after each five-minute break. His 4-3-2 scores are completely illustrative of his improvement, and he coulda’ shoulda’ won the final race if not for muffing up a rhythm lane on the last lap and allowing Mitchell Oldenburg to get an opening. That was perfect—enough to build confidence but to also stay humble.
One more Lawrence note: I got to talk to Darren Lawrence (the dad) a bit and he’s one smart guy. He also tells it straight to his kids, lest they start believing their own hype. That will serve them well.
|1||Mitchell Oldenburg||Alvord, TX||1 - 5 - 1||Honda|
|2||Chris Blose||Phoenix, AZ||2 - 1 - 4||Honda|
|3||Jay Wilson||Palm Beach||3 - 2 - 3||Yamaha|
|4||Jett Lawrence||Landsborough||4 - 3 - 2||Honda|
|5||Regan Duffy||9 - 6 - 6||KTM|
Okay, so two main themes emerged from this event. First, that old-guy angle, and the Reed/Lawrence tie up. The final piece? The event itself.
AUS-X Open was well-received in its first few years, but those first events all built into this, a move from a small building in Sydney to a big one in Melbourne. The goal was to draw 35,000 fans, which seemed like a magical number when you heard any Australian state it. That’s a normal U.S. supercross crowd, but even to someone like Reed, a race of this scale in Australia is a life-long dream. Doing something for the first time is not easy. From all the stories I heard, the folks at AME Management (who produce this event, and yes, paid me to come over as part of the TV broadcast, full disclosure) had to jump through major hoops to make this event happen. In the U.S., we have decades of proof that big motorsports events can operate safely inside big domed sports stadiums. It’s still new Down Under, and so there were quite a few weird restrictions in place. For example, the stadium is built with a parking garage underneath the floor, so the AME had to place 1,700 (!) floor jacks under the stadium floor to insure it wouldn’t collapse under the weight of the dirt. This also meant a bull dozer couldn’t drive onto the floor, which complicated track prep. Also, in the pits, bikes could only be fueled in a designated fuel area, and one person had to poor gas, and another had to stand next to that person holding a fire extinguisher. On it went. Lots of restrictions and elements to deal with.
Also, as I mentioned after the New Zealand S-X Open two weeks ago, AME packs a whole lot of stuff into the show. Three mains in each class, two heat races per class, a 450-class superpole competition, and freestyle and even a celebrity race (which somehow drew legit Australian Rules Football stars to race laps on Yamaha TT-R110s. I don’t think we’re getting Tom Brady to roll some jumps on a TT-R in Foxboro next year). There was also a drum-solo battle between some Aussie rock stars (I think) and a famous DJ girl spinning tunes. So much stuff to pack into one night. I was waiting for something to run long, get messed up or simply not happen at all. Yet, it all went off without a hitch. The show was very, very well done when you score extra points for level of difficulty. Hey, getting into this stadium, getting this many fans, and pulling off this show wasn’t easy, but Reed leads the charge on showing how much the Aussie spirit can overcome. They definitely earned this evening.
Here's a few more pictures Weege captured down under.
Main Image: AME Management