On Saturday morning and some 4,901 miles away from Hurricane Mills, Tennessee, and all the comings and goings and non-stop racing that has been going on at the 2020 Monster Energy AMA Loretta Lynn’s Amateur Motocross Championship, 24-year-old American Thomas Covington sat alone in his hotel room in the town of Riga, Latvia. The capital of Latvia and home to the 627,487 inhabitants who hold station on the Gulf of Riga, a mere 50 kilometers away from the town and Covington’s high-rise hotel room exists the hamlet of Kegums and the sprawling hard sand circuit known as Motocenter “Zelta Zirgs.” Site of Sunday’s MXGP of Latvia and the long awaited spooling up of the 2020 Federation Internationale de Motocyclisme Motocross World Championship, it is here that the Gebben Van Venrooy Yamaha team rider will roll out on to the 1,780 meter hard sand circuit atop his Yamaha YZ450F to take on Jeffrey Herlings (KTM), Tim Gajser (Honda), Antonio Cairoli (KTM), Gautier Paulin (Yamaha), Romain Febvre (Kawasaki), and many other feared world class motocross racers.
Ultimately, the MXGP restart would prove a tough one for the American, who finished 29th overall. Covington’s been on a roller coaster ride for his career through the last few years, including an ill-fated stop in America. He’s returned to Europe, but is aged out of the MX2 class, leading him to his first full season on a 450. Then the whole global pandemic thing put all racing on hold. We reached Covington just before the resumption of the MXGP season.
“Riga, where I’m at right now, is a pretty cool town,” pointed out Covington on Saturday morning, pausing for a moment to ask this writer how things were going back in Tennessee and at Loretta Lynn’s, an event in which he won national championships in the 51cc (4-6) Stock, 85cc (9-11) Stock, and 250 B Modified divisions on his way to becoming a full-on factory rider. “It’s not a bad place to be for 10 days. It could be a lot worse, for sure. It’s like it always is with traveling around and doing the GPs and seeing all the familiar faces. I think a lot of guys are actually camping out at the track in motorhomes for this race, so I’ll see all of them tomorrow.
“It’s all been going pretty good,” continued Covington, a newcomer to the premier MXGP classification, whether he based in Europe or Corona, California. “I’m just sitting in the hotel room here. I’ve done a couple of warmup races coming into this weekend. I did a Dutch championship race and then I also did a British MX National race in England this past weekend, so I’ve just been trying to get back into the swing of things and back behind the gate again and getting some more race time on the 450.”
As the old adage proclaims that there is nothing better at getting a professional motocross rider in fighting trim and up to full speed better than racing, Covington just nodded and said, “Yeah, I think racing is the best thing for me right now.”
Off of a season of racing in the United States of America in 2019 where injuries and the much-maligned Epstein-Barr Virus basically sabotaged his hopes, efforts, and dreams for 18 months, Covington quietly took a deal with the aforementioned Gebben Van Venrooy Yamaha organization to ride the MXGP division in 2020 and moved back over to Europe with his new wife Amy.
“At the end of last year, my wife and I moved back over to England where she is from,” said Covington. “We rented a place there and we were just trying to get settled it and at the same time, we were trying to get ready for the MXGP season and then all of this stuff happened with the coronavirus. The break we’ve had was actually nice for us just to go back to England and get moved in and settled in because it has been a crazy last couple of years for us. It was nice to have a little bit of time to settle in and get into a routine. For sure the uncertain times were a bummer in a lot of ways, but at the same time, it was good to take advantage of all the spare time that we had.”
Like many other racers the world over, and we mean racers of all types and from all sorts of fossil fuel-burning racing disciplines, throughout the forced and mandated lockdown all have been forced to adhere to, what has frustrated Covington the most throughout the past five months of COVID-19 nothingness has been the absence of a target to hit. In other words, when and where would racing resume and what did he need to do to be prepared?
“Yeah, that’s true. I know what you mean,” nodded Covington. “You have all this time to get better physically and train and do whatever you need to do to race, but it’s hard to kind of build up for something when you don’t have a date. It’s like what are you building up for, you know? For sure it was a struggle to stay motivated throughout the whole time and to stay on the program and to keep going with it whether there was going to be a race or not. Now, it’s good to have some dates put into the calendar and we’ve been able to look forward to working towards them and having a plan put together.
“Now, it’s finally coming to a head here for the first round in Latvia tomorrow,” continued Covington. “A lot of people weren’t sure if it was going to go ahead. So many things could have gone wrong with all of us traveling from all over the world. Traveling all the way here to a place such as Latvia, there were a lot of unknowns, but so far, it seems like everything has gone real smoothly. I haven’t actually been out to the track yet, but all of the teams seem to have gotten there. All the trucks are there. All the riders that I now have gotten here fine and without any trouble.
“We’ll have to have a coronavirus test before we enter the paddock and we’ll probably be tested several times throughout the next week and a half. I’m not really looking forward to that, but if it’s what we have to do to go racing, I’m fine with it. I’m just thankful we’re able to do a race, you know?”
As anyone who may be reading this piece can certainly attest to, the FIM MXGP class is replete with riding talent and factory support. Just look at the current MXGP point standings and the surnames such as World Champions Herlings, Febvre, Cairoli, and defending champion Gajser and it’s enough to make any rider—even Eli Tomac and Cooper Webb and Ken Roczen—shiver in their boots.
“Yeah, you know better than me, but there are probably 10 or 15 guys in the 450 class that have all podiumed or won GPs in MX2,” offered Covington, who has himself won four 250 Grands Prix during his FIM career. “Guys that have a shot at being top five or even being on the podium? There are a lot of them. For me, I think just the start is huge just because it is so hard to come through the pack when you’ve got that deep of a class. It’s so important to get out with the front group and to hang with them. Yeah, I’ve been doing tons of starts and I’m just going to try to hang on for as long as I can.”
Although a bit nebulous in retrospect, the 2020 FIM Motocross World Championship season is already two races old. First came the MXGP of Great Britain on March 1, immediately followed a week later by the MXGP of The Netherlands. Both Grands Prix went, well, abysmally bad for Covington and his YZ450F. A pair of 32nd-place finishes at Matterley Basin certainly raised eyebrows in the paddock, and a failure to appear at the starting line for both MXGP races at Valkenswaard sent Covington back to the drawing board to sketch out some sort of new masterplan.
“I wasn’t able to start training and testing as soon as I would have liked to at the beginning of the year and that really showed at the beginning of the season,” explained Covington. “Actually, I didn’t come over to Europe and start training until about January, so I got a little bit of a late start on it all and it was expected to have a tough first few rounds and that’s how it went. With the time off that I’ve had, hopefully I’ll be able to come back a bit stronger for the remainder of the season and just get some positive results going into the next year.”
Don’t count Covington out. As longtime friend, MXGP journalist and MXLarge.com mastermind Geoff Meyer said to me via an e-mail today, “Thomas is a great guy and a rider with a handful of GP wins to his name and I am sure the American can come through those tough experiences of the first two rounds in 2020 and show some top 10 results as he continues his second European motocross challenge, this time on the 450.”
The FIM Motocross World Championship has been running annually since 1957.Now, 63 years later and despite the odd reality that the sport has been up on jacks for five months, the gate will drop into Latvian sand tomorrow afternoon and one Thomas Covington will be back to work in trying to make a run at a world title for employer and benefactor Yamaha.
“I’m not really focused too much on results this year,” he said, thinking it all through for a few moments. “With everything that’s been going on in the world, it’s been a bit crazy. Really, I just want to get time behind the gate and to keep getting better every time I’m on the bike, you know? I want to keep getting the bike dialed-in a little bit better and I want to get more comfortable with the power and weight of the 450. I’m a bit if a smaller guy, so I’ve just really got to ride it with good technique and have a bike that is set up well for me. Yeah, I really just want to focus on getting better. I’ve got the skill to run up there with those guys and it’s just a matter of putting everything together and getting comfortable on the new bike which is just going to take some time. I mean, the 450 class, it’s no joke right now with the talent this thick. You really have to have everything dialed-in and be feeling 100-percent to go battle with these guys.”
Beginning with Brad Lackey (500cc) and Danny Laporte (250cc) in 1982, racers from the United States of America have motored to seven FIM Motocross World Championships. In fact, Californian Bob Moore was the last Yankee to haul an FIM gold medal back to the U.S. upon clinching the 1994 125cc World Championship. And that is a very long time ago. So long ago, in fact, that Thomas Covington of Vernon, Alabama, is now the last American standing and holding up the Stars and Stripes in the MXGP continental circus. Upon mentioning all this to him, and with the sounds of 50cc minicycles emanating from the Loretta Lynn’s Racer X webcast on my computer screen, Covington talked about the extraordinary challenge that’s been put before him.
“Yeah, I haven’t really thought about being the only American here in Latvia,” said Covington. “It’s funny you mention it because the last few years that I’ve raced GPs, I’ve had a couple other Americans over here with me like Darian Sanayei and Mitchell Harrison. Yeah, you’re right, now I’m the only American here and I’m trying to represent as well as I can. Even if it is a really stacked class, I’m just going to do the best that I can and that’s all I can do at the end of the day.”
Images Courtesy of MX Vice/Monster Energy Media