When the world as we knew it was flipped upside-down in early March, it was hard then to fathom what the 2020 Lucas Oil Pro Motocross championship would look like. A national motocross race without fans on the sidelines was a strange concept to grasp but it quickly seemed like the reality we’d be left with. Through the hard work of MX Sports and the dedication from the Safe to Race Task Force, the gates could finally be dropped on Saturday for the season, before a limited crowd and for the first time ever at the Loretta Lynn Ranch in Hurricane Mills, Tennessee.
It may not be Hangtown in May, and it may not be ideal circumstances for anyone, but motocross racing is finally back. There was little to the imagination as to who the clear contenders would be for this year’s Lucas Oil Pro Motocross championship. Eli Tomac coming in as the three-time and defending 450 class champion firmly placed him atop the stack of cards. Tomac’s pedestal spot seemed even stronger when Honda HRC’s Ken Roczen announced he would sit out the Pro Motocross campaign to recover from many nagging ailments.
So, who would challenge Tomac? That’s why we drop the gate. Not being able to see if the likes of Marvin Musquin, Cooper Webb, Zach Osborne, Jason Anderson, Justin Barcia, Blake Baggett, Chase Sexton, Adam Cianciarulo, or any other of the many challengers could dethrone Eli Tomac would have been a disappointment for many. Instead, we got to see that it’s not going to be as cut and dry as many expected.
It all started off with a muddy mess of timed qualifying sessions in the morning where the first to draw blood was Red Bull KTM’s Cooper Webb. Webb put down an astonishing lap time that was nearly three seconds faster than anyone in the first session. He would only narrowly be outdone but Honda HRC rookie Chase Sexton in his 450 class debut as the Illinois-native topped the sheets overall with a blistering lap in the second qualifying session.
Mixed into a normal top spot but not quite shining through was Tomac. The Monster Energy Kawasaki mounted rider managed to end up seventh in the times which turned out to be a foreshadowing of what was to come at race time.
When the gates finally dropped, it was a surprising barrage of Suzuki’s out front between the JGRMX/Suzuki Factory Racing duo of Fredrik Noren and Joey Savatgy along with Twisted Tea H.E.P. Suzuki’s Max Anstie. But slicing through everyone before the first lap of the season was even over was Rockstar Energy Husqvarna’s Jason Anderson. ‘El Hombre’ as he’s often referred had only ever collected two moto wins during his 450 career, but the now-veteran of the class could have fooled anyone as he quickly pulled out a comfortable lead on the field and cruised home to a race victory.
Behind him, Tomac ran into some unforeseen difficulties as he dropped from his early fourth place position back to seventh by the end of the race. It was a strikingly similar situation to what occurred eight months ago in Angels Stadium in Anaheim where Tomac fought some arm pump to bring it home sixth at the opener of the 2020 Monster Energy AMA Supercross championship. Tomac admitted at the end of the day that they had gone the wrong direction when it came to setup and it altered his performance late in moto one. Fortunately for Tomac, he was able to get things turned around in the second moto where he brought it home in second place.
“We went back to some old things we know, and it was a lot better in the result there…It was a good improvement there, that moto one finish was frustrating to say the least,” Tomac said. “It’s always a fine line between using what you used at the practice track when you think it’s sweet, but then you never know in the races. Yeah moto one, after halfway I just started going backwards, I wasn’t comfy with the lines, the ruts were everywhere. Made a front-end change for moto two, back to what I was on in the past and it really worked.”
Tomac’s slow start was curtailed by a one-two punch by the Rockstar Energy Husqvarna duo of the aforementioned Anderson and second-year 450 class ace Zach Osborne. Anderson’s impressive moto one win was equaled by Osborne in the second moto where the Virginia native fought off several late race challenges from Tomac to claim the race win and his first career 450 class overall victory.
A fitting first for Osborne who had a fruitful amateur career in the early to mid-2000’s before his pro career took a bit of a tumble early on. Osborne spent five years in Europe racing the MX2 World Championship and re-invented his career in the process. Now he has made it to the pinnacle of supercross with a win at the finale two months ago and in motocross as he continues his hot streak having claimed the opener.
“It means a lot, I mean I’ve worked really hard to come back from my injury [in the spring] and to be here on the podium, I’m blessed," Osborne said afterwards. "I knew we had a racehorse when we came here today because it was the bike I finished with at Indiana last year...When a team brings you a bike like that, it’s hard to not do it justice.”
With back-to-back wins over two series on a 450 Osborne feels like he’s finally believing he belongs at the front of the elite pack. “It’s coming but it’s hard to make that transition,” said Osborne of no longer being intimidated by the 450 field. “I missed a lot of time last year, but the Salt Lake (supercross) thing helped me a lot with confidence and the sense of belonging. I’m not panicking, I’m riding like I practice. I feel like it’s just more straight forward racing.”
While Osborne is a relative newcomer to the 450 division, he’s a racing veteran for certain, and he had good perspective on how to manage the race on this day.
“This is what I refer to as a status quo track,” he said. “You’re not going to go faster than a 1:57, but two mistakes will put you back at a 2:04 before you even know what would happen. You’re trying so hard not to make mistakes even while trying to maintain a decent pace.”
For Anderson’s efforts, he was able to salvage second on the day despite a rough sixth place finish in moto two. Despite that, there were still plenty of reasons to be happy for Anderson who underwent a major training program switch in the middle of this year when he left acclaimed trainer Aldon Baker and began working on his own program. The moto win and podium overall was a good way to start off on the right foot for Anderson.
“First moto went really good I got out front and honestly it was the clear track,” said Anderson. “I think if anyone had a clear track like that they could have done that. Those guys were taking the good lines from each other. Second moto I started tightening up a little bit, Eli got by me, I tried to learn a little bit, then a tangled with a lapper and I really pumped up. I got train rolled by all these guys.”
“Honestly, everyone thinks there was going to be huge change in my program because I’m not working with Aldon [Baker],” said Anderson. “At the end of the day, I needed a change of scenery. I’m working hard and doing motos the same way I would have done if I was still at the Baker’s Factory. I’m enjoying myself. I’ve been with Dean [Wilson], Jett Lawrence, and Hunter Lawrence, so that little bit of young guns and enthusiasm that they bring to the table makes my day really easy.”
Other notables featured the return of Marvin Musquin who put together a fourth overall finish on the day in his first race back from a tough knee injury that kept him out of the races for nearly an entire year.
“It’s great to be back – almost a year since my last race at Indiana last year in August and it’s good,” said Musquin in a Red Bull KTM team statement. “I put in some good work and it gave me time to get ready so I’m okay where I’m at. It was good to start the championship right now. To be out there and to be competitive, that’s exactly what I wanted. When you’re not racing for a year like that actually, to be honest, I didn’t know where I was going to be. Those guys kill it in supercross and have two months of preparation for the outdoors. But overall, I’m happy and a little bit bummed about my day. I had a great start in the first moto but too shy on the first corner and let off too early and guys got around me. My first laps were not good – the first 10 minutes I was fighting with guys and I should have been more in the front. But then the riding came around, better technique and better riding – and I actually came back to fourth, so I was pleased with that. In the second moto, I wanted to get a better start, which I did, and I was in a better position. Maybe lost a couple positions but it was a good fight with the guys and fortunately I went around Sexton, but he got me back and I lost rhythm a little bit. Baggett went around me, and I got fifth. I wish I would have hung on to that and get on the podium, but I mean, it’s my first race back and fourth overall, I’ll take it. To be on the podium would have been great, it would have been fun but it’s only the first round so we’ll come back here next weekend.”
Monster Energy Yamaha’s Justin Barcia spent both motos working up from rough starts but did manage a top five overall finish after a hard-earned podium in the first moto. His charge to third in the first race was impressive. Barcia has been putting in laps at Matt Walker’s Loretta’s replica track for the last few weeks, and it showed.
Rookies turned heads in this one. Sexton turned his fastest qualifying effort into eighth overall on his debut with a podium in the second moto to boot. He was up front early in the first moto but crashed several times, leading to a 13th-place finish. He was much more calculated in moto two, even admitting he backed it down a bit midway through the moto to stay in control. He then regrouped and passed Musquin back to retake a podium spot.
All the while, fellow rookie Adam Cianciarulo had a wild ride while leading the second moto that ended his day early. Cianciarulo came from pretty far back in moto one to card a strong sixth. His crash was leading moto two early was spectacular, a feet-off-the-pegs flyer just after the amateur finish line jump. He was lucky to get up unhurt, but his Kawasaki was far too twisted to continue.
There were many questions about how the Loretta’s track, used for the AMA Amateur National and quite a bit tighter and smaller than a normal pro national track, would hold up for this type of racing. Heavy doses of rain Thursday and Friday didn’t help the cause, but the rutted, gnarly conditions impressed most of the riders, and provided all the challenge they needed.
“Today, it shaped up with a lot of good character,” said Tomac. “The only mistakes of the weekend was they ripped the track crazy deep on Friday and then the rain came. If they left it sealed it would have been a better racetrack with less sink holes, but character, building throughout the day, it turned out better than I expected for what Loretta’s would be for a (pro) national.”
“I thought it would be a good track,” said Osborne. “There were a lot of concerns about being too narrow or too small. It did shape up pretty gnarly. The rut before the ten commandments was probably 200 feet long or whatever. It went on forever. I think next weekend will be even better with what they learned this weekend.”
“I thought the track was really gnarly, it shaped up better than I thought it would all in all it was a good racetrack,” said Anderson. “It was almost too gnarly because we couldn’t move around and use all the lines, just because it was so deep and so wet. With all the rain, can’t complain. Yeah, great track.”
The 250 class which brought two-time 250SX West Region Supercross champion Dylan Ferrandis to the forefront. The Monster Energy/Star Racing Yamaha rider finished second in the championship last year to Cianciarulo and was looking for one better in 2020. A strong contingent of contenders featuring fellow teammate Justin Cooper, GEICO Honda teammates Jeremy Martina and Hunter Lawrence, Rockstar Energy Husqvarna’s RJ Hampshire, and many more was sure to provide some interesting storylines for the opener.
Ferrandis wasted no time in asserting his claim as the top dog in the series as he laid down the fastest qualifying time of the morning which was also over three seconds faster than anyone else. Given the mixed conditions, it wasn’t exactly a time you could hang your hat on, but it was a big boost of confidence for Ferrandis whether he needed it or not that he was clearly in the zone.
Once the gates dropped, it was clear that qualifying was no fluke either. Justin Cooper grabbed the first holeshot of the season, but it was Ferrandis who quickly moved around Cooper and teammate Shane McElrath to lead the first lap of the season. From there, it was essentially curtains in moto one for Ferrandis who pulled out to a comfortable lead. Afterwards, Ferrandis admitted he wasn’t pushing as hard given the heat and humidity and might have even left more pace on the table.
“The conditions were tough on the start because it’s hard packed and you go 10 feet and you’re on the soft dirt,” said Ferrandis of his start.” All moto I just tried to save the bike because this humidity and this heat are hard on the engine. I didn’t know what to expect of my engine, so I tried to save the bike and I didn’t push really hard. I just tried to manage the gap.”
The second moto was much of the same story although Ferrandis did have to work a bit more for it after a sixth-place start. By the halfway point however, the Frenchman had made his way to the front and was in no mood to look back. In the end, it was a perfect day for Ferrandis who already takes an eight-point lead in the championship with him into round two. The only downfall might be that some of his nearest championship rivals put together consistent days behind him.
RJ Hampshire turned his freshly reconstructed ACL into a second-place finish in his first race back after having knee surgery just four months ago. Having put together 3-2 scores, he split motos with Jeremy Martin who went 2-3 for his first Pro Motocross race back since a horrific back injury in 2018. Both riders had reason to be happy coming back from the hiatus and converting on solid days.
“Realistically I haven’t been a podium guy every weekend and that’s what I want to be,” said Hampshire, looking to improve his consistency this year. “I just settled in, I matched Dylan a little bit but man he had some good lines. He was good today.”
Hampshire’s bounce back from the ACL surgery is impressive.
“I truly believe once you set your mind to something, your body is going to believe it, and you make it happen,” he said. “When I found out I was going to miss supercross I was really bummed out and bummed out for my team. I felt like I let them down. I was set on making it back for the outdoor season and not just be back but be competitive. I feel like I did that today.”
Martin said he was surprised how slippery the dirt was off the start, so he struggled a bit with his starts. He was too far back to do anything with Ferrandis in the first moto once he got to second.
“I could see he knew where I was, and I knew where he was too, he was watching me,” said Martin. “I knew he’s too crafty and too solid and I knew I wasn’t going to get him. For sure in moto two I saw all the boys (off the start), I was like, 'You can’t sit behind these guys. They’re fast, they’re good.' I lost some ground from a lack of making moves at the beginning of the race.”
It was a rough day for Justin Cooper, though. After starting up front both motos, Cooper could only manage 10-8 scores on the day and appears to be still off his game following a rough end to supercross. Teammate Shane McElrath was solid, though, putting two fourth place finishes on the board but wasn’t quite satisfied with his performance given his current feeling on the bike.
“It’s a great start to the season for me compared to past years,” said McElrath. “But the way that I feel and the way that I’ve been riding, fourth is not so good. …I struggled with the track a little bit, but I also figured out the track a lot throughout the day. I feel like we’re just getting started but I feel like we’ve got some good things to do.”
Rounding out the top five was JGRMX/Suzuki Factory Racing’s Alex Martin who put together a 5-5 day on the technical track. Martin was solid despite a crash in the first moto that dropped him back initially and sets himself up well in points early on. Hunter Lawrence did not have the day he was looking for as a DNF in the first moto and 14th in moto two was far from ideal for the elder Lawrence brother. His younger brother Jett did have a good day, however, as he would end up sixth overall with two rides that left him coming through the field.
Standout rides could also be seen from Mason Gonzales and Carson Mumford who even found themselves battling inside the top 10 in moto one. Gonzales would pick up an impressive ninth overall with two consistent rides in his pro debut on the Rock River Yamaha. Mumford, who tried two pro races last year, was left making amends for a bad start and early fall in moto two that left him having to charge forward and salvage a 13th overall.
The series now goes exactly zero miles in one week as we are back at the Ranch for round two of Lucas Oil Pro Motocross next Saturday. The Washougal National that was initially supposed to be the second round was canceled yesterday and the travelling parade that is Pro Motocross quickly filled the void in the schedule with the second ever Pro National at Loretta Lynn’s next week. We’ll see you then.