The 2020 Lucas Oil AMA Pro Motocross Championship had its first dry race of the season at the Ironman National in Crawfordsville, Indiana. We fired off questions the way of long-time pro Jason Thomas to get his insight on the key takeaways from everything that happened at round three.
Big variance lap to lap on the gaps—a guy would pull away, and guy would close in, and that's how most of a moto would go. What caused this?
The early morning rain (ahem, Weege) created a great racetrack. It was also easy to make mistakes on. The long ruts were very hard to navigate and the lines were ever changing. Putting in the exact same lap time over and over was just not realistic in such tricky conditions. One mistake in a deep corner could easily cost a full second, not to mention the implied momentum lost down the next straight-away.
Do guys practice ruts or certain skills that help in ruts? What's the key? Balance? Steady application of power? Can bike setup help?
It’s difficult to replicate conditions like we saw on Saturday. That Ironman soil gets very sticky and regardless of how you prepare dirt in Florida or California, it simply doesn’t have the same feel as Midwest loam. I can’t remember ever riding a track in Florida that shared the same long, tacky ruts of a track like Ironman Raceway or Loretta Lynn’s, for that matter. The biggest key to improving on dirt like that is simply experience.
As far in intraday improvement, understanding how a track like that likes to be ridden can help. Attempting to blitz this type of track and forcing it to submit to your aggression will usually end up in endless mistakes or a crash. As it dries, the aggression level can be ramped up (Barcia in the second moto), but when it’s still soft and treacherous, it must be respected. Approaches like Marvin Musquin employs are usually the most prudent. Instead of forcing his will onto a track, he takes what is given and makes the most of that. He hops over bumps, avoids burying his front wheel into deeper sections, and stays vigilant in adapting his line selection.
Can you talk about using the brakes to manipulate the bike through those rutted turns? Do guys drag the brake (front or rear) through there?
I never used this technique but some definitely do. Using the brake through a corner is meant to keep the bike planted and steady. I did drag the rear brake through rough sections while going in a straight line, but it was not a habit I would recommend. I would often overheat my rear brakes, boiling the brake fluid and losing pressure. It also slowed my overall momentum which is so critical to maintain. On the benefit side, it was the rear tire would respond well to a light application of the rear brake. Larger bumps would be dampened a bit as the rear tire felt “held down” by the friction that the rear brake was causing. Instead of the rear wheel freely bouncing all over the track, that rear brake acted as another way of managing those bumps. By dragging the rear brake, the rear wheel’s speed would not vary as much as it transitioned from bouncing into the air and then coming back down to the dirt. That added quite a bit more control, and reduced wheel spin. Some riders like to drag the front brake through a rutted turn, but that’s a completely different technique.
Does Zach Osborne having an off weekend change the picture from a confidence perspective?
I think there was a different reaction between all of the riders. For Zach, his first moto was a tough pill to swallow. He had a run-in with another rider that cost him valuable points and arguably disrupted his moto enough to cause another mistake a few laps later. He didn’t go full meltdown but losing double digit points in one moto is a great way to turn a comfortable points lead into a very tense battle. His second moto was better but he still lost five points to the defending champ. I think his confidence level is still intact but he has to be kicking himself over that first moto.
For Musquin, it was a tale of two motos. That first one was outstanding and he had to be overjoyed at around 3:15 p.m. He would have believed he was “back” and fully recovered from a long knee rehabilitation. His second moto was not nearly as convincing, though. He didn’t look to have the same intensity and that could simply be a symptom of such a long layoff. That last 1 percent containing quick energy recovery and fitness resilience is the final component of overcoming an injury. I am sure he will take the positives from the day and realize that his body will respond quickly. His body was fit enough to deal with the quick turnaround for years, so he has the roadmap. Muscle memory will be his biggest friend moving forward. Look for him to get better in this regard, and quickly.
For Eli Tomac, I looked at this Ironman race as a huge sigh of relief. He is the three-time defending champion. Being 40 points down after two rounds was not in the playbook. He had not won a moto and really hadn’t flexed his best stuff just yet. More importantly, the mystique that is Eli Tomac was starting to be questioned, even if just a tiny bit. For riders, every time you are able to outduel your toughest rival (for everyone else on that gate, that is Tomac, by default), your confidence grows. Riders will subconsciously think, “Maybe he is human after all” and that can make it easier to stay calm when he’s stalking from behind. That sentiment can grow quickly if unchecked. Tomac really needed to come out and prove that there is a reason he rides with a #1 on his motorcycle. He did exactly that. Even if still down 27 points, he served notice to those with plans of dethroning the king.
Where you at all concerned with Tomac after qualifying? Does the race win change the mental outlook from his perspective—or maybe concern everyone else?
I only felt that qualifying reinforced the struggles we saw at the first two rounds. His speed edge seems to be less than in previous seasons. He is still capable of winning, as we saw, but he would have run away with that second moto in previous years. The field is very tight right now, maybe the tightest in a generation. Tomac may still prove to be the best of the group but the margin for error is virtually nil in 2020. He can’t have bad weekends and expect to overcome them and win. He has already run into adversity and can’t afford more.
What can cause the small variances that made all the differences in these races? (Examples: Marvin goes 1-6, Osborne the 7-3.)
This is due to the depth of the class. A small difference in a performance can cost you several spots this season. The addition of Chase Sexton and Adam Cianciarulo, the rise of Zach Osborne, and the resurgence of Justin Barcia has added to the expected frontrunners like Tomac and Musquin. That makes for six riders that I believe can win and doesn’t even include Blake Baggett who we have seen break out when we least expect it (High Point 2019). The depth of this class is forcing riders to bring their best stuff every moto. An “off day” for one of the elites would result in a third or fourth place finish in years past. Now, it will relegate you to sixth or seventh. That’s a big difference over the course of a season.
Fantasy killers and winners.
Fantasy motocross giveth and taketh away with zero conscience. It is impossible to predict whether or not a rider will have a good moto or bad moto, a crash, a mechanical issue, etc. The motorcycles in 2020 perform very well but they also seem to be very temperamental, too. There is no worse feeling for a fantasy owner than endlessly waiting for your rider to cross the finish line and then tearfully watching his name slide down the results column.
This weekend, riders like Luke Renzland, Benny Bloss, Justin Bogle, Mathias Jorgensen, Nick Gaines, Pierce Brown, and Shane McElrath all had team owners shaking their heads. DNF’s and crashes set these riders back. The reasons vary widely but the frustration is all the same.
On the upside, many riders made it happen on Saturday. Brandon Hartranft scored a perfect 100 points with his 3-4 score. His ride was a revelation. Right on his heels, Jett Lawrence showed up as well. His 4-5 finishes were good enough for 76 points and provided a nice bounceback after 0 points at Loretta Lynn’s 2. Speaking of bounceback, Jo Shimoda finally showed some of that potential that led GEICO Honda to bring him into the pro ranks. While he wasn’t in the podium fight, he was moving forward all day and looked the part. Many of the privateers paid big points, too. Riders like Kevin Moranz, Jerry Robin, Derek Kelley, Jace Kessler and Hardy Munoz may not be household names but they are an example of how fantasy weekends are won.
For the 450 heroes, it was the privateers that won the day. Grant Harlan, Jared Lesher, Coty Schock, Henry Miller, Mcclellan Hile, and Tristan Lewis all performed well. They had company from factory riders like Dean Wilson and Fredrik Noren but the path to success was clearly with the lesser known heroes. The more obvious picks of Benny Bloss, Justin Bogle, Joey Savatgy, Christian Craig, and the like all came with a bit of pain. Their one good/one bad finishes make it very difficult to climb the results column.
These two RedBud rounds will be interesting. Teams will have a chance to pick whoever they want over the course of those two rounds but the timing could be critical. Picking them on the day they finish both motos is all I want for Christmas.