Main image by Mitch Kendra
For once, the bad luck finally got someone besides Austin Forkner. A massive first-turn crash erupted in Detroit, but Forkner was up ahead of it, away from the carnage.
“I heard it going in, we started braking,” he says. “I could hear tires grinding and bikes clanking, and I knew that there was some sort of a pile up or else guys just got really sketchy. And then whenever I came around, there were still guys down, I think both of my teammates were still down and, and I saw KTM, I think I had to weave. That's why I feel like this one was so special to me because I was there last year. I was there. I blew my knee out. I was done for the season last year in a very similar deal except it was just me.”
After his essentially season-ending crash last year, Forkner has always put some blame on himself. Had he gotten a better start last year at Anaheim, maybe he wouldn’t have gotten tangled and crashed.
“Yeah, I mean, that's literally what I thought of,” he says. “Whenever I was the one down and out, maybe that wouldn't happen if I got a better start. Maybe that's proven. That didn't happen [this year] because I got a better start.
“I've been a good starter in the past,” he says. “I've been visualizing, I've been thinking about this. If I can just get a start, I know that I can be that 2019, 2020, you know, Austin, and ride like that and be a title contender. But over the past couple of years, obviously, I've struggled with injury, but I've struggled with starts.”
Forkner was safe with the early lead, but he also had to hold steady. Not all of his years-long run of injuries have occurred off the start. His focus during his preseason with on-bike trainer Ryan Hughes has been trying to stay in control. It looked that way in Detroit. Forkner, once a house of fire on the racetrack, now looked to be going slower than he actually was. He didn’t look like he was going that fast, but he was.
“That's absolutely the goal,” he says. “I mean, that's kind of what Jett [Lawrence] does. That's why he's as good as he is on a dirt bike. Typically when you can go fast and you look like you're not…that’s hard to do, first off, and second off, it saves energy, so you can be a fitter rider, and if you're in control, that makes you a safer rider. So yes, doing that, that was definitely the goal. I can be fast and be smooth. That actually happened at the test track a couple weeks ago. I was riding and Tony [Archer, mechanic] and just some of the guys on my team looked at my times and they were like, ‘That's not right. It's not right.’ Like it just didn't line up with how I looked. That's a good thing. I was like, ‘Okay, we're on the right track then.’”
Forkner has wrestled with the weight of expectations before. This year, he’s focused on nothing but his riding and not lap times or results.
“Even in qualifying, even on press day, I just tried to do what we've been working on at the test track,” said Forkner. “That's what was constantly being reminded to me by my mechanic, Tony. Do the things we’ve done this whole off-season, which has been a good off-season. At the test track, you know, you’ve some days where guys are faster than you at the test track. Okay, well, let's not worry about them. I don't need to be the fastest guy at the test track every day. I need to be the fastest in the main event on race night, and sometimes not even the fastest, maybe just the smoothest, maybe the most technically sound on the bike. So, we went with that approach, and I feel like has helped, get the season started like it like it has tonight.”
What’s he working on?
“I mean, I think it just comes down to what's been my Achilles heel: injuries,” he says. “It’s not rocket science to see that. So, we kind of started with just what's gonna try to make me not necessarily a faster rider, because speeds never really been an issue for me. It's been the longevity. Making my speed something that my technique could handle. Maybe my drive, my just, ‘Do it, do it, go, go, go,’ maybe outweighed some of the smaller things that maybe I needed to work on. It was overshadowing a lot of other things, which maybe was the reason why I was getting hurt. So, I feel like [it helped] slowing down and working on some of the technique things. It's not crazy. I mean, a lot of you can go to Ryno's Instagram and see kind of what he preaches and what he's about. Working on that stuff combining it with Charles [Dao] in the gym.”
Forkner used the word “redemption” quite a bit after the race. Starting the race and the season up front is a story he’s wanted to tell for far too many years. He’d been down so long, he’s switched into the underdog role, and fans are happy to see the rebuild.
“That felt really good, gave me confidence and I'm stoked that the fans are rooting for me too,” said Forkner. “Maybe I'm a little bit of an underdog. I don't know. I guess I don't really care either way. But it's good to see the support. Maybe I've said some things and I've kind of been polarizing in the past but, at the end of the day I'm just pretty real and I don't sugar coat things to myself or to social media, to anybody. I think that rubs some people wrong, but I think after the past few years and seeing, you know, some of the injuries and stuff that I've gone through and continue to fight back from, I think, you know, at least people, if they don't like me, at least they can respect that. So, that’s maybe why I got a little bit of extra fan love, but I’ll take it either way.”