The Historical Oddity of the 2020 Supercross Championship.

The 2020 Supercross series came to a screeching halt after round 10 at Daytona due to the deadly coronavirsus  pandemic. Unfortunately, nobody knew how bad this thing we called COVID-19 really was, and we won’t for years to come. But, we do know that many American families lost loved ones to the virus. 

Locking the border to foreign travel and closing down the economy was a first for the American people. The only real historical data Americans have on such a potential outbreak was the 1918 Spanish Flu, which swept the world by storm. Everyone involved in the decision-making process made mistakes, like the incredible mishandling of nursing homes, which led to a staggering death toll that could have easily been avoided. Shutting down the world was the only option for people running scared from politicians, medical professionals and news reporters that seemed almost ghoulish in their joy of spreading fear. When the dust settles, we’ll be able to see more clearly what should have happened and, sadly, what shouldn’t have happened.

If If you’re wondering why it seems like you’re reading an article out of the New York Times, it’s because I had to get well-informed about COVID-19, the pandemic and the shutdown when Supercross and every other sport on earth had to be put on hold. It may seem a little petty for us to worry about our sport in the face of illness, uncertainty and deaths. Yet, anything related to Supercross is our business. When Supercross came to a screeching halt after round 10, the motorcycle industry held its breath. 

What follows is the story of how the 2020 AMA Supercross series got its wheels turning again. It is a tale of trials and tribulations, not to mention history-making efforts to bump-start the sport. 

Once the Supercross series ground to halt, it was no secret that Feld Motorsports was looking for a venue where they could hold the remaining seven rounds of the 2020 AMA Supercross series. Some of the remaining cities and states on the undone portion of the Supercross schedule were coronavirus hot spots. Conversely, many cities that were not as severely affected by the virus had NFL football teams that had first dibs on their hometown stadiums. Surprise! Supercross took a backseat to tossing the pigskin around. Options were few and far between when Feld narrowed its potential stadiums down to four cities—Phoenix, St. Louis, Salt Lake City and Las Vegas.

Feld Motorsports was close to having a venue locked down in Arizona for the remaining seven Supercross races that would have been perfect. It was close enough for the majority of the teams and riders to drive there from their bases in Southern California, and close enough for the riders to come home between races. It didn’t happen. Why not? The information that Supercross would be holding seven races in Phoenix spread like wildfire in the motocross community. This set off alarm bells in Phoenix, and suddenly the state and city weren’t interested anymore. Rumors were spread like crazy on the possible places that Feld Motorsports could hold the series. At the time, California and New York were sealed up like a Husky airbox. There was even talk of holding the races at Fox Raceway in SoCal because it was on the Pala Indian Reservation and, was a sovereign nation. The Pala Indians didn’t have to deal with California’s rule-crazy mumbo jumbo of restriction if they didn’t want to. It was even said that the team managers deemed St. Louis too far away from the factory team’s headquarters; they didn’t want to put their high-priced commodities on airliners, and then the rest of the American public obviously agreed (all of whom quit flying out of fear of breathing the recycled air of an Airbus).

As the weeks stretched into months, the four potential stadiums narrowed themselves down to two possible sites—Salt Lake City and Las Vegas. Feld had long-standing relationships with the stadium managers, city governments and tourist boards of these two possibilities; neither was the home to any professional sports teams vying for the dates. How to choose which one? Feld wasn’t in the driver’s seat on this issue. The powers that be were in the halls of government. Feld’s Senior Director of Operations, Dave Prater said, “It came down to who would give us the green light first.” 

You might ask, why didn’t Feld just announce that, because of the pandemic, the 2020 AMA Supercross series would be 10 races long and call it a day. No one would have blamed them, least of all points leader Eli Tomac. But, to their credit, Feld Motorsports didn’t want to throw in the towel. They wanted to give Supercross fans what they had been promised—a 17-race AMA Supercross series. They felt that it would be good for the sport, largely because with no other sports being broadcast on TV, they knew they would have good ratings and attract a potentially new audience.

Oh yeah, there is always a money motive involved and, in this case, it’s no secret that Feld Motorsport had promised, via contract, that the series sponsors would get 17 races, 17 TV shows and free advertising for the sponsors on the 17 TV shows. A 10-race series would mean that millions of dollars paid to Feld Motorsports might have to be paid back to the sponsors on a pro-rated basis. We are talking about a lot of money, money that Feld probably didn’t have given that all of their live entertainment shows had been shut down in the name of “social distancing.” Feld was not alone in the fear of breaching sponsorship contracts—all of the teams had strict contract obligations to get in a 17-round season. A 10-race season could have brought financial ruin to the Supercross industry.

For those who know, Utah doesn’t depend on casinos to fuel its economy—and during the pandemic, all of the Las Vegas casinos were boarded up. The Utah Sports Commission and Utah’s governors, past and present, have set the goal of attracting, hosting, and supporting regional, national and international sporting events. Utah has staked a claim that being sports-minded is good for Utah’s economy. Thus, snow skiing, mountain biking, soccer, road cycling, boating, skateboarding, fencing, golf, Judo, snowboarding, disc golf, World Nitro Games, bobsledding, hiking and Supercross are very important to the state of Utah. In fact, the sports that the Utah Sports Commission has brought to the state have returned 2 billion dollars in economic impact since the Commission’s inception in 2000.

Utah was more than willing to play ball with the 2020 AMA Supercross Championships, and Feld Motorsports found its home for the last seven races of the season. It wasn’t all roses, though, because the task of making it all come to fruition was monstrous. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) put Feld Motorsports under a microscope at each and every round. This was a good thing, because NASCAR and Supercross were the test sports to see if events could be held without contracting or spreading COVID-19. 

What precautions did Feld have to take you ask?

Virus testing. Everyone who came to Salt Lake City to be a part of the Supercross series had to be tested for COVID-19. And since getting the test results required 48 hours of waiting time, everyone had to come to Utah three days early. More on this later.

Skeleton crew. Feld, the state of Utah and the CDC agreed that a maximum of only 900 people be allowed on the hard perimeter of Rice-Eccles Stadium, and, of that 900, only 400 would be allowed inside the stadium at any one time. That meant that the teams, riders, media and Feld personnel all had to make major cutbacks on who could be in attendance. It would be a skeleton crew getting the job done. 

Seeking mercy. MXA was one of the few media outlets to be part of the 900. The kicker was MXA had to have the same photographer cover all seven rounds, and he could not leave the state of Utah. You couldn’t leave because you would have to get retested for COVID-19 and wait another 48 hours for the results. With races every Wednesday and Sunday, it was almost impossible to fly home, fly back and still have 48 hours left to be retested in time for the next round of racing. Thus, once in Utah, MXA had to stay for 26 days. This was impossible for me. I had a magazine to wrap up, plus, my pregnant wife wouldn’t be too happy about me leaving her in the family way with our 4-year-old running rampant. I begged for mercy from Feld Motorsports to allow MXA’s video guy, Travis Fant, to become our photo guy at the halfway point so I could be home with the magazine and my wife.

Secret clearance. Before I set foot on the Rice-Eccles property I had to get clearance. The process started with filling out paperwork from the Utah Health Department one week before arriving in Salt Lake City. I had to fly to Salt Lake City three days before the first race to take a COVID-19 test. I will say that flying during the age of COVID-19 was awesome. On my drive to LAX, the 405 freeway was empty. Los Angeles was a ghost town. It took me five minutes to get from where I parked at LAX, take the bus to my terminal, check my bag, get through security and get on the plane. Even better, Delta Airlines didn’t allow anyone to sit in the middle seats (again, social distancing). 

Drive-through. Once I arrived in Salt Lake I went to a designated drive-through COVID-19 testing facility where a person in a hazmat suit asked me some questions and then placed a really long Q-tip deep up my nose to collect cells and fluid. The test didn’t hurt, but it was uncomfortable and made my eyes water. The worst part was that the feeling of the stick up there took a while to go away. If my results said I had COVID-19, I would be quarantined for 72 hours before I could take the test again. If I passed the second test, I would be good to go, although I would have missed at least one race. If the test showed that I had COVID-19, I would be quarantined for 14 days and not be allowed to attend the Supercross races. Luckily, myself and 898 people passed the test. An East Coast 250 rider named Kyle Dillin wasn’t allowed to race as Feld said he was in contact with someone that tested positive.  

Once at the stadium gates, I had all my ducks in a row and was given a wristband that had to be replaced after every round. My top-secret clearance was now complete, but everyone who was cleared had to have their temperature checked every time they entered and reentered the premises. Since MXA had a big three-bike test session scheduled for the Thursday before the first Salt Lake City race, I went to Glen Helen first and flew out that night. I got tested at 9:30 a.m. on Friday morning. By the time my 48 hours had expired, open practice for the first Salt Lake City round had already started on Sunday morning.  

Express yourself. To comply with the health department, everyone who got cleared to be at the race had to either wear a mask or a helmet. There was no specification on what kind of mask to use, no requirement for a surgical-grade N95 mask; they just wanted something covering your face. It was “weird” seeing everyone in masks, but it was interesting to see how people used different mask designs to express themselves. 

Ghost town. It was like something out of the Twilight Zone in Salt Lake City. There were no fans in the stand. No fireworks. No announcing. No scoreboard. No cheering.  And, good for Dylan Ferrandis, no booing. Rice-Eccles Stadium holds 45,000 people, and without them in the stands, the racing just wasn’t as exciting.

Don’t burst my bubble. Staying 6 feet apart? No problem. It is the norm nowadays. The mechanics weren’t allowed to be close to each other or close to the racetrack while pit-boarding their riders. I doubt many riders ever saw what was written on their pit boards. Eventually, the mechanics just gave up and watched their riders go by. The podium was even more comical. Only one rider was allowed on the stage at a time. Microphones were set up on each side of the stage, and announcer Daniel Blair interviewed the winners from 20 feet away. 

Social distancing. Feld and the CDC took social distancing seriously. If I didn’t keep my distance, I would get a text from Feld Motorsports warning me to watch where I went. If you got too close for comfort, you could have your credentials pulled and be sent home.

Commuting to work. If all this wasn’t enough to throw at Feld, how about the riots. Depending on your political sensibilities, you may think of it as a peaceful demonstration, but I had a different view before the first round. I was driving back to my hotel from Rice-Eccles Stadium when protesters blocked the intersection in front of me. “No big deal,” I thought. Then, to the left of me people flipped over a police car and set it on fire! Luckily, the rioting was less violent on race day, but the city was in pain as broken glass scattered the streets, businesses were looted and the air smelled like burned rubber. The riders were concerned about being able to race if the insanity continued. Nerves were calmed when a few policemen in full riot gear stood at the entrance of the stadium just in case. 

Race format. Only the top 40 riders in points from each class were invited. That meant that everyone would make it into the night show. Feld cut the riders’ purse. The 450 class’ year-end points fund was reduced by an average of 22.5 percent, and the overall purse for both classes at the last seven rounds was reduced by an average of 17 percent. The budget cut didn’t seem to have an effect on rider turnout. With less riders and no fans, it gave Feld the ability to significantly shorten up the entire schedule of qualifying and racing. Each race schedule was different at each round, as the races had to be squeezed into whatever TV time slot was available. And, as many people across the country found out, all was not well with the TV coverage. Largely because the first night’s 450 main event was preempted for riot coverage in almost all major cities.

With the 450 and 250 East riders not lining up on a gate for two and a half months and the 250 West for over three months, things were sure to get interesting. The extended break gave riders time to heal up from injuries and regain strength in hopes of finishing the season off strong in Utah. With seven rounds compacted into three and a half weeks, teams and riders had to adapt to the new norm. 

For some of the riders, Salt Lake City’s 4200 feet of elevation took its toll on them, even though 4200 feet isn’t considered “high elevation” by any means. Tyler Bowers was the first rider to announce he was suffering from elevation sickness. He said he was feeling “a little tipsy” in the 450 main event. Essentially, altitude sickness is caused by the decreased oxygen content of the air we breathe at elevations above 8000 feet. Its negative effects consist of headaches, vomiting, tiredness, trouble sleeping and dizziness. Another rider the elevation affected but in a different way was Blake Baggett. He put in some great laps in Salt Lake while leading a main event, but told us that his hands would go numb due to the altitude. Usually, for a racer, hand numbness when riding is a clear sign of carpal tunnel syndrome. 

The rider that seemed to be most affected by the altitude in the early rounds was Ken Roczen. Kenny would qualify fastest in his heat races and start up front in the 450 main events. Then, Honda’s 450 Supercross Championship contender would dramatically fall off the pace at the halfway point of the 450 main. When Roczen got lapped twice by Cooper Webb and Eli Tomac in round 13’s mud race, everyone knew something was seriously wrong. Roczen admitted on his social media page that he had some breathing problems that had been going on for a while, and felt that it might have developed into some form of asthma when he got to Salt Lake.

Fortunately, Kenny went to Supercross physician Doc Bodnar to run tests to see what was going on. The tests showed that Ken had shingles. He had noticed a small blister on his skin, but didn’t think much of it. When he got the right medications for his shingles, he was able to pull it together for a win at round 15 in Salt Lake City. Unfortunately for Kenny, the first four rounds in Salt Lake City cost him any shot at the 2020 Supercross Championship . 

With Kenny having health issues, Cooper Webb smelled blood and brought his riding to another level. Cooper Webb was 32 points down to Eli Tomac coming into the Salt Lake City rounds. Cooper didn’t really care about the points, because he knew that his only chance to defend the title he won in 2019 was to wait for Tomac to make a big mistake. Yes, it was a long shot, but Eli Tomac had thrown 450 Supercross Championships away before. However, this was a new and improved Tomac. He had a better head on his shoulders and didn’t crack under pressure—although, he didn’t make it easy on himself. Tomac suffered from bad starts, but he was always able to come from behind and join the lead pack. After eight years of 450 Supercross and three runner-up positions, Eli Tomac finally captured his first AMA Supercross Championship in the historical oddity of seven races in a row.