A Succesful 2019 Anaheim Two Supercross Could Be Monumental For Ken Roczen & His Career
The last time that Ken Roczen popped the top on the winner’s champagne was at the 2017 San Diego Supercross on January 14th, 2017, 732 days ago.
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It's now been more than two years since Ken Roczen last crossed the finish line of a Monster Energy Supercross Series 450 Main Event at the front of the pack. The Team Honda HRC rider's last win came at the 2017 San Diego Supercross, an event that he feels like a lifetime ago. At that time Roczen was becoming the star of the sport, due in part to his arrival at the Anaheim One pre-race press conference in a suit and dominate win a day later. But after the San Diego race, almost everyone in the pit area agreed the 2017 title was going to be Roczen's. Over the course of the night's twenty-four lap feature Roczen tracked down reigning champion Ryan Dungey, made a decisive pass seven minutes into the twenty-minute run, and kept his close competitor at bay for the rest of the race to win by a 2.589-second margin. All was right in the world for Roczen and his confidence was impossible to miss (his post-race podium speech was on-par with any interview done at a UFC event thanks to the plug for SHIFT’s Blue Label gear). As we all know, that championship run and Roczen's entire life changed seven days later.
When Roczen came back in 2018, there was a sense of uncertainty. Would he be able to get back to his winning ways so soon after what should have by all measures been a career-ending injury? Or would he struggle with the rigors of racing? At the second round of the 2018 Monster Energy Supercross Series in Houston, Roczen showed that he was still a front-runner with multiple laps led in the 450 Main Event until a late pass by Jason Anderson put Roczen back to second place.
Roczen's return to Anaheim Two in 2018 was a monumental moment, as he was determined to put the injury and everything that came as a result in the past. Over answering questions about his arm, he said it would not be a topic he wished to touch on, asked for Feld to pull the grizzly footage out of his introduction, and wore an identical SHIFT MX gear set in opening ceremonies and Race One. The emotion of the event would ultimately get to Roczen, as he logged a ninth-place overall at the inaugural Triple Crown event.
Another near-win was snatched away by Anderson a few weeks later in Oakland, but by that point, it was clear that Ken Roczen would add his name to the record books with a win at some point in the near future. Unfortunately for Roczen, a run-in with new rival Cooper Webb at the San Diego Supercross resulted in another serious hand injury and the rest of Supercross was spent recovering from the necessary surgeries. Roczen later acknowledged this crash was a result of emotions getting the best of him and that it changed his attitude towards racing.
Anderson played the spoiler to Roczen's story last weekend in Arizona, as a textbook block pass ripped the front-end of Roczen's CRF450R out of his hands near the mid-point of the moto, but he was able to remount and race back to a third-place finish, a finish that might be crucial to his comeback.
With a pair of podium finishes through the opening rounds (second at Anaheim One, third at Glendale), Roczen is now in control of a championship for the first time since 2017, and at Anaheim Two his Team Honda HRC CRF450R will be complete with the red number plates. It's an almost surreal scenario and if everything goes well, it could be the perfect period on this tumultuous era of Ken Roczen's career.
The 2019 Anaheim Two Supercross will again serve as the first Triple Crown race of the race season but this year all three races will be the same duration (twelve minutes plus one lap), a big change from the short sprints that riders never felt comfortable with. Consistency is key at the Triple Crown races and despite the multiple Main Event wins over the course of his career, Roczen has never really been viewed as a model of consistency. His early years of SX were derailed by big mistakes (think the Oakland triple case or crash into the stadium wall at Atlanta), he crashed out of what was shaping up to be a dominating win at 2016 Monster Energy Cup, and he was never able to string together rounds of podium results in the same manner Ryan Dungey did. It could be argued that these things all came as a result of an overly aggressive, risky riding style, something Roczen has shed since coming back from injury.
Roczen has made it clear that he’s much different now from how he was leading did up to A2 in 2017. Yes, he has restarted his push to be the face of the sport, thanks to endorsement deals with mainstream cosmetic brands Clinique and Art Of Sport, and his popularity is stronger than ever, but there is no indication of arrogance as a result. The Roczen of 2017 knew that he was the one everyone had to beat, that a win was expected of him and anything less was practically failure. Now he is grateful to still have speed on the bike, has established a deep connection to the people at Team Honda HRC, and gives off a vibe that a day at the track is a privilege more than a job. Over the offseason, he married longtime girlfriend Courtney, a person that had been by his side through all of the success and heartbreak.
In addition to this much mellower demeanor, Roczen now looks more calculated and controlling of the CRF450R. Rarely does it look like he's on the brink of disaster, the bike stays straight and true around the track, and he's stayed clear of unnecessary tension with competitors. All of this should result in improved all-around consistency from Roczen, as he would hopefully lessen the chance of crashes or collisions.
If Roczen were to come out on top in the overall results at Anaheim Two this weekend, it would be a statement win in many ways. On a personal level, it would prove once and for all that Roczen can be the top rider on any given night. On a championship level, it would help him to stretch out a bigger margin over others in the standings. On an emotional level, it would once and for all end the talk of his injury because it would come at the very race and venue that was the start of so many challenges. And on a rider skill level, it would show that he had matured into the well-rounded, consistent rider that should always be considered a challenger for a championship. He will be back to “normal.”
And if he doesn’t win, this Anaheim Two becomes just another race that will further fuel his desires.
We'll see how all of this plays out on Saturday night.