By JOHN MARSHALL
AP Sports Writer
Supercross racing took a huge hit in 2015 when four-time champion Ryan Villopoto unexpectedly retired. Two years later, four-time champion Ryan Dungey put up his kickstand for good.
Two of the sport’s biggest names and greatest champions gone, leaving a gap that could have sent the sport on a downward spiral.
Instead of crashing, Supercross has revved forward with bigger crowds and television audiences, thanks to a talented new crop of riders.
“It’s funny, every time a champ like Villopoto or Dungey steps away, kind of leaves that void, you worry a little bit about who’s going to fill it or if it will be filled,” said Dave Prater, director of operations at Feld Entertainment, which runs AMA Supercross. “But the great thing, at least looking at last year, we had three or four guys step up and fill that void and it just increased the parity.”
Since Dungey’s retirement, riders like defending series champion Jason Anderson, Eli Tomac, Ken Roczen and Marvin Musquin have taken the reins and led Supercross into the future. Heading into this weekend’s season opener in Anaheim, California, the series has four talented rookies joining the circuit for the 2019 season.
Justin Hill, Aaron Plessinger, Joey Savatgy and Zach Osborne have all fared well on 250cc bikes and will make the jump to 450s this season. Hill, Plessinger and Osborne are all past 250cc champions, and Savatgy ran up front all three races of the Monster Energy Cup, his first time on a 450cc bike.
The 29-year-old Osborne had to delay his long-awaited 450 debut for up to six weeks, needing surgery after breaking a collarbone in practice. Hill, Plessinger and Savatgy are all expected to race Saturday at Angel Stadium.
“I can’t remember a stronger field of this many rookies,” Prater said. “I think you’re going to see a kind of a changing of the guard the next couple years. It’s going to be interesting to see what these rookies can do, even this year.”
Tomac is the back-to-back 450 Class motocross champion but had to climb back from a shoulder injury suffered last year in Anaheim. He missed the race in Houston and trailed Anderson by 48 points after just two races. Despite a brilliant comeback, he could not overcome Anderson’s big lead or Musquin’s consistency. He finished third.
“The master plan and the master goal is to win (AMA) Supercross,” he told the Orange County Register. “I’ve had two years of winning the most races and being the most dominant guy and not getting the title. That’s No. 1. Yeah, the No. 1 goal is to win the Supercross championship.”
Tomac has never been on the podium at the first of two races at Anaheim. Since moving up to the 450 class in 2014, he has finished last in 2018, fifth in 2017, fourth in 2016 and 20th in 2015.
Defending Supercross champion Anderson, who will race with the No. 1 plate, hasn’t received the star status of Dungey or Tomac, and seeking out the limelight hasn’t seemed to be a goal. The defending Supercross champion heads into Anaheim as an underdog after an injury derailed him in last year’s motocross series.
“I’m going into 2019 and people still don’t think the same of me, you know?” said Anderson. “They still kind of think I’m the underdog,” he told RacerX. “They don’t think I can win it again, but I’m going to try my butt off. ... I guess the bar is set pretty low by the fans for me,” he said. “And that’s pretty cool!”
Supercross had an uptick last year despite Dungey’s retirement at 27.
Live attendance climbed 3 percent from the previous season, including a record-setting 60,000 at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Television viewership was up 6 percent from 2017, including a 27 percent bump in the coveted males between 18 and 34 demographic, according to Feld Entertainment. The SLC race in April had 836,000 viewers, most for a Supercross race on Fox Sports.
The sport’s popularity may increase with a new TV sponsorship deal in place.
Before the 2019 season, Supercross announced a multiyear deal with the NBC Sports Group to broadcast races, heats and last-chance qualifiers. Supercross had a long-running deal with Fox Sports, but scheduling is often shuffled around the popular UFC.
NBC already has a deal with outdoor motocross, and Supercross will get the benefit of cross promotion with NASCAR and IndyCar on the network.
‘’Our relationship with Fox was great, but obviously when you have a player like UFC involved, its tough scheduling,” Prater said. “They (NBC) don’t have a secondary network, so the FS2 plays are no longer going to be there. It’s going to be NBC Sports Network and that’s it. I’m looking forward to a network that at its core embraces motorsports.”