Chad Reed throws a Nac-Nac to the fans at Anaheim 2 in 2020 during his last full-time season with the Monster Energy AMA Supercross series. Photo by Rachel Schuoler / Kickin' the Tires.

What Should I Know When Watching Supercross?

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If you love motorsports, then Supercross has to be on your list to follow. NASCAR fans usually find one or two other forms of motorsports to follow, either occasionally or regularly. While some go to IndyCar, Formula 1 or IMSA, others have started to follow Motocross and Supercross. As announced earlier this week, Kickin’ The Tires will be providing coverage for the 2020 Monster Energy AMA Supercross season.

If you are an avid NASCAR fan but have never followed Supercross before, think of this as your guide to the basics of Supercross to help you understand what you are watching on television or seeing in person. If you have been to your local short track or dirt track for a NASCAR or stock car race, you may already be familiar with some of the structures and terms mentioned below. However, going from four wheels to two wheels is a completely different animal.

WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENT CLASSES IN SUPERCROSS?

Classes are based solely on engine size. Throughout the history of Supercross, these numbers have changed as technology has evolved with smaller single-cylinder engines. For example, Supercross relied much on the two-stroke engines, but now race four-cycle motors.

Currently, Supercross has two main adult classes, referred to as 450 and 250. One common phrase is “CC”, which stands for cubic centimeters and relates to the size of the engine on the bike. The higher the number, the more prestigious the class, so think of the 450cc class as the Cup Series, and 250cc as Xfinity. With the 250cc class, two champions are crowned each year between the East and West divisions.

If you follow Supercross for a few seasons, you may notice some drivers change numbers each year. There is some significance to this, as drivers pursue the “No. 1 plate”. Numbers are assigned by the riders’ previous year’s point results, so the reigning champion would race the No. 1 bike. White backgrounds are for the 450 class, black for the 250 classes and red for the current points leader, so the best possible case for a rider is a No. 1 plate with a red background.

Those numbers are optional, however. Some riders prefer to keep a number that is sentimental or has been a number for their entire career. Ken Roczen is a great example of this, as he continues to ride the No. 94 bike despite finishing fourth in the championship last year. Numbers can also be triple digits.

Supercross used to have a women’s division, but has been discontinued for now. Kids as young as four years old (that was me back in 1994) are also welcome to race on the same track for a much shorter race in a class called the SX Futures. These bikes are usually around half-scale compared to the adult bikes, and race with a 51cc motor. They don’t race every event, so check the official Supercross schedule to see when the kids take the track to show the big boys how it’s done!

HOW ARE SUPERCROSS RACES STRUCTURED & POINTS ASSIGNED?

For some of the more avid and hardcore fans, you’ll be familiar with how heats and main events are staged for street stocks or dirt modified races. Supercross is set up similarly, but there are a few exceptions.

First, we start with all entries running a timed qualifying session. If there are more riders than allowed in the race, they will need to be within the top 40 timed runs. Otherwise, they are eliminated from that race day or night with no points to the championship as those are only assigned to the main event results. Qualifying and heat race finishes also determine gate selection, which is something quite unique with Supercross. In NASCAR, the cars are rolling, side by side and have a train of 20 rows of cars. In Supercross, riders line up side by side down an 80-foot wide set of gates that fall down at the start to allow the riders to race. If you jump the start, your bike gets caught in the gate, naturally penalizing you. But if you time it right and have a good gate selection, you can get the holeshot, which is the person to lead the race usually by the first turn or first major obstacle or jump. So where gate selection comes in handy is being able to align yourself in the most ideal way going into that first turn or obstacle, or avoiding bad track conditions in a certain part of the runway.

After the qualifying session, the field is split into two equal heat races. Think of this as The Clash at Daytona. Everyone who qualified in an odd numbered position will be in the first heat race, and even numbered qualifiers in the second heat race. For each heat race, riders in the top nine positions (first through ninth) are automatically granted a spot in the main event and will earn at least one point toward the championship. For the other riders that finished 10th through last, usually 20th, will move on to a Last Chance Qualifier.

The Last Chance Qualifier, or an LCQ, is around for a few reasons. Some of the more common reasons is if a rider in a championship hunt makes a mistake or crashes during their heat race or has a mechanical failure, they have one last chance to make it into the main event. The downfall is that they will be one of the last racers to make a gate selection, which as mentioned above can hurt your start to the main event. The heat races and LCQ are both timed races, meaning they race for a certain amount of time then one more lap (heat races are six minutes, then a white flag lap; LCQ is five minutes). Only the top four finishers move on to the main event, while everyone else is eliminated.

After the final 22 riders have been decided by two heat races and an LCQ, they take the track one last time to finally compete for championship points and the race trophy. Supercross does a podium finish with the top three finishers. Like the heat races and LCQ, the race is also timed but also much longer. For the 250cc classes, they race 15 minutes plus a white flag lap. The 450cc class races 20 minutes plus their final lap.

DOES SUPERCROSS RACE OUTDOORS?

Supercross has 17 events scheduled at indoor venues or enclosed tracks, such as Angels Stadium of Anaheim or Daytona International Speedway. It’s easy to confuse Supercross with another form of professional dirt bike racing, Motocross. The Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship events race on public outdoor courses ⁠— such as Thunder Valley Motocross Park or The Wick 338 ⁠— where many local dirt bikers ride for fun or race for a local championship over the weekends.

There have been special track designs where the course is partly outside of the arena, but all races are considered indoors when compared to Motocross.

HOW DO YOU GO FAST ON A DIRT BIKE IN SUPERCROSS?

It’s a question that can’t be fully answered in any article, but you will see some techniques by riders to help gain more time over their competition. I’ll break down a few for you to help you understand more.

Communication is key in NASCAR. The driver radios in to their crew to let them know what is wrong with the handling so the crew can make adjustments on their next pit stop. Radios are not allowed in Supercross, so mechanics will stand along a designated sideline and use colored message boards (mainly small dry-erase boards) to communicate with their rider. They then work in the pits to make those adjustments between races throughout the day.

Body positioning is another important aspect. A lot of pro riders vary with how they position their hips and torso as they corner and jump. Having the endurance and strength to navigate a 50hp dirt bike while jumping 35 feet in the air across a 70-foot triple jump is not something the bike does. Riders understand the terrain, the physics and their bike setup to know exactly where to lean and how to navigate the bike quickly and efficiently, all while staying on the bike and not falling or crashing.

The last main thing you will see is the Pancake Whip. Most believe it comes from freestyle but was actually an innovative technique created by AMA Hall of Famer, Johnny O’Mara. As riders jump high and far, they actually lose speed due to wind resistance and no traction for their rear tire while in the air. By performing the Pancake Whip, riders accomplish two things at once. First, they slow themselves down faster and can somewhat control the bike to come back to the ground faster. Much like an airplane wing, they angle the bike to have it come back to the dirt so they can apply power to the rear tire and continue forward faster.

Secondly, riders can approach the jump faster. By causing the bike to slow down in the air briefly, they are able to approach the jump at a much higher rate of speed. So while they are slower in the air, the overall distance of the approach and time in the air until they land back on the ground is covered in a quicker time. There are exceptions to this, but this has been tested to be true in most cases.

WHERE CAN I LEARN MORE ABOUT THE BASICS OF SUPERCROSS?

Aside from watching and enjoying the action, Supercross has a fantastic tutorial of all the basics on their website, including infographics, videos and more. Check out SX 101 on the official Supercross website.

Justin Schuoler
Justin’s experience starts back in the mid-90s racing dirt bikes and ATVs. He won a local championship in 1999, and competed in multiple endurance grand prix races across Southern California. In 2015, he shifted from two wheels to four wheels, winning his first sprint kart race and finishing second in that championship. Now he works as a race official with that very club while working on making a comeback to the track. Simultaneously, his journalism career began with NASCAR and Supercross. First started with Speedway Media, he now works as the web developer and tech manager for Kickin’ the Tires. He met his significant other at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and after he and Rachel married in 2018, they together have covered west coast races in karting, Supercross, NASCAR, drag racing, dirt racing, World of Outlaws, and even a visit to his original motocross club.

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