This article was originally printed in our November 2017 issue of TransWorld Motocross.
Being Eli Tomac
Fame, Publicity, Expectations, and Pressure
By Eric Johnson | Photos by Ryne Swanberg
As Monster Energy Kawasaki's Eli Tomac prepared for the final two motos of the year at Ironman Raceway in Crawfordsville, Indiana, the 24-year-old was thrilled and determined to win the first major 450cc championship of his career that Saturday afternoon. He wasn't alone either. A multitude of people affiliated with Kawasaki, a brand that loves to win, were extremely excited about the potential of winning a title. Taking all of this into account, there was a razor-sharp focus on the 2017 Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship. After all, there was a lot on the line for Tomac, and everyone involved in his his program wanted to see it pay off. At the end of the day, though, it would all come down to Tomac to bring it home.
"It's cool to be in Eli's position and to go out and win a championship, but there is also a lot that comes with it," said Bruce Stjernstrom, lead racing consultant for Kawasaki Motors Corp., USA. "What Eli does in racing extends even further than here, of course. It extends to Europe, Australia, Asia, and our headquarters in Japan. Kawasaki is all in on this. It's a multi-million dollar effort to put Eli out on the track. It's not just Eli, but everybody on the team. There are upwards of 17 people involved with Eli's race effort alone. Of course, Eli is the one in the limelight and has to face the expectations that come with it. And trust me, there is a lot of expectation."
When Eli Tomac went out and won the 2017 Lucas Oil Pro Motocross 450 MX National Championship, to a degree, he had the weight of Kawasaki Motors Corp., USA, all 500 employees and 1,500 dealers, riding along with him.
Many fans of the sport question why riders so commonly use the words "we" and "us" when speaking of their successes. After the Crawfordsville race, new champion Eli Tomac talked about the significant effort—human, technical, and financial—that goes into making a run at a championship in this modern era of American motocross and supercross.
"There is a lot of expectation," Tomac said in an adamant tone. "When you have that upon you, there are expectations to always perform to a certain level—and we should perform to that level—but that can be pretty mentally draining, especially throughout an entire season or an entire year. Obviously, our expectation is to go out there and fight for as many wins as we can and to get wins and try to get championships as well. That is huge. That investment is there because we're expected to perform, but then when you actually have to go out there and do it, that's what separates the good guys and the guys that get it done from the guys that don't get it done."
When one walks into the lobby of Kawasaki Motors Corp., USA in Foothill Ranch, California, it becomes immediately apparent that Eli Tomac is the center of their focus. A likeness of him and his bike hang from the ceiling, and posters and win ads decorate the walls.
"It's awesome when you're important to a company like that, especially a company like Kawasaki because they're still so heavily involved in racing and you know they're going to have your back, especially when they know you're putting the effort in as well," said Tomac. "It's cool to see that. It's cool to see a brand like Kawasaki so heavily involved in racing, especially in motocross and supercross. So far, we've had good success with it."
When it comes to the team and company that surrounds him, results are everything. This kind of pressure doesn't bother Tomac at all, though.
"The results, they're huge, but at the same time, I'm the type of guy that likes to put that pressure on myself," Tomac said. "The team is the same way. If we think we can make something better, we'll go back to work and try to make it better, and I think we're really starting to work really well as a team. It's pretty exciting to know we have an extended future with Kawasaki."
In his summer-long quest for the 450 title, Tomac posted up very good numbers. Leading into the penultimate round at Budds Creek in mid-August, he had amassed nine moto wins, four overall victories, and an average finish of 3.9, a 450 class best. Still, there were a few off-song performances, the most notable coming at round 10 at Unadilla where Tomac collected 10-5 moto finishes. In doing so, many feared the championship could fall into the hands of someone else. The opening moto a week later at Budds Creek resulted in a seventh that furthered those concerns. Between motos, Tomac did a bit of soul searching, quite aware that he needed to get it together as Blake Baggett and Marvin Musquin—still in the mathematical fight for the title—could smell blood in the water.
"The second moto at Budds Creek was big for us," Tomac said, explaining how he turned things around and collected the second moto win. "For one, the three motos before that, counting Unadilla and the first moto of Budds Creek, weren't normal for us at all. I will say at Unadilla I was maybe playing a little bit of protection, especially with those conditions. You come to find out that a lot of times that doesn't work. Especially when you're thinking it as a rider, like, 'Okay, I'm going to play it safe.' A lot of times that doesn't go down the right path. Sure enough, that showed with a 10-5 result at Unadilla. You see those guys start to creep up on you in the points, and you're like, 'All right, let's get ourselves in gear here.' It felt good waking up in the morning at Budds Creek and then we go to the gate for moto one and I'm buried on the start in that moto and thinking, 'What in the heck is going on?' But then I came out firing for moto two and rode like we were supposed to and stopped the bleeding of our championship lead. You know, whenever everything is clicking, obviously that's the best situation and that's when I ride to the best of my ability to where I'm comfortable with the track and the bike. Moto two at Budds Creek showed that. And most of the season I showed that."
During both the Unadilla and Budds Creek rounds where Tomac lost some momentum, all sorts of doom and gloom and negativity started spreading across the Internet and throughout social media. With the immediacy of information in this day and age, if a rider has an off moto or an off day, the fans out there are often quick to let him know about it. Tomac finds all of this talk comical though.
"I think there is a really short attention span for a lot of people and a lot of fans. It's basically like if you don't perform every moto, people will kind of forget who you really are or what you've done in the past," Tomac said. "If it's not going good for a few motos, then there are a lot of people that start coming up with a lot of questions. I don't know, like you said, the phones and the social media definitely change things."
That being said, Tomac still looks at what's being voiced online. "I do sweep through some of the social media things," Tomac said. "Usually, when I have a bad result, I don't go on there [laughs]. When you have a better result, you try to pump yourself up because you did good and people are giving you compliments. At the end of the day, though, you have to know when to turn it off because it can definitely keep you up at night if you dig into it too much.
After the running of the Monster Energy MXGP of USA over Labor Day weekend, Tomac retreated back to his home base in Cortez, Colorado, to, catch his breath and to begin laying out what will be an intense and comprehensive off-season testing schedule.
"Colorado works for me, and I think everyone has to have what works for them," Tomac said. "What works for myself might not work for a Ryan Dungey or a Ryan Villopoto, or vice versa. I've been fortunate that I've been able to make Colorado work for me because it's been my home, literally.
"Once I'm there, there are only a handful of weeks there where you have true off-time. After Monster Cup we will—me and the shop guys—get a few weeks off, and by November first, you kind of have to get back in that mode of training and trying stuff out on the test track. You want to find your base and you really want to get your base dialed-in by at least the beginning of December so you can literally start riding and getting in the racing mode before Anaheim I."
As for the relentless testing, training, modifying, and lengthy sessions of bashing out lap after lap after lap, Eli doesn't mind it. "It's all part of it," Tomac said in a matter-of-fact tone. "I was never around in the two-stroke days; I was never able to race a factory two-stroke, but I feel like bike setup is really important and key on a four-stroke, especially on a 450. You have to be in tune with your motorcycle and you have to take testing seriously if you want to be one of the top guys. You literally have to be one with you bike. I do take it very seriously. I try to get the right fee and try to get that feel that's going to get me through all those important races. It's going to be a very important time of year to get things dialed in.
"You know, I have to say that it's getting to the point now where all the riders are really good, and I would say there is a lot more talent involved in winning than just the rider in our sport. That being said, that gap is starting to creep closer a little bit because of the four-strokes. All I can say is that you really have to be in tune with your motorcycle. Just making a few changes can literally change your ride or get you through a race. That's why all the testing is so important now."
Knowing all too well that the 2018 Monster Energy Supercross Series will be a fierce 17-race battle fought out inside many of America's most prestigious and opulent NFL and MLB stadiums, Tomac has been working hard already to get ready for the competitive racers he will line up against at Angel Stadium in January.
"I guess the biggest question mark is Roczen," Tomac said. "Will he come back healthy? And if he does, will he be competitive and at the front right away? That's a huge question mark. Dungey is retired now and that guy was a podium robot machine that just kept cranking out championships. He minimized damage on his bad days exceptionally well. There is definitely a spot to be filled there. His bad day was a third place instead of a 15th or something. That's where you can learn a lot for a guy like Dungey. I'm hoping that I will be that guy. There is always someone new that is going to step up and give us a run for the money, but I feel like we'll be coming into the season in a good spot."
After 29 Saturdays of racing, and with plenty of highs and more than a few lows along the way, there was plenty to consider. Eli provided an honest look at his 2017 season and was as straight-forward as it gets.
"Well, as far as the Supercross championship, you know, looking back, it was so close and, man, that's going to dig at for me for a long time because I literally lost a championship by just by a few points. But there were a whole lot of positives to the season too. We had nine wins and a lot of podiums. At the end of the day, though, we really wanted the championship and it will definitely give us some fire for this upcoming season, that's for sure.
"I would say that other than Supercross, where we barely missed that championship, it has been a year of a lot more ups than downs. It was a very positive year and we were happy with everything and all of our teams worked well together. Everything went smoothly the whole year. That was just exciting to see. To win the 450MX championship is what I've dreamed of and what I've looked up to as a kid. Getting a 450 championship is the top pedestal of the sport. It was great for us to get it done, and 2017 will be an awesome year to look back on."
Follow Eli on Instagram: @elitomac