In this edition of First Seasons where Speedway Media takes a look back at a driver’s rookie year in racing, we catch up with Monster Energy Supercross rider, Eli Tomac. During the interview, the four-time 450 champion discusses how he got his start with the sport, racing in the 250 class, managing expectations as a rookie rider, and his first start at Anaheim.
He also shared his thoughts on whether there was anything he could’ve done differently to win the championship that year and his memories about his first win in San Diego, California.
SM: You began competing in Monster Energy Supercross in 2011 with your first race coming at Anaheim racing in the Supercross Lites class at the age of 19. What was it like getting to make your debut during that era of Supercross and getting connected with the GEICO Powersports Honda team to give you the opportunity? Was it a dream come true for you?
ET: “Thinking back now, your first race in a stadium is the dream come true because you always think back to when you’re a kid and watch the races on TV, and watching all the guys like Jeremy McGrath, Ricky Carmichael, James Stewart, those are all the guys I watched,” Tomac said. “When you’re there in person and under the lights, it’s like holy moly, I’m here in person doing it. It’s an unbelievable moment, there’s a lot of nerves that day and a lot of energy too, but at the same time, it’s what you live for and it’s a crazy feeling.”
SM: Prior to making your debut in the Supercross Lites class, you were racing outdoors in the 250s. Did you feel as though it was the right age for you to make your first start in Supercross? Also, do you think the experience you had prior to your debut helped you, or was Supercross a whole different animal to you?
ET: “Having raced outdoors the year before, it helped knowing the riders I was going up against, but still, the stadium is a whole other level,” he said. “Having the people there and the feeling at night was a whole different feeling. I would say it basically felt like day one but you had the same guys (I raced with outdoors) at the same gate.”
SM: In your debut year, you competed in eight races which included the Lites Shootout at Las Vegas in April. As you entered the year and geared up to make your debut, what kind of expectations did you have as a rookie rider and did those ever change during the season?
ET: “Our expectation was to win one race and then get on the podium as much as we could,” Tomac said. “That was my goal. I mean, I felt like that was a pretty lofty goal, but at the same time, I wanted to shoot high for my goal, try to get as many podiums as you could and get one win.”
SM: Your first race came at the season-opener in Anaheim. It probably wasn’t the result you wanted as you finished in the 10th position after finishing third in the heat race. Despite the result, what do you remember about the weeks leading up to the Anaheim debut? Were you anxious or nervous or did the fact that you had some previous riding experience relieve some of those nerves?
ET: “Leading up to the race, it’s always easy at the practice track,” Tomac said. “That is always so hard because those days are easy, but when race day comes, the environment is so much different and that’s the way it was for me. You’re full of butterflies, nerves, and that’s what happens. You can be as relaxed as you can, ride as many laps as you can at the practice track, but nothing replicates the race environment. It’s hard to say now exactly what I was thinking on that day, but leading up to the race you don’t really know what’s going to happen at the night show.”
SM: As you took to the track in your first ever heat race in Supercross, you finished third. What was that feeling like for you at the time and is there anything you could have changed to have a higher finishing position in your first race?
ET: “In the heat race, that would’ve been a good finish of third and that puts you in a decent position in the main event,” he said. “If I remember right, I probably didn’t get the best of start in the main, finishing 10th. Third would’ve been great and it probably was at the time.”
SM: As the season progressed, you gained momentum and finished lower than fifth after Phoenix. In fact, you finished second in a few heat races at Anaheim, Oakland, and San Diego before getting your first win there. Before we get to your first win, did you ever think you would learn the bike so quickly in your first season, or was it just based on your experience from the year before? Was there ever a learning curve?
ET: “When you’re that young, you rely heavily on the team to make the direction of the motorcycle, to make the calls and the setup,” he said. “When you’re a rookie, you don’t really have an idea of what you like and what works, what doesn’t. I was just focused on getting my technique down and learning the ways of the whoop section, being able to jump correctly. You just have to let the team do their thing when you’re that young starting out.”
SM: Your first career victory came right away at San Diego in the seventh race of the season. What does that first victory still mean to you and have you ever had a chance to rewatch that race?
ET: “I’ve rewatched that race, but haven’t done so in years,” Tomac said. “I think the race was a little bit of a mud race if I remember correctly. I remember crossing the finish line and couldn’t believe that I won a race and to get this far and win, it was the best feeling ever during that point of my career.”
SM: After winning at San Diego, you finished second at Seattle before winning the final race of the season at Salt Lake City. Was winning at Salt Lake City more satisfying to you or did that not even occur to you at the time?
ET: “It’s hard to compare the two, but nothing beats the first win,” he said. “Your first win is something special and the goal you have set out when you start racing in this sport. The first win is always the best for a single race win. The second victory is ‘alright, I can do this now more than once.’”
SM: You came into championship contention after having solid runner-up finishes before eventually finishing second in the standings, just six points behind Broc Tickle. As you continue to reflect on your career, at what point in the season did you think you were championship contenders? Was it disappointing that specific season that you weren’t able to win the championship knowing you were only six points short?
ET: “It would’ve been the first Anaheim race, which was that 10th place,” Tomac said about what race stood out the most. “At the same time, how do you expect that much out of your first race. I remember being super close in the points and having a chance at the championship in that last round. It was a wild position to be in, just because you were so young. I didn’t expect to be in that position, but I was.”
SM: Overall, despite the runner-up in the championship, were you satisfied with your rookie season in the 250 class and collecting two wins and three podium finishes? Is there anything you think you could’ve done differently to get that championship?
ET: “Yes, absolutely, I was satisfied,” the Colorado native said about his rookie season. “Winning one race is hard enough for guys that turn pro. It’s better that I didn’t win the (250) championship because it allowed me to be in the class for another year and I really needed that. I would’ve been way too young moving up (to the 450 class, Supercross’s highest class) out of the 250 class. So, it was definitely better for me not to win that championship for the long haul.”
SM: In 2012, you would go on to win your first ever Supercross championship in the same class. How special was that for you to win the championship and what was the difference from the previous year?
ET: “At that point in time, it’s like you’ve finally figured some things out,” Tomac said about winning the 250 championship. “You know, you were applying all the things you learned from the practice track and you’re making it work at the racetrack. I was more dominant that year having more wins and never had the big mistakes. I knew I won the year before, so I was like ‘alright, now this is my time to really get going.”
SM: During your career, I’m sure there are many races where you wish you had another opportunity to have a higher finish or perhaps get the victory. Are there any races in your mind that you wish you had another opportunity at, and if so, which race comes to mind and why?
ET: “In 2017, the race in New York, I crashed in the turn and that was when I was battling with Ryan Dungey for the championship. That race is where I really messed up with the crash. That’s one race I would love to have back.”
SM: With that in mind, you’ve had many career victories that include 12 Supercross 250 victories and 37 in the 450cc class. Aside from the 250 and the 450 championships in your collection, which trophy means the most to you and why?
ET: “I’ll have to go with my first 450 win (Phoenix 2015),” he said. “Winning that race was the next step on the ladder for my goal was to win a 450 race. (Racing and winning in the 450 class) is the top of our sport, so that win meant so much.”
SM: Some drivers keep a memorabilia collection and some don’t, are you a driver that collects your own memorabilia and if so, what do you have in your collection that reminds you of your rookie years in the sport?
ET: “I keep a lot of my helmets as I keep a helmet from each year,” the 250 and 450 champion said. “I also collect a lot of gear such as jerseys and trophies. I really love keeping my helmets.”
SM: Wrapping this interview up, It’s hard to believe your debut came 11 years ago. However, if time travel was available, what would a 29-year-old Eli Tomac tell a 19-year-old Eli Tomac? Is there anything you would do differently?
ET: “Really, just enjoy the run and enjoy the races you compete in. I mean, I’m not done racing yet, but time goes by really fast, and enjoying it while it lasts would be the biggest thing.”
Throughout Tomac’s career, the Colorado native has earned 12 AMA 250cc Supercross victories, 37 AMA 450cc victories, the 2012 250cc Monster Energy Supercross championship and he also won the 450cc Monster Energy Supercross in 2020. Fans of Eli Tomac can follow him on Twitter and Instagram. You can also like him on Facebook and visit his website here.
Special thanks to Sean Brennen of Feld Entertainment for making this interview happen and special thanks to Eli Tomac for taking the time out of his busy schedule to do the interview.