By John Basher
Fans have a propensity to crave greatness. Watching
history unfold supports the idea that they were part of something special. People are so eager to proclaim such-and-such
athlete as the best ever. They screamed the loudest. They
shook hands with a legend. They were witness to a magical
moment that will be written in the annals.
“MOTOCROSS FANS ARE
INHERENTLY VISUAL BEINGS.
THAT’S NOT ALWAYS A GOOD
THING. THERE WERE NO SNAPCHAT
VIDEOS OF ROGER DeCOSTER
WHIPPING THE COMPETITION AT
FARLEIGH CASTLE IN 1969. IF THEY
DIDN’T SEE IT, THEN IT MUST NOT
Greatness doesn’t always transcend generations.
Motocross fans, more than in other sports, are inherently
visual beings. That’s not always a good thing. There were no
Snapchat videos of Roger DeCoster whipping the competition
at Farleigh Castle in 1969. If they didn’t see it, then it must
not have happened. Young fans only know DeCoster by his
funny accent, his work at KTM or as Ryan Dungey’s grandfather (that’s not actually true). The magnitude of what “The
Man” did for the sport of motocross is lost on the flat-billers
and selfie-stick users. That’s a shame. Even so, results don’t
lie. Winning a title—whether 45 years ago or in 2016—is an
Some championships stand out more than others. Take
Ricky Carmichael’s perfect National seasons in 2002 and
2004, or James Stewart’s 24-0 onslaught in 2008. Those
masterpieces were domination—plain and simple. While
Grant Langston’s 2007 triumph came rather unexpectedly.
The South African caught fire late in the season while the
competition wilted. I faintly recall a jubilant Langston
celebrating on the podium at Glen Helen. What I really
remember from that day was Grant’s botched bleach-blond
hair. Then there was Carmichael’s near-perfect season of
2005. Had it not been for an endo at Southwick and James
Stewart landing on Ricky’s back at Unadilla, RC would have
logged three perfect seasons.
Where does Ken Roczen’s 2016 AMA 450 National
Championship season stack up against other winners? To
keep things relevant, I’ll only focus on riders from the past
12 years. I would hate to confuse Millennials with names like
Hannah, Bailey, Johnson, DiStefano, Ward or Stanton. Not
only that, but in some ways, comparing modern racers to
past greats is like comparing apples and oranges—there are
too many outlying factors to make a proper assessment. As
for Ken Roczen’s 2016 National season, there’s no denying
that he put up record numbers. How do you rank success?
Some believe that capturing a title in a very deep field of
talent matters more than stringing together moto wins
against depleted competition. Others point to the sheer
number of National victories as the determining factor.
There’s even probably someone out there who thinks that
Chad Reed’s 2009 National title ranks highest, because
the guy caught Reedy’s goggles at Budds Creek after Chad
clinched the title. If you ask me what makes a standout
among Champions, I’ll tell you to take a look at the numbers.
I love statistics, thanks in part to collecting baseball cards
as a snot-nosed kid, and also because I took a statistics
class in high school. In my formative years I learned that
numbers don’t lie. Statistics take emotion out of the equation.
While my wife and I had our honeymoon in St. Lucia at the
same Sandals resort that Ryan Dungey and his wife did, that
doesn’t mean Dungey’s 2015 title was superior to, say, Ryan
Villopoto’s 2011 crown. Coincidentally, RV tied the knot one
day before I did.
Look at the facts. Ken Roczen only lost three Nationals this
summer. The Glen Helen loss was due to fork malfunction
that caused his fork to go flat while he was leading the first
moto. He was outpaced by Eli Tomac at Southwick—his worst
defeat—and tied Tomac on points at Washougal, but Eli’s bet-
ter second moto earned him the win. Otherwise, Roczen was
flawless. He won 18 of 22 motos—nine in a row through the
middle part of the series—and didn’t finish worse than fourth.
Here’s something else to chew on: Ken Roczen won by an
average of 14.847 seconds in those 18 motos. His cumulative gap over second place was 267.254 seconds, or 4.454
minutes. That’s almost 1/7th of a moto. Roczen’s most
dominant moto win happened at Unadilla, where he finished
52.444 seconds ahead in the second moto. His closest win
was a 1.858-second gap over Eli Tomac in the second moto
at Muddy Creek. The numbers show that Kenny had no equal
across the entire span of the series.
Based on points earned through over 12 rounds, Roczen’s
2016 title run ranked fifth. Blame that on Ricky Carmichael
and James Stewart for having perfect seasons, and really on
Carmichael for demolishing the field during his career. What’s
interesting is how Roczen’s 2016 numbers were better
than anyone else not previously mentioned—including Ryan
Dungey, Ryan Villopoto or even his own efforts while winning
in 2014—from the past seven years. However, if you’re the
type who equates absolute success to clinching a title before
the final round, then Ken Roczen won’t be at the top of your
chart. Roczen only (I can’t believe I’m using the word “only”
here) clinched one round early; Carmichael, Stewart and
Dungey all clinched their titles with two rounds to spare.
So, what’s the answer? Where does Kenny Roczen stack
up? In fighting against every fiber of my statistic-loving self,
the response is, “Who cares?” At the end of the day, hoisting
the AMA number one plate is all that matters.