Ken Roczen - Looking Back
Posted on March 18, 2023
Ken Roczen's racing career so far is almost hard to believe. After he earned a 250cc Class World Championship in 2011 as a teenager, the young German moved to the United States to pursue AMA Supercross and Pro Motocross titles.
Roczen won a regional 250cc class supercross title in 2013 before moving up to the premier 450cc class in 2014. He won the AMA motocross championship in 2014 and in 2016, yet a supercross title eluded him.
But life at the tip of the spear in the world's original extreme sport is treacherous. After winning rounds one and two of the 2017 supercross season, Ken Roczen had a potentially career-ending crash. He documented the surgeries and rehab to save his left arm. It would never recover 100%, but Ken Roczen was determined to race again.
He was back on the starting gate in 2018. Unbelievably, after three podium finishes he got into a freak accident at round six. His right arm was caught up and pulled between the swingarm and spinning rear tire of another racer's motorcycle. He dealt with a potentially career-ending arm injury, again. But Ken Roczen once again was determined to race again.
2019 presented new challenges for the athlete after a bout with a version of Epstein-Barr Virus. 2020 was better, with four supercross wins. Four more supercross wins in 2021 proved Roczen still had the technique, though he sat out the summer motocross series. He was back in 2022, with a win at the opening round. But Roczen dropped out of supercross mid-season with health issues. The athlete kept the details secretive, but Epstein-Barr, COVID, and the challenges of fighting infections seemed the culprit. Then his contract with Honda was up, and it was not renewed.
That's when Ken Roczen's career took another unconventional turn. He did something few other racers had done. He tried out various bikes and teams, seeking the equipment that he felt would give him the best shot at what could be his third comeback in the sport. Ken Roczen was determined to win again.
He found himself on a familiar motorcycle but at a new team. He was back on a Suzuki, the brand on which he'd won his 2016 Pro Motocross championship. But the bike was considered the least-developed on the track; in fact it was the lone 450cc machine still using a kickstarter rather than an electric starter. So Ken Roczen also got a new nickname, "Kickstart Kenny." He embraced it.
Roczen was open about the extensive testing he and the team were going through to get the race bike set up where he wanted it. Motorcycles have many adjustments to suspension action, power delivery, and chassis performance. Each setting impacts the others, so it takes a small army to settle on the "perfect compromise" that makes a bike stable and nimble, powerful and rideable, plush and responsive. The naysayers said Roczen was making excuses, but he earned a podium finish and a heat race win over the first eight rounds.
Then last weekend, at Round 9, the Supercross series returned to Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. The dirt is legendary for developing deep ruts that make it one of the most challenging tracks of the season. Roczen knew it well. He won all three rounds there in 2021.
Roczen was the second-fastest rider in the daytime qualifying. In the night show he came out swinging in his 6-minute plus one lap heat race. He took over the lead on lap three from Cooper Webb – the rider who'd been involved in Roczen's second arm-injury crash. But another rider was having his own breakthrough night; Justin Barcia caught and passed both Cooper Webb and Ken Roczen to take the heat race win convincingly.
When the starting gate dropped for the 450SX Main Event, Roczen grabbed the Holeshot – the first rider through the first turn. Roczen had 20-minutes plus one lap to hold his spot. He was challenged for it almost immediately by Chase Sexton, the rider sitting third in the points. On lap seven Sexton caught one of the deep ruts, flung sideways off a jump, and was out of contention for the win.
Now Roczen had Cooper Webb directly behind, though three seconds back. Not only was Webb the rider involved in Roczen's past arm injury, he is also a two-time 450SX Class Supercross champion and sat second in the points. Webb also holds the distinction of winning a Supercross race by the narrowest margin… After chasing down Roczen and passing him in the last corner of the race.
As if this night needed another twist, it was Justin Barcia putting in the charge. Barcia moved past Webb on lap 11 and set his sights on Roczen. When the race clock showed three minutes remaining, Barcia had pulled within 1.5 seconds and was still hacking away at the gap to Roczen. At the white flag there was only 0.7 second between the two. Worse still, Barcia carries with him a reputation of aggressive riding and a take-no-prisoners passes. Roczen wasn't in danger of taking second place, he was in danger of being sent into the cheap seats by a take-out pass. The crowd of 62,728 race fans inside Lucas Oil Stadium were on their feet and screaming at the top of their lungs.
Roczen found the will, the speed, and the composure to keep it upright and flying through the fast lines. Ruts reached up and clawed at his boots and footpegs but Roczen took the checkered flag and earned his 21st career 450SX Class Supercross win. It was the first for the Progressive Insurance ECSTAR Suzuki team, and the first for Suzuki since 2016 – earned back then by Ken Roczen himself.
Roczen acknowledged the crowd as the riders closest in the battle nodded or gave a handshake or pat. But then other racers, fierce competitors anytime points and prize money are up for grabs, came over to congratulate Ken Roczen. They were happy for him, for all he'd overcome.
Ken Roczen sits fifth in the points. But 2023 has one additional twist. The Supercross series and the Pro Motocross series are tied together this year for the first time in the two sports' combined 100 years of racing. So Ken Roczen in fact also took his first win in the 31-round SuperMotocross World Championship. The SuperMotocross League combines all the challenges of Supercross and Pro Motocross through the year. Then in September two Playoff races and one Final, on never before seen tracks, will determine the first-ever SuperMotocross World Champion.