The A1 Curse – Will Eli Break It?!

In an MX Vice survey of over 40 of Europe’s top Motocross megastars, only three riders picked Eli Tomac to take the win at the opening round, despite the #1 Yamaha man dominating the 2022 season both outdoors and in with both titles, plus wins at the MXoN and the WSX in Cardiff.

Words: Ben Rumbold | Lead Image: Star Racing Yamaha

As Mattia Guadagnini correctly stated in his reply, Eli has never looked 100% at the opening round, with an average finish of only 10th place in his 9 years of 450cc Supercross racing.

The reigning champ silenced them all, however, with a stunning win despite having to recover from a mid-race crash, and he stalked down his main outdoor challenger Chase Sexton to do so.  But does it mean he’ll win the title? If so, he’ll have to break an 11-year curse, as the last rider to win both Anaheim 1 and the title was Ryan Villopoto back in 2012!

Now I’m sure Eli won’t really give a monkeys about any curse, he will pick off each round as he goes through, but if he were to get spooked then he could gain solace from the fact that he has already broken another A1 curse – Villopoto in 2012 was also the last REIGNING Champ to win at A1!

Ryan Villopoto was the last rider to win both Anaheim 1 and the AMA Supercross title, in 2012. (Image: Rene Johnston, Toronto Star)

Anaheim first hosted the series opener in 1981, when Kent Howerton took the win ahead of eventual champ Mark Barnett, and the venue opened the show 8 times in total, up to and including 1990. In 1982 to ’84 and also in ‘87, the winners all went on to become the champion – Donnie Hansen, David Bailey, Johnny O’Mara and Jeff Ward in that order.  The Citrus Bowl in Orlando then started the season for 6 straight years and it took the King of Supercross, Jeremy McGrath, to break that curse from 1994 to ’96.  In those days, MC won just about everywhere indoors!

In 1997 & ’98 the fabled L.A. Coliseum ran the opener, and both were won by former World Champions in shock results – Greg Albertyn on the Suzuki, who McGrath had just joined as a new teammate, and Sebastien Tortelli on a wild card pre-GP runout for Kawasaki.  Amazingly neither man won another AMA Supercross in their entire career.

Since the first “A1” in 1999 – when what is now known as Angel Stadium started hosting multiple events in the Supercross calendar – there have only been 4 winners who went on to the title – McGrath in 2000, Chad Reed in 2004 & ‘09, James Stewart in ’08, and RV in 2011 & ’12.

The number of reigning champions to have won the opening round is an even smaller club. Only 7 times since the series began has the previous year’s title winner won round 1. Johnny O’Mara was the first back in 1985 at Anaheim, with Jeff Ward winning 1987’s Houston opener and Rick Johnson the following year taking Anaheim whilst wearing #1.

Jeff Stanton won in Orlando before losing his title to Jean-Michel Bayle in 1991, and of course that man McGrath conquered all from 1994-96 with the #1 plate. MC began the A1 era with those wins in 2000 & 2001, but since then it has been slim pickings for reigning champs with only Stewart in 2010 and RV in 2012 winning with the red plate.

Before Saturday’s stunning performance by Tomac, he was part of a little club of multi-champs who never won A1 – Ricky Carmichael the most famous example, and Ryan Dungey more recently.  RC wasn’t in the hunt until 2001 when he finally rose to challenge McGrath – A1 & A2 were the only losses the #4 experienced that season – and he got on the podium that year, as well as in 2003, ’05, and ’06.  Even Kevin Windham enjoyed a rare victory over Carmichael in 2005. RC missed 2004 through injury and of course 2002 saw that famous nose-dive on his Honda debut that made his progression to the eventual title all the more remarkable.

They say that you can lose the title in A1 even if you can’t win it. That 2002 DNF from RC wasn’t the only disaster suffered by a rider who still went on to win the title.  Stewart missed a gear whilst being chased by Reed in 2009, leading to a wipe-out for them both!  When asked what happened by trackside reporter Erin Bates shortly after, Stewart’s famous reply was simply “I crashed” as the steam was almost visually coming out of his ears! Josh Grant was in the right place at the right time to take what was to be his only 450 Supercross win.

Just ten years ago, Villopoto himself suffered a night of multiple crashes which left him with a 16th place finish while Davi Millsaps won a thrilling scrap with Trey Canard. It wasn’t until Round 10 at Daytona that RV re-claimed the series lead that he was never to relinquish.

Dungey, forever known as the diesel and a very under-rated 4-time Supercross Champion, was 2nd to reigning Champ Stewart in his 2010 450cc debut, then after four years of RV domination he was to become Champ from 2015 to ’17. He ran 4-2-2 at A1 through those years but was always there in the end.

So the A1 curse since 2012 has a further twist to its tale – only Jason Anderson, winner of A1 in 2016 then Champ in ’18, has even won a single Supercross title after being an A1 winner.  Checking through the winners of the last ten years and you have Millsaps (twice runner-up), Ken Roczen (four times A1 winner on three different manufacturers but twice runner-up in the series), Marvin Musquin (2018 A1 winner, 2nd in points that year), and of course the winner of round one from 2019-21 (although 2021 was in Houston), Justin Barcia, who has never finished higher than 4th in points.

So that leaves one more Champion, who has also never won the opener, that we haven’t mentioned yet. Only five of our surveyed riders suggested a podium for Cooper Webb, but he properly delivered with a solid ride through the field to 2nd place, putting a late pass on massive pre-race favourite Chase Sexton. Coupled with the fact that the track was brutal and that he has re-joined the Aldon Baker programme, many are pointing at the two-time Champ as being right back in title contention.

Webb has taken the #1 plate to the A1 podium, but never to another title after doing so. (Image: Align Media)

That may well be the case, but a good season opener hasn’t meant a stellar year in the past. His title seasons of 2019 and ’21 saw him finish 5th and 7th at round 1, whilst 2020 and ’22 saw him on the podium at A1 but 2nd and 7th in points.  Many riders either crashed or made mistakes and the whoops weren’t the sort to be blitzed, so there is an asterisk over Saturday’s 2nd place finish that just says “wait and see”.  From what’s likely to be a muddy second round at Oakland and the rest of the remaining 16 rounds, it will be fascinating to see if the A1 curse remains intact for 2023.

YearA1 WinnerChamp. Pos.ChampionA1 Position
2022K. Roczen (Hon)12thE. Tomac (Yam)5th
2021J. Barcia (Gas)4thC. Webb (KTM)7th
2020J. Barcia (Yam)5thE.Tomac (Kaw)6th
2019J. Barcia (Yam)13thC. Webb (KTM)5th
2018M. Musquin (KTM)2ndJ. Anderson (Hsq)2nd
2017K. Roczen (Hon)20thR. Dungey (KTM)2nd
2016J. Anderson (Hsq)3rdR. Dungey (KTM)2nd
2015K. Roczen (Suz)12thR. Dungey (KTM)4th
2014K. Roczen (KTM)3rdR. Villopoto (Kaw)4th
2013D. Millsaps (Suz)2ndR. Villopoto (Kaw)16th
2012R. Villopoto (Kaw)1stR. Villopoto (Kaw)1st
2011R. Villopoto (Kaw)1stR. Villopoto (Kaw)1st
2010J. Stewart (Yam)20thR. Dungey (Suz)2nd
2009J. Grant (Yam)4thJ. Stewart (Yam)19th
2008C. Reed (Yam)1stC. Reed (Yam)1st
2007J. Stewart (Kaw)1stJ. Stewart (Kaw)1st
2006J. Stewart (Kaw)2ndR. Carmichael (Suz)3rd
2005K. Windham (Hon)3rdR. Carmichael (Suz)3rd
2004C. Reed (Yam)1stC. Reed (Yam)1st
2003C. Reed (Yam)2ndR. Carmichael (Hon)2nd
2002D. Vuillemin (Yam)2ndR. Carmichael (Hon)20th
2001J. McGrath (Yam)2ndR. Carmichael (Kaw)3rd
2000J. McGrath (Yam)1stJ. McGrath (Yam)1st
1999E. Lusk (Hon)2ndJ. McGrath (Yam)7th