Ken Roczen's Indianapolis Supercross win means nothing to Suzuki

A win for Ken Roczen and the HEP team last weekend at the Indianapolis Supercross brings focus again to Suzuki's decision to leave motorcycle racing.

Ken Roczen & HEP Suzuki team celebrate 2023 Indianapolis Supercross win. - Suzuki Cycles/BrownDogWilson

It is hard not to see tragedy in Suzuki, from the perspective of a Motorcycle Enjoyer, which - it seems fair to assume - most of you reading this article will join the author in being.

It seems by now as though the dead horse has been kicked back to life, died again, and is still taking a boot to the stomach on a frequent basis, but it is also true that reminders of Suzuki’s withdrawal from motorcycle racing, and the hole left in their absence, continue to occur. 

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In 2017, Hunter Lawrence raced for the factory Suzuki team in the MX2 World Championship. He moved to Husqvarna for 2018, since Suzuki quit the Motocross World Championship at the end of 2017, before going to the US in 2019.

In the US, Lawrence was able to find a home for both himself and his brother, Jett, at Honda. The success of Jett in particular meant that when Geico stopped sponsoring the Factory Connection race team that both Lawrence brothers (and a host of other riders, including 2022 250SX West Champion and current factory Husqvarna 450SX/MX rider Christian Craig) rode for, American Honda itself stepped in and took the 250 race programme under its own roof in order to keep hold of the two talented Australians who remain with HRC today, and are both leading their respective regional AMA Supercross championships (Hunter on East Coast, Jett on West).

Image credit: Honda Racing Corporation.

Hunter Lawrence won his fourth 250SX East race from the first five races of the series last weekend, on Saturday night in Indianapolis. He was dominant. Those behind simply could not catch him. The 2023 AMA Supercross 250SX East Regional Championship is there for the #96’s taking. 

Two years before Suzuki left the Motocross World Championship, its US race department signed Ken Roczen, who had ridden for Suzuki for much of his amateur career in Europe, before moving to KTM.

Image credit: KTM.

With KTM, Roczen won the 2011 MX2 World Championship, and then duly departed to the US. In 2014, Roczen moved up from 250s to 450s, and won his first-ever premier class AMA Supercross Main Event. That summer, he won the AMA Pro Motocross 450MX Championship, but by the end of the year he had gone ‘home’, to Suzuki.

At that time, Suzuki was not the biggest manufacturer in motocross, but with Ken Roczen on the RCH team, and James Stewart riding for the JGR team, it had two of the most talented dirt bike racers on the planet fighting to put the RM-Z 450 on-top. 

It did not go perfectly to plan. Although Roczen won the 450MX title for the second time in 2016, James Stewart disappeared from racing after a concussion at the first race of 2016 Supercross. By the end of the year, Roczen was gone, too, to Honda, where he threatened titles for six seasons but ultimately delivered none.

Around 30 minutes after Hunter Lawrence won the 250SX East race in Indianapolis last Saturday, Ken Roczen won the 450SX Main Event. It was his first AMA Supercross win since the first round of 2022 in Anaheim. 

Image credit: Suzuki Cycles/BrownDogWilson

The major difference between Roczen in Anaheim 2022 and Roczen in Indianapolis 2023 was the colour of the bike, since the #94 is back in yellow for 2023, after his relationship with Honda fell apart over the World Supercross Championship last year. Throughout the season, up until Indianapolis, Roczen had been testing suspension, from different things within one brand, to changing brands entirely. His struggles with getting comfortable on the RM-Z 450 had been particularly evident due to his competitiveness on fresh tracks compared to worn down ones.

Roczen’s win in Indianapolis was remarkable for a number of reasons. Firstly, the Suzuki RM-Z 450 has not been updated since 2018, its age shown by its retention of a kickstarter. Sure, the motorcycle makes up less of the winning package in dirt bike racing than in road racing, but going the same speed as a new-for-this-year Yamaha YZ450 is more complicated if your own bike is limited in its technology to that which was at the peak of the discipline five or six years ago. When Suzuki last won in Supercross, Ryan Dungey was not done winning titles, and his return from retirement in Pro Motocross last summer was seismic due to his time out, which was five years.

The second contributing factor to Roczen’s remarkable ride was the track, which was the most brutal of the season due to the soft dirt. By the end of the 450SX Main Event, it was almost closer to endurocross than supercross, if you’ll excuse the minor exaggeration. Considering Roczen’s drop-off in speed as the track has gotten rougher so far this season, to win on a track where none of this year's dominant top three were able to put together a win-worthy Main Event was exceptional. Further to that, Roczen made perhaps one mistake in the whole race, which came right at the end when he came up short getting off a tabletop. 

Eli Tomac, who has led the championship from the start of the season on the ‘23 YZ450, had a similarly error-free Main Event, but he finished seventh, lost speed down the stretch, and finished 44 seconds behind Roczen. Chase Sexton, this season’s fastest rider, finished over a lap down in 10th after crashing early. Cooper Webb, Supercross’ late-race master, finished third, 8.8 seconds behind Roczen after a mistake on the penultimate lap. The track was vicious, and required perfection. Roczen delivered pretty much exactly that.

Thirdly, and finally, we come to Roczen’s health. It is no secret that the #94 has been in trouble with his physical condition since his huge arm injury in 2017, and the surgeries which followed. Endurance, both in races and throughout the course of a season, has undoubtedly cost Roczen wins and titles in the years since, and all too often we have seen him in positions of strength 15 minutes into a Supercross Main Event, only for him to see the win slip from his grasp in the final laps. 

Image credit: GasGas/Align Media

This seemed to be the inevitable outcome of Saturday’s Main Event, even after Sexton crashed, and even after Webb’s late mistake. The threat was Justin Barcia, who has a reputation for aggressive racing, and is not above putting someone on the floor for a win that would have ended a drought that has lasted over two years; and especially in a year in which he is fighting for his spot on the 2024 gate. 

Barcia was closing on Roczen throughout the second half of the race, creeping closer in ominous style. He was aggressive, fast (especially in the whoops), and was not making mistakes. With his apparent strength, and the anticipation of Roczen’s growing weakness, there seemed only one possible outcome. 

Yet, it went the opposite way. So often it has been the case that Roczen should be denied at the last moment in races he has led. For it to go his way on this occasion - with the additional context of his move to Suzuki, his fall-out with Honda, and his long-standing health problems - made this a truly great win.

Before the start of the season, before Roczen had raced for the HEP Suzuki team (for whom Indianapolis was their first win in an AMA Supercross race) and before the potential of that partnership was understood, it was asked on many occasions whether Roczen’s arrival, and the potential success that could bring to Suzuki, would revive the brand's motocross efforts, as mentioned by Jason Weigandt in his recap of the Indianapolis weekend.

In an ordinary situation, a win at the highest level of dirt bike racing should encourage a manufacturer to invest more into that discipline. However, the absence of interest in motocross from Hamamatsu is representative of its absence of interest in motorcycle racing as a whole, as has been highlighted in numerous ways in the past 10 months or so. 

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When Suzuki pulled out of MotoGP last May, they did so at tremendous financial cost, no doubt. Dorna, the commercial rights holder for MotoGP, had to be financially compensated for Suzuki’s withdrawal, after less than one year, from a five-year contract which stated they would race in MotoGP until 2026. But Suzuki left MotoGP, anyway.

At the end of the 2022 MotoGP season, Suzuki won two of the last three races with Alex Rins. Confirmation that their motorcycle was fast, and that their riders - the aforementioned Rins, and 2020 MotoGP World Champion Joan Mir - were capable of winning. Of course, this success changed no minds in Hamamatsu.

Following Rins’ final round MotoGP victory in Valencia last year, Joan Mir - who, along with Rins and ex-Suzuki technical director Ken Kawauchi, moves to Honda for MotoGP 2023 - said, in an article on, “I think no publicity campaign can give you what we gave them here in MotoGP, with a beautiful bike, a beautiful team.”

There are similarities to be seen between the situation last year in MotoGP, and this week in Supercross. In Ken Roczen, Suzuki has one of the most popular and marketable riders in dirt bike racing, globally, who also happens to be one of the fastest riders in the sport; one of no more than five riders who can win both indoors and out - in supercross and motocross - at the highest level; and, in the HEP team, a rider who has people around him who can give him a winning motorcycle, even if it is half-a-decade-old. But, it does not matter. Suzuki will let it go.

“So I don't really understand why they took this decision,” Mir said in Valencia last November, about the end of Suzuki’s time in MotoGP. “They will have their reasons… but I don't understand, honestly.”

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