The buzz inside Rice-Eccles Stadium during the Monster Energy AMA Supercross races Sunday afternoon was loud. Loud like a hundred-contestant chainsaw competition at a lumberjack games. Loud like a Led Zeppelin concert. Loud like a jackhammer when the baby’s sleeping.
The silence, however, was deafening.
No music, no chanting crowds, no pyrotechnic blasts. Once the motorcycles were cleared from the track, an odd hush fell across the stadium. Occasionally, it was broken by the beeps of a reversing dirt grader and the clang of the metal ties against a flagpole.
As a precaution against the spread of COVID-19, no fans were allowed to watch Sunday’s race, the first since the Supercross season was interrupted in early March by the virus. The public will also not be able to attend any of the next six races, all scheduled to be held at the University of Utah’s football stadium every Wednesday and Sunday through June 21. All races will be aired on the NBC networks.
The resulting scene was a surreal one, to be sure. It felt like watching a cable TV show where the commercials are really loud and the program very quiet, only in reverse. It shined a light on how much of sports are about the atmosphere: the food, the camaraderie, the intermission antics, the background music and booming announcers. Sunday’s event had none of that.
Then again, none of that mattered once the racing started.
“It’s weird. Once we started racing, honestly I didn’t think about it. It was just like, ‘This is a race, lets go,’” said Shane McElrath, winner of the 250SX East main event. “But for the heat race, we were sitting there and it was like, ‘Dude, this is very, very quiet.’ You can hear yourself breathing. It’s weird.”
With the groan of dirt bikes being pushed to their limit in the thin air of Salt Lake City drowning out any and everything else, the lack of faces in the stands could be forgotten. Eli Tomac, the points leader in the main 450SX class, didn’t take his hand off the throttle just because he didn’t have the roar of 30,000 sets of lungs behind him. The rider from Cortez, Colo., got off to a good start but paid for some bad decisions on the dusty, slick track. Two riders passed him back-to-back a couple of laps in, pushing him to fifth. Nevertheless, he pressed on, regaining the lead and holding it for the final 18 of 29 laps for the win.
Cooper Webb of Florida finished second and Ken Roczen, another Florida-based rider who trailed Tomac by just three points in the standings entering the race, took third. Roczen now trails Tomac by eight points in the title race.
“While racing, you’re under your helmet and in your zone, but I feel like Supercross is much more of a show with the fireworks and all that,” Roczen said. “Not having that is just different. It feels like a day at the practice track.”
Perhaps Pierce Brown best exemplified the ability of riders to elevate in a vacuum.
The rookie from Sandy skidded into Jo Shimoda of California on the first hairpin turn in the 250SX East main event. By the time the two untangled, he was in 21st place out of 22 riders. In an effort that might have otherwise been attributed to a push from a hometown crowd, Brown rode like he was being chased by the devil himself for the remainder of the race. He clawed his way to fifth — his best position in his three career pro races.
Garrett Marchbanks of Coalville, meanwhile, earned his second podium trip this season. He placed third behind Shane McElrath of California and Chase Sexton of Florida in the 250SX East class.
Marchbanks became the first Utahn to ever win a Supercross race when he raced to victory at Daytona International Speedway on March 7, the last race before the season was interrupted. Sunday’s effort moved him into third in the standings, behind Sexton and McElrath, respectively, with four races to go. Brown shot up from 17th to 12th with his result.
“It’s a good way to get the momentum back again,” Marchbanks said, “and we’ll keep it moving.”
The second noisiest part of the day came just after the riders left the stadium. The rumble and beep of cranes and front loaders filled the air almost immediately as crews set to work building the track for Wednesday’s races.
Considering how quickly the track dried up and turned into a dust bowl Sunday, the racers are hoping the next iteration will be more kind. One thing in the builders’ favor is that those races will take place between 8 and 11 p.m., which should allow the dirt to retain more of its moisture. Riding under the lights might also provide an atmosphere that can cover for the lack of a live crowd, though that’s something that can’t truly be replaced.
SUPERCROSS TV SCHEDULE
All times Mountain
Round 12 (East) Wednesday
8-11 p.m. on NBCSN
Round 13 (East) Sunday
3-6 p.m. on NBCSN
Round 14 (West) June 10
5-8 p.m. on NBCSN
Round 15 (West) June 14
5-8 p.m. on NBCSN
Round 16 (East) - Wednesday, June 17
5-8 p.m. on NBCSN
Round 17 (East/West) June 21
1-2:30 p.m. on NBCSN then 2:30-4 p.m. on NBC
*TV schedule subject to change.