ELI TOMAC: BACK TO THE FUTURE
A month ago, Eli Tomac came into the 2017 Lucas Oils Pro Motocross Championship as the red-hot favourite. And that come-from-behind 1-1 result at Hangtown’s opening round shortened the Kawasaki rider’s odds even further. Tomac looked and rode like a man scorned at the season opener; like a man who had plenty to prove after narrowly losing the coveted AMA SX title to Ryan Dungey just two weeks prior; like a man whose speed was reminiscent of the opening rounds of the 2015 AMA MX season, when Tomac smoked everyone, Dungey included, by margins of 30 and 60 seconds.
But Eli Tomac’s 2014-season dominance quickly unravelled after one big crash, and his 2017 campaign has appeared similarly vulnerable, with a combination of untimely crashes, weird mechanicals and uncharacteristically poor decisions depriving Tomac of the wins he was confident of. Sure, it’s not as if Tomac is out the back door. Heading into this weekend’s Round 4 of the Outdoors at High Point, PA, he sits just 17 points adrift from series leader, Marvin Musquin, and there’s every chance that Tomac will get his shit together and rattle off a string of unanswered wins, just as he did in the 2017 AMA SX series.
With all the talk at Transmoto HQ about whether or not Eli Tomac would stand up and deliver this season, we couldn’t help but revisit a memorable profile on the 19-year-old Tomac back in 2012; back when he’d just won the AMA Western 250SX title, and was being hailed as the next Ryan Dungey.
This content was originally published in Transmoto’s print magazine in August, 2012 (Issue #22).
The Tomac Express
After clinching the 2012 AMA Supercross Western Lites title, this kid from a remote corner of Colorado is fast becoming one of the sport’s brightest prospects – just as his famous father was in mountainbike circles.
The Las Vegas pit paddock is a frantic, seething mass of humanity. Rabid fans struggle and push to catch a glimpse of their racing idols. Sponsors and VIPs are wined, dined and politely told to move out of the way of the bustling mechanics. Media lurk in the background, rattling off a barrage of shots. Riders sign autographs, converse in huddles with team bigwigs, and tell the umpteenth kid they can’t have their goggles.
Amid all this mayhem, Eli Tomac clambers up the stairs inside the Geico Honda semi and sits heavily on the couch in the rider’s area with a sigh. This is the riders’ sanctuary; a place for the stars of the sport to escape the mad-house for a few minutes, catch their breath and reset the focus button.
“Man, it is crazy out there,” he says with wide eyes, an incredulous smile and an unbelieving shake of his head. “It’s not often the pits get as busy as it is out there right now. It’s amazing we can even race with so much going on around us.”
That wide-eyed wonderment quickly puts into perspective how young this kid from Cortez, Colorado, is. Even after two full seasons in the Pro ranks, Eli Tomac is still a fresh-faced teenager coming to terms with his newly acquired near-celebrity status. Claiming the 2012 AMA Supercross Western Lites title obviously played a huge role in this, but now he struggles to walk through the pits without being surrounded by a throng of frothing fans seeking an autograph or photo.
But the attention hasn’t got to his head. Eli is adamant he’s unchanged by the recent media hype and rapidly expanding fan-base, and is still the same humble country kid he’s always been.
“I haven’t changed. And if I ever let the attention get to my head, I’m sure my parents will pull me back into line,” the 19-year-old smiles. “I’m just here to ride motorcycles the best I can and have fun doing it. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.”
While the vast majority of the sport’s elite either grew up – or now reside – in the renowned moto hotspots of California and Florida, Eli was raised on a 303-hectare alfalfa and horse ranch in Colorado with his parents and half-brother Greg Oswald, who now serves in the US Air Force.
The blonde-haired kid still lives in the remote location and wouldn’t have it any other way. “Yeah, we’re a big drive from anywhere, but I love it,” he elaborates. “I think it’s helped my moto career; I build and maintain my own tracks and I don’t have to worry about overcrowded tracks, everyone watching you ride and trying to see what your deal is. No one sees me train and I don’t have the distractions or have to worry about getting caught up in the moto culture. Living out here definitely has its advantages.”
Two wheels and dirt have always been a way of life in the Tomac household. Eli’s father, John, is the 1991 World Cross-Country Mountainbike Champion and has more national titles to his name than he cares to remember. However, even though his old man was all about 26-inch wheels and pedals, Eli maintains there was never any pressure to follow in his footsteps.
“There wasn’t any pressure and I don’t really know why I took up moto. I’ve always loved two wheels and I guess it seemed a lot easier to twist a throttle and get up hills rather than pushing on pedals the whole time,” he laughs. “Mum and Dad bought me a Yamaha PW50 for Christmas one year, and from then on I was hooked on motorcycles.”
In the early mini-bike days, Eli wasn’t a top rider by any stretch of the imagination, but when he stepped up to the 60s, things started to fall into place. After picking up a Loretta Lynn’s title aboard his 60cc, he caught the attention of Suzuki and signed to ride an 85cc for them.
“Once I picked up the Suzuki mini-bike ride, I started to take things a lot more seriously,” Eli explains. “That was the turning point when I decided I wanted to make a go of the sport. I became a mini pro when I was on 85cc Super-minis. It’s crazy,” he laughs.
From that point, Tomac’s career snowballed. He picked up eight Loretta Lynn’s titles on his 60, for Suzuki, then for the Factory Connection Honda team. The Honda outfit then helped him transition into the sport’s professional ranks in 2010.Despite his burgeoning trophy cabinet and obvious skill on a motorcycle, Eli is quick to attribute his success to the dedication and support of his family. But that support transcends what a family typically does; Eli’s father, John, is also his personal trainer and mentor.
“Dad plays a major part in my life, for sure,” Tomac explains. “He trains me and tells me when to hit the gym, when to go out on the mountainbike and when to do push-ups. I’ll admit it does get a little weird at times – as a kid, it’s natural that you’re gonna get pissed off at your parents, and there have been a few instances when the line between trainer-athlete and father-son has been blurred. I’ve learnt to get over things pretty quick, move on and focus on my goals. It works out alright … most of the time!”
Eli entered the professional ranks with as much subtlety as a streaker at a nuns’ convention. At his debut appearance on the AMA Motocross Championship at Hangtown in 2010, the high-rising grom didn’t just finish inside the top-10, he won the Overall against the likes of Christophe Pourcel, Trey Canard and Jake Weimer, shell-shocking the entire industry and nearly causing an Internet meltdown.
“I can tell you, it came as a total surprise to me, too,” Eli admits with almost an embarrassed smile. “When you hit Seniors, of course you want to make a good impression, and I would’ve been stoked to have finished in the top 10 in my debut race. I don’t know if it was beginner’s luck as much as I was running on pure adrenalin that day.”
Tomac, however, didn’t win another outdoor race for two years after that momentous day at Hangtown; something that weighed his mind down more and more as each race passed. “After that first win came so easy, I kinda expected to win races week-in and week-out,” he admits. “It probably gave me a false sense of what it’s really like at this level, and my results went up and down for two years. Both the 2010 and 2011 seasons started okay, got rough in the middle, then seemed to come right at the end. But I was sick to death of not winning outdoors and tired of staying awake at night mulling it over in my mind.
“This year I’m working on starting better, working hard during the middle and finishing the season off strong. I definitely think people are going to see a more aggressive Eli out there this year. Our bikes are a lot better, I feel better prepared and I’m starting to ride looser, push it harder and I’m gaining more aggression. If I can do all that, I think I’ll be a title contender this year.”
And so far, things are going to plan. After a respectable fifth Overall at the 2012 opening round at Hangtown, Eli broke his outdoors drought with an emphatic 1-1 performance at Freestone, TX, a week later; a track he describes as his “nemesis” due to his poor results there over the past two seasons. To give you an idea of his pace, Tomac’s lap times in the first moto were the fastest anyone posted the entire weekend … and that includes the blistering laps laid down by James Stewart and Ryan Dungey as they battled for the lead in the 450cc class!
“For the last two seasons – especially 2010 – Freestone put a real bump in my campaign and forced me to play catch-up for the rest of the seasons,” Eli explains. “I finally screwed my head on straight there this year and had great flow around the track. It feels like a huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders, and to win just before my home round at Colorado was an added bonus.”
Eli’s momentum early in the outdoors season stems directly from an impressive 2012 supercross performance where he overcame an epic battle with Pro Circuit Kawasaki’s Dean Wilson to win the Western Lites title. After a heart-breaking runner-up result to Broc Tickle at the season finale at Las Vegas in 2011, Eli came into the 2012 season hungrier and with significantly more fire in his belly. However, despite his good intentions, Eli’s season got off to a shocker when he crashed, then suffered a mechanical DNF in the first heat of the first round. “The whole time, I was thinking, ‘Man, are you serious? I’m going to the LCQ at the first round. There’s a good chance I could start the series without making the main!’”
Tomac dug deep, won the LCQ, then podiumed in the main, before winning three rounds in a row at LA, Oakland then Anaheim 2. Just when it seemed the Tomac train was gathering an unstoppable head of steam, a big crash in the San Diego whoops saw him crack the radial head of his elbow and DNF. On top of that, Dean Wilson gained a maximum points advantage and took a slender two-point lead into the 10-week break as the series headed East.
“That crash was a good lesson that I don’t have to try and win every race. I was sitting in third, Dean was winning and Cole [Seely] was second. I tried to find some extra time in the whoops and it bit me hard. Luckily I had a 10-week break to recover, so as bad as it was, it couldn’t have happened at a better time,” he grins.
When the West Coast championship recommenced at Seattle, Wilson and Tomac came out with all guns blazing, and their main event stoush has been dubbed the best battle of the season as they traded blows and plastic for the best part of 15 laps.
“I was surprised when he started riding so hard,” Eli reveals. “He was diving in deep on me in corners, so I started diving in deep myself. He didn’t let off, and I’m the kind of guy who tries to ride as clean as possible, but if you want to ride aggressively with me, I’m going to come right back at you. I passed him clean twice, but when he tried to punt me off the track, I thought, ‘That’s it!’ and came back after him and he ended up hitting the dirt as a result. We haven’t really talked about it, but it’s not like we want to go out the back of the pits and kill each other. It’s all good between us.”
Tomac won in surprising circumstances at the next round at Salt Lake City when all his ducks lined up and the ‘mathematical chance’ of a title win – where Seely had to DNF and Wilson had to have a shocker – actually occurred. “It was crazy the way it turned out. I didn’t even know I’d won the title when I crossed the finishline; it wasn’t until someone came down and told me that I realised it! I was stoked for sure, but it wasn’t the way I would’ve liked to have won. However, it was nice to come into Vegas not having to worry about the points chase.”
With Eli’s career now starting to gather some serious momentum, it’s anyone’s guess as to how many races and titles this kid will win. At just 19 and already entering his third outdoor season, time and experience are both on his side.
“I don’t really have it in my head to go out there and break records. Stewart, RC, McGrath and now Villopoto have already raised the bar so much and it’ll be tough to go out there and eclipse their win record,” Eli surmises humbly. “But you can never say never. I want to win as many races as I possibly can and continue to grow, both as a rider and a person. You can never stop learning and the more you learn, the more successful you’re likely to be.”
That’s the attitude of a champion. And something tells us we’re going to see and hear a lot more of Eli Tomac in the future. He’s only just getting started.