Features 17 Jan 2021

Debrief: 2021 Supercross Rd1 Houston

Main event winners Barcia and Craig recall opening round in Texas.

The opening round of Monster Energy Supercross is recognized as one of the most challenging of all, but for Houston 1 winners Justin Barcia (TLD Red Bull GasGas) and Christian Craig (Monster Energy Star Racing Yamaha), the beginning of season 2021 couldn’t have been any better. Both won their respective heat races and main events, putting any form of pressure aside by rising to the occasion on night one of the new year. Each rider was available post-race for this Debrief interview feature.


Image: Supplied.

There’s been a lot made out of the opener being in Houston – we’re so used to Anaheim, there’s just that A1 vibe and today did feel a little bit different. I’m just curious of your thoughts, did Houston feel different at all to you?

Yeah, for sure. It felt a little different, it’s not Anaheim and definitely, like you said, the pressure on Anaheim is a little bit bigger, especially it would have been probably a little bit bigger for me just because I won the last two years, so it felt good to come here and not have that pressure. The three-peat thing was not even a thought, so I had enough pressure just on myself doing that Anaheim video and stuff like that… I just had to deal with that pressure and stuff, so all in all, it was a little different vibe, but honestly, we were just stoked to be here racing with some fans.

After the finish, hanging out with the team, watching you shake your head and the reaction was like you almost couldn’t believe it. Talk about that a little bit.

It was definitely a lot to take in. It was an intense race, me and Kenny checked out and he kept the pressure on me, made a few little mistakes, but all in all it was just a really intense race. The off-season training went extremely smooth, the transition to the team went really well, so I felt really good and then coming into this you just don’t know where you’re at. I mean, I know I can win, but there’s more to that and it was definitely a lot of like, crazy emotions to take in. You know, we put in a lot of work and it feels really good – I was really, really happy. It’s just a lot to take in, a lot of people were like, ‘smile!’, but it’s just a lot.

For a first race on a new bike, obviously I think you have to be happy with that result.

Yeah, I mean, I’m really stoked on the result. Like, yeah, winning was great, if I would have got third tonight that would have been great, if I were to finish top five, it would have been great tonight for me, but to win it was awesome. I was really stoked on my starts, I’ve always been a really good starter, but the past five years it’s been difficult, so tonight to rip starts on my bike was cool. I felt really good riding, I felt like I could throw the bike around and kind of do whatever I wanted, so it was cool to have Kenny pushing me the whole time. We were definitely going for it – it was a rad first race [laughs].

Of the three guys on the podium tonight, two of you guys were running the air-shock. What do you like about that thing, what’s different about it and what can you tell us now that we’re here?

It was definitely really hush-hush before the season… I got to test it and then it kind of went away for a little bit because we were waiting on parts and stuff. Then I went back to my spring shock and then back to air-shock, probably three or four weeks before the season. It’s just very consistent, you don’t get any fade like a spring shock and there’s definitely some positives to it versus a spring shock. I’m super-stoked to have it and I think it’s a good thing for us – I’m glad the whole KTM brand and WP figured that out. It was cool actually, Roger [De Coster] actually did a lot of work on it, I would see him in the shop – I spent some time in the shop – and he would be in the machine shop making parts for it and stuff [laughs]. It’s super-rad, it’s been a cool experience with that and that was really the only thing we were testing was a little bit of suspension stuff all off-season. It’s really good.

It seems like this point in your career, even though you made this switch and you love the bike and it worked out well, until you raced tonight was there still that little bit of a doubt where you had to basically make this happen to be like, ‘okay, I made the right decision’?

Yeah, for sure. I mean, at a point I lost a little bit of belief, all the years of struggling, but I knew I’ve done all my off-season training and I kind of know what to do now. I’m 28 years old, so it’s time to do it or not. It was really weird coming in, like I said, the off-season went really smooth and easy and then get here today, once I won that heat race, I was kind of like, ‘whoa, that felt really good’ and relieved some pressure, but the main event was sick – I felt like I definitely needed to do that tonight. Like I said, I would have been happy with any podium position, but to win it is just kind of icing on the cake. Like Kenny said, it’s the first race and he probably could have made a pass there, but also we might have both went down, sowe’ve grown up a lot and we’ve got a long season ahead of us. We need to be smart, he kept me on my toes, for sure, because he could have put me into a mistake, so it was a good race.

It seemed like you were really trying to downplay the three-peat thing and then unfortunately that video came out, which I think you had shot that a while ago and it probably ratcheted the pressure up. You also weren’t really going out of your way I think to build up, ‘I’m going to be a totally new rider on this bike’. I feel like you were trying to downplay things, so was that your plan going in, to try to take the pressure off and not make any bold statements, but then the video came out that kind of did that for you.

Yeah, definitely. I wanted to keep the pressure off as much as I could and just do my work and put my head down, just do it. Then Troy [Lee] hit me up and was like, ‘hey, we want to do this video’, then Jeremy [Malott] from Red Bull was super about it and I couldn’t say no [laughs]. It was really fun, really exciting, I loved every moment of it – I think it was great – but on my side, it was definitely more pressure. Once it was fully released, I just stayed off of social media. There’s no need for me to go on there and see people being super-negative or rude or just whatever… Social media is not a great place nowadays, so just let it be what it is. I know some people were really stoked on it and other people weren’t too happy about it, but I definitely wanted to keep a cool, calm off-season and that definitely ramped it up and didn’t do me any favors [laughs]. I’m glad today went how it did so I could, you know, what do they say? Shut the haters up… It is what it is. Like I said earlier, it’s a long season and I want to be there through the whole thing. Racing Kenny tonight like that was really rad, so it was good.

Was there a certain moment when you were on the track – even if it’s press day, practice or leading a heat or the main – where that pressure goes away and you’re like, ‘okay, it’s not talk or anything like that anymore, I’m just racing my dirt bike and we’re back to what we’re used to’. Does that happen?

Yeah, I felt phenomenal in press day, but the pressure was still there. Felt great in practice, haven’t qualified like that or had good starts like that a lot of times, so I felt good there, but the pressure is still there. Heat race was better, it made me like, ‘okay, you’re in a good spot, it will be a good night and whatever happens, happens’. So yeah, after the heat, the pressure definitely was a little less. I was able to be like, ‘okay, my work was good, lets do this main event’.

You said your starts haven’t been good in a while. Is this a bike thing? What’s the difference here? Because you nailed all three.

It’s a bike thing, for sure… The bike’s really good, steel frame is sick, the engine, the power of it is incredible. I got on it and I never tested anything with the engine, I just rode what they gave me and it’s a really good bike. The whole KTM brand, GasGas, Husky, they do a really good job. I’ve always been good at starts, like on 250s I was great, the bike was good then, then I struggled a lot. This bike fits me really well, it’s skinny and it’s a rocket off the gate – not like a rocket like loop out, just it goes [laughs].

This is obviously your third opening round win in a row, three years straight, so do you feel like this package with the GasGas and the TLD team, is it going to enable you to carry that form across the 17 rounds better than in the past?

Yeah, for sure. Honestly, I don’t really look back at the past, I just look at the present and this team, I’ve really enjoyed working with the guys. It’s been extremely fun, also very serious, but fun. The motorcycle is a great fit for me – it’s skinny, it’s light and it’s got a good power band. Obviously, I’ve got kind of a tendency to go from zero to 100 on the throttle, so I still need to be smooth and have to ride the bike good, but all in all it’s a very forgiving bike when you make little mistakes and stuff, so yeah, I just think it’s a great fit for me. I’m glad I made the choice, so just looking forward to the year, I think it’s going to be fun.

250SX East

Image: Octopi Media.

Christian, just a great night, a great day all around. On the ground next to the podium, I got to talk to you after the heat race and you had this laser focus, I could tell there was some intensity and there was a lot of purpose with the way you were riding today. Of course, on the podium after the main, a completely flipped emotion. Take me through the entire day, where you were leading up to that main event and then, of course, when you crossed the finish line and the fireworks go off when you got it done.

Yeah, just the whole day was good, but I’ve had so many of these days… Everyone kind of knows my story if you’ve followed it, it’s like I can qualify good, I can win heat races, but then something happens in the main like I make a mistake, I get a bad start, I tip over – just something that I can’t control sometimes. But, it’s kind of like I had this chip on my shoulder today and I still do – it’s not like I got rid of it – just something that I needed to prove to myself. I do believe in myself and after the off-season that we had, there was just this chip on my shoulder, I just felt it all day, I was flowing and it was awesome. When I crossed that finish line, just so much emotion, it kind of took me back a couple years when I was struggling and going through the whole FIM thing. It was so easy for me to just give up and call it a career – I’m happy I stuck into it and I’m just gonna keep this going.

Typically, you guys would go home and get some recovery time, but we’re going racing again in a couple of nights. Does it feel good that there’s two more days and we do it again or do you kind of wish that you had a few extra days and it was maybe not until next Saturday?

I’m all for this schedule. We’ll chill for a couple days, we’re going to probably do some Zwift’s, nothing too crazy, it’s more just recovery and chill and hang out with the kids tomorrow and get back to it Tuesday. I’m excited, I think it’s a cool schedule and it’s going to be a little bit different track, but hopefully, they make it a little more technical. It was pretty basic tonight, you had to be aggressive to make some passes and I was aggressive with RJ [Hampshire] in that heat, but that was kind of the only way to get around with two laps to go. I’m looking forward to it for Tuesday.

You really seemed like you wanted to establish yourself, even in practice. You were trying to be the first guy on the track and then I know you said you had some aggressive passes with RJ – maybe that was just because of the track – but it looked like you were really trying to establish a tone. Did you feel that way?

Yeah, but that’s something I’ve always done, I’ve always wanted to go out first. That’s been my thing, try to get out front and kind of race those opening laps and just get that feel of the race pace. Last year I got pushed around a lot and I’m older in the class, so that shouldn’t be happening – I should be taking advantage of these young kids making mistakes or be smarter than them. I did it in the heat race and made an aggressive pass, didn’t mean to hit RJ, but there was only two laps left and I had to get through for that heat win, but I set a tone from practice one on. It’s always the plan to get up front and set that pace.

I’ve never seen anybody more self-aware of their motivations. I was wondering, you were talking about proving these haters wrong and maybe over what you’ve gone through these last several years. Who are you talking about – is it the fans, industry people who didn’t believe in you… who are you so focused on proving wrong?

There’s a lot of people. I mean, I can call a lot of people out, but I just use that as motivation. I hear on podcasts, I hear just little chirps here and there, but it used to bug me back in the day. Nowadays I use it as motivation to just kind of prove them wrong. It wasn’t like hating, like haters, but I feel like I got written off last year and my results weren’t that great, so whatever, but that just lit a fire under me, I would say.