DO YOU REMEMBER THE LEGEND OF “KICKSTART KENNY”?
Ken rode for Suzuki as an Amateur all the way back to his RM85 minicycle days. He turned Pro on Suzuki in the MXGP series. Then, he came to the U.S. on KTM, but switched back to Suzuki with RCH for 2015–2016 before going to Honda. At the end of the 2022 race season, Ken Roczen was in a quandary for a laundry list of reasons.
At the end of the 2022 season, Ken’s time at Team Honda was coming to an end. Honda was putting their money on Jett Lawrence for the future. With Chase Sexton and both Lawrence brothers on red, Ken Roczen wasn’t worth what he used to be for them. After a tough 2022 Supercross season where Ken retired from the series early to focus on his health, and a sub-par Outdoor National season with Ken scoring one overall win, three overall podiums, Ken was offered a Supercross-only Honda contract for the 2023 season.
Kenny, like lots of down-on-their-luck racers, saw the new FIM World Supercross Championship (WSX) as a high-paying destination. The FIM series ran during the off-season for AMA Supercross and motocross in 2022, but Ken had plans to compete in a limited number of AMA Nationals in 2023.
Ken Roczen earned a podium at the Anaheim 2 Triple Crown, but he struggled at multiple races after that, making a win seem out of reach.
Once Honda heard that Ken wanted to do the two-race inaugural season of the World Supercross series, they were not happy. The WSX series has a terrible relationship with the U.S. based teams because they’ve tried to pull riders away from the outdoor Nationals. Honda told Ken that he had to choose between the FIM World Supercross series or Honda’s 2023 Supercross-only deal. He couldn’t do both. Honda’s hardball stance didn’t make much sense to the rank-and-file fans. They couldn’t see why the fate of Ken’s AMA Supercross deal was predicated on not racing two races of the FIM series. Ken had already promised that he would do the two rounds of the 2022 FIM series and wanted to keep his word. Thus, Ken was persona non grata at Team Honda. They withdrew their Supercross-only offer, and they hired Colt Nichols to bring the point home. Ken was out of a ride.
Kenoptions were very limited. As far as factory teams went, only left KTM and GasGas could line up with Ken’s Red Bull sponsorship deal. But, back in 2013, Ken had tried to break his 2014 KTM contract so he could go to Suzuki, but KTM team manager Roger DeCoster reminded Ken (and his agent) that he had a contract for 2014 and would be staying at KTM until it was up. Amazingly, Ken won the 2014 AMA 450 National Championship on the KTM, but left for Suzuki, where he won the 2016 AMA 450 Championship and immediately jumped ship to Team Honda for 2017. After the 2014 contract dispute, over which there was no real dispute since Ken was contracted to KTM, neither Kenny nor Roger were ready to kiss and make up—and as you may have guessed, Roger also controlled GasGas.
Ken Roczen needed not only a Red Bull-sponsored team or, at the very least, a team without any drink contract, he needed a team that was tapped into a “factory bonus.” Don’t confuse factory bonuses with contingency bonuses. Factory bonuses are where the big win and Championship money comes into play. Factory bonuses are four times larger than contingency bonuses, and Roczen needed a team that had a pipeline to the big payouts. With Honda, Kawasaki, KTM, Yamaha and GasGas out of play, Ken started testing privateer team bikes and, surprise of surprises, the lowly Twisted Tea HEP Suzuki team caught his eye. Although they weren’t supported very well by the Suzuki factory, Ken had a soft spot in his heart for Suzuki. He rose to fame as a 15-year-old Grand Prix rider on the Teka Suzuki team and won the 2011 FIM 250 World Championship for them. Ken also gave them their last AMA 450 National Motocross Championship back in 2016.
Ken tested Twisted Tea’s race bike, but before that, team owner Dustin Pipes had Brandon Hartranft do the early season testing on it. Dustin assumed it would be a one-time ride by Ken. It wasn’t! Ken loved the 2023 Suzuki RM-Z450, and the Twisted team talked their other big sponsor, Progressive Insurance, into switching their package over to a Ken Roczen-led Progressive Insurance Suzuki team (this allowed Ken’s Red Bull contract to stay intact, because Twisted Tea was out of the picture). Additionally, Suzuki, who as of late has been busy pulling out of every race series they could, decided to pitch in to help Ken Roczen, and that reportedly meant factory bonuses.
Ken got a very late start on pre-season testing. However, luckily, Dustin Pipes had recently hired Larry Brooks to manage the team and, although Larry hadn’t managed top level riders in some years, he had Championship-level experience. Jeremy McGrath, Chad Reed and James Stewart had all ridden under his management. Twisted Development’s Jamie Ellis is also a Suzuki specialist, he had spent time at Rockstar Suzuki and he was hired to building Ken’s engines. Pipes got a second semi to wrap in Progressive colors (to avoid any hint to either Twisted Tea or Red Bull that there were any sponsor conflicts).
Right at the drop of the first gate at Anaheim 1, Ken showed promise. He was consistently in the top five, but with the occasional bad night. His determination to put the Suzuki on the box caught the attention of the fans.
WHEN KEN SHOWED UP ON THE TOP STEP OF THE PODIUM BRANDISHING A SUZUKI KICKSTARTER,ONE OF THE GREAT MOMENTS IN MOTOCROSS HISTORY WAS CAST IN STONE.
Then came the night of March 11, 2023. Ken Roczen rocketed out of the gate to grab the holeshot. The fans cheered, although under their breath they said, “He’ll fade just like he did at every race in 2022.” But, Ken didn’t fade. He hung tough and weathered every challenge the competition and the brutal Indianapolis track threw at him. There are lots of reasons why he didn’t fade. One was pride, two was a crazed crowd whose loud cheering lifted Ken’s spirits, and three was a lowly ranked Suzuki RM-Z450 that nobody thought could win, except him. When Ken showed up on the top step of the podium brandishing a Suzuki kickstarter, one of the great moments in motocross history was cast in stone. Stamp it! The 2023 Indianapolis Supercross was one for the ages. Everybofy loves an underdog story.
After a hard-fought 27-lap main Indy event, Justin Barcia was close, but the glory went to Ken Roczen.
Ken and Justin hugged and congratulated each other after Ken’s Indy win.
Ken Roczen and team owner Dustin Pipes celebrate.
HEP Suzuki team manager, Larry Brooks, shaking hands with Red Bull KTM’s team manager, Ian Harrison, at the podium. Larry used to be the KTM team manager and Harrison was at Team Suzuki with Roger DeCoster and Ryan Dungey.
Ken Roczen in pure jubilation.
True to his authentic, heart-on-his-sleeve personality, Ken Roczen brought his Suzuki RM-Z450 kickstarter on the podium, truly embracing the nickname “Kickstart Kenny.”