Looking up the scoring tower at the end of the Monster Energy Supercross series season opener in Anaheim, Calif., in January, fans expected to see familiar names like three-time champion Ryan Villopoto, or a past champion like James Stewart or Ryan Dungey leading the pack.
But when the dirt settled in Angel Stadium, a new name was at the top: Germany's Ken Roczen, 20, a rider who was not well-known to the American audience.
"No matter where or what I raced, there were always more experienced riders than myself and it was never easy. I had to work hard for my wins and finishes," Roczen said after the Anaheim race.
Was Roczen's sudden success just a flash in the pan? Not since Travis Pastrana and Ricky Carmichael has there been a rider to come onto the scene at such a young age. If history is any indication, it's more common than not to see a rider shoot out of the gates, then quickly struggle to mid-pack finishes -- upsetting mechanics and frustrating team managers who have to ponder why another weekend has passed by and another win has slipped away.
But that was not the case for Roczen. He followed up his season-opening win with another victory in Atlanta in February, and now sits comfortably in third place in the 2014 Supercross season standings, just one point away from Dungey's second-place spot. The young, confident German is here to stay.
In Germany nearly two decades ago, a 2 1/2-year-old, blond-haired, blue-eyed Ken Roczen first cut his teeth aboard a Yamaha PW50. And at 3 he entered his first race, an indoor supercross race and a precursor to what his reputation would become. From that point, Roczen raced consistently just about every weekend.
It's unusual for a rider to start at such a young age. Most riders don't start riding bikes until they're at least 6. Riders in other sports who begin competing before they are ready, risk burning out. This clearly was not the case for Roczen.
Roczen's memories of those early racing days are a little unclear, but he does recall he rode a dirt bike before learning to ride a bicycle. His family support system, especially his dad, played a huge role in his success and keeping him focused. Staying one step ahead of his competition helped him maintain interest in the sport. He would ride his 50cc in the 65cc class, or race the kids in the next age group up for a challenge.
The German equivalent to the amateur races in the United States, like Loretta Lynn's and the Florida Mini Olympics, are the DJFM and the ADACS. And it was here that Thomas Ramsbacher of Suzuki coined the phrase "The Roczen Way," a term used to define Roczen's ability to do well riding his 50cc in the 65cc class or compete in the next age class.
"I can tell you many names of talented riders who were destroyed by the Roczen Way," Ramsbacher said.
Seeing the potential in Roczen, Ramsbacher signed him when he was 9 to a five-year deal.
"It was clear this kid had something special," Ramsbacher said. "And it will be a long time before we sign another rider before the age of 10."
As he had done since he was 2, Roczen went beyond his years to begin riding 250cc lites bikes at age 13. In the U.S., riders at that age are just beginning to settle into their 85cc bikes and typically don't think about riding a 250cc or 450cc until the age of 16. But at 15, Roczen turned pro and left the European National Championship series to begin his Grand Prix racing career.
"Even though I was up against these established riders, I was never intimidated or nervous by them," Roczen said. "It wouldn't take long for me to become one of the top guys of the class."
He said that no matter what or where he raced, it never came easy and he always had to work extremely hard for it. For example, in the German National Championship series in 2010, he opted to race his 250 lites bike in the 450 premier bike class. The 250 has anywhere from 10-20 less horsepower than the 450, so Roczen intentionally put himself at a significant disadvantage. While he didn't win, he didn't finish last against a field with more horsepower.
Roczen's first trip to the U.S. came in 2005, when he was 11, to compete in the Florida Winter Mini Olympics, an annual amateur race in Gainesville. The race consists of four different disciplines: a time trial on a flat-track style that pays homage to the original dirt-track days of early motocross, a Supercross discipline, a Motocross discipline and a grand prix event combining the TT, SX, and MX events into one track for a 30-minute moto. At the beginning of the race, riders have to sprint 100 yards to their bikes, then kickstart them to take off. Combining finishes from all four disciplines at the end of the week determines placing.
Roczen was foiled in that first year but would return to win the overall amateur national championship the next year in 2006.
By 2008, he had officially marked his first full year racing the 250 lites bike, and in 2009, he signed up for his first MX2 Grand Prix race at age 15. Roczen remembers the date in April so well because he had to wait until he turned 15 to race the Grand Prix thanks to an age restriction. He had to sit out the first four races of the 16-round circuit but turned 15 just in time for the fifth race.
"If it weren't for an age restriction, Ken may have won the MX2 title in his first year," Wolfgang Thomas of Fox Racing said.
According to Thomas, who sponsored the young German rider at 11 years old, Roczen had the "it" factor. Thomas said what was remarkable about winning all those early races in Germany against older riders on bigger bikes was his competitiveness at such a young age, driving him to work hard and keeping his interest in the sport.
"There was no other rider as competitive as Ken was." Thomas said.
When he finally entered his first Grand Prix race, in Portugal, he rode to a ninth-place finish in the first race of the weekend and a respective fourth-place finish in the second race. With that finish, he earned the right to sign up to race on a much bigger stage.
"Portugal was most memorable for me, as I saw Ken ride to an impressive 9-4 moto finish as a 15-year-old rookie riding his first-ever Grand Prix." Thomas said. "He was competitive in the Grand Prix series from the very first minute."
Roczen took a step back in 2010 because of continued bike malfunctions and uncharacteristically poor finishes, but his sights were set on moving to the U.S. permanently and racing on a bigger stage. According to Roczen, the fastest riders in the world are in America, and as a German racer, if you want to be the best you have to beat the best.
"I would always watch the American SX TV show 'Bar-to-Bar'. I always wanted to come to America to race supercross." Roczen said.
All the top riders or the ones considered the best are American or have moved to the United States to race with them.
To get a ride and race here in the US on the AMA SX, MX series, according to Mitch Peyton of Pro Circuit, "You need to win on Supercross, that's how you get full year ride."
So, to compete against the top riders in the world, Roczen needed to leave Germany.
Roczen made his AMA Supercross debut in Anaheim in 2011 on a factory KTM team in the 250 class. That season, he won one of the eight races he entered, collecting four top fives and a sixth-place overall finish in the 250 West Coast Lites championship. Later that year, Roczen returned to Europe to win the FIM Motocross World Championship, avenging his second-place finish the year before.
"I've worked with many of the best riders in the past 10 years but there is something different about Ken," said Chris Onstott, Roczen's manager at WMG.
In 2013, his third year in the 250 class (one rank lower than the premier 450 class), Roczen claimed his first AMA Supercross season title in a thrilling battle with Eli Tomac that went down to the last lap of the final race of the year in Las Vegas. Roczen went into Vegas with a five-point lead, but a hard-charging and determined Tomac would take the early lead and the main event win. Roczen then had to finish in second place to claim the season title, which he did after a down-to-the-wire battle with Martin Davalos.
The 2013 Lites championship granted him the right to graduate to the 450 class this year, racing with the likes of Villopoto, Stewart and other supercross luminaries. For most other riders, moving up to the premier bike class would have have seemed a bit premature, but like he has done since Day 1, Roczen does things on his own schedule.
Roczen's two supercross wins thus far this season combined with his third-place position in the overall standings can only validate the risks Roczen has taken throughout his career to claim his spot among the elite riders of motocross in such a short period of time.
And now that there are no bigger bikes to ride, all that's left to do is win.