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Ken Roczen picked up his fourth podium finish of the season at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tenn., on April 29. (Feld Motor Sports, Inc. photo)

Ken Roczen Leads Suzuki’s Supercross Rise With H.E.P. Motorsports

When Ken Roczen confirmed his brand switch from Honda to Suzuki last December, it was the first time most Monster Energy AMA Supercross fans had heard of H.E.P. Motorsports.

The family-owned, privateer-style team was Roczen’s choice for the 2023 race season, leaving his myriad of fans, the media and other industry figures wondering, “Why?”

At the time, it had been years since Suzuki was considered competitive on a professional level. The manufacturer’s last Supercross victory, ironically, was earned by Roczen in 2016. Its last championship came in 2010 with Ryan Dungey.

As such, criticism reigned supreme regarding Roczen’s move to Suzuki in the days leading up to the Jan. 7 season opener— a key critique being that Suzukis still require a kickstart, instead of an electric start like every other bike on the track.

Nonetheless, the German rider, dubbed “Kickstart Kenny,” and his fellow comrades began the season with belief in their cause, though they appeared to display a measure of caution equal to their skeptics.

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Ken Roczen celebrates his Atlanta Supercross podium with wife, Courtney, and son, Griffin. (Feld Motor Sports, Inc. photo)

“We were kind of up in the air and didn’t know where we stood as far as the bike — how good it was or how bad it was,” said team manager Larry Brooks.

As a new hire on the H.E.P. Motorsports roster, Brooks wasn’t even sure if the team was prepared for a rider like Roczen. When he heard the news that the No. 94 would be under the H.E.P. awning, Brooks was surprised.

“I didn’t expect to get a Ken Roczen. I didn’t really know if we were ready for it,” Brooks said. “But you have to take it, because you might not get a chance to get a rider like that again.”

And sure enough, H.E.P. Motorsports welcomed Roczen’s addition to the team and ran with it.

When the group arrived at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, Calif., for the first race, it was apparent to Brooks they had potential. But it would still be a long road to get there, as dialing in the bike’s suspension proved to be a struggle.

Walking away from Anaheim with a fifth-place finish was deemed a success.

“At the beginning of the year, we were just trying to get our feet grounded and see where we were,” Brooks said.

In the first seven races of the season, Roczen recorded five top-five finishes. While it wasn’t enough to be in the championship conversation, the German rider’s consistency made an unignorable statement to those who had doubted him.

“Back when I made the move, it was kind of like, ‘Woah, is he really doing that?’ People were just writing the bike off. But I followed my gut, because I needed a big change,” Roczen said.

The gut instinct eventually paid off.

At round eight on March 11, he lit the candles on the 21st 450SX victory of his career and the first triumph for H.E.P. Motorsports. When asked where the triumph ranked on his list, Roczen answered, “At the top. I mean, I believed that I could win on the bike, but to make it happen is a whole other story.”

Since that emotional night in Indy, the fan-favorite has amassed five additional top-five finishes, including a recent three-race podium streak. With two races to go in the Supercross season, Roczen is poised to take third in the championship.

“We’ve definitely gotten better toward the end of this season, which is what we were hoping for, as we were thrown in a crazy situation in the beginning,” Roczen said. “It just shows how much work we’ve done and how dedicated we all are.”

Growth has become a constant trend for H.E.P. Motorsports this year.

In January, the operation expanded to include two teams — Progressive ECSTAR Suzuki and Twisted Tea/H.E.P. Suzuki — and six riders — Roczen, Shane McElrath, Kyle Chisholm, Marshal Weltin, Dilan Schwartz and Brandon Hartranft (injured) — under its banner. And although the group is independently-owned, H.E.P. Motorsports is the closest thing to a factory-backed Suzuki team competing in Supercross.

While H.E.P. has gained significant notoriety and recognition with Roczen carrying the Suzuki flag into battle, it’s been six years since former privateer Dustin Pipes began placing the building blocks for H.E.P.

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Shane McElrath’s best-career 450SX finish was a fourth this season. (Chase Lennemann photo)

“Coming this far in six short years, our end goal was always to be racing for a championship, even when we were far away and when we had just started,” Pipes said. “We’re just trying to help these guys get to the next level.”

Roczen may be their hallmark rider, but Pipes is quick to commend each racer on the roster for their individual achievements. 

McElrath recorded a career-best finish of sixth in East Rutherford, N.J., on April 22. Chisholm cracked the top 10 for the first time this year in Nashville, Tenn., on April 29. Weltin has recorded two 11th-place finishes in the 250SX East division. Schwartz’s best result has been 13th in the 250SX West class. 

According to Brooks, H.E.P. Motorsports is a family, made up of people who are simply “doing what we love.” Chisholm, who rode for H.E.P. Motorsports in 2019 when the operation was just finding its footing, also speaks highly of the team’s in-house environment.

“Part of what they hired me for was to help with some bike development stuff, to help Kenny and the other riders with setup,” Chisholm noted. “The team trusting in me and me being able to help the team in that way has been a big thing.”

During the early season, Chisholm was instrumental as a test rider and worked closely with Roczen to find the proper suspension settings.

Meanwhile McElrath, who didn’t start riding the bike until two weeks before the season started, was able to “piggyback” off Chisholm and Roczen’s initial work at the test track when he joined the team in early January. The three now practice together in Florida and often “workshop” bike settings during the week.

“It’s an interesting dynamic, because we all race against each other and we’re all competitors, but it’s like, behind the scenes at this team, it’s all windows open and lights on,” McElrath said. “Nobody’s really hiding anything, because we all had the same goal in mind.”

Arguably, the reason it’s difficult to pinpoint a single factor that has led to the resurgence of Suzuki and the progress of H.E.P. Motorsports is because there isn’t one.

Instead, it’s a combination of hosting high-caliber talent, the willingness of riders to work openly with one another and the trickle-down effect that comes from leadership being passionate about the sport as a lifestyle, not only as a job.

With its array of riders and dedicated team members, H.E.P. Motorsports has proven to the Supercross world that Suzuki is here — and it’s here to stay.