Making Supercross More Super

by Jon Row

Supercross 2010 season review

2010 was another spectacular season for AMA Supercross. Event attendance was solid at most venues even though TV coverage, with good repeats, on two networks provided great viewing opportunities. Non-factory riders/teams did well, grabbing more podiums than predicted and almost every team had some moments of glory and exposure for their sponsors and fans. A lot of personal records were set. Unfortunately, so were a lot of bones.

It is somewhat sobering to realize that only nine of the forty-eight hearty AMA SX pros who raced the series were able to ride all seventeen main events. An unprecedented number and variety of injuries turned the tables this year more than anyone expected or wanted. Unlike ‘08 and ‘09, the multitude of mishaps also denied fans a cliffhanger climax at the final event; the championship having been decided three rounds from the end.

In a classic case of “be careful what you wish for”, even fans who didn’t want to see Reed and Stewart dominate were probably not pleased when they both hit the disabled list early. Everyone was denied the opportunity to see second year vet Villopoto and new kid Dungey run the full series with a healthy Chad or James.

Even though Ryan Dungey’s total wins were less than 4th place finisher Villopoto he became the first rookie year Champion since the iconic McGrath in ’93. It was the result of multiple factors: good consistent riding, the invaluable benefit of “Goose” Gosselaar’s legendary set up skills and, perhaps most importantly this year, the favor of fickle, bitch-goddess Lady Luck, every time he crashed, entangled or solo.

Besides prematurely shortening careers and providing the ability to arthritically predict the weather, SX injuries cause other problems for riders, teams and the sport. The cost of rider accident and disability insurance premiums increases in proportion to the size and scope of their injury record. Some riders are now not insurable at anything close to reasonable prices which means somebody pays a lot or they go without. Not good. In current economic era realities, few private or publicly held companies today can, or will, invest in race activities which do not guarantee specific exposure levels. Subsequently, many sponsors and teams have missed-event contract penalties which means reduced or suspended payments and salaries when riders cannot ride enough events. The combined end result is less money and less rides available to riders at all levels and classes.

Any increased cost to the industry comes at a bad time now. Right up till the “Great Crash” of September 2008, rider pay and race budgets were hovering at all time highs. Salaries and bonuses had risen dramatically for a decade thanks to phenomenal Powersports unit sales and corporate rivalries, both powered by now reviled, easy home mortgage refi money. Equipment and paychecks that 1980s and 1990s era riders could only have dreamed of flowed to more than just the very top riders. In SX and MX the financial crises impact has been delayed for some riders thanks to amazing timing. Prior to the crash, many rider contracts were two-year deals, usually negotiated early and in place by the end of August. Riders fortunate enough to have been in the 2008 window are now coming to the end of grand two year commitments inked days before the bottom fell out of America’s finance and Powersports industries. Although current and former champions won’t soon be down to riding in worn out gear, more top twenty finishers in this year’s MX , SX and Lites, even if they’re fortunate enough to retain factory or support team rides, will have substantially reduced income, and whatever health insurance they can afford.

What can be done to reduce injury plagued SX seasons? Ideas abound.

RX for SX?

A shorter series?
At seventeen races, the SX series, along with specific track -replica practice regimens utilized by the top teams, makes for an extremely long season and exposure window. With only two non-race weekends, potential recovery time through the grueling 5-month gauntlet is limited. Most SX riders are, at some point, riding injured or at less than 100%. The injuries this season have again reduced the number of top level riders able to start the AMA outdoor MX series a scant 2 weeks after the final SX event. Ironically, promoters and the sanctioning body would like to lengthen the season and or expand international rounds beyond just Toronto to cash in on SX’s global appeal and of course, attract more sponsorship money. The OEMs have successfully rejected these expansion efforts but an event reduction is not likely.

Reduced displacement?
Sanctioning body policy makers have long mulled a 350cc class limit believing it would increase the number of riders able to compete at safer levels. With industry-wide powersports sales continuing to struggle however, major OEMs have no interest in spending precious R&D funds on new race displacement categories. Niche maker KTM is testing the water and will likely run their new 350 in the outdoor series with Mike Alessi. Time will tell, but without at least one of the Japanese OEs on board, it will be an uphill battle.

Reduced power from sound regulation?
U.S. SX races are loud. Too loud. The rules will undoubtedly become more European-like, requiring lower db levels and hopefully less loopholes in pre and post race testing. Horsepower will initially drop but factory teams will regain some of the loss through ongoing development. The bad news? The performance gap over non-factory teams and privateers will increase.

Safer tracks?
At the St. Louis race, Villopoto’s Championship quest, his SX and MX season all ended on a sickening triple jump crash. Ironically it was a jump that heat race winner Chad Reed had also complained about because he felt it unsafe. The same jump seriously injured Ivan Tedesco and ended his season that night. As injuries have increased, Feld, to their credit, has become more responsive to rider feedback on track changes. The need for improved, ongoing communication is recognized.

And the best option is?
SX tracks are inherently dangerous environments and they can change significantly during a full day of events. Course designers and track officials have the ability to make SX tracks safer without dramatically dumbing down the show or reducing its excitement . AMA short track, TT and Supermoto races convincingly demonstrate that close, exciting racing can be had without the risks created by poorly placed, dangerously-ramped jumps, bottleneck first turns or unnaturally hard-soft soil transitions in critical areas. Little trade off is required in design, construction and, when necessary, on-the-fly modifications, to provide a better season-long experience for both riders and fans. For riders who can handle more exposure to, and from, higher risk riding, the X games are a great opportunity. For SX, everyone involved would benefit from safer tracks and fewer injured riders. And if that happens, Supercross 2011 will certainly be even more super.

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