By Jon Row & Bikeland
The New Year is here and the 2013 SX season is ready to launch. Teams have used the off-season working on additional power, traction and sponsors. Riders are mostly healed, training, practicing and hoping to remain healthy through another 17-race season.
2012 was a year that broke plenty of Supercross series records… and bodies. Five different winners on four different brands thrilled fans and filled seats through the first half of the season. Race by race though, 2012’s top riders were crashed out of contention. By round twelve, Ryan Villopoto‘s stellar, consistent riding in the accident-plagued series left him with almost no challengers. Villopoto and the Monster Kawasaki clinched the crown with five races still left to go. The best odds makers in Vegas couldn’t have predicted such an anti-climatic coup that early in a season.
Villopoto’s Championship celebration was short lived. Two races later, an all-too-typical first lap tangle in Seattle, ended his year with a mangled knee. The same track that broke his femur in 2009 also took away the chance to repeat his 2011 outdoor Motocross Series Championship. He would have had less competition. Chad Reed, Ryan Morais, Trey Canard and a lot of other talent couldn’t ride MX this summer due to their Supercross series injuries.
Supercross 2012’s injury stats weren’t pretty. Of 80+ riders registered at the start, only Alessi, Millsaps and Metcalf were able to ride all 17 main events. For 2013, good guys like Ryan Clark, Josh Demuth, Ryan Morais, Jason Thomas and Josh Coppins are reportedly hanging it up.
Why does Supercross cause so much attrition?
The blame list for big bore class mayhem is long but here’s a partial list:
“450’s are too powerful”
Indeed they are, especially in the contrived confines of today’s stadium tracks. Most factory R & D time is spent trying to manage the explosive power and help riders control it. When the AMA originally approved 450cc 4 strokes for the 250 (two stroke) class and 250 4-stokes in the 125s it was based on technology
of the time. Two strokes are now gone and the 450s particularly have become more potent than the AMA or anyone else could imagine back in 2001. Downsizing to a 350cc class, was once a consideration but abandoned when most OEMs warned the AMA they wouldn’t allow it, having invested so much in marketing and R & D. Of course everybody could just ride 250s and classes could be rebranded, especially with “Lites” being a questionable term for current 250s anyway. The show wouldn’t really have to change. At 2012’s Vegas final, Barcia’s 250 class time would have put him second in the 450 main event.
“Riders are too aggressive”
James Stewart could arguably be blamed for setting SX riding standards too high…. even for himself. James taught the field how to triple jump the impossible; scrubbing jump faces the bike parallel with the ground to achieve blazing lap times. Now everybody can do it. Some even better than James. The problem is everybody screws one up eventually and the consequences are self-evident. 4-stroke power and torque is an enabler here. Triple jumps immediately after tight slow turns were much less doable in the 2-stroke days.
Pro Supercross tracks are dangerous. Even the most talented newcomers are surprised by the difficulty. If you don't believe it, try riding or just walking on one—once. Its only for show since a SX track, like any race course need only be difficult enough to separate rider skill levels, not a stage for predestined mayhem. Simpler AMA short track & T.T. layouts provide amazingly close racing and unpredictable finishes. A lot fewer riders get injured in those series as well. Perhaps its time to take a step back with less obstacles and reduced entanglement opportunities like hairpin turns right after the starting gate. Would more double jumps and a few less triples make SX boring? We doubt it.
“Races are short, starts are critical”
15 and 20 lap main events may seem sufficient, but in reality tracks with sub 60-second lap times put too much emphasis on starts and perhaps not enough on conditioning. 20 and 25 lap main events could improve that.
Riders can’t race without helmets so some observers ask why back and neck protections aren’t mandatory too. They could be, but unlike helmets, there are no universally recognized standards and the range of protection could vary. Still, Bikeland believes back protectors shouldn’t be optional. Pro usage would also encourage more amateurs and play riders to wear protection too.
For the AMA, Feld and the track builders, avoiding SX injuries is not an easy task. Motorcycle racing has a long history of pushing the limits of men and machines. Yamaha’s once outrageous TZ700 road racer was initially thought unrideable given the tires and brakes of the day. The AMA even banned it from dirt track competition after race legend Kenny Roberts infamously declared “They don’t pay me enough to ride that thing”. Powerful prose from Roberts, the highest paid rider of the time, was also instrumental in making sanctioning bodies and promoters adopt safer practices. We haven’t seen that from today’s elite riders.
In the end, nobody wants less excitement in racing. But SX riders pay a big price in injuries. Supercross TV ads with carefully crafted crash clips reinforce the historic draw of “thrills, chills, spills and excitement”. Hardware-laden X ray images are shown on the Jumbotrons during rider introductions to glorify the adversity heroes endure. Unfortunately, the reality is injuries are getting worse and more frequent. The AMA must think so too. Last year, Bikeland’s ace action photographer snapped a downed rider awaiting medical attention and was admonished by a track official with “We don’t want to promote that”.
Racing and injuries are facts of life. Life after racing though is tougher for riders with long injury accumulations. Insuring a rider for a long term disabling injury can cost upwards of $30,000 a year. An expense only a few can afford.
Supercross’s 2012 series-long attrition denied fans lot of good racing but it denied riders even more. Bikeland hopes 2013’s results will be better.
We’ll soon see.