The History of Motocross: Part Nine

Motocross, American style

by Ed Youngblood

As we know, stadium motocross was not an American invention. Stadium motocross dates back to France, 1948, and crowds larger than 100,000 attended races at Strahov Stadium in Prague in the mid-1950s. Furthermore, motorcycle competition in stadiums has a deep tradition in America as well, dating back at least to 1961 when a stadium TT race was held in Miami, Florida.(1) More significantly, PACE Management, a promotional corporation that would morph and merge into today's Clear Channel Entertainment, launched a venture into motorcycle race promotion in 1968 with short track and TT races in the Houston Astrodome. At that time, the Astrodome was the prototype of modern American enclosed sports stadiums. It was regarded an architectural wonder, and motorcycles under the "Dome" guaranteed greater prestige and better media coverage for the sport.

AMA Grand National racing continued in the Astrodome for nearly two decades, but was eventually displaced by supercross as America's new motorcycle sport of choice. The Astrodome TT and short track races ended in 1986, but AMA Supercross continued while the venerable "Dome" saw its status eclipsed by ever larger and fancier indoor facilities in Pontiac, New Orleans, and other cities throughout America. As the stadiums grew larger, supercross grew as well. In a sense, indoor Grand National racing paved the way for the supercross era, because, by 1972, a lot had been learned about how to move literal mountains of dirt to build and demolish race tracks within the tight schedules demanded by facilities hosting all kinds of sporting events and public gatherings.

Simply going indoors or moving uptown did not create supercross. Rather, it took a wide range of influences and circumstances involving promotional techniques, media management, program manipulation, and the building of a brand. We have already noted in our previous chapter how promoter Mike Goodwin used concert promotional techniques, including heavy advertising buys on rock stations and drive-time radio, to drag curious customers into the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1972. Many of these were people who might not have traveled the distance or braved the elements to watch "real motocross" at Saddleback Park or Carlsbad Raceway.

Building the Brand

The street that defines France is the Champs Elysees. When we think of Rome we think of the Appian Way. America is associated with Wall Street or Pennsylvania Avenue, but perhaps the street that best characterizes its culture for good or ill is Madison Avenue. Selling is what America does, and packaging and branding is what America does to make things sell. If it does not have a slick package with a catchy name that trips off the tongue and sticks in the memory, forget it. In the case of supercross, effective branding was not a preconceived stroke of marketing genius. Rather, it came out of simple journalistic laziness.

Attempting to co-opt legitimacy and a larger-than-life image from the National Football League, Mike Goodwin named his 1972 Coliseum event the Superbowl of Motocross. In truth, this lengthy moniker was something less than a brand marketer's dream. It was more like a slogan than a name, which became evident when journalists covering the event simply refused to use the term. Paul Boudreau, who was editor of Motocross Action at the time, recalls, "I thought Superbowl of Motocross was kind of a mouthful, myself. And I thought even less about typing it . . . so I right away shortened it to "Supercross." I mean, it made sense to me. Besides, we had to maintain our reputation of being irreverent and slangy."(2)

Promoter Goodwin objected and issued specific instructions to the press that they were to refer to the event by its proper name, but it was too late. "Supercross," born of sloth and convenience, was a brilliant band name, and it stuck, and soon Goodwin's own announcers were using the term.

The term "supercross" did not immediately make it into the AMA lexicon. The term "stadium motocross" did not appear in the AMA rule book until 1980.(3) It was eight years later that the term "supercross" first appeared in the official rules, which declared, "A supercross is conducted in a stadium facility on a special-made dirt race track."(4)

By this time, supercross had become big-time and begun to seriously penetrate the support accorded by the industry and fans to traditional American Class C racing. No longer did Triumphs and Harleys thunder over a TT course in the Houston Astrodome. They had given way entirely to the rattle and zing of two-strokes over a twisting and turning supercross circuit. By the mid-1980s, supercross was a distinct and recognizable American brand, not just bastardized motocross scaled down to fit an area.

But you cannot achieve branding success by slapping a clever label on any old junk. You've got to have a good product. As sports entertainment, traditional motocross was a good product to start with. In part, that's why it took hold so quickly in America during the 1970s.

Improving the Product

By the mid-1970s the motorcycle press still considered outdoor racing "real motocross," but improvements were being made to the supercross program that would eventually define it as a superior product. The watershed year may have been 1976 when some significant decisions were made by the AMA that, in retrospect, proved to be sound.

First, the rapidly evolving and more powerful two-stroke works machines were on a collision course with the tighter and more technical supercross circuits. The fearsome and violent 500s that were still so loved on the big outdoor tracks like Carlsbad were simply not compatible with the confines of the stadium floor, and in 1976 the AMA created a separate point system for a supercross series and declared 250cc the main class. Experience had already shown that the smaller machines were more manageable indoors, and could produce quicker lap times than the big 500s.

In addition, the AMA wanted to abandon traditional motocross scoring at supercross races, and implement a progressive program, hearkening back to the American Class C tradition. A progressive program is one where riders must place well in a heat race to move to a semi-final, then place well in the semi-final to move to the final.

The final is the only thing that counts for the victory, the championship points, and the main purse, quite unlike traditional motocross where two or three heats are run with points having equal value toward the declaration of a winner, which may or may not be the fellow who takes the final checkered flag. Furthermore, in Europe the riders earned the lion's share of their money for starting the race, not for winning.

AMA Motocross Manager Mike DiPrete decided to test a progressive program at Anaheim in 1976. The move proved once again that change isn't always easy. Resisting the plan, riders signed a petition to boycott, and Brad Lackey and Jim Pomeroy demanded $3,000 in start money. (5) Motocross in America was at a crossroad. Would it adapt to improve the show in a supercross environment, or would it become entrenched in European traditions?

What played out that evening was complex, and what broke the boycott was not the monetary promises of the promoter or the authority of the governing body. Rather, it was the interests of the manufacturers who discretely reminded the top riders that they were subject to the benefits and obligations of their contracts. Ultimately, only Lackey and Pomeroy having failed to get their start money sat out the race. The show went on and was deemed successful enough that a progressive program was adopted throughout the AMA Supercross Series in the following season.(6)

This, perhaps more than any other single development, indicated that supercross would follow its own course to become a uniquely American form of motorcycle competition. Not only did it result in a product more understandable to urban fans and a television audience, but it showed that the cohesiveness and stability of the sport would be determined not so much by the relationship between sportsmen and their governing body as by their relationship with the manufacturers, who had begun to pay more in salaries and bonuses than riders could ever earn through the purse. In America, the European start money system would never take hold.

Looking back, it was sound thinking to hold to European scoring tradition in outdoor motocross, and change to a progressive program at stadium races. The result has been two strong series that present the sport with different nuance. Motocross maintains an Olympic-kind of old world purity while supercross and its spawn, arenacross and freestyle motocross have evolved toward American-style sports entertainment.

In any form of modern sports entertainment, there is a single keystone that will spell success or failure, and that is television. The ability to convey excitement through television is paramount. Supercross and television, it seams, were made for each other. Unlike the vast expanses and hostile elements of outdoor motocross, stadium racing is eminently compatible with the small screen.

There is an aerobatic excitement to the competition, yet it does not require the enormous production budgets of other forms of racing, such as NASCAR. And, as with baseball and football, the emotional interplay between the sportsmen and their fans transmits as part of the show.

Television sold supercross not only to America, but to the world. It created a demand that carried the sport to Europe, Japan, and the Indian subcontinent. It became an influence that would eventually raise AMA Supercross to global brand status, and enable it to as supercross historian Xavier Audouard asserts openly surpass the Grands Prix in every aspect of the game." (7)

Footnotes:

(1.) Dates and details about these precursor events were presented in Part Eight of this series.

(2.) Racer X Illustrated, October 2001, page 138.

(3.) AMA Professional Motocross Competition Rule Book, 1980.

(4.) AMA Professional Motocross Competition rule Book, 1988, page 8.

(5.) Xavier Audouard, "The Great History of Supercross," page 41.

(6.) Xavier Audouard, "The Great History of Supercross," page 41.

(7.) Xavier Audouard. "The Great History of Supercross," page 147.

The history of MX

  1. The birth of motocross
  2. Motocross goes international
  3. Edison Dye's Flying Circus
  4. The changing of the guard
  5. The man who put America first
  6. Boom time
  7. The young Americans
  8. Taking MX to the people
  9. Motocross, American style