May 06, 2005

Sparkplug #2

This week I want to talk about the so-called permanent numbering system adopted by AMA Pro Racing for the National Motocross and Supercross series.

As most motocross fans know, this system was put in place several years ago. The general concept sold to the public was that it’s “too confusing” for the casual motocross fan to understand why a racer’s number changes every year. The permanent system would not only introduce a sense of stability, but would also give the racer another tool to market their “brand”.

Noble intentions, to be sure. But most of us grew up racing in amateur organizations that awarded at least the lowest digits (like the top ten or twenty) to those riders that completed the year with the most points. To those fans, the numbering system served as a ranking system, and even though we’d have to memorize a new number every year for our favorite riders, it still made sense because the number represented his place in the pecking order. You would expect top ten number holders to run at the front of the pack, and you would be surprised to see three digit guys to do the same.

Now, the new system DOES utilize the points-ranking system for numbers in a strange way. If I recall correctly (and the AMA website isn’t much help here), riders ARE ranked according to points standing, but only into numbers that haven’t already been “claimed” by other riders, and only for numbers after 20. In order to get a number in the top 20, one has to win a championship AND a number must be “vacant”. Yep, that’s easy for the casual fan to understand!

So, who is actually taking the best advantage of the “marketing” possibilities? Well, Travis Pastrana put out his very first video with his number prominently featured in the title, “Revelation 199”. Smart move by a smart kid. Much has been reported on why James Stewart chose number 259, but the only people exploiting that “brand” are sponsors at Fox. Same thing with Ricky Carmichael, who should be the most marketable motocrosser on the planet. When you see that big, slanted number 4, you think “RC”… even though it should rightfully be a big, slanted number 1.

Which brings me to why I’m ranting about the numbering system in the first place. Now that the championship-winning riders have an incentive to “brand” themselves by their bike number (instead of their name… remember who the “Bad Boy Club” was started by?), nobody wants to run the used-to-be-coveted number 1 plate because they don’t want to surrender their “brand”. This is a slap in the face to those of us who would give their right arms and left, uh, huevos to win ANY type of championship. The big number 1 is indisputably cool… but you can’t claim it permanently, so you can’t use it as a marketing tool. It’s really all about the money. Sigh.

Then again, in the June 2005 issue of Road & Track, a non-moto mag if there ever was one, there is a fold-out ad on the inside cover, prominently featuring a black female track athlete in the starting blocks… and she’s sporting number 259 on her jersey! Open up the ad, and it turns out to be promoting the new BMW 3-series automobile! Is this some type of subliminal play on James Stewart’s growing influence or popularity? I guess we’ll find out if he starts showing up at the races in Beemers…

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