March 31, 2006

Sparkplug 45

Unlike “Strobe Light” madness (which is strangely enough also the title of a great song by the B-52s, by the way), this week's Sparkplug addresses an issue that is rarely talked about in motocross: health insurance.

I used to be involved in the life insurance industry and my current job is in the healthcare industry, however this is not meant to suggest that I'm an expert on these matters, just that I some idea of what's going on in both industries. One of the things that used to trouble me about life insurance was the fact that many people tend to believe they have no need to buy the product for their loved ones... and then the unthinkable happens, a child dies, and they have to scrape up money to cover the expenses of an unexpected funeral. Actually, this scenario still troubles me today. I have seen too many “memorial” car washes and t-shirt sales campaigns in Southern California held for the sole purpose of raising a few thousand dollars to pay for the burial expenses of a poor family's deceased teenager. It's heartbreaking, and considering the low cost of life insurance for minors, mostly unneccessay had a little foresight been used.

So, what does this have to do with motocross? Like many motocross fans, I have been moved by the plights of our fallen riders, most recently James “The Outlaw” Marshall and Ernesto “Fonzie” Fonseca. I recently took a day off work to attend a benefit “Outlaw Ride Day” held at Glen Helen Raceway, the proceeds of which were being given to Marshall's family to help them deal with the costs of healthcare related to his terrible injury suffered at the San Diego supercross. Truth be told, it was a fun and inspirational day, and I was happy to donate a little money to his cause. But it made me question why such an event was necessary in the first place. How is it possible that a professional athlete not be covered by adequate health insurance in 2006?

My first question, for which I have admittedly not searched for an answer, is what is the AMA's position on health insurance for their professionally-licensed racers? I also read that Live Nation donated $25,000 to Marshall's fund, which leads to my second and third questions: Is Live Nation prepared to make similar donations to every under-insured racer's family should they be injured at one of their events? And wouldn't funding a comprehensive group health insurance package for all riders be a better idea? I am glad that they made the donation, but it makes me wonder if it was a big-hearted gesture or a corporate CYA maneuver...

It's no secret that the healthcare industry hates motorcycles, but just in case you have trouble comprehending that fact, I will repeat it again: the healthcare industry hates motorcycles. The “other” AMA, the America Medical Association, has a long record of opposing motorcycles and motorcycle sport. And they're joined by the mainstream media, Hollywood, and the professional “safety” lobby... all of whom help influence the insurance industry's dim view of our sport. Which means that IF the insurance underwriters even see fit to offer an insurance product for racers, it will be at astronomically high premium costs.

Which really shouldn't be surprising, considering the ridiculous cost of healthcare... a collusive, vicious circle to be sure, but it's a plain fact. And being a fact, that means we simply have to deal with it. That means racers need to pay for health insurance... or not race.

This is a decision that thousands of amateur racers face every day. A good friend of mine who lives in the San Diego area has actually stopped racing because of the cost of health insurance... and health care. A simple motocross injury would be financially challenging for him; a serious setback would be financially devastating.

Now, not all riders are in the same boat. Ernesto Fonseca suffered a terrible injury as well, yet there were no calls for donations and no benefit rides held in his name (here is the latest news on Fonseca, courtesy Racer X Online). The assumption is that as a factory rider, he had his health insurance needs taken care of. That certainly would be fitting, but this just points to the severe differences between being a “true” professional racer and a privateer. Factory sponsored or not, a “true” professional should make sure he has the tools, training and other essentials necessary to do the job. In a dangerous sport such as motocross, sufficient health insurance is essential. This is not meant to suggest that only pro racers overlook this important need. How many professional oil rig workers are underinsured? How many coal miners are underinsured? How many construction professionals are underinsured? Probably more than we know.

But how does our sport compare to other professional sports? We often take some pride in the fact that our sport has the lowest barrier to entry, cost-wise, than almost any other motorsport. Obviously, this only takes the cost of equipment into consideration. Yet, can you even imagine an injured NASCAR driver having to hold a fundraiser to pay for their healthcare expenses? Maybe it has actually happened, but I really doubt it. [Update: my friend FLVet from Motodrive tells me: "If I'm not mistaken the AMA will let you race a pro event with just their $25,000 policy. It has happened in NASCAR. They raised monies for Ernie Irvin when he had that bad crash that left him with an $850,000 bill plus rehab to pay for. Yes he had insurance as well. The NFL insures all it's players through NFL Wokers Comp if they get hurt in a game or practice. It's an on the job injury."]

Motocross has come a long way, but until the industry seriously addresses this health insurance issue, we might as well admit that our sport is still in its infancy. Racing with insufficient health insurance, even at the amateur level, is simply irresponsible. At the professional level it is inexcusable and I believe the organizations that sanction professional races should be held accountable for this issue.

March 24, 2006

Sparkplug 44

Continuing with the theme from last week, in which I hit upon the development of my affection for writing, today's Sparkplug deals with a specific example of my love of motocross. In particular, my ill-fated attempt to become National Champion at the age of 40.

The National amateur motocross championships, held every year at country music legend Loretta Lynn's ranch, is an iconic event for American motocross. More than just a one-off race meet, LL's has become the finest showcase for up-and-coming riders that the sport has ever seen. Almost like the NFL draft, young riders must pass through the crucible of Loretta Lynn's in order to gain access to a career on the professional side of motocross. One can certainly turn pro without qualifying for and racing at Loretta Lynn's, but good luck getting any type of support if you don't.

When I returned to racing after a 20-year break, I came back with a big dream. By that time, I had read plenty of positive thinking texts and business school books, and one lesson stuck with me strongly. It suggested that the key to large-scale success was to set BHAGs, which are Big Hairy Audacious Goals. Well, I certainly set one for motocross: I wanted to win the 2001 Loretta Lynn title in the 40 Plus B/C class. For a guy who's racing efforts to date had never amassed even one trophy, let alone a win, that was indeed a BHAG. But I had complete faith that if had good equipment, got good instruction and trained relentlessly, that I could will my way to a win in the Big Show. The biggest challenge of my goal, though, was the fact that the regional qualifiers were only 3 months away.

So I purchased an '01 YZ250 in late December 2000 and started the ball rolling. I was already spending my evenings memorizing Gary Semics instructional tapes, so I booked classes with the local Gary Semics MX School instructor in mid-January. Unfortunately, this led to my very first setback when my instructor called to cancel my class because he broke his leg the week before! Undaunted, I quickly scheduled a session with local SoCal legend Ron Turner. And I learned two things, one of which was that I was too out-of-shape to actually endure a day's worth of instruction.

But two hours of training was certainly better than nothing and I was officially underway. I joined the Over The Hill Gang vet racing organization and began an intensive schedule of practicing and racing on a weekly basis. In fact, I would leave my office on Friday evenings, drive 2 hours to the old Competition Park facility in Hemet, California to get in about an hour of practice on their lighted course before they closed. Then I would go to a practice track on Saturday and race at another track on Sunday. The rest of the week I spent my evenings in the gym, alternating weight workouts with cardio sessions, quietly repeating my mantra “2001 National Champion” with every breath.

I even had the gall to ask motocross legend David Bailey for some free advice, and unbelievably, he gave me some pointers on structuring my riding practice sessions for endurance and speed. Wow!

By late February 2001, I had several races under my belt, though not a single race win (or trophy). But I was clearly improving, both in technique and endurance. Then at a Gang race at L.A. Country Raceway in Palmdale, California, while running in the top 5, I lost my balance in a low-speed off-camber turn. The tipover resulted in a broken thumb, and with just two weeks before the first qualifier, my chances for making it to LL's were looking pretty grim.

Despite the fact that I had a cast that reached midway up my forearm, I decided to drive out to Glen Helen for the qualifier anyway. No, I didn't intend to ride, I just wanted to see what the competition was like. When I got there and assessed the situation, my heart was broken again. Had I raced, I would have had to finish in the top ten to qualify; there were only 9 people signed up for my class! I would have made the first round of qualifying just by showing up!

There was another opportunity to qualify, however, and it was scheduled to happen after I had my cast removed. But the scheduling of that race posed other problems for me. For one, the race was in Utah, a 15 hour drive away. And even worse, it was on the same weekend that my best friend was getting married. What to do? Well, I actually asked David Bailey for more advice and he plainly told me that friends and family were more important than racing. Again, wow!

And with that, I let go of my pursuit of the BHAG. And any idea I may have had about picking up the dream again in 2002 was squashed when LL's axed the 40+ B/C class. But I have no regrets for my efforts in 2001. It was a great run, and it got me prepared and in shape for a fun 2 years racing with the Over The Hill Gang (still no trophies though).

March 17, 2006

Sparkplug 43

This week, I find myself needing to explain myself. Specifically, who am I to think that I can just write what I want about the sport that I love?

First, a little background is necessary. Before I fell for motocross as a teenager, I had already kindled a raging love affair with the written word. My parents, both voracious readers, surrounded me with books of all kinds and my first introduction to the world of periodicals was through the venerable Reader's Digest. Yet even though I had written a play in elementary school and several short stories by high school, I still did not consider myself to be a writer.

My senior year in high school, I was the editorial page editor for our award-winning weekly newspaper, and one particular event became a sort of turning point for me. Our paper featured a weekly guest column and I was in charge of enlisting a different teacher to do the honors. One week I invited a popular history teacher, who also happened to be a football and track coach, to submit an article. When I read his work, I was blown away by the sheer number of grammatical and spelling errors he had committed. I knew this man was no dummy, yet I couldn't understand why he would give us something he obviously neglected to proof. Instead of correcting the mistakes, I decided to print the column as it was written, pointing out each error with “syntax incorrect” notations (sic). Hell, I reasoned, the man was a teacher!

As you might imagine, the shit hit the fan when the paper came out. This teacher, understandably livid, responded by challenging the entire newspaper staff to come out and “see what it's like” to work out with the track team for a few days. Everyone knew it was a virtual death sentence, but I felt responsible for incurring his wrath, so I alone took him up on it. And that was the turning point for me; I took those three days of hell and turned it into a two-part series of my experience being ground into fine paste by the pissed-off track coach. Those articles were the most well-received stories I had written all year, and the rush of participatory, “first person journalism” filled me with a new sense of excitement about writing.

Thirty years later and I still love to write. That coupled with the fact that I am an extremely opinionated individual means all I need is an outlet and I can easily fill it with paragraph upon paragraph of thoughts, feelings and anecdotes. Which is why I am so bullish about the internet... writing in a paper journal and putting it on one's shelf is nowhere near as satisfying as self-publishing on the worldwide web. Bulletin boards and blogs were tailor-made for people like me, and we're the ones you see with thousands of posts covering just about every subject imaginable.

In fact, I think of motocross bulletin boards like Motodrive as some sort of game, an enjoyable way of meeting new people who share similar interests. Posting on these boards is also a great way to let off steam built up from the stresses of everyday work. And just like any game, there are a range of skill levels, from expert players to first-time beginners, all verbally jousting while discussing the hot topics of the day. Sometimes it can be a lot of fun watching the fireworks of an extended “flame war”, as two or more posters try to get the better of the others. On the flip side of that, however, are those uncomfortable moments when things get out of hand, too much is said and feelings truly get hurt. Yet it's all part of the game.

The “talent” on the motocross bulletin boards can pretty much be ranked just like motocross racing classes. There's the pro class, which features a wide range of professional writers from struggling freelance privateers like myself, up to full-blown “factory stars” who have full-time gigs writing for magazines. Of course, there are intermediates and novices as well, but all levels take to the “track” at the same time.

Occasionally real motocross professionals join the bulletin board fray, but their race experience doesn't automatically grant them “pro” status on the internet. Instead of being able to turn fast laps, it's all about turning a phat phrase, with candor, wit, logic and the ever-important proper grammar and correct spelling. Some of these guys show up and get their asses handed to them, sort of like a virtual Glen Helen Thursdays in reverse (for those that don't know, Thursday practice at the Glen is open to anyone and is usually well-attended by top pros pounding out practice laps. It's quite common to see them blazing past inexperienced beginners lap after lap). Yet some do quite well for themselves, hanging with the “best” of them. But all would do well to remember again: it's all just a game. Like motocross itself, we do it because we love it.

Now it is true the internet can get kind of funky because it's very easy to post anonymously... and plenty of clowns use bulletin boards to fire poison arrows while hiding behind multiple screen names. Personally, my approach is much different: I stand behind everything I write, and when directly addressing other people, I only say things that I am willing to say to their faces, in person. I do not use multiple online personas, in fact, I strive to show my true self in everything I write. I love this sport and I have absolutely nothing to hide.

So I started All Things Motocross as my own little “practice track” of sorts, a place where I could freely write about motocross and the people involved in the sport. While it really doesn't matter to me whether anyone actually reads this blog, my intention is to start a dialogue about the subjects I tackle, which is why I have enabled a “comments” function and is also why I alert my fellow Motodrivers whenever I post a new Sparkplug. So far my logs show that All Things Motocross has been read by motocross fans all over the world, and I think that's pretty cool. If you're so inclined, I hope you'll occasionally let me know how I'm doing, because we all make mistakes sometimes, and we all can use a little help from our friends.

March 16, 2006

Ernesto Fonseca

I have to admit that this isn't the type of post I like to write. In fact, I've been putting off writing anything about Ernesto Fonseca's unfortunate practice accident and terrible injury because... well, frankly because I have been hoping for a miracle. I have been waiting for good news to be released, and I have been checking the major motocross websites several times a day in search of another announcement or press release. All I've found is the one released by Team Honda on March 10th (here's a version on Racer X Online).

I am hoping and praying for a miracle, that's all I can say.

March 10, 2006

Sparkplug 42

Well, it seems that everything is back to normal in the Amp'd Mobile Supercross Circus. Now that the AMA and the FIM seem to be in a rule-changing frame of mind, I thought this would be a good time to open up the 2006 AMA Pro Racing Motocross/Supercross rulebook and see if there are any other curious regulations that might benefit from some closer scrutiny. Here are the first two that stood out to me:

1. Supercharging and turbocharging are prohibited
2. Only single-cylinder engines are permitted.

So THAT'S why I can't get a turbocharged, V-twin CR450F! It's right there in the rulebook. It's 2006 and my motocross racing and dirtbike riding pleasure has been artificially limited by mere words on a page, and for what reason? The AMA defends the single-cylinder rule in a bulletin dated 12/5/05, stating “This restriction would help preserve a sensible cost of equipment and keep practical maintenance at a tolerable level.” [read all you want at the AMA Pro Racing website]

Can you imagine AMA Pro Racing trying to institute a rule like this now in Dirt Track racing [Why imagine? Go look it up... I didn't.)? Harley Davidson would kick their collective asses. Why are “sensible cost” and “practical maintenance” rule-making considerations in Motocross/Supercross, but not, say, Hillclimbing? Or better yet, AMA/ProStar Drag Racing? Do you think multi-time Top Fuel Champion Larry “Spiderman” McBride, a man whose four-cylinder, supercharged, 1500 horsepower bike can get to 244 mph in a quarter-mile, is particulary concerned with preserving a “sensible cost of equipment”? This rule seems so arbitrary that it makes one question the veracity of its stated intent.

With regards to pressurized fuel induction, the rulebook doesn't give any reason for its exclusion. But can you imagine what a turbo'd 250F would be like? More power than a 450F, and almost as light as a 125! It would be awesome! Not “Spiderman” awesome, but pretty dang cool. What I'd like to see is a return to the smaller displacements with many cylinders, like a 6 cylinder 125CC fourstroke. Low emissions, high power.

Here's another questionable rule:

3. All motorcycles must be driven by rear wheel transmitted power only.

The AMA defends this ruling in the same bulletin, stating “Emerging technology involving front wheel drive could be detrimental to the balance of competition in MX/SX (my emphasis). Moreover, such equipment would dramatically increase the cost of racing.”

There's that concern about the cost of racing again. Why is that such a big deal for MX/SX and no other form of motorcycle sport? It's like we're the poor cousins of the motorcycle world. But of even more concern to me is that dangerous statement about the “balance of competition.” Every motorsport sanctioning body in the world has at one time cut off its nose to spite its face by implementing rule penalties to reduce tecnological domination by one or more parties... when will they learn that stifling innovation is not the way? I could be wrong, but I believe Yamaha is currently the only player with a viable two-wheel drive bike, and at first glance, it doesn't seem like the technology would have any benefit in MX/SX. But I have talked to a guy who actually owns one of the very few two-wheel drive WR450s in the United States and he swears it's a revolution waiting to be unleashed. According to him, it corners better than a standard, rear-drive-only motorcycle. Why is the AMA stopping us from buying and racing a two-wheel drive bike? Or more to the point, why is the AMA stopping Yamaha from marketing an existing bike here in America? Yamaha may have Chad Reed, but the race wins have been few and far between. Is the AMA concerned that letting Reed campaign a 2WD YZ450 would result in sudden, unbalanced domination by the Blue Brand? Really?

Making innovation illegal in AMA Motocross/Supercross racing just doesn't make sense in my mind. Where else should motorcyle companies test new ideas and products, if not in championship events contested by the best motorcycle racers in the world?

Moving on, here's another set of strange mechanical rules:

4. A maximum of six gearbox speeds will be allowed.

Again, the reason for this would be... what? Is seven an unlucky number for transmissions? Will an extra cog make racing too expensive? Give me a break.

5. All footrests must fold at a 45 degree angle.

Now we're getting into that never-never land of arbitrary limits, measures and rations. Do the tech inspectors actually break out the protractors and measure “footrest” folding angles? If Carmichael's bike was found to have pegs that folded at 46 degrees, would he lose 25 points again? Or is this just one of those rules from the early '70s that never got excised from the rulebook? Well, AMA Pro Racing guys, you started the cleanup, you might as well finish it and do a good job, don't you think?

How about this one:

6. Paddle (continuous radial rib) tires and tires with lugs having a height of over 0.750” are prohibited.

This couldn't possibly be the same law instituted back in the “Jammin'” Jimmy Weinert days, can it? Someone say it ain't so! And I guess the same tech guys who measure footpeg angle take the knobby height measurements as well. I can definitely see how a tire with 0.752” lugs would be a decided performance advantage... probably cost more, too (just joking, to see if you're still paying attention).

What I don't understand is how AMA Pro Racing enforces certain rules because they say they're worried about the cost of racing, and at the same time all of the top teams use special, high-cost, limited use tires and they change them after every moto and practice session. THAT can't be cheap... so why is it legal?

Here's another dinosaur that needs to be put out of its misery:

7. Electronic transmitting of information, including radio communications, to or from a moving motorcycle is prohibited with the following exceptions:
a. AMA Pro Racing transponders utilized for scoring purposes (mandatory equipment assigned by AMA Pro Racing).
b. Data or video transmitted for the sole use of the AMA Pro Racing approved event television production (mandatory equipment assigned by AMA Pro Racing).
c. Automatic lap timing devices.

Hey, welcome to the 21st Century, AMA Pro Racing! Listen, if radio communications are safe enough for guys driving cars in 200mph circles, it's safe enough for 20mph supercross laps. And you're missing out on an entirely new revenue stream by not marketing pit radio scanners to the fans. With regards to other types of data transmissions (telemetry, video, etc.), I don't understand why the OEMs aren't up in arms about this. The data they could capture in a racing situations would surely prove to be invaluable to their R & D efforts.

How about this one:

8. Riders may only enter one class at Supercross (no double classing). [the same rule is repeated for Motocross]

Why you dirty double-classer! What is the point of this rule? I don't get it, if a rider is strong enough to qualify for both classes, why not let him or her do it? Is it because it makes racing more expensive? Is it because it will affect the balance of competition? Why is this rule still on the books?

And here's a rule that's NEVER enforced:

9. Persons under 16 years of age are not allowed in pits, grid, signal area or other restricted areas.

How is it possible that this rule even remain in the rulebook? This single rule unfortunately suggests that the AMA Pro Racing officials HAVE NO IDEA WHAT'S IN THEIR OWN RULEBOOK. If you have ever been to a supercross in the past, I don't know, ten years, you know they let kids in the pits.

And finally, here's a rule that makes sense, but has been selectively enforced at best:

10. Unless directed to do so by the Race Manager or his designee, no one at any time will be permitted to ride a motorcycle in the wrong direction on the track.

At the rainfest that was Anaheim I in 2005, Rick Carmichael plainly rode his bike backwards on the track for about 20 yards, in order to get turned around after falling in a horribly muddy bowl turn. I know this for a fact because I was seated less than 100 feet away... in the middle of a downpour! Carmichael ended up getting 3rd place points that night. If he were penalized points for that obvious rule violation, there is a chance that Chad Reed would be the 2005 Supercross Champion. Maybe that's a bit of an overstatement, but the fact that this particular rule is rarely or selectively enforced is true. It doesn't happen often, but it has happened.

In closing, I suggest all of the above-mentioned rules be carefully scrutinized and jettisoned if they are no longer appropriate (this process shouldn't take long). I also strongly suggest that the entire philosphy of rulemaking for the sport change completely. Rules set in place to make racing “more affordable” need to be stricken entirely. Rules made to affect the “balance of competition” should be cautiously applied, if at all, and never written so as to restrict or hamper innovation in anyway. And rules written to ensure the safety of the participants of our great sport should be rigorously and consistently enforced. Otherwise, what's the point of even having a sanctioning body oversee a professional sporting series, if its own rulebook cannot be respected?

Besides, I really REALLY think a 210-pound, 65 hp, supercharged V-four 250F with electric start and 2wd would look good in my garage.

March 03, 2006

Sparkplug 41

I’ll give you just one guess what this week’s Sparkplug is about…

Actually, as I was putting this one together, I couldn’t decide which headline to go with… so here are all of them:

When is a rule not a rule?
The AMA shoots itself in the foot.
The death of credibility.
What is a sanction worth in supercross racing?
Who’s running this show anyway?

Take a gander at this AMA press release (if you haven’t seen it already), courtesy Racer X Online. The long and short of it is that the AMA and FIM have decided to change Team Suzuki’s and Rick Carmichael’s 25 point penalty, given for using illegal fuel at the San Diego round, to a $20,000 cash penalty. The champ’s championship points were restored as of today.

So what’s the problem? The problem is that a cash penalty for this infraction is not what’s stated in the rules. “Again,” you ask, “What’s the problem?… the guys who made the rules are changing them.” Cool the eff out, some suggest…

I’m just asking, how is it right to change the rulebook midway through a season? And how bad does it look to rescind a penalty given to the defending champion? And what were the grounds again… because the fuel, although out of spec, doesn’t really enhance performance?

The AMA really opened Pandora’s box with this one.

Number one, there is no question about what’s in the rule book… it denotes the lead levels and the penalty for infraction. It’s been there for the past three years. Everyone knew about it.

Number two, there is also no question that it’s a relatively bogus rule. Relative, in that there are serious questions about the rule’s purpose and intent. Apparently, the lead level as stated in the rule is so low that unleaded pump gas is considered illegal. Add to that the opinion by many that this small level of lead is in no way beneficial to a rider, and that equals a rule that is questionable at best.

But no one can question the fact that the rule exists. The AMA was well within its rights to enforce it, just as it had enforced the rule against Kawasaki in 2005 and Yamaha in 2004. So the question changed to the penalty… was it too strict?

According to Team Suzuki manager Roger DeCoster, hell yeah. Check out Roger’s latest interview (again, courtesy Racer X Online). This issue was so intense, he actually had to tell his team to “Stay off the internet” this week. Roger even admits that he wished he had stood up when the same penalty happened to Yamaha two years ago: “I feel bad that I did not go out of my way and ask to help them. I didn’t go over and ask if I could help,” DeCoster also added, “…but they also did not come to me and say, “Can we band together?”

So… what does it all mean, Gene? To me, it just reinforces the fact that the American Motorcyclist Association really needs to get out of the business of professional motorcycle sport. AMA referee Steve Whitelock is a great guy, no doubt, but his organization has consistently demonstrated an inability to conduct business in a serious, well-thought-out manner. As I mentioned in an earlier entry, now that American Honda has bailed from the AMA’s Board of Directors, it is just a matter of time before the other manufacturers follow… and this last debacle, for that is truly what this was, could be just the spark to ignite a mass exodus. I am really interested in hearing Yamaha and Kawasaki’s response to this latest development.