July 21, 2006

Sparkplug Fiddy-Five

Just recently I was able to watch a recap of the 2005 Formula One season, and of course, it got me to thinking about motocross. Specifically, I began to think about how certain changes in the sport might go a long way to elevating its stature among the more popular and lucrative motorsports. So that's what this week's installment of Sparkplug is all about... change for the better.

You gotta give credit to the organizers behind Formula One; even though they already have a solid performer, they're not afraid to make drastic changes to the “formula” to keep the sport relevant and interesting. You may not know this, but they currently have a rule in place that stipulates that a car CANNOT change tires during the race, unless the tire becomes demonstrably unsafe. Basically, they have to run an entire 90 minute, 70 lap race on one set of tires! Can you even imagine NASCAR trying something like that?

Now, the powers-that-be at Formula One ostensibly instituted this rule in an attempt to slow the cars down a bit, “slow” being a relative concept. It has certainly forced the tire manufacturers to up their game in order to deliver tires that can go the distance, while it has also made the drivers and teams develop different strategies to maximize the life of the tires. In my opinion, it has made the racing more interesting; while watching the 2005 season, I was entertained by a few occasions where the race leader had to contend with badly deteriorating rubber while trying to hold on for the win... they didn't always make it!

So what does this have to do with motocross? Well, do you remember the last time the AMA made a major rule change to the sport? Okay, not including the dreaded four-stroke clause. And not the unleaded fuel regulation. And not the permanent number foolishness. Anyway, outside of the forced four-stroke regulation, I don't think there have been any BIG changes to the sport in quite a few years. And while I believe the sport is doing well, I think it can do better, and without further delay, here's the rule change I'm proposing:

Actually, I'm proposing an entire format change. I think we should retire the two-moto format once and for all, and go with a single race that lasts 90 minutes. And I think the onboard fuel capacity of the bikes should be limited to one gallon, in order to force at least one fuel stop. Now, before you go ballistic, let me break it down for ya...

First off, we motocrossers take a lot of pride in the fact that our sport is physically demanding. We've gotten a lot of mileage out of that old chestnut that “motocross is second only to soccer in terms of being physically challenging”, and there's that place in Pennsylvania that tested and compared professional motocross racers to other pro athletes and were simply astounded at our boys' capabilities. But still we “get no respect” from the mainstream sports media. Well, I think one reason is that our races are so much shorter than the other motorsports. NASCAR guys would scoff at a 30 minute stockcar race. And then we split them up into two... for what? Think about it: why are there two motos, anyway? Sure, it's a tradition, and as an out-of-shape racer, I personally appreciate being able to take a break between motos. But at the professional level, endurance is the name of the game... so let's emphasize it.

Think of how race strategy will change. No longer will anyone be able to sprint the entire distance, no matter how hard they train. And with the gas tank size limit forcing at least one pitstop, even more drama is possible. Plus, the riders will have an opportunity to get a drink and fresh goggle and gloves, something that will be sorely appreciated during mud races. Another upside of the gas limit is that the teams will have to pay attention to fuel usage, and the manufacturers will have to place some focus on fuel efficiency... a novel concept in these uncertain times, no?

What's the downside of this format change? Well, certainly there will be an issue with lappers, so I suggest a “lap limit”: if you get lapped three times, you're out. Take a seat, son, you're done for the day. Other problems? Some might say a 90 minute race will be difficult for TV to cover. To them I say, “Um, how long is a NASCAR race again? And isn't Formula One about 90 minutes??” Truth is, TV needs MORE time in order to fit in more commercials. Gotta pay those bills, ya know?

Actually, the single moto format has been tried before, most recently by the European circuit, and they said they did it for “TV purposes”. But they had other issues that, I believe, caused the whole thing to go away. My thinking is to not only go to a long, single moto, but to also play up the endurance aspect in the media as well. Let everyone know that survival is the issue, and come up with ways to demonstrate exactly how grueling it is to compete at this level for this long. WE know these guys are supermen; let's give them a showcase to prove it to the rest of the world.

Plus, we'll get rid of that same old, stupid argument that “it's too difficult to explain two-moto scoring to non-moto fans.” Okay, fine.

So here's how the race weekend would be scheduled: practice on Friday, qualifiers and practice on Saturday, and three races on Sunday. Three? Oh yeah, between the 250F and 450F main events, there will be a 60-minute, 125 two-stroke college race, with entries limited to racers who ride for sanctioned college motocross teams. Of course, that's another story altogether, something that I touched on way back in Sparkplug 20. But until we get a college motocross series going, I suggest that the two-stroke race be for the best of the up-and-coming amateur racers... with an emphasis on AMATEUR, as in “non-salaried.”

So... what do you think?

July 20, 2006

Ernesto Fonseca on DMXS Radio!

Wow. What a great interview, and how cool it was to hear his voice. Ernesto has come a long way since his accident, and he sound great. Go here to listen to the archived version of the DMXS Radio show. Go for the Ernie interview and get a great bonus: Rick Carmichael! Yep, RC gets on the mic and runs it down for the guys as well. A great show!

July 14, 2006

Sparkplug 54

It's the halfway point for the outdoor motocross season, and that means one thing: who the heck is going to represent the United States at the Motocross of Nations? However, this week's Sparkplug isn't about speculating on the participants, but instead, questioning the value of participation in itself: why is the Motocross of Nations important? And if it's so important, why is funding an issue?

Over at Racer X Illustrated, my good friend Davey Coombs pretty much singlehandedly coined the phrase “Because Team USA still matters!” or words to that effect. So maybe I should ask him directly, but instead I'm asking you: why? Why and in what way does it matter if three of the top American racers compete in a race with racers that they intentionally snub the rest of the year. Seriously, while the average American motocross fan loves racing no matter what continent the races are held on, how many U.S. fans really care about the racing series that take place outside our borders? Or maybe the word I'm looking for is respect: how many American MX fans respect, say, the Belgium national motocross championships or Great Britain's national series? I would venture a guess that the percentage is pretty low.

Or maybe it's just my own personal bias? This blog that you're reading claims to be about “All Things Motocross”, but it's really only about American Motocross. I intentionally do not discuss the World Championship or racing in other countries because I am personally not that interested. Don't get me wrong; I have a ton of respect for the riders contesting the MX1, 2 and 3 classes, and I look forward to the day when I can personally visit and ride tracks in other countries. But I just don't follow the current World series like I follow the American championships. I mean, when I was growing up, I recognized, along with most of my motocross-loving peers, that the World Championships... better known as the Grand Prix... as the pinnacle of the sport. That was back in those days before Brad Lackey broke through to become America's first World Champion, and well before the 13-year win streak that Team USA accomplished at the Motocross of Nations. Since that time, though, America has indisputably become the home of the most competitive and lucrative motocross series in the world. No longer do the world's best riders seek their fame and fortune on the World Championship circuit; they seek to land rides in the American Supercross and Outdoor series. That's a fact, Jack (with the noted exception of the incredible Stefan Everts).

So, really, what difference does a one-day, one-off race featuring top riders from all of the motocross-racing countries of the world really make? Yes, it answers the question of who is the absolutely fastest rider on that particular track, on that particular day. So what? A series of races is a better judge of talent than a single race; that's why the championships are series.

Some will say that what “matters” is that sense of national pride that comes from seeing “our team” beat the world. And you know what? I have felt that pride. I felt it last year when Team USA won the event; I felt it in 2000 when we won it, and I felt it every time we won it before that. You hear the American racers talking about what it's like to ride “for their country” and the pride they feel. But all of this makes me ask the question: why don't they “ride for our country” the rest of the year? Why just settle for an American championship, why not go out and win a World Championship? That way we fans can feel that “national pride” all year long as well. I mean, if Team USA really matters, why does it only matter for a single Sunday in the Fall?

Am I sensing a double standard here?

To my mind, it gets even worse. This year, the AMA has allowed, for the first time, the average American motocross fan to nominate and vote for the members of Team USA... the catch is that in order to vote, one must make a $5 donation to the Team. Now, before you go calling me a cheap, unpatriotic bastard, know that I donated to several Teams in the past, by buying the souvenir t-shirts they usually offer. I actually own one of the “Mike Brown” shirts from last year (okay, so I'm still cheap). But the “charity/vote” drive gives me pause; I'm ecstatic that the AMA is involving the fans, but I'm a little miffed that they have to pay for the privilege. It really gets my goat that the fans have to chip in to send the GOAT over to kick ass. If Team USA really “matters”, why is financing the team such a challenge every year? Can you even imagine the AMA asking for donations so they could run the season-opening race at Hangtown?

The Motocross of Nations is an interesting animal from a profit-motive standpoint. The only people who stand to make any money are the promoters and the sanctioning body, along with the on-site vendors and the local hospitality industry. For the teams and riders that participate, it's all about spending money, not making it. But the truth is, that's how every motocross race works. The U.S.-based Japanese OEM teams say that the MXoN does not fit in their yearly race schedules and budgets, because it does not provide the same promotional opportunities and visibility to the American market that SX and MX do. American Honda, for example, is concerned only with promoting motocross within the borders of this country; Honda Europe can spend their budget on that continent. But, Good Lord, isn't it better for the sport WORLDWIDE if the best riders in the world participate in the Motocross of Nations? And since we've already established that the best riders are from America, that means American Honda (or the team backing whoever is selected) needs to step up to the plate. And foot the damn bill.

In all fairness, Honda has indeed shouldered at least part of the cost on many occasions. And, as always, hats off to Roger DeCoster for putting in the extra effort to promote and prepare Team USA.
But in this era of racers owning sprawling ranches, custom Rolex watches and exotic cars, it's kind of hard for me to accept the idea that they need my $5 to fly overseas for a one-day race. I mean, if it matters, REALLY matters, this wouldn't be an issue at all.

National pride is another issue altogether. It's my feeling that our world is in a rather precarious state right now, and the decent citizens of the world need to find ways to share our common experiences and celebrate them. The idea of holding an event in which people from all over the globe can gather to enjoy the sport they all love is fantastic, and to me, the emphasis on winning is misplaced. I still believe that what REALLY matters is not whether we win or lose, but how we play the game. And I believe most motocrossers feel the same way. Think about it: at your average weekend MX race, there are only a couple dozen people who win their races, while the vast majority do not. Yet ALL of them go away still just as much in love with the sport as ever. In motocross, winning is definitely not the only thing. For the Motocross of Nations, what really “matters” about Team USA is not that they win, but that they simply show up and participate. And show the world how we do it over here.

July 10, 2006

David Baily needs our help

Last Friday I was startled to read the following press release (here posted on Racer X Online) about David Bailey's ill health, both physically and financially. I had heard that DB was suffering from some internal injuries, but I had no idea that they were life-threatening. And of course, there was no way for any of us to know what his financial situation was like.

Well, now we know. And now it's time for us to step in and help. I am confident that the motocross community will take care of its own.

And while you're making your donation, please be sure to send prayers and/or positive thoughts to David as well. Everything helps.

Get well soon, David Bailey.

July 07, 2006

Sparkplug 53

This week I want to touch on something personal, something truly near and dear to my heart and probably yours as well, if you're a motocross racer. Something that is an integral part of this great sport we all love; something that touches us all deeply. That something is the simple magic of Sunday mornings.

Now, in some parts of the country, like here in sunny Southern California, you can find motocross races held on days other than Sunday. But the biggest races are always on Sunday, just like in Bruce Brown's famous movie. Even multi-day races usually culminate with the final motos and trophy presentations on Sunday. Sunday is, without question, a special day for motocross racers. And every Sunday always begins with Saturday night.

For most racers, both serious and not so, Saturday night is reserved for final preparations: last minute work on the bike, checking on the gear, packing everything up, making sure to get a good meal and a good night's rest. When my head finally hit the pillow on a Saturday evening before a race, I was usually more than ready to sleep, but not before making sure the alarm clock was set for the early morning call.

I don't know about you, but I never had a problem with oversleeping on a race day. I guess I had so much anticipation for the day ahead that sleeping through it was never going to happen. This is not to say that I never got to the track late, but that was usually due to some unexpected changes in my “pre-flight” schedule.

No matter what time of year I was racing, it seemed I was always getting the holeshot over the Sunrise. Call me strange, but I always enjoy that slightly groggy feeling of pulling on a moto t-shirt and jeans and stumbling around first thing in the morning, looking forward to stepping outside in order to take in that first deep breath of crisp A.M. air.

Out in the driveway, soaking in the solitude of my still-asleep neighborhood, I move as quietly as possible as I hitch up the old three-rail and load my bike and gear. After everything's loaded and checked twice, I settle in the driver's seat and pull off for a day at the track. A lingering glance in the rearview at my immaculately clean bike puts a smile on my face, as I leave the silent street and hit the road. Next stop: heaven on earth.

When I was younger, I used to race with a good friend, Mark. There's a lot to be said about riding and racing with friends; it even adds to the road-trip aspect. Lately, though, I would head to the races by myself and hook up with my friends at the track. That meant driving alone, which I found to be a joy in itself. Even in traffic-congested SoCal, the freeways are pretty empty on Sunday mornings so the drive is always a breeze. And with the clear roads you can relax and just enjoy the scenery. Motoring through majestic hills, winding through wooded lanes, passing by endless prairies... driving to the track holds an allure all its own, no matter how many times I've made the trip. Just me, my truck, my bike and my music.

Before long, I come across other racers heading to the same race. The camaraderie of motocross begins on the highway, miles before the front gate. I wave to everyone with a number on a numberplate, and they all wave back. When I raced with the Over The Hill Gang, one of the cool things about that club was each region had its own designation letter that racers had to run on their numberplates. For the Southern California region, our letter was “G”, so it was easy to see who was headed to a Gang race.

And just when the ride seems to be getting a little too long, I get to the exit for the track. Minutes later, I'm in the queue to get in. And sitting there in the truck, waiting for the young person with the release paperwork to make their way to me, I feel the unmistakable tingle of the first adrenalin rush of the day: I am racing today!

Once through the gate, my truck barely needs my help finding our favorite parking spot. I pull up alongside friends both old and new and tumble out of the cab and enjoy the second long stretch of the morning. Another deep breath, another wonderful lungful of clean air and then it's off to the sign up booth.

Now, I don't know about you, but I ALWAYS enjoy sign up. That's where I get to see just about everyone without having to hike all around the pits; everyone is (usually) clean and fresh-smelling (in stark contrast to what it will be like later in the day), and the sign up ladies' makeup is not-yet-smeared. Everybody is still yawning, many are nursing cups of coffee, some are clearly suffering from hangovers, and yet... EVERYONE is either smiling, or about to. In fact, we are all tickled pink just to be where we are at that exact moment. I cheerfully flirt with the sign up ladies as I fork over my money and then mosey on over to wherever they're posting the practice and race schedules.

It's almost time for the best part of the whole day, and I relish every single step in its direction. This is going to sound silly to some of you, but I even get a kick out of something as plain as unloading my bike. It's all part of the build up... rolling the ultra-clean racebike down the rail, pushing it under the EZ-Up, hoisting it on the stand. Just look at it! We're ready to RACE! Next up, sliding into my cool pants, buckling up my soon-to-be-muddy boots, throwing on a ratty practice jersey. And usually right about now, I hear the first bikes being fired up across the pits. This never fails to elicit another adrenalin response from me, and sends me straight to the gas can. Time to fill up the steed and get this show on the road!

Starting up the bike for the first time of the day is anticlimactic as far as I'm concerned (unless it's a borrowed four-stroke and it's particularly cold-blooded... that's another story!), because at this time there is only one thing I'm really craving, and that's just about to happen. After warming up the bike, I pull on the rest of my gear and head over to the starting area for practice. At the line is usually the first time I run into the other guys and gals in my class, and it's always funny how we subtly check out each other's bikes for new hop-up parts. We make some quick mental notes for later conversations and then turn our attention to the referee, who is just about to give us our fix...

... And finally, the release! The green flag is waved, engines rev all around, the air is filled with flying dirt bombs and practice is officially underway! I toe the gear lever into second, lean forward and drop the clutch, shooting out onto the track, accelerating hard, feeling the rear knobby scramble for traction, feeling the front tire loft and lightly skim over the freshly disced surface, feeling the pressures of the work week subside, feeling at one with my bike, with the track, with the whole world. This is why I came, this is why I am here. This is why I race. This is the magic of Sunday morning.

And Sunday afternoon ain't so bad, either!

July 05, 2006

Shocker: Another Good Decision by the AMA!

According to this press release (courtesy Racer X online), Bevo Forti has been named to the AMA Racing Committee! This committee "...manages strategic planning and direction within its area of the AMA's mission, with the goal of responding to the interests of the AMA's 270,000 members. " Or so says the press blurb.

Let's see. "Manages strategic planning and direction... with the goal of responding to the interests of the .... members."

The AMA listens to its members? That news should be in ANOTHER press release!

Seriously, I cannot imagine the AMA Racing Committee sitting down to discuss "strategic planning and direction" by using input from member surveys and focus groups. Somebody correct me if my imagination is faulty, please. But in any case, I'm glad to see them pick Bevo, because there's no doubt that he has the best interests of the sport at heart.

July 03, 2006

Carmichael Kicks Ass

Hey, you probably don’t know this, but that guy Rick Carmichael is the best motocross racer the world has ever seen. What’s that you say? You already knew?

I’m just saying, the 2006 season is just at the halfway point and RC has firmly placed his butt in the driver’s seat. Again. And this year against his greatest competition to date.

I want to compare Carmichael to boxer Mike Tyson. That is, the real Mike Tyson, before he was accused of spousal abuse, before he was jailed for raping a beauty pageant contestant, before he lost to Buster Douglas, before he experimented with cannibalism against Holyfield (twice!), before he decided that face tattoos were a good thing… before he lost his mind, basically. Some of you are too young to remember, but there was a time when Mike Tyson was, without a doubt, the best boxer to ever step into a ring. Check that, he was the best FIGHTER to take up the sport of boxing.

Back in those days, when the bell rang for the first round, Tyson didn’t wait to “see” what type of strategy his opponent had in mind… he already knew that his foe’s only strategy would be “survival”. No dancing, ducking or weaving, “Iron Mike” would charge straight across the ring and just punch the guy out. Tyson’s strategy was “I’m gonna kick that guy’s ass RIGHT NOW”… and worked so well that many boxing commentators openly wondered if Tyson had the “stamina” to go more than a few rounds. Ha. Mike figured out early that if he brought the noise in the early rounds and really pummeled his opponent mercilessly, he would be able to get through all of the remaining rounds well ahead on points, if need be.

That, in essence, is Rick Carmichael’s style.

For the past few outdoor seasons, RC started his championship assault by delivering a technical knockout… a 1-1 finish… at Hangtown. Then he would continue pummeling his opponents in the early rounds, in the process amassing a huge points lead. That relieves pressure and allows him to relax a bit for the remaining races in the series.

Funny thing about the way Carmichael “relaxes”, though… he still wins! Even Roger DeCoster, in a interview during the Red Bud webcast, said that he can’t believe how focused RC continues to be. DeCoster is amazed at Carmichael’s tenacity? That says something.

This year, Carmichael was unable to score the overall win at the season opener. But he came back immediately at the second round to apply ungodly pressure on his upstart rival, the young James Stewart. And Stewart did indeed fold, in a horrific crash that, for all intents and purposes, ended his hopes for taking RC’s title. Of course, the series isn’t over yet, and anything is possible. And that’s probably why Rick Carmichael continues to turn it on.

Just look at the great photo above of RC’s second moto pass on Stewart this weekend at Red Bud (photo courtesy Steve Bruhn/Motonews.com). Check the body language of the two riders. Which one is in complete and dominating control? Which one is riding defensively?

RC has emulated Mike Tyson’s “I’m gonna kick that’s guy’s ass RIGHT NOW” strategy since his first days as a pro; he probably used it during his days as a dominant amateur champion as well. And even though motocross will miss him when he goes into partial retirement in ’07, I am confident that he will take that same desire to win to whatever new venture he chooses. I can’t wait to see the next chapter in his life.