When the FIM sold off the GP rights to Giuseppe Luongo, his appointment seemed to be encouraging news. The idea of a professional promoter coordinating the series and taking the motocross GP’s to the next level sounded like just what the sport needed. Adam Duckworth photo
It’s no secret that all is not well within the FIM World Motocross Championships. Discontent runs deep within the teams, riders, race promoters and fans. The GPs were once the most prestigious series on the planet and the championship that riders around the world aspired to (even American riders). Sadly, since the FIM sold the rights to the World Championships to Italian Giuseppe Luongo in the late ’90s, the direction that the series has taken has been largely controversial.
The list of policies implemented by Luongo under his two companies (Action Group and Youthstream) makes for disturbing reading for hardcore motocross fans.
(1) Elimination of purse, start and travel subsidy money for the riders.
(2) The introduction of large entry fees (approximately $1400 per race).
(3) Race sanction fees of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
(4) Poor tracks (chosen in deference to pit infrastructure over the actual race track and its tradition).
(5) Dwindling rider entries (amazingly, a declared goal of the series promoter). It seems obvious that entries are down from the Good Old Days, because the ability to afford the entry is more important than the talent of the rider.
(6) Youthstream is rumored to resort to punitive tactics against anyone who dares to criticize them (the most notable examples are Stefan Everts, Mickael Pichon and Mark Eastwood).
(7) It appears to the outside observer that decisions that affect the sport are made with little regard for the riders or teams. Time and time again, Luongo’s rulings appear to favor corporate sponsors and television coverage over the sport’s traditions and values.
SO, WHAT FOLLOWS IS MXA‘S PERSONAL TAKE ON WHAT WE CONSIDER THE PILLAGING OF GRAND PRIX MOTOCROSS. IT IS NOTHING MORE THAN OUR OPINION AND LITTLE ELSE. THIS IS THE STORY THAT GIUSEPPE LUONGO DOESN’T WANT YOU TO READ.
BEFORE WE GET STARTED, WE NEED TO DISCUSS A LITTLE HISTORY
HOW DID THE GP’S WORK IN THE PAST?
The FIM World Motocross Championships used to run as three separate series for 125, 250 and 500 machines. Each of the 12 or so GP’s in each class were put on by individual promoters or clubs in each country and sanctioned by the FIM (the world governing body with whom the AMA is also affiliated).
The race promoter put on the race, paid a nominal sanctioning fee (around $15,000 to $25,000) to his national federation, and provided the start (appearance) money and purse of around $70,000 per GP. In return, the promoter kept the gate money, concession stand fees and any sponsorship that he might attract.
WHO COULD RACE A GP?
Entries were open to eight riders from each country (those riders had qualified to submit their GP entries through their home country’s National Championships). There were no entry fees, and anywhere from 90 to 120 riders would show up for a chance to race a World Championship round.
Timed qualifying was held on Saturday to trim the field to 40 for the races on Sunday (plus two reserve riders). All 42 qualified riders received start and prize money down to 25th place in both motos. The start money was approximately $1160 per rider.
Yes. This system was fair. It assured that the fastest 40 riders of the day were on the line, and two reserves meant the gates were always full for both races. Two top-25 finishes would earn you about $1560?more than enough to get a privateer to the next race, put some food on the table, and keep the dream of a factory contract alive. Of course, the factory riders of the day made much more money.
WHAT HAPPENED WHEN LUONGO CAME ON THE SCENE?
When the FIM sold off the GP rights to Giuseppe Luongo, his appointment seemed to be encouraging news. The idea of a professional promoter coordinating the series and taking the motocross GP’s to the next level sounded like just what the sport needed. Luongo laid out his plan, which was to “invest for the future.” He spoke of how money needed to be invested in the sport to raise its profile, improve professionalism and increase its exposure. He claimed he would create the conditions for wealth, and made bold predictions that before long, all the riders would be reaping the financial benefits. However, at the time, nobody quite realized just whose money it was that would be invested and to what extent.
WHAT HAPPENED WHEN LUONGO WENT AWAY?
Luongo, under his Action Group, ran the GP’s until 2000, before selling the rights to Spanish TV company Dorna (the promoters behind MotoGP). Dorna knew little about motocross, and during their tenure they floated disastrous trial balloons (like the one-moto format) until they bailed out at the end of 2003. Dorna sold the GP rights back to Luongo (reportedly for pennies on the dollar). Now, under the guise of Youthstream (instead of Action Group), Luongo bought the rights to the World Motocross Championships until 2026.
One of Luongo’s first policies was to increase race sanction fees. The fees were modest at first (around $25,000 a race), but soon rose sharply. Before long, clubs wishing to hold a GP were hit with sanction fees of hundreds of thousands of dollars, in addition to the costs of putting the race on. With only the gate money as income, it increasingly became a financial impossibility for many of the legendary GP tracks, like Payerne, Sittendorf and Hawkstone Park, to afford to hold races. However, despite the ever-increasing fees, there was seemingly no shortage of other wealthier clubs or government/federation-backed promoters eager to step in.
WHAT IS THE SANCTION FEE FOR A GRAND PRIX TODAY?
According to reliable sources, the sanction fee for a promoter to hold a GP under Youthstream is approximately $435,000. It is hard to pin down the exact amount because it varies with the situation. Race promoters tell us that the exact fee depends on whether you are a private promoter or government-backed. It is rumored that private promoters in traditional GP countries get a better rate, while out-of-the-way places (like Turkey and Bulgaria) and government-run events pay much higher fees. It is estimated that on the current calendar there are only two or three private promoters who don’t have government or federation backing. Not surprisingly, Youthstream favors the far-off countries and government-funded events, irrespective of whether there is any significant offroad motorcycle market in that country.
WHAT DO THE RACE PROMOTERS GET FOR THE MONEY?
Promoters tell us that for the sanction fee, Youthstream supplies the GP riders, timing equipment, and what one promoter called the “pretty bits” (by which he meant the podium, pit-lane tents, Youthstream offices, hospitality tents and catering areas). Luongo also sets up the Red Bull arches, banners and other sponsors’ paraphernalia.
Youthstream also films, edits and packages the television coverage of the event and distributes it to TV stations around the world.
The race promoter picks up all the other costs of putting on the race, including the track construction, buildings, maintenance, fencing, watering, start gate, track workers, flag men, PA system, ambulances, toilets, garbage cans, security, policing, insurance, off-track entertainment, food concessions, advertising, promotion and the myriad other things that go into putting on a race.
Based on an unscientific poll of average fans, the man-made tracks, weak fields and poor racing seem to be common reasons for staying away. Adam Duckworth photo
WHAT ARE THE HIDDEN COSTS?
In addition, promoters have told us that they must also provide hotel rooms and meals for as many as 150 Youthstream staff and guests, and should those people choose to take their meals in Youthstream’s own hospitality facility, the promoter has to pay Youthstream $22 per meal. One GP promoter told us that his bill for Youthstream’s hotels alone was nearly $50,000.
DOES THE LOCAL RACE PROMOTER GET THE GATE MONEY?
Yes. In fact, the promoter’s primary income is the gate money. Any sponsorship that the promoter obtains has to be split 50/50 with Youthstream and is restricted to 50 percent of the signage area on the track. (All the prime banner locations are already taken for Youthstream’s own sponsors).
WHAT TRACKS CAN AFFORD ALL OF THE COSTS AND FEES?
Very few of the traditional GP tracks can crack that nut. And because Youthstream places so much emphasis on pit facilities, they increasingly favor automobile racing circuits as venues (even if there is no motocross track there). As a result, at many GPs the tracks are temporary and much of the infrastructure has to be brought in?at the race promoter’s expense. The race promoter also provides all facilities for the event, including phones, faxes, internet, electricity, water, showers, etc.
Youthstream has eschewed many of the traditional Grand Prix tracks in favor of race car tracks. Ray Archer photo
HOW DO THE RACE CAR TRACKS COME UP WITH THE MONEY?
Race promoters tell us that without government or federation backing (effectively a handout, with no commercial return expected) the economics of holding a GP under this financial arrangement don’t stack up.
One team manager we spoke to estimated that the true situation is that only half the riders in the GP fields have any sort of salary or bonus, another quarter of the field races for nothing, and the balance are probably paying to take part. Adam Duckworth photo
HOW MUCH HAS SPECTATOR ATTENDANCE IMPROVED UNDER LUONGO’S REGIME?
The improved professionalism and higher profile that Youthstream strives for might suggest that spectator numbers would be on the rise. In a straw poll of race promoters, most thought that this wasn’t happening. And to make matters worse, Youthstream inflates its attendance figures so boldly that it gives credence to the “Big Lie” theory. Luongo’s optimistic spectator numbers seem at odds with the real figures. As an example, at the Budds Creek MXDN in 2007, the official spectator number was put at 80,000 fans. Budds Creek promoter Jonathan Beasley said it was 24,000. It turns out that Youthstream derives their figures by counting the same fans every time they pass through the gate on a weekend. Thus, one fan who comes to camp, watch practice, goes out to his car to get his hat and the races on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, might well be counted multiple times. Additionally, it is also rumored that all the free passes that Youthstream hands out to corporate sponsors, whether they are used or not, are also counted.
WHY HASN’T THE ATTENDANCE GROWN MORE?
Based on an unscientific poll of average fans, the man-made tracks, weak fields and poor racing seem to be common reasons for staying away. A second reason is ticket prices. At the Luongo-promoted 2009 Motocross des Nations in Italy, it cost nearly $150 for a ticket and pit pass. The third reason is that TV coverage bleeds off possible spectators. Why go to the race when you can watch it live on TV?
Youthstream claims that the start line is full of salaried factory riders and regularly boasts of the prosperity of the teams, pointing to their big semis, hospitality trucks and large staff numbers. Luongo recently publicly stated that GP salaries range from $29,000 up to $1.1 million, and also outlined his target of a minimum salary of $35,000 for all riders on the “Officially Approved Teams” list. However, the true financial health of the series cannot be judged by the affluence of the few (and claims of paddock-wide prosperity are simply not true). One team manager we spoke to estimated that the true situation is that only half the riders in the GP fields have any sort of salary or bonus, another quarter of the field races for nothing, and the balance are probably paying to take part. So, while it is a fact that there are more high-profile team rides around than there used to be, the sad fact is that some of those rides are not salaried.
The GPs have long since ceased to be about motocross or indeed even a legitimate World Championship. The product is now a TV program. Adam Duckworth photo
WHAT ABOUT PURSE MONEY?
Youthstream’s most controversial moves were the removal of purse money and elimination of start money. Not to mention the introduction of entry fees of $1470 per GP (or $14,700 for the season up front). According to Chuck Sun, even the Veteran’s class demands entry fees of up to $750. These moves, Luongo said, were necessary because the money needed to be invested back into the sport so that the riders could make more money in the future.
WHAT DOES IT COST TO RACE THE GRAND PRIX?
The true costs are substantial. In 1998, a rider averaging tenth place throughout the season earned start and prize money of just under $30,000 for the season. Luongo made that disappear overnight. For GPs as a whole, it represents a huge cash flow out of the rider’s hands and into Youthstream’s bank account. When you add up the entry fees, the canceled purse, the eliminated start money, and figure in the loss of travel subsidies for fly-away races (another long-standing financial arrangement that Youthstream annulled), you can see that in one fell swoop Luongo took nearly $2.5 million a season directly from the riders and teams.
HOW DOES LUONGO JUSTIFY NOT PAYING THE RIDERS A LIVING WAGE?
In short, he says that is someone else’s job. Luongo has always maintained that it is the team’s responsibility to pay its employees. There is, perhaps, a certain logic to that position, but its focus is too narrow. For a factory rider earning $350,000 or more a year, Youthstream’s spokesmen argue that losing $40,000 in prize and start money over the season isn’t a big factor (although we have yet to find a rider who considers a ten-percent-plus pay cut insignificant). As a test, Luongo needs to set up all of those fancy hospitality tents and see how many paying fans come to look at them without the riders being there. The riders are the stars. They are who the fans, TV viewers and magazine readers pay to see.
Marvin Musquin, after much strife, finally got out of the Honda contract (perhaps thanks to KTM’s largess) and went on to win the World Championship. Adam Duckworth photo
WHAT ABOUT THE MARVIN MUSQUIN STORY?
Let’s look at the story of Marvin Musquin as an example of life on the GP circuit. Part way through the 2009 season, French rider Marvin Musquin found himself in the lead of the MX2 (250) World Championship. In a well-publicized move, he switched to Team KTM midseason, alleging that he hadn’t been paid by his French Honda team. Later, rumors suggested that the real story was that his Honda deal, which he had signed following his respectable 14th place in the 2008 series, was for a small salary, but with Youthstream’s high entry fees, his struggling team had no option other than for Marvin to fund those entries himself or not race. Musquin, after much strife, finally got out of the Honda contract (perhaps thanks to KTM’s largess) and went on to win the World Championship.
WHAT ABOUT THE PRIVATEERS?
James Noble, a quality 450 GP racer and regular top-ten rider, was in 16th place in the 2009 series, but quit the GPs midway through the 2009 season. Noble claimed that it was just not possible to continue racing under the current financial structure. Despite his solid resume and berth on a high-profile team, James was earning nothing and having to pay his own entries. Overall, Noble was out of pocket nearly $50,000 per season compared to the pre-Youthstream era.
Noble’s British compatriot, Brad Anderson, 23rd in the 450 class in 2008, also quit the GPs, unable to finance entry fees (while also earning no prize money). Anderson returned to the better-paid British races and swept his National Championship, beating many current GP riders in the process. This was the first time in more than 30 years that the British National Champion had not contested the GPs. Noble and Anderson are not isolated cases. There are many more racers who are well capable of scoring good points in GP’s who are riding for nothing or next to nothing.
Where is the integrity of the series when fast riders, with proven track records, can’t afford to race? Adam Duckworth photo
DOES IT MATTER THAT THESE RANK-AND-FILE GP RIDERS CAN’T RACE?
Absolutely! For a championship to have any clout, it should be a contest between the 40 fastest riders. How can the present system be considered fair when a good number of those riders are excluded because they don’t have a factory ride or a rich backer? It is true that no rider has an automatic right to a big-money works contract. Surely a World Championship as wealthy as Youthstream claims to be should be structured to permit professional racers of the caliber of Noble and Anderson to continue racing GP’s as self-financing privateers for as long as they are fast enough.
WHAT DOES GIUSEPPE LUONGO SAY ABOUT ALL OF THIS?
In his self-penned “interview” near the end of the 2009 GP season, Luongo talked about the World Championship being an “exclusive series, and one which not many can access.” He wrote, “This is how it should be. The World Championship is the top of the pyramid, with a base of Continental Championships.” (The Continental Championships to which he refers are the MX3 (450cc+) and EMX2 (250cc) series, both of which are also run by Youthstream, with large sanction fees, high rider entry fees and no prize money). Giuseppe went on to describe the World Championship as being “for the elite, the very best; it is not for everyone. The World Championship must only be for the crme de la crme.”
IS IT REALLY ONLY FOR THE CR?ME DE LA CR?ME?
If a wad of cash is crme, then the biggest wad is the crme de la crme. Need examples? At the 2009 Turkish Grand Prix, Latvian Alojzij Fortuna paid his $1470 and raced the 450 class. He completed moto two in 26th place (and just missed a points-paying position by six spots). There is a catch about this crme de la crme rider. Alojzij’s best lap time was 36.5 seconds a lap slower than the leader. Would Luongo have us believe that a rider who gets lapped every three laps is the best the world has to offer?
The world’s most prestigious motocross championship had to be propped up by local South American riders, including Mariana Balbi. Adam Duckworth photo
NEED ANOTHER EXAMPLE?
At the Brazilian GP, only 16 regular 450 GP riders bothered to make the trip to Brazil. The world’s most prestigious motocross championship had to be propped up by local South American riders, including Mariana Balbi. Mariana became the first woman to score World Championship points when she finished 20th in thesecond 450 moto. Miss Balbi was three laps down, and her best lap time was 19 seconds a lap slower than the leader.
HOW CAN THE WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP PRETEND TO HAVE CREDIBILITY WHEN THE ONLY ENTRY CONDITION IS MONEY?
Where is the integrity of the series when fast riders, with proven track records, can’t afford to race, but wealthy Novices (and let’s be honest, 36 seconds a lap slower is Novice speed) can sign up and roadblock their way through a World Championship race?
HOW ARE THE RIDER TURNOUTS AT THE GP’S?
GP lineups are still at an all-time low. In theory, entries are open to 40 riders in each class, but after the 2009 season, Luongo stated (as he did 12 months earlier) that he wants to reduce the entries in MX1 to 30 riders “on safety grounds.” However, as soon as more teams applied to enter the 2010 series, safety took a back seat and the maximum was expanded to 40 again. Luongo says his longer-term goal is to further reduce the number of riders in the 450 class to just 24 “to increase the quality of the racing.” That statement makes no sense. At some 2009 GPs, as few as 26 riders lined up to race?a situation that shortchanged the fans who had paid to watch?and one which would never have happened under the old system of qualification.
And with no privateers welcome to fill in for injured factory riders, some GP’s might well be reduced to 15 or 20 guys riding around. In our opinion, this idea of reducing the field is nothing more than political spin to bolster demand for even higher-priced entries. It’s also a convenient smoke screen to obscure the fact that because of the costs imposed by Youthstream, they can’t find enough riders rich enough to fill a 40-man gate. Additionally, some people believe that the new maximum age of 23 for the 250 class in 2010 is also just another way of forcing riders from the oversubscribed 250 class into the struggling 450 class.
At the Luongo-promoted 2009 Motocross des Nations in Italy, it cost nearly $150 for a ticket and pit pass.
WHAT DO THE FACTORY TEAMS THINK ABOUT THE SITUATION?
The factory teams have big sponsors, so their general opinion is that the Youthstream model works. They have sponsorship dollars coming in, which they believe is due in part to Youthstream’s promotion and TV coverage. Although they do not agree with charging entry fees and paying no prize money, that specific issue is, for them, water under the bridge. They don’t really care about the breakdown of the costs.
WHAT DO THE FACTORY TEAMS CARE ABOUT?
The teams’ major complaints are focused on what they feel is unilateral decision-making, without any consideration for their views or input. They feel let down by the FIM’s total abandonment of their duty to represent the views, interests and concerns of the members?the teams and riders. While there is a committee at the GPs to make decisions called the “MX/SM GP commission,” this comprises just Luongo, his FIM counterpart, Wolfgang Srb, and one representative from the OEMs (at the moment, it is Mr. Tsubouchi from Yamaha). You can guess which way the voting on this three-man panel goes.
WHAT’S THE SITUATION FOR THE SMALLER, NON-FACTORY RACE TEAMS?
For many of the smaller teams, the financial situation is dire. While the big trucks may look impressive, the costs of competing are very high and most likely getting higher. The entry fees and lack of prize money contribute to the financial stress. Because budgets are stretched, many of the teams have no alternative but to seek riders who will ride for bonuses only, ride for free or, amazingly, pay the team for a chance to ride.
IF THE SITUATION IS SO BAD FOR THE NON-FACTORY TEAMS, WHY ARE THEY STILL PARTICIPATING?
Many of the teams are “ego trip” teams. They are owned by wealthy (or not quite wealthy enough, in some cases) fans of the sport, and largely funded by the team owner. These men have a passion for the sport and want to be part of the World Championship (think MDK in America). Most have been doing it for many years and feel a loyalty to the sport, the team they have created and the staff they employ. They continue racing (and paying) in the hope that their rider will make it big and they will someday attract the huge sponsors that Luongo has been promising.
For most, that hasn’t happened, and so many instead rely on heavy injections of private cash to stay afloat. None of the small teams that we spoke to were happy with the cost structure, but when they express their views to Youthstream, they are simply told that if they don’t want to (or can’t afford to) take part, then there are plenty more teams ready to take their place. In our opinion, Youthstream has proven to be very skilled at quashing dissent (and these constant adjustments of the number of riders and teams permitted in the series ensures that demand always just outstrips supply). This quickly silences rebellious teams and individuals, fearful of losing their place in the paddock. Rebellions have been proposed before, but solidarity never holds firm, and the smaller teams?those with a more fragile grip on their position within GP’s?are usually the ones that break rank first.
HAS ANYONE FOUGHT BACK AGAINST LUONGO’S DICTATORSHIP?
Yes, and you will be surprised, or perhaps not, that it was the women who stood up first. According to the women racers themselves, they were incensed at the implementation of an entry fee. They stood firm and refused to pay. Youthstream backed down, later twisting the facts to claim that they waived the fees as a goodwill gesture. However, it did prove that if the participants are united, things can be changed.
For 2010 Youthstream has announced that the women will pay close to $750 per race if they want to be included. Will the women draw another line in the sand?
WHAT ABOUT THE GRAND PRIX RACE TRACKS?
With a few exceptions, like the deep Benelux sand circuits, many GP tracks are now jump-infested, cookie-cutter, Supercross-style circuits with little natural terrain or elevation change. Far from being “technical,” they are often too easy. Catering to the television programmers, the tracks have sub-two-minute lap times because it’s easier and cheaper to televise (this approach is coming to the AMA Nationals also). The modern GP track is sometimes very one-line, and because virtually every straight has a tabletop or double, there is little opportunity to set up a pass and make it stick before traversing some sort of fixed-speed obstacle. They are, in many people’s opinion, a shadow of what a GP track should be (and the AMA is leaning this way also).
WHAT ARE THE POSITIVES OF YOUTHSTREAM’S VISION?
There are two major positives to the Luongo run Youthstream management:
(1) There is no doubt that the professionalism and presentation at the races has improved, and the facilities in the paddock and pressroom are better.
(2) Each GP is televised, so the races are seen by a large audience. This TV coverage is generally well-produced and often shown live. Youthstream claims that this has brought large sponsors into the sport, but many observers believe that the primary beneficiary of that TV-derived investment is actually Youthstream, whose series sponsors (Braun, Teka, Hyundai, Red Bull and others) pay handsomely for the massive TV coverage through prime banner placement.
As one European motojournalist said to us, “What they have taken away is everything that defines it as motocross.” And therein lies the issue. The GPs have long since ceased to be about motocross or indeed even a legitimate World Championship. The product is now a TV program?where the participants, be they riders, teams, fans or race promoters, all pay Youthstream for the privilege of taking part.
IN OUR HUMBLE OPINION, MODERN GRAND PRIX MOTOCROSS IS…
…A sport where the promoter fails to remunerate the stars of the show and instead charges them to take part.
…A sport where the only criteria for inclusion is money, and many fast riders stay home while some wealthy Novices pay to live out their fantasies.
…A sport where it is close to impossible for a GP to turn a profit without government or federation handouts.
…A sport where Giuseppe Luongo, seemingly hand-in-hand with his FIM counterpart Wolfgang Srb, acts at will without due consideration for the impact on the sport, the traditions, the riders and teams.
…A sport that bans its critics and slyly threatens those who might support them.
…A sport where the official guardians of motorcycle racing, the FIM and its president Mr. Vito Ippolito,have made no visible attempt to intervene for the good of the riders, teams, fans and sport.
…A sport that will be ruled in the same manner or worse for the next 17 years.
…A sport that is a cash cow, milked for almost every cent by one individual.
In short, in our opinion, the current GP management system stinks from the head.