BRIEF HISTORY OF SUPERCROSS FORMATS THROUGH TIME
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Have you’ve heard the talk of a 22-race Supercross season? What about the plan to implement a play-off system into the final few rounds of the Supercross series? Or the plan to hold some rounds of the AMA Supercross series in Australia, France or Italy? Or the one about using the Monster Energy Cup’s three-moto format for the Supercross series? Good ideas? Bad ideas? Desperate ideas? Stupid ideas? Most of the pit pundits talking about the Supercross promoters desire for a longer season, foreign events and play-offs—don’t know as much about the history of Supercross as they think they do. Oh, they know what they saw during their tenure in the sport, but Supercross goes way back. Way longer than most pundits have been around. So, with talk of a new Supercross format on the horizon, it’s a good time to look back at the way it used to be. The AMA Supercross program has changed many times since its inception 43 years ago. And for those not in the know, the first four years of the AMA Supercross competition had a three-moto format. The current AMA Supercross system is just one of many. Here is a quick history of Supercross formats.
FORMAT ONE: THREE MOTOS
In the beginning (1972 to 1975), Supercross mimicked the motocross events of the day with a three-moto format. The rider with the best combined moto score was the winner. The scoring was by the Olympic system with a 3-1-1 beating a 1-2-2. Season-long Supercross series points were tallied separately.
FORMAT TWO: FOUR HEATS OF 20
In 1976, the AMA switched from three motos to a system of four 20-man heat races, two semis, a Last Chance and a main event. As you would expect, the riders grumbled about the new format, claiming that they preferred the old three-moto system. The four 20-man heat races were jam-packed, with as many as 120 riders signing up for the 80 spots. The AMA often rejected riders who wanted to race. There were no 125cc East or West races in the good old days. As rider turn-outs shrunk, this was reduced to three heats—and eventually to two heats
FORMAT THREE: DIRT TRACK SYSTEM
The next big change was a short-lived attempt in the 1980s to have the riders divided into four 20-man heat races with the top 50 percent moving forward to two 20-man semis. The top 50 percent from those races went on to compete in the 20-man main event. This format only lasted one season because the riders didn’t like having to race three times in the same night (these obviously weren’t the same riders who preferred the three-moto system of the ’70s, or the ones who agree today to race the Las Vegas Monster Cup). Although this dirt track-style advancement system was discontinued, it was the most popular with the fans because they got to see the stars of the sport in their heat race, in their semi and in the final. The action pitted the best riders against each other three times.
FORMAT FOUR: TWO HEATS OF 20
After the demise of the dirt-track system, the AMA switched to the current format of two 20-man heats (with four riders going directly to the main), two semis (with five riders moving to the main), a Last Chance (two riders moving to the main) and a 20-man, 20-lap main event. What happened to the original four 20-man heat races? It worked great in the old days when everybody raced a 250 two-strokes, but there weren’t enough good riders to come up with 80 premiere class riders. There have been races in recent history where the promoters barely got enough riders to fill two 20-man heats—let alone four. The bonus was that in 1985 the AMA added the 125 East/West Regional Championships, which allowed young inexperienced riders a chance to get their feet wet in Supercross (and their two heat races could fill the spots of the missing heat races).
FORMAT FIVE: 22-MAN MAIN
The current, the 450 Supercross format is two heat races, two semis and a Last Chance. The 450 Main was increased to 22 riders on the gate (by taking four riders from the Last Chance instead of two)—although for some reason the heat races weren’t also expanded to 22 riders, but stayed at 20 riders.
FUTURE FORMAT: WHO KNOWS?
We expect Feld, the Supercross promoters, to try some offbeat formats at different times during the 2018 Supercross season—the strangest of which might be a return to the 1972 system of three motos. What this would mean for heat races, the 250 class and the time frame has not been announced.
HOW RIDERS MAKE THE SUPERCROSS PROGRAM
For the first two decades, racers raced their way into the night program. Daytime race qualifiers, held before the fans showed up, whittled the field down to fit the racing format. From 2007 on, the AMA replaced the daytime qualifiers with timed qualifying. In timed qualifying, the riders were separated into different groups (normally by current points standings, but often by favoritism), and the fastest 40 riders in timed qualifying were assigned to the night program’s two heat races. Everybody else was sent home (although it was possible for the 41st fastest qualifier to get a spot in the night program if one of the fast 40 couldn’t make the heat race). Gate pick was assigned for the night’s two heat races by time. The fastest rider got first pick at the gate of heat two, while the second fastest guy got first gate pick in heat race one and so on down through the field.
PROVISIONAL STARTS: Under the current format, a 450 rider who is in the top 10 in points but fails to make the top 40 in timed qualifying can be seeded into a heat race—and allowed to take the 21st spot on the 22-man starting gate (even though the heat race is only configured as a 20-man race). This option is open to two top-10 riders for each heat race. On a side note: There are 22 gates, but for the heat races the innermost and outermost gates are blocked off—unless needed for a non-qualifying top ten guy. Although there are precedents for provisional starting spots in NASCAR, the most likely reason that the provisionals were put into the AMA system was to buy support from the factory teams. Without the factory teams being guaranteed that their riders would be in the night program, they probably would not have agreed to any format changes.
THE FANS: You don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes’ younger brother to realize that the paying fans were getting less for their money under the current format than some of the earlier formats. Although the older fans were hostile, the new fans didn’t know that there had ever been more races in the night program, so they didn’t know that some of the racing had been taken away. Serious fans wished for a return to the short-lived “dirt track” format—it is really the ultimate race program for Supercross. Why? Because it makes sense, unfolds in a logical progression, and builds rivalries and drama as the night progresses. As for the three-moto format? It works in a limited-entry, one-off event like the Monster Cup, but to hold three 450 motos (with the same 20-riders in each moto) would mean that privateer opportunities to race would be limited by time concerns. The fans would soon find, as they did at the 2017 Monster Cup that with three motos, the stars rider could be out of the running with a crash in moto one.
THE FUTURE: Supercross promoter Feld Entertainment wants to make more money. The ways to make more money are limited to: (1) Raising ticket prices (which are already ridiculous); (2) Drawing more fans to stadiums that don’t sell out; (3) Adding more races to the schedule. Feld wants to add more races—even though there are already 17-races on the current Supercross schedule. They are talking about a 22 Supercross races, which means they would settle for 20. The team managers have the power to squelch this deal. Will they? They didn’t act when the season was raised from 12 races to 15 or from 15 races to 17, so will they say “no” to 22?
THE COST FACTOR: If the season expands by that many races, the cost of running a race team will go way up (even if Feld is forced to kick back money to the teams). You don’t need a degree in plasma physics to see that the manufacturers won’t sell more motorcycles by racing 22 times than they did racing 17 times (or 15 or 12 or 10). But, the costs will rise not just in travel expenses and hotel bills, but in bonus money that would have to be paid for 5 extra races (which could easily be a half-million dollars). The riders are currently paid to race 17 races, logica says that they will want a 30% increase in their salaries if they have to race 30% more races—more work equals more pay (which applies to the mechanics as well). When you add in the factory rider’s per week per diem (to cover their expenses), which often totals several thousand dollars per race, the money starts to add up. Plus, how many riders would make it unscathed through a 22-race series. Currently, most teams lose one or two riders for significant amounts of time during the 17-race series. It is conceivable that there would be complete teams decimated by a longer more intense season. However, if the 2018 Supercross schedule does expand to 22-races (with some of them in foreign countries—more foreign than Canada), the team mangers will have lost any right to complain. They could stop the series from growing if they put their feet down. Will they?
WIN ON SATURDAY, SELL ON MONDAY: Product is king. Good product sells whether a team wins or loses. It doesn’t hurt to win, if you have a great bike, but if you have questionable product, winning doesn’t do anything for you on the showroom floor. Just ask Team Suzuki, they have been a winning concern in Supercross and the Nationals since the days of Ricky Carmichael (2005 and 2006), Chad Reed (2009) through Ryan Dungey (2010) all the way up to Ken Roczen (2016), but they haven’t sold any additional bikes because of it. Equally obvious is that Ryan Villopoto won the Supercross title in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014 and KX450F sales did not take-off. KTM’s race team thinks that their race wins are responsible for their sudden sales success, but, in truth, the race wins haven’t been as big a factor as super lightweight bikes with superb brakes, great engines, hydraulic clutches and electric starters. Take those things away and the wins would mean nothing on the sales chart.
THE PLAY-OFFS: Sports have gone playoff crazy. Currently, the best man, with the best bike, the best luck, the most talent and the best preparation is the winner of the AMA Supercross Championship. If the Championship is distilled down to 4 or 5 races at the end of the series — with the first 2/3rds of the series being meaningless (save for qualifying riders to join the elite in the playoff) all of that “best man, best bike, best prep” theory goes out the window. Since the NFL went to their play-off system, the team with the best record in the regular season has only won the Superbowl 50% of the time. Guess who won it the other 50% of the time? Teams who wouldn’t have been on the Superebowl playing field without the mathematical help of the play-offs. Since Supercross has 20 men racing against each other week in and week out, there are no league, regional or untried match-ups to provide drama. In short, no AFL versus NFC, no American League versus National League—instead its just the same guys who faced each other week in and week out. The only drama is the math of five races. For the fans, the first 2/3rds of the Supercross season would be a waste of time—wouldn’t they be tempted to just ignore Supercross until the final 5 races. Does NASCAR’s viewership go up during their “Chase,” or is it down during the first 2/3rds of the series? Because it is down. How many riders will go into the Supercross play-offs? How will they be selected? How will the points for the play-off races be handed out? Will any riders make it through 22-races without getting hurt? We know that the Feld employees won’t break their legs one race into the play-offs—but what about the crowd favorite?
THE TRUTH: The men who own Supercross are wallet thinkers. They aren’t sportsmen. They believe that changing the format will make them more money—especially if they can drum up false drama by throwing the season away and replacing it with a couple Play-Off races at the end of the year. Guess what? Supercross has always been run by guys in blue suits. And it’s not like Supercross hasn’t had other formats before. If their great new idea doesn’t work, or even if it does work (like the “dirt track” format from three decades ago), they can always throw it out and come up with some other crackpot idea. That’s they way it has always been.
Illustrations by Eduardo Gutierrez Torralba