AMSOIL ARENACROSS: LIFE UNDER THE BIG TENT


Story and photos by John Basher

Circuses are nothing new in American culture. As far back as two hundred years ago, showmen unveiled menageries of wild beasts from faraway lands in major cities around the country. Grandiose displays of the strange and unusual–highlighted by human oddities–sparked public intrigue. The visual performing arts still captivate young and old. However, the world has evolved. The new frontier in entertainment is geared specifically toward adrenaline junkies.

Is it any wonder that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey–the most famous circus on the planet–is owned by Feld Entertainment? Irvin Feld, an American businessman, acquired Ringling Bros. in 1967 for $8 million. From there Irvin and his son, Kenneth, built an empire. Feld Entertainment created Disney on Ice and a host of other traveling shows. Mickey Mouse and Doodlebops cornered America’s youth, but Feld had difficulty tapping into a key demographic–adult males between 18 and 54. Instead of reinventing the motorsports show format, Feld Entertainment bought it. They acquired Live Nation Motor Sports on September 9, 2008. The expansion resulted in Feld taking ownership in Monster Jam, Supercross and Arenacross. The entertainment conglomerate created a new entity to handle motorsports, naming it Feld Motor Sports.

GIVEN FELD’S DEEP ROOTS IN THE ENTERTAINMENT SECTOR, SUPERCROSS AND ARENACROSS ARE PLATFORMS THAT BORROW GENEROUSLY FROM THE FELD ENTERTAINMENT BLUEPRINT FOR SUCCESS. THE CENTRAL THEME? CREATE A SPECTACLE, FASCINATE YOUNG AND OLD, ADD IN A SIDESHOW FOR GOOD LAUGHS, AND PROMOTE THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS OUT OF IT.

Why is it necessary to provide extensive historical information on Feld Entertainment? Given Feld’s deep roots in the entertainment sector, Supercross and Arenacross are platforms that borrow generously from the Feld Entertainment blueprint for success. The central theme? Create a spectacle, fascinate young and old, add in a sideshow for good laughs, and promote the living daylights out of it. Supercross borders on excessive. An impressive fireworks display somehow fails to outshine the long-winded rider introductions, Monster Energy girls strutting around in leather-clad attire unfit for a nightclub, and a wiener dog race. Feld Motor Sports hedge their bets by covering it all…well, except for the Monster girls’ outfits.

Kyle Regal (1), Gavin Faith (3) and Jacob Hayes (2) fight for the same six foot plot of real estate. That’s the norm in Arenacross.

Arenacross is Feld Motor Sports’ least-known entity. It is the red-headed stepchild of Supercross. This is nothing new. As far back as anyone can remember, Arenacross has taken a back seat. The sport began in 1986. Over a 30 year span the Arenacross title has belonged to guys like Dennis Hawthorne, Jimmy Gaddis, Buddy Antunez, Darcy Lange and Chad Johnson. With all due respect, that list reads like a who’s who of forgotten riders. Only one Arenacross Champion–Jimmy Gaddis–also achieved success in Supercross, and he won a Supercross title before transitioning to Arenacross. What does this all mean? To put it bluntly, Arenacross has long been a race series supported by riders on the back end of their careers. However, the tide is slowly turning. Darcy Lange, a two-time Champion, used Arenacross as a spring board. He landed a Pro Circuit Kawasaki ride in 2006. Tyler Bowers, a four-time Champion, did the same last year. Kyle Regal, last year’s victor, hopes to generate enough publicity in the bull ring to jump back into Supercross.

Feld Motor Sports doesn’t want Arenacross to be a second-rate citizen, which is why they’ve developed such initiatives as the “Ricky Carmichael Road to Supercross” system and the unique “Race to the Championship” format. Both were obviously devised during an intense marketing brainstorm session, because they toe the line between gimmicky and sensible. Aside from its name–Ricky Carmichael never raced Arenacross during his career–the Road to Supercross concept makes sense. Amateur riders looking to race Supercross must collect points in order to earn a Supercross license. A rider needs to accumulate three Arenacross Class points by qualifying for the main (1 point) and/or finishing in the top 10 overall (1 point). Riders can also contest the Arenacross Lites Class, but they must earn six points (the same point structure applies for heat/main event finish).

IN ESSENCE, ARENACROSS IS THE FARM SYSTEM FOR SUPERCROSS. IT MAKES SENSE. EVEN KEN GRIFFEY, JR. HAD TO RUN A FEW BASES IN TRIPLE A BEFORE GOING TO THE BIG LEAGUES.

There are riders talented enough to skip Arenacross altogether–Benny Bloss, Austin Forkner, Chase Sexton–but factory-backed rookies are no longer pardoned. All must do their time in Arenacross before racing Supercross. In essence, Arenacross is the farm system for Supercross. It makes sense. Even Ken Griffey, Jr. had to run a few bases in Triple A before going to the big leagues. Austin Forkner, Pro Circuit Kawasaki’s latest sensation, raced in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and Greensboro, North Carolina, in an effort to earn the necessary points. He passed with flying colors. The quiet 16-year-old from Missouri won both main events in the Arenacross Class in Greensboro. He promptly left the series. For Austin, Arenacross was a stepping stone.

Gavin Faith (3) welcomed Austin Forkner (214) to Arenacross with a friendly nudge. However, it was Forkner who made the biggest statement at Greensboro, North Carolina, when he won both main events.

Austin Forkner shed light on his Arenacross experience and provided his thoughts on the Ricky Carmichael Road to Supercross rule. “I think it’s good. Some guys that used to ride Supercross didn’t need to be out on the track. They didn’t come prepared and so they didn’t know what they were getting into. With Arenacross you can get the experience. It’s not full-on Supercross, but you’re racing with Pro guys. The atmosphere is smaller, but you’re still in front of fans. There are jumps, whoops, berms, and everything else. Arenacross is somewhat like Supercross. If you can race with the guys in Arenacross then you get points and show that you are ready to ride Supercross. It makes sense to me.”

As for the Race to the Championship format, Feld Motor Sports essentially wipes the slate clean two-thirds of the way through the series. Points earned prior to then are vanquished, although the top-ten earn various bonus points depending on their placement in the standings. For example, the points leader collects six points, while ninth and tenth start the final push to the title with one point each. The top 10 in the Arenacross Class point standings leading up to the Race to the Championship are the only riders eligible to win the Amsoil Arenacross title. Feld’s goal was to reinvigorate a title chase that had grown stale after Tyler Bowers powered away from the competition during a four-year span. They didn’t want a runaway victory, so they quashed any opportunity for that to happen by resetting the points. Interestingly, there’s a strong rumor going around that Feld will incorporate the Race to the Championship format in Supercross next year. Time will tell.

THE RACE TO THE CHAMPIONSHIP FORMAT DEVALUES THE OPENING ROUNDS OF THE SERIES. A RIDER NEED TO ONLY HOVER INSIDE THE TOP TEN AND THEN CAPITALIZE ONCE THE POINTS ARE RESET. FROM THERE IT’S A SMASH-AND-BASH FOR THE NUMBER ONE PLATE.

The Race to the Championship format isn’t generally liked among Arenacross racers. Kyle Regal wasn’t afraid to voice his opinion. “Last year when the points were reset I had a 20-point lead. If I would have missed one main event then I would have lost 16 points. One thing happens and there goes the points lead. A lot of things can happen. I don’t like the format simply because it levels out the field again. It gives me the sensation of wondering what we raced the first half of the series for.” Kyle probably changed his tune after getting injured early in the season and missed some races. Somehow the defending Champ managed to accumulate enough points to qualify for the Race to the Championship. If it weren’t for the new format, Kyle would have zero chance of winning the title this year. Now he’s only four points behind the leader, Gavin Faith. However, Regal does have a point. The format devalues the opening rounds of the series. A rider need to only hover inside the top ten and then capitalize once the points are reset. From there it’s a smash-and-bash for the number one plate.

Kyle Regal got hurt this season and missed races. However, the defending Champ is still in the hunt for the title, thanks to the Race to the Championship format. 

Feld Motor Sports got their wish last year, when Kyle Regal and Jacob Hayes were tied for first place entering the final main event of the series. What happened next went down as one of the most turbulent races in Arenacross history. Hayes t-boned Regal in the second corner, and the impact caused Hayes to pull off. Regal limped away with the title. It was such a spectacle that managed to overshadow the Supercross finale that took place across town. For once, big brother was upstaged.

DESPITE ITS ODDITIES, ARENACROSS DOESN’T GET THE CREDIT IT DESERVES. THE ATHLETES RACE HARD AND SHOW THEIR APPRECIATION FOR THE FANS BY SIGNING AUTOGRAPHS AT THE PIT PARTY. THEY ALSO PUT ON ONE HECK OF A SHOW. TIGHT TRACKS MAKE FOR CLOSE RACING–OFTEN TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT–AND THE EVENING PROGRAM RUNS LIKE A WELL-OILED MACHINE.

Despite its oddities, Arenacross doesn’t get the credit it deserves. The athletes race hard and show their appreciation for the fans by signing autographs at the pit party. They also put on one heck of a show. Tight tracks make for close racing–often too close for comfort–and the evening program runs like a well-oiled machine. There are pyrotechnics and a party-like atmosphere that’s more intimate than Supercross, but with far less hooligans in the beer line. Double main events for the Arenacross Class further the excitement of a race-packed schedule. Interestingly, whether it’s the Arenacross Class or Arenacross Lites, everyone races on 250 four-strokes.

Arenacross borrows a significant amount of its showmanship from Supercross. There are pyrotechnics, rider introductions, and even the gruff announcer’s voice (which, by the way, is done by computer).

Our only qualm is the start inversion idea. After the first Arenacross Class main event, the winner must choose between three briefcases. If he selects the briefcase with a #0 in it, gate selection for the second main event is determined by the rider finishing position from the first main. A #8 means half of the field is inverted, so the first main event winner gets the eighth gate pick (riders 9-16 will start on the second line). Those two scenarios aren’t too strange; however, if a rider picks the #16 briefcase then things get scary. That means the 16th place rider from the first main gets to choose the first gate pick. What’s wrong with the inversion idea? Kyle Regal sums it up perfectly. “It’s a bit dangerous, because you’re putting guys who are slower than others at the front of the gate. Some of the guys might not even be mentally prepared to be up front, yet they’re being forced to start at the front of the field.” Some things shouldn’t be left up to chance.

Jacob Hayes barely lost the title last year. He’s looking for redemption. Hayes will need to knock off his teammates, Gavin Faith and Chris Blose, along with a slew of other talent if he wants the Amsoil Arenacross title. It won’t be easy.

Arenacross has come a long way since the early days. Feld Motor Sports promotes a first-rate program that exposes the thrill of motorcycle racing to audiences from Allentown to Nampa. There are a few bugaboos that need to be addressed, but those details are lost on the general fan. After all, people didn’t complain when Jumbo the elephant drops his circus ball. Arenacross, much like Supercross, is a mix of entertainment, racing and illusion (although not all parts are mixed equally). An evening inside the big tent is an escape from reality, and that’s why it works.

The first Race to the Championship begins this weekend at Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario, California. It’s sure to excite. For more information or to buy tickets, visit www.arenacross.com. You shouldn’t be disappointed.

amsoil arenacrossarenacrossAUSTIN FORKNERgavin faithgreensborojacob hayesJOHN BASHERkyle regalrace to the championshipricky carmichaelroad to supercross