After World War One, American fliers came back from Europe to a country enamored with flying. These pilots immediately came up with a plan to capitalize on the romantic appeal of flight. Dressed in flying breeches, leather jackets, silk scarves and goggles, hundreds of WW1 fighter pilots bought war surplus Jennys and went barnstorming. It was the golden age of aviation.
What was barnstorming? Aviators would fly their planes from town to town, often landing in a farmer’s field, where they would taxi up to the nearest barn. The townsfolk, most of whom had never seen an airplane, would rush out to see what had landed. The pilot would greet them, educate them on the art of flight, enthrall them with stories of dog fights against the Red Baron and charge them $5 for a ride. At day’s end, he would pocket the money and storm off in his Jenny towards the next town–and its barn.
WALDO PEPPER OR JEREMY McGRATH?
Jeremy McGrath was on vacation. As the Ace of Aces in the world of supercross, Jeremy was taking a well deserved rest from the 1999 AMA 250 Nationals. His six Supercross crowns in seven years hadn’t tired him out, but they had brought him fame, money and adoration. Those things, as strange as it seems, can be very tiring. But, there is such a thing as too much rest. So when the opportunity came to bring his SuperMac act to the next town, earn a few quick bucks and barely break a sweat–Jeremy was ready to go barnstorming.
Summercross, the politically correct nomenclature designed to keep promoter Steve McLaughlin out of the AMA versus Pace Motor Sports lawsuit, is barnstorming at its best–with just a touch of Phineas T. Barnum thrown in.
Supercross is hot. Attendance at this year’s AMA/Pace Supercross series was phenomenal. McLaughlin is no newcomer to race promotion. The former AMA Daytona Superbike winner had worked for Supercross founder Mike Goodwin during the hey-days and promoted World Superbike events in Europe. McLaughlin has one additional aptitude–if he wasn’t the son of WWII P-38 pilot and famous motorcycle racer John McLaughlin–he could have been the offspring of P.T. Barnum. Hyperbole is casual conversation to Steve. Embellishment is the closest kin to the truth that Steve can manage. Amid all the hoopla, ballyhoo and hype, though–Steve is also a good guy. A good guy who had connections with the Board of Directors at the Los Angeles Coliseum. A good guy with financial backing from his German-based road race promotion company. A good guy who saw the opportunity to crack Pace’s stranglehold on supercross by holding his own event in the summer.
Thus Summercross was born! You get Barnum to do the promotion and Captain Eddie to do the flying and the people will come. And if Captain Eddie (aka Jeremy McGrath) was gonna be there, so was the MXA wrecking crew. Here is the full skinny on how motorcycles barnstormed the Los Angeles Coliseum.
WHO, WHAT, WHERE & HOW | HOW SUMMERCROSS CAME ABOUT
If you don’t live in SoCal, you had little or no advance knowledge of Summercross. There was a Mike Goodwin-style radio blitz on popular Los Angeles alternate rock stations, late-night TV ads featuring a bleach-blond Jeremy McGrath and a slyly placed TV ad on Pace’s final ABC-TV race.
Here are the things you need to know about Summercross.
1. It was not AMA sanctioned. It was not sanctioned by anybody. It was an outlaw race.
2. Jeremy McGrath agreed to race because he was paid start money. How much? Probably $50,000.
3. The purse was $104,000. That figure is about three times what Pace pays. The winner of the 250 event would get $20,000 (even the last place rider would take home $2300). The 125 main event winner would get $2,000. There was also a $10,000, two-lap, winner take-all trophy dash and a unique, $3500, 125cc, miss-and-out trophy dash for the six fastest 125 qualifiers. The riders were happy with the money.
4. The L.A. Coliseum was the site of the first ever supercross. The Coliseum management was very cooperative because they were reportedly upset that Pace had left the Coliseum after holding two races there two years ago. It’s possible that they made McLaughlin a sweetheart deal.
5. Since the Summercross was held during a break in the AMA outdoor Nationals, every rider was free, but the only household names to ride were Jeremy McGrath, Tim Ferry, Mike Craig, Takeshi Koikeda and Pedro Gonzalez. Most National riders chose not to race (especially those riders in the running for the 250 National Championship–Lusk, Windham, Tortelli and Albertyn).
6. Claimed attendance was 34,000. Although the cavernous Coliseum can make even a crowd that size seem minuscule.
7. The atmosphere of the race was strange. It had the down-home feel of a county fair. It lacked the intensity of an AMA/Pace event; it was more like attending a local race. This was good on some levels and bad on others. Since nothing was at stake–and everyone knew it–the race was purely an entertainment affair. The lack of star power (when McGrath wasn’t on the track) led many humorists to suggest that Jeremy should ride every heat race.
8. Why did 34,000 people come to a race that wasn’t part of a series, meant very little in the grand scheme of things and lacked the majority of big-name motocross stars? Because they asked themselves this question: “Would I rather see a race with Lusk, Windham, Albee, LaRocco and Tortelli (but no McGrath), or one with Jeremy McGrath and nobody else?” They answered with their wallets.
9. Obviously, every supercross that isn’t promoted by Pace is judged by how it compares. How did Summercross compare? Not all that well. The Sumercross promoter paid better (which should shame Pace, but won’t), treated the riders better (gave them ten free tickets, let them show up just before practice and treated them fairly), had a better halftime show (although this competition could be won by default) and kept the program moving (which drastically cuts down on drunken brawling in the stands). On the downside, the track design wasn’t great, the announcers were more pitiful than Pace’s and the sound system was atrocious.
10. The best thing about Summercross? Jeremy fell down. That may sound cruel, but once Jeremy hit the ground, the race started. Jeremy may have lost the race, but that is what made it. Isn’t life strange?
CRITICS CORNER | VIEW FROM THE GRANDSTANDS
Have you ever seen those taste tests on TV. To the motorcycle industry, that’s what Summercross was–a chance to compare Brand X to Pace. Everybody, who was anybody, seemed to have a stake in whether Summercross failed or succeeded–except the fans in the stands. They came to enjoy themselves. Here is what they saw.
HOW WAS THE TRACK
From a lay-out point of view, it was no better and no worse than an AMA supercross track. How were they the same? Jump combinations were the standard-issue stuff (although easier). What were the highlight jumps? There was a triple, camel-back and finish line tabletop. Corner design hurt the track, just as it does at an AMA/Pace event, by offering only one line at the entrance and exit of the Peristyle uphill and downhill.
What were the pluses? (1) There were three decent passing zones (at the end of the triple-jump straight, in the whoops and in a tight hairpin before the finish line). (2) The whoop section was very, very tricky (challenging enough to knock a cruising Jeremy McGrath down). (3) The Peristyle jump (which leaves the stadium and reenters under an arch) is an LA landmark, but the venerable old Peristyle wasn’t well lit and the downhill jump has been over-matched by the power and suspension of modern bikes.
WHAT ABOUT THE TRANSPONDERS?
Summercross promoter Steve McLaughlin made a big deal about using electronic transponders to score the race and keep the scoreboard updated. It didn’t happen. The scoreboard, while better than an AMA/Pace Supercross scoreboard (at least it did list the top three riders in each race–although rarely), offered little to help to the race fan. As for transponder scoring, which was touted on said-same scoreboard, there were four scorekeepers on a scissor-lift writing down numbers during every race.
WHAT ABOUT THE ANNOUNCERS?
Larry Huffman, the icon of supercross announcers, backed out of Summercross because of a scheduling conflict and the event suffered. In his place, an L.A. golden oldies disc jockey named Joe Benson did the duties along with a sidekick and former supercross champion Mike Bell. Unlike the Energizer Bunny, Joe ran out of gas before the evening was half over. His bass voice took on the tones of a late-night FM jock playing the mellow sounds of classic rock.
WHAT ABOUT THE CROWD?
The attendance of 34,000 spectators, although not what the promoter had hoped for, was better than at many past L.A. races. The smallest crowd ever was 14,000 people. The largest was 72,000. Pace drew 35,000 two years ago at one of its L.A. rounds.
WAS THERE A HALFTIME SHOW?
Are you old enough to remember Doug Domokos–The Wheelie King? He’s good, but only in his prime could he manage to wheelie completely around a supercross track. Doug’s star waned in the ‘80s and he disappeared. But old soldiers never die, they just make comebacks. Doug came back for Summercross, but, unfortunately, he hasn’t polished his act over the last decade. He fell twice while trying to wheelie around the track and the whole thing got tedious.
Doug could be an entertaining addition to a Supercross program–but just like an old comic, he would need new material.
DID THEY HAVE A PEE-WEE RACE?
You bet they did! It was the barn burner of all Pee Wee halftime shows. Almost 30 Pee-Wees lined up behind the starting gate and ripped off some amazing laps. Wonder child Mike Alessi ran away with the race, but the fans didn’t care. They whooped and hollered every time he jumped the double on the back straight. It was the best Pee Wee race in years.
Why was it so good? And why was it so much better than Pace’s KTM Pee Wee Challenge? Because they used parts of the track that the Pee Wees were good at (and cut out the sections that always knock them down) and with twice as many Pee Wees, there was twice as much action. The Summercross Pee Wees got a standing ovation.
WHO WERE THE RIDERS?
With the exception of the first four (McGrath, Ferry, Gonzalez and Craig) the rest of the riders were a combination of young kids, journeymen racers and cannon fodder. When they weren’t pitted against Jeremy, they were evenly matched. But once Jeremy made the scene, they looked like novices. After all, Jeremy makes high-paid factory shoes look bad–imagine what he can do to local kids.
WHY DIDN’T ANY BIG NAMES RIDE?
Good question. There is no way that Jeff Emig, Damon Huffman, Jimmy Button, Steve Lamson, Robbie Reynard, Larry Ward or Heath Voss could claim that they were saving themselves to win the 250 National Championship. They weren’t and aren’t (at least not this season). They just wanted a weekend off and took it (not even 20 grand could sway them–especially if it meant facing Jeremy).
Most of the factory teams ordered their riders not to race.
WHAT WAS GOOD?
(1) Terrific fireworks. (2) The six fastest 125 riders competed in a special miss-and-out race that consisted of five one-lap races. After each race the loser was sent back to the pits, eventually narrowing the six-man field down to two riders. The fans didn’t understand the format at first, but there were some unbelievable last corner heroics from Gio Tedesco to keep from getting eliminated that had them cheering. Tedesco was knocked out in the penultimate round with 25 feet to go by Greg Schnell, who broke his clutch lever off in the duel and was at the mercy of David Pingree in the final. (3) A 15-year-old kid named Bobby Bonds put himself on the map with spirited rides that had pit pundits scrambling to find out who he was. (3) Team Chaparral came out in force and left with a one-two finish. Ferry’s stunning victory over Jeremy was cool. Ferry needs the $20,000 (and since Jeremy was paid considerable start money, he probably wasn’t eligible for the purse anyway). Chaparral was smart enough to realize that if you don’t race–you can’t win. They raced-they won.
WHAT WAS BAD?
(1) Four riders were selected for the 250 main by an applause meter. This aberration of a promoter’s choice was supremely goofy. The fans didn’t know who the riders were, so they had no way of knowing who deserved to be seeded into the main. The number one vote getter earned his spot by spewing flames from his mouth (with alcohol and a Bic). He beat out a guy wearing a fright wig. (2) There was a big air demonstration before the main event. Brian Deegan did two really superb Superman Seat Grabs, but his compatriots were lucky to clear the jumps, let alone do any worthwhile tricks. (3) The lighting was great on the race track, but marginal on the Peristyle jump. (4) As for the speaker system? What speaker system? It was garbled when audible.
L.A. COLISEUM SUMMERCROSS RESULTS
Los Angeles, California
250 Dash For Cash
125 Dash For Cash