By Jody Weisel

I used to be a surfer. I say “used to” because I don’t have the time, flexibility or interest that I once had in surfing. I still have six surfboards in the rafters of my garage (and a bunch of wetsuits that are still usable because rubber has a marvelous modulus of elasticity), but, in truth, I’ve lost interest in the surf culture. I used to be cutting edge, competed in contests,  had my own surfboard design, and had the haughty look that 17 years get when they think they know it all. At one time I was unique in my high school…then the Beach Boys started singing about “Surfing USA” and every goon in my gym class was down at the beach the next weekend. I’m not gonna say popularity ruined surfing, but it became so cool to be a surfer that it wasn’t cool anymore (at least not to me). It became big business, big fashion and big-time. Today, about a two million people do it. I’m not one of them anymore.

Conversely, back in the early ‘80s I met a guy named Richard Cunningham. He had a bike shop down the street from my house. He made a weird type of bicycle called a Mantis. It was a mountain bike. At the time, no one on the planet knew what a mountain bike was (except for a few hippies on Mt. Tam). It was like a motorcycle that you pedaled. And you could ride it in all the places where they had banned motorcycles. It was a tiny sport with about 10,000 people worldwide doing it. It’s not that I was on the cutting edge of mountain biking, it’s just that I knew a guy who was…and he taught me the ropes. Then, mountain biking became a big sport and every goon on my block had one in his garage. I’m not gonna say popularity ruined mountain biking, but it became so cool to be a mountain biker that it lost its spell. Today, about 20 million people do it. I’m not one of them anymore.

I started racing motorcycles in 1968. It was a small sport back then. Very small, but it was phenomenally fun. There were no Japanese-built motocross bikes. If you wanted to be a part of the sport of motocross, you had to work at it. Then, “On Any Sunday” came out, Hodaka released the Super Rat, Yamaha made the first YZ, Honda introduced the Elsinore and every kid on every dead end suburban street was riding dirt bikes. I was cool with it, because I saw it as a confirmation of how great the sport was. Motocross grew exponentially in the 1970’s. To the point that it was many times bigger then that it is now, but because it was such a new sport (only brought to the USA in 1967) everybody was in on the ground floor. We didn’t complain about the way things were (because we didn’t know any better). Then, when it lost its fad status and settled down, the changes started coming. Some good and some bad, but never driven by the purists…always by the entrepreneurs. The powers-that-be became fixated on popularity. They wanted to save something that was in no danger of extinction. So, they applied their marketing magic to try to make motocross into NASCAR (code word for money making). They are still at it today. Don’t think that the virtue of a sport is in any way related to how much money its star rider makes—back in 1968 we didn’t even know Roger DeCoster got paid.

Too much popularity may not ruin a sport, but it changes it…for the worse. A sport’s founding traditions, history, customs, values and beliefs go out the window. As new people flood in, they dilute the purity of the goal, abuse the value system, alter the mindset, weaken the resolve of the founders and then move on to wreck havoc on the next fad. By the time a shoe clerk at Sears knows about the coolest thing — it’s not cool anymore.

It doesn’t matter to the joiners whether the sport they jump into (and eventually change with their non-core values) maintains it’s purity, because they are just passengers on the fad bus—and will be getting off at the next “hot” station.


How does all of this play out in the real world? The changes for the worse are virtually invisible. The sport mutates a little everyday and, because it is a youth sport, there are very few people still actively involved who remember where it came from. New riders enter and exit the sport every three or four years. To them anything more than a year old is very old. Additionally, every highly touted change is billed as being for the “good of the sport”—even though it isn’t. When the length of motos was shortened from 40 minutes to 30 minutes, the masses were told that it was to make thesport more palatable for the masses (the same masses who they said couldn’t sit through an extra 15 minutes of motocross, but would sit for four hours and watch a baseball game). It was all claptrap.

Motocross is, no matter how you slice it, an endurance sport. It was developed to test the physical and mechanical preparation of man and machine. Shortening the motos is like running a 15-mile marathon (and believe me when I say that there are powerful forces afoot that want even shorter motos or, worse yet, the one-moto format). When the length of the motos was changed, there were some howls of protest from the purists, but they were marginalized by calling them “old school.”

I can think of no compliment greater than being “old school.” To me old school has nothing to do with the age of the person, but whether or not he believes in long motos, rough tracks, more wheels on the ground racing, less monotonous jumps and more respect for the traditions of the sport. Ask yourself these questions? Would you rather race or go play race? Do you judge a track by the number of jumps or the quality of its dirt? Would you skip the contingency race to go to a track with a smaller turnout, but longer motos? Do you think that TV coverage has made one iota of difference in the size or scope of our sport? Do you hope that motocross becomes the next big sport–like NASCAR?

Let’s not mistake what our sport is all about with the thickness of some guy you don’t know’s wallet.



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