The Long-term Effects of
by Terry Frazier #71E
In 1985 the AMA mandated production-based race bikes for all MX/SX National competition. This well-intentioned rule change was supposed to level the playing field between the factory race teams and the privateers, and reduce the overall cost of racing. But like so many such changes, this one had unintended consequences.
** Skyrocketing Complexity and Cost
The most noticeable consequence has been the skyrocketing complexity of race bikes which has, in turn, created a steep upward spiral in the total cost of racing. When the change was made it seemed like a god-send. Suddenly any of us could walk into the nearest Japanese bike dealer and buy, more or less, the same technology that national championship riders used. And we could buy it for a few thousand dollars.
Today we have high-strung, leading-edge 4-stroke race engines with life spans often counted in weeks. We have aluminum perimeter frames that look like bridge girders, are just as stiff, and weigh very nearly as much. We have fuel injection, hydraulic-assist clutches, and disc brakes so powerful we can do stoppies in the dirt. We have radiators, water pumps, and hoses everywhere. All the stuff that makes a world-class GP bike.
The trouble is most of us - indeed the vast majority of us - cannot begin to ride a modern world-class GP-level race bike with any efficiency. Nor can we work on them. The modern race-tuned 4-stroke MX bike is so high-strung, maintenance intensive, and costly to operate over a season that very few amateur/hobbyist racers can run a cost-effective racing program. Certainly not in the same way that we could 25 years ago - even accounting for inflation. A stock, air-cooled Maico 490 two-stroke from 25 years ago put out about 50 bhp at the rear wheel and would do so for an entire season. (Source: SuperHunky.com) This is very close to what a top-flight, race-prepped, factory 450F puts out today. But that factory 450F has to be rebuilt every week.
Yet there is no alternative. While almost every other form of motorsport racing has classes or groups or genres with varying levels of technology, MX/SX has but one - the latest, greatest, most advanced product the motorcycle oligopoly can deliver. Sure, there is the vintage movement. But guys racing 30-year-old bikes and reliving the past is not the same thing as racing new equipment built to a lower technology level. Vintage racing is a great time and great experience, but it's not an alternate technology platform.
By contrast stock car racers can start out on local 1/4-mile and 5/8-mile dirt ovals, running inexpensive stock-bodied cars, move up to modifieds, super-modifieds, the ARCA series, the Busch Series, the Craftsman Truck Series, and finally Nextel Cup. At every step there is an increase in technology, sophistication, and cost. But the lower levels remain for those who want to pay less for their play. There are similar paths for sports car racers, starting with inexpensive production cars and kit-built racers up to the most sophisticated LeMans Prototype cars.
There is no such progression in MX/SX (actually this pretty much holds for AMA road racing, too.) We have displacement classes and skill level classes, but at every level competitors pretty much have to run the latest, greatest technology offering from Japan to be competitive. That's the way the racing programs are designed - to align with the bikes that manufacturers want to sell.
What purpose does this serve? It serves to help the motorcycle oligopoly sell new, high-tech race bikes every year. It serves to spur market demand for the latest, greatest all-new race bike. And it serves to ostracize thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of 30-something, 40-something, and 50-something motoheads who just don't want the hassle. There is a definite and important place for the high-tech, high-dollar, all-out approach to MX/SX racing. But we have lost a great opportunity to embrace and retain a significant number of past racers who have abandoned the sport over just this issue.
** The SX-ification of Race Bikes
Another consequence has been the domination of SX technology in bike design. The extreme-sports, aerobatic, obstacle-littered nature of SX places specialized demands on a bike. Because manufacturers know they cannot likely sell two different types of race bikes to a racer (at least not to the mass-market racer) the special purpose SX technology has gradually come to dominate the production racer spectrum even though much of the technology is unnecessary - and some of it may even be counterproductive - for outdoor MX.
The massive aluminum perimeter frames designed for SX obstacles have actually proven too rigid for many riders, and certainly too rigid for the average MX racer on a non-SX outdoor track. Suspension designed for tracking straight over long stretches of 3-foot deep man-made whoops doesn't work so well in tight off-cambers and technical outdoor sections. Nevertheless, you can ride a SX-style bike on an outdoor track with more success than you can do the opposite.
** The SX-ification of Race Tracks
But this morphing of race bikes into SX bikes has had a third, and perhaps most disturbing, consequence - the SX-ification of race tracks. There are numerous reasons for the complete assimilation of MX by SX but certainly the domination of SX bike technology has played a big role. As bikes designed for obstacle course runs have become the norm, it has led to more and more obstacle course tracks. Let's face it - it's not a lot of fun to ride a bike designed to absorb 100-ft triples and long stretches of bulldozer whoops separated by bowl turns if you don't have any 100-ft triples, bulldozer whoops, or bowl turns.
So today, 22 years after the AMA mandated production bikes for MX/SX racing we have a single technology platform dominated by SX, a technical complexity level that is spiraling well beyond the capabilities of a typical hobby racer, obstacle-littered race tracks with skyrocketing injury rates, an unconscionable number of teenage quadriplegics each year, and tens of thousands of 30+, 40+ and 50+ riders who have abandoned a sport that has lost its way.
I'm not condemning SX. It's a great spectacle. I go to one or two SX races each year. They're a great sideshow and a lot of fun. SX has brought mainstream exposure, sponsorship, and media to motorcycle racing. These are good things. But they have come at the cost of abandoning a huge segment of the old MX community that still has time, money, and energy to invest if only the sport were still recognizable to them.
This makes no sense. There are roughly 33 million males in the 18-34 bracket (that magical demographic group the marketers slavishly pursue in order to sell cell phones, ring tones, sugar-filled energy drinks and all manner of things that we older guys don't get very excited over) according to the US Census Bureau. But there are well over 45 million in the 35-60 bracket. No, we aren't going to buy very many Nintendos or cases of Monster Energy Drink, but I'll bet as a group we buy a lot more motorcycles - and spend a lot more money on them - than the younger crowd. So why, when every other motor sport tries to embrace all its fans and offers technology and expense levels to suit different budgets does MX/SX insist on ignoring half or more of its potential audience?
Why not find a way to be more inclusive, not less? F1 car racing has at least a half-dozen different technology platforms, going all the way down to go-karts, where drivers and mechanics can hone their skills. There's no sanctioning body mandating that only a handful of global corporations can make the racing vehicles for any and all levels.
There are tens of thousands of former MX fans who still have health, energy, and money. But we aren't going to spend it on a sport that's designed for the video game generation and dominated by an oligopoly that doesn't recognize our interests. Let the Ricky Carmichaels of the world ride the fuel-injected, 4-stroke, time bomb techno-wonders, risking life and limb over neck-breaking obstacles. We'll watch. Occasionally. But we want to race on Sunday and go to work on Monday. We want to be able to take our bike apart and put it back together during the week. We want to be able to seize a motor without having to take out a second mortgage.
We don't want to recapture the old days. We want a viable alternative to the complexity and cost that has taken the fun out of our sport. We want simple and effective to once again be words that can be associated with a race bike. We want motorcycles with character, not the overwhelming sameness that fills the pits today. Most of all we don't want to be told to "get with the times".
Because the times suck. If you think the homogeneous, uni-brand motorcycles we have today are an improvement over the choice, variety, and diversity of the 1970s then I suspect you were born about 1985 and are just plain clueless. You probably look at a 128-page glossy, color catalog full of decals and think that means you have choice. But there are lots of us out here who aren't that clueless. And we have money to spend when someone comes along with the answer.