Motocross

Lifting the lid

Lifting the lid

As the AMA SX series cruises into Daytona, it seems like a good time to look at supercross safety. At helmet laws present no problems… SO HERE I am, in some run-down, flea-infested motel room in Daytona Beach, Florida. I’m kept awake all night by roaring choppers and zooming sport bikes while the neighbours constantly scream at each other and smash bottles against the nearest available wall (sounds like Lancaster – SL). I’m trapped in hell – and it’s called Central Florida. Okay, actually, I’m in a very cosy little Hampton Inn just down the road from Daytona International Speedway. There are no Hells Angels here, no wild-eyed, two-wheeled demons. And if I’m kept awake by anything, it’s my buddy snoring in the next bed. But I am trapped in Daytona nonetheless, because this is where the motorcycles are – all of them. Bike Week 2003 is under way, here in the Southeast United States. Each year, thousands upon thousands of bikers descend upon this little beach resort town, drink beer, polish their bikes and make a big show out of everything. And if you ask why Daytona is such a perfect location, they’ll always give you the same answer. “There ain’t no helmet laws down Daytona!” You see, serious ‘bikers’ don’t like to wear helmets. And while that Easy Rider aesthetic does have its share of romance, it’s also really f***ing dangerous. These guys obviously aren’t of the ‘safety first’ mindset. Safety is a prevailing issue in the motorcycle world today and that’s especially true in the supercross ranks. This year seems like the worst in recent memory as, for the upcoming Daytona SX this weekend, the list of out-of-action riders is staggering. Mike LaRocco, Grant Langston, Michael Byrne, Ivan Tedesco, Joaquim Rodrigues, Craig Anderson, Steve Lamson and Team Suzuki’s entire 250cc squad (Travis Pastrana, Sebastien Tortelli and Stephane Roncada). So what’s going on here? Ricky Carmichael has drawn a lot of heat for saying things like “I’m only out there racing against the track.” While some see that as disrespect for his fellow riders, maybe RC is talking about the actual track itself. Because today’s tracks are so difficult, so technical and so advanced that you really can’t allow your attention to wander from the dirt very often. And even if you do maintain that sort of concentration, the odds are good that you’ll still find yourself on the ground at some point, probably sooner rather than later. At the RacerX office the other day, we came across a stack of old supercross track diagrams. It was stunning to see the layouts from a decade or two ago. The truth is, those old tracks, with their minimalist design and high-speed tendencies, would be a joke for modern racers. Today’s bikes and athletes are far more advanced than they were just 10 years ago. The track design is just trying to keep up. For instance, nearly every factory racer on the SX tour has an entourage whose sole purpose is to advance his chances for winning. There’s a trainer to watch the physical conditioning, a dietician to ensure the greatest nutritional return and a coach to watch the rider’s every move on the track. Now consider that these riders have grown up with videotape libraries of all the great motocrossers, studying their form and on-track tactics. Now put all of that knowledge, conditioning and skill on a modern factory bike. Race bikes have never been more advanced than they are now. While there haven’t been any works bikes in the US since the production rule went into effect in ’86, the technology that has come along since then has made every bike on the track a works bike by ’85 standards. Several riders, including Carmichael and Ezra Lusk, have had to detune their bikes this year because they were simply too powerful and too fast for the tracks. So with athletes and bikes that have never been more powerful and advanced, where does track design come in? Triple jumps have changed very little in the last 20 years – if anything the landings are more forgiving now. The whoops have not been changed much at all since they were first blitzed by Jean-Michel Bayle in 1990. The thing is, no matter how tricky or technical the obstacles get, someone will figure it out. The factory teams have blueprints of the tracks weeks before each race and someone on staff videotapes every lap during practice and the heat races. So once one racer gets a tricky section dialled in and starts nailing it on every lap, others begin to catch on and that’s when people get hurt. Track design, however, can’t be held solely responsible. The designers are simply trying to keep up with the racers. One need only look at this year’s lap times to see that it’s a difficult battle to face. At San Francisco, Chad Reed’s lap times in the 250 class were consistently under 45 seconds while, in the 125 division, James Stewart was only a second slower per lap. In fact, the 20-lap 250 Main Event lasted a previously unheard of 15 minutes. With track design pushing the limits already, many are suggesting that more laps need to be added to the mains. The staggering advancements in race technology have brought unparalleled racing excitement to supercross fans. But with these pushes forward, injuries are on the rise as well. We’re at a point where riders push themselves to shave off a tenth of a second on each jump, turn and obstacle. But where does it stop? There must be a line between safe racing and exciting racing. I’m just not sure we haven’t crossed it already. At least we’ve still got helmet laws… By Jeff Kocan, courtesy RacerX