Evolution, History, and the Shifting Sands of Southwick

ev?o?lu?tion; n:

1.the gradual development of something into a more complex or better form

2.the natural or artificially induced process by which new and different organisms or objects develop

3.a pattern formed by a series of movements

When one thinks of evolution regarding the sport of motocross, many things are apt to come to mind. For example, if we were playing word association while talking about progressions occurring in the last few decades and I were to shout out “upside-down forks,” your first reaction might be something like “more rigid and responsive.” “Full-faced helmet” may elicit a response of “no more missing teeth,” and there’s no doubt that quite a few would mentally associate the throwing away of one’s Ratio Rite if I mentioned thumpers and the four-stroke revolution. The point being made here is that evolution is normally a positive, natural occurrence with anything in life, and motocross is no exception; most things just seem to get better with the powerful combination of time and change. But occasionally change isn’t always accepted, needed, or even wanted.

Case in point? Take the legendary sands of Southwick, Massachusetts. A staple on the AMA National circuit for close to three decades, the Northeastern United States’ pride-and-joy sand track has seen its share of evolution over the years. Located just on the border of Connecticut and Massachusetts in the heart of New England, Southwick has played host to all sorts of legendary moto moments of the past, from Holland’s Pierre Karsmakers schooling the Americans on their home turf back in the day (Karsmakers won the first-ever National held there in 1976) to Jeff Stanton’s dominant winning streak of four straight in the late ’80s/early ’90s.

Of course, 2004 was no different. This time it was Ricky Carmichael and James Stewart’s time to shine, putting memories in the heads of all in attendance and adding to the mystique that is Southwick. For RC, it was a moment to remember as he crossed the finish line of the second moto with yet another win record to add to the books. His perfect 1-1 scores allowed Carmichael to become the winningest rider to ever spin a set of knobbies across the soft, tacky Southwick sand. At five in a row, Ricky demolished Jeff Stanton’s seemingly untouchable four-peat from 12 years prior, putting yet another jewel in his crown. And Bubba? Believe it or not, 2004 marked Stewart’s first-ever Southwick win out of three attempts, (trust us, we double-checked!) his worst batting average of any track on the circuit. To say that Southwick is as tough to win as it is legendary is probably an understatement, but impossible to argue with.

What this all means is that historic National tracks like Southwick are the roots of motocross, but unfortunately the sport’s own evolutionary tendencies could end up swallowing these very same locales in its efforts to reach the radar of the mainstream. In fact, there’s even a chance that Southwick will never see another National again!

SAY IT ISN’T SO!

That’s right, due to fierce negotiations between the AMA (American Motorcyclist Association) and the NPG (National Promoters Group), Southwick, along with three other tracks currently on the schedule (Glen Helen, High Point, and Troy), could be seeing their last MX National ever in 2004. Say what?! Unfortunately, it’s sad but true.

If you happen to follow any of the politics in motocross, you’ll most likely remember hearing about the contract termination letters that these four tracks received just before the commencement of the 2003 series. Somehow the issue has managed to be swept under the rug lately, but the bottom line is that there still has been no announcement or press release with any good news for the above-mentioned tracks, which happen to make up a third of the National schedule between them.

As for the reasoning behind the potential contract losses, the AMA has cited all sorts of things like safety issues, trackaintenance, facility concerns, and a need for the sport to grow to other states and regions of the country. Most of these reasons sound like very noble causes that must be addressed for the good of the sport, but like everything in life there is also a money side to the whole equation.

CASH RULES

A few years back, the individual track promoters from each of the 12 National rounds decided to get together and become more unified, giving the look and feel of the National MX series a more specific, organized, and consistent feel that would ultimately attract bigger series sponsors for the sport as a whole. As mentioned earlier, this group would become known as the National Promoters Group, or NPG. The formation of the group was key to the popularity and improvements that the National facilities have recently enjoyed, and the promoters became very open with one another in discussing track improvements, upgrades, and safety concerns for the riders and public.

Enter the AMA. Fresh off of losing their war with Clear Channel for control of the Supercross Series, the for-profit division of the American Motorcyclist Association dubbed AMA Pro Racing began to look for other means of fiscal productivity (or “makin’ ends” if you’re from the streets). Headed by new CEO Scott Hollingsworth, AMA Pro Racing decided to turn their attention outdoors to the seemingly untapped market of MX Nationals, where there was some serious, potentially huge cash up for grabs in the name of merchandising, ticket sales, and ultimately television coverage and major series sponsorships.

Who had the rights to all of the above, anyway? And what kind of a cut should the AMA get, versus what the individual track promoter walks away with? Who was responsible for costly track improvements that helped bring this money in, and if it is the promoters, what guarantee would they have that it would secure their venue’s appearance on the schedule through the coming years?

These are just some of the questions surrounding the controversy, and the answers may very well be some of the same factors that conspiracy theorists think motivated the AMA to send out the letters and propose that at the very least, these four venues would potentially be moved to other locations in other states beginning in 2005.

That’s where the critics come in, accusing the AMA of making the schedule changes for their own financial gain and not the gain of motocross in general. The detractors argue that when the AMA appoints their own venue changes, it’s their call as to who the promoter will be and how the money will be divided. But in the AMA’s defense, they’re trying to bring the sport to areas of the country that desperately need expansion and ultimately opening new markets.

Let’s look at a purely fictional example of how this all works in the real world. Say you’re a promoter of one of the existing Nationals that have been around the circuit for some time. Chances are good that you now know roughly what your share of profits would be when the Nationals come and go. You also know what to expect from the crowd and the weekend through years of experience. Basically, you come to the bargaining table knowing what it takes to host an event of such magnitude, and how much you deserve for you and your staff’s efforts. You also know how much money, work, and time you’ve already invested into your track.

Now, take the example of the hungry new promoter, eager to make his or her track world- famous, bring in increased revenue, and host one of the 12 most prestigious races in motocross. The AMA has much more leverage with the new guys, and will probably get a much larger chunk of the proceeds from each National.

BEEN THERE, TRIED THAT

AMA Pro Racing says that the proposed venue changes will help motocross’ evolutionary development and offer closer venues to new hotbeds of the sport . Some of the states rumored to be in contention for MX National hosting are Texas and Colorado, both of which have enjoyed a healthy increase in motocross sales in recent years. What the AMA is forgetting, however, is that more sales in the area don’t change the fact that these areas are sweltering in the summer, and several past attempts at Nationals in these locales have failed. Remember either the Denver or Lakewood, Colorado rounds? Where are they? Or how about the Las Vegas round? And then back to Texas-San Antonio used to have a National there…

As hard as it might be for some to swallow, Mother Nature has a big hand in all this. Think about it-it makes perfect sense that the National series, which is held in mid-summer, is more popular at tracks like Southwick. In support of this popularity: Despite the fact that there are a large number of Nationals within fairly close driving distance of Southwick, this year the event managed to bring in close to 19,000 spectators. On the opposite coast you have California, the heart of the motocross industry (all five of the Big Five hold office space in So Cal), where nine out of ten garages have dirt bikes in them. In fact, there are so many moto fans in Southern California that the lower half of the state alone supports four nearly sold-out Supercross rounds per year. But come National time the same area normally only produces 20,000 or so warm bodies for the opening round of outdoor competition!

Without getting too personal here, the perfect example of this is my mother Linda. She’s been a part of the MX industry for a decade and a half now, working for GFI Racing as a scorekeeper, sign-up attendee and gate supervisor at the local tracks. Every year when SX rolls into town, she can hardly wait to get to the stadium and see her favorite riders, as she’s still a huge fan of the sport. But come Glen Helen time, when it’s only, say, 100 degrees out (this September should be hotter than ever!), even free VIP passes won’t entice Linda out of her air-conditioned home.

It seems fairly obvious, then, that if we learn anything at all from the sport’s history, it’s that mid-summer, outdoor spectator events like the Nationals are hard to pull off in certain parts of the country. If Southern California’s opening round ticket sales are hardly higher than some of the smaller events on the East Coast, it seems pretty hard to believe that a Texas or Colorado round will be packing them in too tightly.

IS THE TIME UP?

The point here is that evolution is better left alone. When it is allowed to occur naturally, that’s when the good changes are brought about. In professional motocross racing, we’ve seen evolution in many forms. The evolution in motorcycle technology has allowed for riders to go faster than ever, jump higher than ever, but all the while be safer because of better equipment than ever.

As for the tracks, they have also evolved; a bit more towards the Northeastern region of the country, to historic venues like Southwick, High Point, Unadilla…the list goes on and on. Beyond the location progressions have also been track progressions. Each year the venues get more and more spectator friendly, and many of the National sites are home to some of the best racing facilities our country has to offer.

Last year Southwick made major renovations by getting rid of the infamous Frog Pond, adding a significant amount of fencing for both the riders’ and spectators’ safety, and at the same time clearing many of the trees away to allow for better viewing and television coverage. It’s obvious that National tracks are able to evolve and become better over time, but at the end of the year one big question will remain: Can they change fast enough to keep up with the AMA Pro Racing’s agenda? Contract talks between the AMA and the NPG continued at press time, leaving the question up in the air, along with the 2005 National schedule.

Will the series move more rounds to the Southwestern United States? If so, where will they be? Will the negotiations with the currently contracted of which have enjoyed a healthy increase in motocross sales in recent years. What the AMA is forgetting, however, is that more sales in the area don’t change the fact that these areas are sweltering in the summer, and several past attempts at Nationals in these locales have failed. Remember either the Denver or Lakewood, Colorado rounds? Where are they? Or how about the Las Vegas round? And then back to Texas-San Antonio used to have a National there…

As hard as it might be for some to swallow, Mother Nature has a big hand in all this. Think about it-it makes perfect sense that the National series, which is held in mid-summer, is more popular at tracks like Southwick. In support of this popularity: Despite the fact that there are a large number of Nationals within fairly close driving distance of Southwick, this year the event managed to bring in close to 19,000 spectators. On the opposite coast you have California, the heart of the motocross industry (all five of the Big Five hold office space in So Cal), where nine out of ten garages have dirt bikes in them. In fact, there are so many moto fans in Southern California that the lower half of the state alone supports four nearly sold-out Supercross rounds per year. But come National time the same area normally only produces 20,000 or so warm bodies for the opening round of outdoor competition!

Without getting too personal here, the perfect example of this is my mother Linda. She’s been a part of the MX industry for a decade and a half now, working for GFI Racing as a scorekeeper, sign-up attendee and gate supervisor at the local tracks. Every year when SX rolls into town, she can hardly wait to get to the stadium and see her favorite riders, as she’s still a huge fan of the sport. But come Glen Helen time, when it’s only, say, 100 degrees out (this September should be hotter than ever!), even free VIP passes won’t entice Linda out of her air-conditioned home.

It seems fairly obvious, then, that if we learn anything at all from the sport’s history, it’s that mid-summer, outdoor spectator events like the Nationals are hard to pull off in certain parts of the country. If Southern California’s opening round ticket sales are hardly higher than some of the smaller events on the East Coast, it seems pretty hard to believe that a Texas or Colorado round will be packing them in too tightly.

IS THE TIME UP?

The point here is that evolution is better left alone. When it is allowed to occur naturally, that’s when the good changes are brought about. In professional motocross racing, we’ve seen evolution in many forms. The evolution in motorcycle technology has allowed for riders to go faster than ever, jump higher than ever, but all the while be safer because of better equipment than ever.

As for the tracks, they have also evolved; a bit more towards the Northeastern region of the country, to historic venues like Southwick, High Point, Unadilla…the list goes on and on. Beyond the location progressions have also been track progressions. Each year the venues get more and more spectator friendly, and many of the National sites are home to some of the best racing facilities our country has to offer.

Last year Southwick made major renovations by getting rid of the infamous Frog Pond, adding a significant amount of fencing for both the riders’ and spectators’ safety, and at the same time clearing many of the trees away to allow for better viewing and television coverage. It’s obvious that National tracks are able to evolve and become better over time, but at the end of the year one big question will remain: Can they change fast enough to keep up with the AMA Pro Racing’s agenda? Contract talks between the AMA and the NPG continued at press time, leaving the question up in the air, along with the 2005 National schedule.

Will the series move more rounds to the Southwestern United States? If so, where will they be? Will the negotiations with the currently contracted sites be successful, or could this be the last-ever Southwick, Glen Helen, High Point, and Troy? I guess we just need to sit back and let evolution take its course, for better or for worse. As you enjoy the flying sand of Southwick in the accompanying race photos from this year’s historic event, just try not to think about what happened to the dinosaurs, and keep your fingers crossed tightly…

(ABOVE) Chad Reed is showing major signs of improvement in his quest to hang with Ricky outdoors. The Factory Yamaha rider piloted his YZ450F to impressive 2-2 scores in the Southwick sand. Despite having a large margin between himself and his nemesis RC, Reed enjoyed a substantial gap over Kevin Windham, who he left Massachusetts tied in second-place points with.

(OPPOSITE) In a field made up almost entirely of powerful four-stroke 250s, and with a sandy uphill start that just didn’t agree with Bubba’s KX125, the first few laps of the 125cc class at Southwick featured some great dicing. Here James eats a little sand spray sandwich, courtesy of Mike Brown’s rear wheel, while the crowd cheers them on. Things flip-flopped from here; Bubba took the win and Brownie grabbed second.

cted sites be successful, or could this be the last-ever Southwick, Glen Helen, High Point, and Troy? I guess we just need to sit back and let evolution take its course, for better or for worse. As you enjoy the flying sand of Southwick in the accompanying race photos from this year’s historic event, just try not to think about what happened to the dinosaurs, and keep your fingers crossed tightly…

(ABOVE) Chad Reed is showing major signs of improvement in his quest to hang with Ricky outdoors. The Factory Yamaha rider piloted his YZ450F to impressive 2-2 scores in the Southwick sand. Despite having a large margin between himself and his nemesis RC, Reed enjoyed a substantial gap over Kevin Windham, who he left Massachusetts tied in second-place points with.

(OPPOSITE) In a field made up almost entirely of powerful four-stroke 250s, and with a sandy uphill start that just didn’t agree with Bubba’s KX125, the first few laps of the 125cc class at Southwick featured some great dicing. Here James eats a little sand spray sandwich, courtesy of Mike Brown’s rear wheel, while the crowd cheers them on. Things flip-flopped from here; Bubba took the win and Brownie grabbed second.