Backmarker: Reflections on Supermoto’s Return

July 17, 2014
Mark Gardiner
Mark Gardiner
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In 2001, Mark Gardiner gave up his career in advertising, and moved to the Isle of Man to live out his childhood dream of racing in the TT. After returning to the U.S., he wrote a memoir of that experience, Riding Man, which is now in development as a feature film. His column, Backmarker, looks at everything from the motorcycle industry as a whole to intensely personal 'inside stories.'

The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of Supermoto

I checked in with an old friend, Micky Dymond who had – to say the least – a grueling month of June. Last year, Micky acted as a sort of video presenter for a web series about the (bicycle) Race Across America. That got his competitive juices flowing (which, to be honest is not hard to do).

If you’ve got a real long memory, you’ll remember that back in the ’80s, Micky won a couple of AMA Motocross national championships. He also won an AMA Supermoto national championship in 2005. Nineteen years between national titles has got to be a record in itself, or close to it. He’s also won at Pike’s Peak and competed at the X-Games.

With such a long and varied competition career, you might guess he’s not a good spectator. So after following the 3000-mile RAAM in 2013, he decided to recruit three of his buddies. He talked fellow X-Gamer and BMX star Dave Mirra into it, and road-racer-turned-extreme-mountain-biker Ben Bostrom. The one real bicycle road racer on the team was Dave Zabriskie.


Ex-MX and Supermoto champ Micky Dymond (left) and ex-AMA and World Superbike star Ben Bostrom teamed with Dave Mirra and Dave Zabriskie to race across the U.S. on bicycles. Dymond and Bostrom were both stars of the original AMA Pro Racing Supermoto series. Micky’s being lured out of ‘retirement’ to race at Sturgis later this year.

“It was a death march,” Micky told me. The four of them relayed across the country from Oceanside, California, to Annapolis, Maryland, in five days, 11 hours and change. They won the four-man class but it was close; they made the final pass for the lead with 100 miles to go. In fact, they came within a hair of setting the outright record for a coast-to-coast four-man relay.

Phew. I got a touch of rhabdomyolysis in my quads just listening to Micky talk about it.

Anyway, all that’s only tangentially related to motorcycles. When I asked Micky what was on his schedule for the rest of the summer, though, he mentioned that he was going to be back in the Supermoto saddle, racing in the Sturgis round of the AMA National Supermoto Championship.

“Hmm…” you might be thinking, “the AMA has a professional Supermoto championship again?”

Yep.

If you were around during AMA Pro Racing’s management transition in 2008, you might have got the impression that the folks at DMG didn’t care what happened to Supermoto. I mean – between the rocky transition and the economy tanking – the Superbike series took a hit, but DMG dba AMA Pro totally pulled the plug on Supermoto. The sport hasn’t had a national championship since 2009.

I’ve often wondered exactly how the sport of Supermoto, which seemed to have so much momentum 10 years ago, collapsed so completely. I mean, how bad is it? I just typed “national supermoto championship” into Google, and it autocorrected ‘supermoto’ to ‘supercross’. The dramatic rise and fall of Supermoto was on my mind when I realized that we’d have a national championship again this year.


Beginning about 10 years ago, the sport of Supermoto took off. But it flew too high, too fast. The result was that in 2009, the AMA Pro Racing Supermoto series disappeared altogether. Now, there’s a national championship again.

That’s thanks to Matt Stewart, a young racer-turned-promoter and the force behind USA Pro Supermoto. His company is running the championship for the AMA. Note that I wrote ‘AMA’ and not ‘AMA Pro Racing’. The sanction comes out of Ohio, not Daytona. (I’m guessing that the terms of the original sale prohibited the AMA from competing with DMG, but maybe since DMG’s done nothing with Supermoto for five years, the championship’s fair game.)

Matt didn’t really set out to be a series promoter. He raced the last couple of years of the original AMA series, and was looking to race in Dennis Anderson’s USA Pro Supermoto series in 2012. Then Anderson was diagnosed with cancer.

“Me and one other guy stepped in, and we put it on in 2012 as a last-minute thing,” Matt admitted, adding, “It was a big learning curve.”

Still in 2013 he picked up a business partner and built on the experience. With a minimal promotional budget, they got 5000 fans to watch the inaugural Sturgis street race. That was enough to get the town and merchants on board, and they’ll put more energy into promoting this year’s races, which will run September 13-14.

His 2013 season was also successful enough to pull the AMA back into the professional racing business.

Matt had to cancel 2014’s opening round in Las Vegas, but he’s put on three races so far; Lake Havasu City, AZ, Elkhart Lake, WI, and Denver (where they ran before a 10,000-person crowd, on the undercard for a Nascar Late-Model regional series).

The season will continue with races at Miller Motorsports Park outside Salt Lake City, the street race in Sturgis, and a season finale in Vegas. The current points leaders are Gage McAllister (Open Pro) and Sean Butterman (Lites).

With an eye towards learning more about just why the original AMA Pro Racing Supermoto series collapsed – and thus what pitfalls Matt will need to avoid if his AMA National Supermoto series is to grow and flourish – I picked the brains of a few friends who were close observers of the AMA Pro Racing Supermoto scene.

I talked to Micky, whose buddy Ben Bostrom played a key role in bringing Supermoto to AMA Pro Racing in the first place. I also talked to Gary Trachy, who raced in the AMA Pro series and ran a Supermoto school, and Scott Hoffman, who published Supermoto Magazine.

The Bostrom connection – something I hadn’t known – was that he’d gone to Europe and done some Supermotard races over there, like the famous Guidon d’Or race in France. He came back excited for the sport’s potential in the U.S., only to find that AMA Pro Racing wasn’t really interested, even though other independent promoters were ready to launch a new ‘Superbikers’ series.

Bostrom was tight with Red Bull, though, and they had money to spend on Supermoto. Parts Unlimited was also ready to put up some dough. The fact that there was money on the table – and a potential competitor in the wings – made AMA Pro Racing reconsider, and they pre-emptively launched a national championship series in 2003, which put the kibosh on Superbikers II.


The most recent round of the AMA National Supermoto Championship was held at Colorado National Speedway, motorcycles raced in front of 10,000 Nascar fans.

That inaugural AMA Pro Racing season ended with a winner-take-all race in Vegas, and drew established stars from Motocross, Flat Track and Road Racing.

For the next few years, it really felt as if Supermoto was destined to be the Next Big Thing. It did have a lot going for it – that old ‘Superbikers’ appeal of drawing stars from every other branch of racing, and the fact that you could put a Supermoto course together almost anywhere. Red Bull sponsored a street race in Reno that drew 40,000 fans. There was a vibrant event held in Long Beach, at the pier where the Queen Mary’s tied up. It was an X-Games event, drawing a big TV audience.

But when DMG farmed out the Supermoto property to XTRM beginning in 2008, the writing was on the wall. The final race of the ’08 season was a debacle. Teams were on their way to Texas – semis and haulers on the road – when the organizers arrived at the venue and realized there’d been no preparations made at all. The race and season died there.

The series staggered through the ’09 season as the economy tanked. That was also the last year in which the X-Games held events at both the Staples Center and the Home Depot Center in L.A.; ESPN cut back to one venue and dropped Supermoto.

That was the death knell. When factories and sponsors were looking for programs to cut… the first thing to go was Supermoto.

What went wrong? Here’s the executive summary: Red Bull poured millions into Supermoto, but the money they paid to AMA Pro Racing went into general revenue; it wasn’t reinvested in Supermoto, and there was no effort to develop the sport at the grassroots level, or educate devoted fans. And although a lot of money was being spent, event promoters weren’t turning a profit. AMA Pro Racing saddled every event with its bloated administration and high overhead.

“I remember one race we did, in Detroit. AMA Pro had, I think, 16 officials for about 60 entries. All those people had to be flown in, they all needed hotel rooms,” Gary Trachy told me. “Meanwhile we’d go to one of Dan Canet’s events in California, and it was Don taking the money, running the meetings, and flagging the races; he had a couple of girls helping him, and he was handling 120 entries.”

Both Trachy and Scott Hoffman also told me that the pro level of the sport grew without enough support at the amateur, grassroots level. And both felt it was a strategic mistake to run so many Supermoto races in conjunction with motorcycle road races. After all, the bikes are based on motocrossers. Maybe it would’ve been wiser to run races in conjunction with Supercross events.

That said, Hoffman still notes that while people enter Supermoto from Motocross, Supermoto tends to produce road racers. “You look at riders like Joey Pascarella, Cam Beaubier, or Bobby Fong,” he told me. “Those guys all came up riding Supermoto. It’s the most cost-effective way to develop your road racing skills.”

“I was at Mettet [Belgium] and Matt was over there, telling me that he was going to run a national series. I didn’t really know him at that point, and I thought, ‘Good luck with that’,” Trachy recalled. “But I have to hand it to him; he’s pulled together some great races and venues on small budgets.”

If anything, the lesson Matt Stewart’s taken to heart is, this time Supercross should put down stronger roots and grow slower.

“With the AMA in Ohio being involved, it’s a Pro-Am series,” Matt told me. You have to have amateur racing to support the pros, because at the end of the day we don’t make any money off the pros because we have to pay them.”

“Will it ever be as big as Supercross? Will I make a million? No,” Matt admits. “But I raced USAC sprint cars. I think it can be successful at that level; where we’re drawing five or ten thousand people, promoters make money, a few top racers can make a living doing it.” For a young guy, he strikes me as a guy who’s got a mature outlook and a realistic business plan.

As Gary Trachy said, “Just because it didn’t work out the way it was done the first time, doesn’t mean it isn’t a really neat sport.” It would be ironic if – after AMA Pro Racing gave Supermoto up for dead – the sport served as a good example for U.S. motorcycle racing in general.

 

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