One way that I keep track of where the buzz is, in the world of motorcycle sport, is I watch what my friends post on their Facebook pages, see what links they’re forwarding via email or Twitter, and I keep an informal score of what competition disciplines come up in conversation. That is an admittedly unscientific survey, but over the last few years I’ve noted a steady increase in interest in EnduroCross. That’s in spite of the fact that the sport hasn’t yet created a Supercross-scale star.
Peronnard (left) raced enduros, Motocross and Supercross when he was young. He came to the U.S.in 1985, chasing the American Dream. He’s paid back American motorcycle sport several times over, by promoting races and a whole new sport: EnduroCross. He also played a key role in getting America’s most traditional motorcycle racing discipline – Flat Track – onto the X-Games schedule
With that in mind, I’ve had “Interview Eric Peronnard, inventor of EnduroCross” on my to-do list for a while.
When I finally got around to calling him, I learned that he’s also the organizer of the Flat Track event in Austin, too. (In case you just emerged Kimmy Schmidt-style from a bunker this morning, Flat Track will be a full-medal sport at this year’s X Games. That’s a nice step up, and a tribute to Harley-Davidson’s ongoing commitment to the sport.)
So in one way my timing was perfect, but in another it sucked because ‘busy’ doesn’t begin to describe his life in the run-up to the X Games come June. Luckily, Eric and I managed to squeeze a couple of conversations in, between his conference calls with ESPN, and packing for a whirlwind trip that would take him to meetings in several European cities, then to the Supercross round in New York before he next sees his home in New Smyrna, Florida.
Eric Peronnard still has a French accent, in spite of the fact that he’s lived in the States for 30 years. His original motorcycle passion was enduros, and for about 15 years he ran a business in partnership with Yamaha, taking people on adventure tours in the American Southwest, Mexico, Australia… all over the place.
He ended up owning a Yamaha dealership in Las Vegas, which gave him a good familiarity with that market. That, in turn, helped him promote the U.S. Open of Supercross there, in 1998.
Since then, Eric’s put on Motocross and Supercross races on both sides of the Atlantic. He promoted SX events in Paris, Geneva and Barcelona, which is how he got to know the Spanish promoter RPM. (That’s also the company that puts on the end-of-season Superprestigio flat track race, pitting MotoGP stars like Marc Marquez against top GNC riders.)
In 2003, RPM put on an indoor enduro event in Barcelona. Eric was a guest, and immediately saw the potential; he flew straight back to the U.S. and filed a trademark on ‘EnduroCross’.
“I knew I had to Americanize it,” he told me. “The event in Barcelona was an enduro, held indoors. I wanted an event more like Supercross.”
Eric put on the first EnduroCross event – again in that familiar Vegas market – in November, 2004. “It was a very successful event, but it wasn’t profitable,” he told me, “because we had so much to learn.”
As a marketing guy, I have my own perspective on why EnduroCross is growing. While Supercross and FMX have higher-profile stars, let’s face it: the vast majority of recreational motorcyclists are never going to fly 50 feet above the ground – at least, not on purpose. Add a backflip or seat-grab into that picture and, sure, it’s spectacular, but it’s not easy to relate to. Meanwhile, the obstacles in EnduroCross are familiar to any single-track rider; they’re just bigger and gnarlier, with less rest in-between.
Eric told me: “I saw the demise of Supermoto coming. In the beginning, it was driven by sponsors and money. It became heavily specialized. You were burning through 20 tires a weekend; it was all sent to a higher level that didn’t make sense. It was [aspiring to be] MotoGP, without the MotoGP fan base.”
He was determined to learn from those mistakes. So he wrote EnduroCross rules and created classes that were as inclusive as possible. Anyone with a motocross bike can put a skidplate on it, change the gearing, and try out. There’s a feeding system in place, with amateurs, veterans, and TrialCross. Steve Christini’s 2WD bike was welcome. The result was a new sport that grew organically, with a stronger foundation than supermoto had (the first time ‘round, anyway).
“I think EnduroCross was the best thing that ever happened to trials riders,” Peronnard told me. “It’s almost impossible to win an EnduroCross event if you don’t have trials skills. Colton Haaker (seen here), Cody Webb… They came out of trials. It’s not like I want them to leave trials, but at least we gave them a platform where they can make a living. Because unfortunately trials doesn’t feed many people. Maybe ten guys are making a living out of trials in the world; we have as many making a living out of EnduroCross right here in the ‘States.”
One advantage EnduroCross has over Supercross is that it doesn’t need or even benefit from huge stadiums. Eric told me that while he’d put on some events in stadiums, all he needed was a hockey arena-sized floor, maybe 100’ x 200’, with 10,000 seats. “If you sit too far away, the boulders look like pebbles,” he said. (They never look like pebbles to me; if I rode any of those tracks, you’d measure my lap times with a calendar.)
In 2010, with Supermoto in decline, ESPN contacted Eric about putting on an EnduroCross race. When he finally got the call, Eric thought, “Wow! Did that really happen?” But it was a classic case of an overnight success, years in the making. He’d actually invited execs from ESPN to EnduroCross events in 2005 and ’06, and they loved it, but the timing wasn’t right.
“They must have been satisfied with my work [putting on EnduroCross],” said Peronnard, “because they put me in charge of all the two-wheeled motorsport including, as of yesterday, Flat Track.”
I was curious about how the Flat Track deal came together. Eric told me that, a few years ago, Rob Dingman had suggested, “Hey, why not get Flat Track into the X Games?” He reminded the AMA chief that he’d spent five years getting EnduroCross onto the program.
There were a number of challenges, including siting the track, which will be about a third of a mile around, on the Circuit of the Americas property. Back when Supermoto was an X Games sport, there were issues with track design and installation, and a lot of top riders thought they ranged from not-great to downright dangerous. I’m sure that available real estate on the CoTA site was a factor in the short-ish Flat Track oval, but keeping speeds down may not be a bad thing. I think some bad accidents at recent X Games have been sobering for ESPN.
Eric admitted that a big part of putting the deal together was the sponsorship commitment of Harley-Davidson. Obviously, he couldn’t share financial details, but I’m guessing that Harley’s promised several years-worth of support, much of which will come in the form of advertising on the network.
A former X Games competitor in Supermoto, Johnny Lewis is one of the Flat Track regulars to compete in the upcoming X Games event in Austin.
ESPN selected the top 18 riders from last year’s AMA Pro Racing Flat Track season, as well as half a dozen other riders. Needless to say, current Grand National Championship riders are incredibly excited at the prospect of their sport reaching a wider (and younger) audience. One of the riders chosen was Johnny Lewis; he was honest with me, admitting that he got in on the strength of his marketability, not on last year’s points.
Lewis, as an ex-pro Supermoto rider, is also the only one who already has real X Games experience. (He raced in the 2008 X Games.) He’s in the very final stages of putting together his GNC program for 2015, which will include almost all the Twins races – he told me that it’s the strongest program he’s ever had – but he was sworn to secrecy, while they wait to put out an official press release.
“In terms of major sponsors, it’s a done deal,” he told me. “But I’ve spent the day thinking about personal sponsorship. I’m racing in an all-white helmet right now, because I don’t have a helmet deal. I think X Games exposure could make a big difference with something like that.”
Again, the theme of patience came up when I asked Peronnard about the impact GNC riders should expect from their X Games exposure.
“It’s not like some tsunami,” he cautioned. “The X Games didn’t make any EnduroCross racers rich, but it did make them more famous. Within a couple of years of [our first] X Games, the sport became more widely known. We no longer had to explain what it was; people had seen it, because the X Games reaches ten times as many people. It became a ‘mainstream’ sport – or at least mainstream within the motorcycle niche.”
This is what the invitation looked like, when thrilled GNC stars opened their email a few days ago. “It’s the best thing that could happen to any sport,” says EnduroCross founder Eric Peronnard, and he should know. But, he warns, Flat Trackers won’t see huge benefits right away.
So yes, Flat Track’s inclusion is a big deal, but it will take a while before it helps teams and racers in the larger, Grand National Championship context to get to the next level. “The first year it’s a big bang, but it’s within our industry,” Eric says. “Then it takes more time to be appreciated by non-hardcore motorcycle fans. So we need a little bit of caution. Yes, it’s great news; it’s the best thing that could happen to any sport to be part of the X Games, but don’t expect to be prime time the week after.”
I suppose this is kind of a “good news, bad news, good news” situation for GNC racers who have been toiling in undeserved obscurity for decades now. The good news is, you’re in the X Games. The bad news is, for the foreseeable future the only people who are going to care are the fans you’ve already got. But the good news is, if you’re smart and patient you can leverage that X Games exposure – call it credibility in the extreme sports world – to make yourselves more visible and marketable to a wider audience and more sponsors.
Peronnard’s not done popularizing some of the more obscure motorcycle racing disciplines, either. I’m a huge trials fan; when I told Eric that one thing I like about EnduroCross is his TrialCross class, he admitted that promoting a U.S. round of the Indoor World Trials Championship was another item on his own bucket list. “It almost happened this year,” he said. “Maybe next one.”