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Backmarker: Reflections on Supermoto's Return

Thursday, July 17, 2014
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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Comments
crashmw   July 25, 2014 09:24 AM
I would also point out that the races were (in the US at least) being set up as a circus show that seriously favored the MXers. Dont get me wrong, as I like triples as much as anyone, but on a supermoto, they really need to stick to tables, step-ons, and the like. Look at some of the x-games injuries brought on by the big triples that only the Supercross guys should be doing, and you drive away other disciplines. Events without big jumps are every bit as exciting as it showcases bike handling skills, hacking, sliding on exits, tactics in the dirt sections...All that was diluted as the races ultimately rewarded the guys that could scrub the triples the entire race the entire race. I dunno, look at Fong, Beaubier, Pascarello, etc. These guys cut their teeth on tracks like Stockton that had no jumps. Although Cameron started in MX...Fong was a flattracker as a kid, and I don't know much about Joey. I'm just saying, keep it about the racing and supermoto should thrive. It need not be an X-games event where someone's life is on the line to make it a good event...
stuman714   July 22, 2014 04:52 PM
Two of the most exciting races I have ever seen--on tv, only, unfortunately--were Ben Bostrom's wins in the Supermoto race at Vegas for the season-finale and championship in '04, and the next year when he won in the XGames competition. Pure, unadulterated great racing at it's best.
StreetHawk   July 18, 2014 07:14 PM
What's needed is a return to the roots of supermoto aka the SuperBikers. A run what ya brung series with motocross, road race and flat track personalities. I know the stars are too pricey ($)to the factories to get hurt but we should be able to rustle up maybe Bayliss, Biaggi and say Stoner. Dirt track has no issues with letting the current crop compete. Now we just need a few retired or current MX stars. Next problem is the tracks. Way too much short straight and hairpin go kart stuff. Bring back the sweeping 70 mph speedway dirt sections and ascot TT type jumps. The pavement needs a high speed pin it for 30 seconds section with sweepers. Lastly and most crucial for entertainment value is a spec tire. Return to using flat track rubber on all bikes to get the slip , slide , spin spectacle back.
jwaller   July 18, 2014 06:42 PM
I wondered what ever happened to Supermoto. I went to Iraq in 2009 and came back at the end of 2010. To reward myself for my safe return, I decided I'd go to a motorcycle race. I chose to go to the Road America round of AMA Superbike. I knew there'd be the Dairyland Classic flat track race in Plymouth that weekend and knew they had done Supermoto at Road America in the past. Though I couldn't find Supermoto racing on TV, I assumed the series still existed and assumed there'd be a round of Supermoto racing at Road America as there had been in the past. But then there was no word of Supermoto racing on the event schedule. I asked around and no one I talked to could tell me what happened to Supermoto. A web search wasn't able to tell me what happened to it; I just correctly assumed the series went belly-up. I'm glad someone is bringing it back. I think it's perhaps the most flexible form of motorcycle racing. It can be done just about anywhere.... The infield of a road racing track like at Road America, on city streets as they did at some of the races, in a large parking lot... I think they could hold a Supermoto race as a piggy-back to other races. It could take place within the oval of a mile flat track race. It could take place at a road race event, particularly one at a NASCAR venue like Daytona. It could piggy-back a Supercross race in the parking lot during the day before the Saturday night Supercross event. There's always tons of spectators at the Supercross races all day Saturday in the pit areas. These same Supercross spectators could watch a Supermoto race while waiting all day for Ryan Villopoto's autograph....Perhaps make some converts. Something about Supermoto not only attracts new racers, it also brings out older retired racers from other disciplines; guys who could still be competitive. It was awesome to see guys like Jeff Ward and Doug Henry take to a track with Travis Pastrana and Ben Bostrom. Wouldn't it be cool to see something like that happen again? Like maybe Ricky Carmichael and Jeremy McGrath taking on Colin Edwards, Ben Spies, or dare I say Casey Stoner? Piggy-backing the Supermoto race with other forms of racing could bring out lots of "wild card" entries from the hosting event. Good road racing privateers at the road races, good supercross privateers at the supercross races, etc. I know the big factory teams wouldn't want to see their prized rider chancing injury in a one-off event, so I don't expect we'd see the current best of the best from each discipline. But it would still be awesome.
AnthonyD   July 18, 2014 06:59 AM
Come race regional series too! Come check out SMEC (Supermoto East Coast) and other regional series. Let's pump Supermoto back up!
FZilla84   July 17, 2014 06:56 PM
I have to agree with most of the aricle's points, but issue correction on one; the event at the Queen Mary (Duel at the Docks) was not an X-Games event. It was put on solely by Troy Lee Designs, as Troy himself was a SM racer and huge fan and proponent of the sport. Before our supercross days,we had a 3 man team consisting of David Pingree, Chris Fillmore, and Jeff Ward, and even made Supermoto race pants and body armor at the time. The event was manned almost completely (off track) by TLD employees, and as much pride as we took in the success of the event, it all came back to earth the following year when we put on a much less successful event at Casino Morongo. All of our efforts to promote the sport were undermined by the typical cluelessness of the AMA in matters of race promotion. They were granting races to some pretty shady promoters, and several times venues were changed and events cancelled in the 11th hour because those entities simply couldn't pull it off. Let's hope the second go-round works out, as this sport has unlimited potential due to its broad appeal across all genres of 2 wheeled competition.
Piglet2010   July 17, 2014 06:39 PM
Sad that the only true motard now on the US market is the low-tech Suzuki DR-400SM (hello, the 20th Century called and wants it carburetor back). I was considering buying one, but by the time I had the cash they all went away. (The Aprilia Shiver and Ducati Hypermotard are really much more naked sportbikes than motards.)
Piglet2010   July 17, 2014 06:31 PM
"If anything, the lesson Matt Stewart’s taken to heart is, this time Supercross..." - Uh, do you mean "Supermoto"? ;)
teknic   July 17, 2014 11:22 AM
Bring back Supermoto! Husky no longer has a Sumo.. KTM doesn't bring any of there's over. Most of the parts (Alpina, STM clutches, exhaust systems) all come from Europe where its apparently still popular. If we create a ripple maybe supply and demand will take over and save us all! Muwahaha.
Eradock   July 17, 2014 11:12 AM
The comment about it being a strategic mistake to run Supermoto in conjunction with roadrace events is true. Supermoto was so popular the year they ran races at Laguna Seca during the AMA Superbike event that the roadrace stands were empty and the hills and stands around the supermoto track were packed. I have a feeling that AMA killed Supermoto in part because it was canibalizing their roadrace events. There is such a thing as being too good for your own good.