A few years ago I asked Tim Ferry why dirt bike racers don’t wear shoulder pads like football players do. Running backs slam shoulder-first into the ground constantly, yet rarely suffer shoulder injuries. Wouldn’t football shoulder pads help on a dirt bike? Ferry’s answer so simple that I was amazed I hadn’t thought about it.
“We’re going a lot faster than football players,” he said.
Injuries have always been a part of dirt bike racing. Right now, we’re losing factory-backed contenders in Monster Energy AMA Supercross by the week. This points to a crisis, but it’s not new. It’s also not even exclusive to supercross—the MXGP gang has already been beaten up badly and the season doesn’t even start until this weekend.
In 2003, the last six supercross races had the exact same podium—Chad Reed, Ricky Carmichael, and Ernesto Fonseca—mostly because they were the only full-time premiere class factory riders left in the series! That’s ridiculous. Everyone else got hurt that year. On two-strokes.
The 1995 250 Nationals were loaded. Mike LaRocco, Doug Henry, and Greg Albertyn were very fast when the season began, but all went down with injury. On two-strokes. At the end of the year it was the McGrath/Emig show almost exclusively.
The 2016 Monster Energy AMA Supercross Championship was actually very healthy. At the Las Vegas final, 15 full-time 450SX factory-level riders who intended to race the full series were still racing. Same basic tracks, bikes, and riders as this year, much healthier field. A lot of this is random. The 2011 season was epic; the 2012 season was a wash.
Counting the injuries sends us in the wrong direction. The number of injuries has not really changed, and I also don’t know if there’s a solution to reduce them, anyway.
What has changed? The severity of the injuries.
This is simple science, as Ferry illustrated to me years ago: Hit the ground faster, hit the ground harder.
I don’t know if there’s a solution to the quantity of injuries. What I think could be solved is the quality of the injuries. How about more broken wrists and broken ankles and fewer injury reports like Cole Seely’s? Jake Weimer’s off-season injury list? One crash and a broken right wrist, broken left scapula, broken left elbow, bruised ribs, a bruised right lung, and a collapsed left lung. Ken Roczen messed up a jump last year and suffered a career-threatening wrist/arm/elbow injury that required more than ten surgeries.
This is just anecdotal because no one is specifically counting every injury, but I feel like the injury list—per crash—is more extensive than it used to be. Imagine if Weimer only broke his wrist?
This is where the 450 argument comes into play. The bikes are faster, the riders hit the ground harder when they make a mistake or when the bike locks up and they go over the bars. Slower bikes can lock up, too, but it’s simple—you’d rather hit the ground at 25 MPH than 35 MPH. You’d rather crash on a 50-foot jump than an 80-foot jump.
The 450 four-strokes have the magic combination compared to the old two-strokes: they have more power AND more traction. That guarantees more speed. From a racing standpoint, this is great. The racers want a better weapon, so that’s why you never hear a 450 rider say they hate racing 450s. This is why every 250 rider says a 450 “suits their style.” This is why Chad Reed, one of the few who has raced two- and four-strokes at the highest level, says the modern EFI 450 is the safest supercross bike ever. When things are going right, these bikes are so, so, so good. They hook up and they go fast. What’s the ultimate measure of a vehicle used for racing? How fast it goes, and how easy is it to go that fast. By that measure, 450s are awesome.
Faster is better until you make a mistake and go down hard.
Seely crashed because he tried to quad in a rhythm lane. He wanted to win, so if other guys jump that, he needs to jump it. He didn’t quite get the pop he needed to clear it, and then all hell broke loose. If you’re Seely, it would have been better to have crashed trying to turn a double into a triple instead of a triple into a quad.
Only Blake Baggett and Justin Hill managed to do the quad that came up later in that rhythm. Baggett says it was a 92-foot quad. That’s where we are these days. If you want to jump something no one else can jump, you have to jump a 92-foot quad. Because everyone else will do the 70-foot triple all day long.
Unfortunately, 250 two-strokes aren’t coming back, at least not as a premiere class machine. You’d have to ban 450 four-strokes to do that, and that’s not really fair. The manufacturers were forced to switch to 450 four-strokes because of the rules. This wasn’t their decision and it wasn’t their fault. Now we’re supposed to be mad at them?
Further, the teams are the ones spending the money to support the racers. Seriously, bash them if you want, but the only reason riders make a living in this sport is because OEMs are willing to front HUGE money to support racing, despite bike sales that have probably never even justified it. These companies want to compete and win, not count the beans. We’re so lucky they think this way.
That is because this sport isn’t popular enough to support the racers any other way. Ryan Dungey and Ryan Villopoto are not mainstream athletes. They can walk through airports without being mobbed. This sport is kinda popular, but until TV ratings are so huge that a network is willing to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to air it, the riders won’t make millions from the fans like athletes in other sports (the insane salaries in stick-and-ball sports are directly related to the insane rights fees networks are willing to fork over to get the games. Don’t go all crazy about supercross drawing 50,000 fans. Counting ticket sales ain’t nothing to a league like the NFL. It’s all about the TV money). Riders have to make their money from bike sales. Luckily, The Ryans still made millions of dollars per year racing, and that would probably shock a lot of people who have never even heard of this sport (which is a lot of people).
In the case of The Ryans, thanks to Kawasaki and KTM for supporting our heroes and putting up that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Dirt bike racers are underpaid based on the risk and the work, but you can argue they’re overpaid based on the relative popularity of their sport. Sorry, not sorry.
Can’t kick the teams in the teeth. They support the athletes and the sport. Most other forms of motorsport would KILL to have six brands fronting factory efforts. That’s amazing, and it shouldn’t be taken for granted or threatened.
So now the manufacturers make 450s and that’s what they want to sell. Bringing 250 two-strokes back might be the best solution, but only if it could actually happen, and it won’t. So we need to do something else, and here is my unscientific, non-engineering degree suggestion.
Yup. Stuff a plate in the airboot and restrict intake air. Take away power. That’s it—make it a spec plate, have the officials put a swipe of paint over it in tech inspection so they can tell the seal has not been broken. Still get 450s, just ones with less power. Heck, do it in the 250 class, too. Engine guys can still develop a better mousetrap and make their restrictor-plate bike better than the other team’s restrictor-plate bike. Everything is the same as it is now, only with 25 percent less grunt.
The racing will still look good. Jeremy McGrath had way less power than today’s racers, but no one watched him ride a supercross track and thought he looked lame. If they’re all restricted, they will all look good. But maybe when someone steps off the way Roczen did last year, he will step off doing a 50-foot double instead of a 70-foot triple and breaks his radius instead of destroying his arm completely.
Remember, you’re not going to reduce the amount of injuries, just the severity. Cole Seely would gladly take a broken tailbone right now instead of also sustaining fractures to his sacrum and the left and right sides of his pelvis. Jeez, man.
Restrictor plates. Tell me why not?