(AP) — The early days of motocross were technically the same as they are today: riders riding dirt bikes over bumps and around berms, the fastest person wins.
After 50 years, it actually almost feels like a different sport.
Motorcycles are faster, more powerful. Runners come from all over the world and are some of the fittest athletes in any sport. The tracks feature jumps that old-school racers wouldn’t have even considered, obstacles that would have been unfathomable.
And exposure, thanks to television and social media, soared from a dirt-covered launch pad.
“Oh man, it’s like watching the 1972 Olympic basketball game compared to what we have now with the Dream Team,” said Davey Coombs, president of MX Sports Pro Racing, which manages the Lucas Oil Pro Championship. Motocross. being a sort of Alabama off-road motorcycle race has become a worldwide phenomenon.
The Lucas Oil Motocross Championship kicked off its 50th season in Pala, Calif., moved north to historic Hangtown and will roar along the Rocky Mountains outside of Denver this weekend.
It was quite a ride.
The circuit’s origins date back to 1972, when parts from several series were cobbled together into one. Few outside of die-hard fans knew who the riders were, the tracks weaved mostly through natural terrain, and the bikes broke down so often that the organizers opted for three 20-minute motos, so there was some time for repairs.
The only opportunities to watch the races live were if the circuit came to town or if you were prepared to take a long drive. Even early photos are hard to find, let alone video footage.
The sport started gaining momentum when marketable stars like Jeremy McGrath, Ricky Carmichael and Travis Pastrana started making noise. Motocross remained a niche sport, but interest in high-flying, fast racing began to grow as some of the best riders in the world flocked to the United States.
Australian Jett Lawrence won the 450cc title last season and the series includes two-time German 450cc rider Ken Roczen, two-time runner-up Marvin Musquin of France and promising Japanese rider Jo Shimoda.
“We’re seeing all the best of every other country in a way that we’ve never seen before,” Coombs said.
And more people watch them run.
Before MX Sports Pro Racing took over in 2009, live racing was an afterthought, leaving fans scrambling to figure out when and where to watch the races. A major step was a partnership with NBC, which allowed mostly live racing with some tape delay. A deal with MAVTV allowed the circuit to be televised in its entirety this summer.
“The fame and notoriety of the sport has been huge,” said Carmichael, who won seven straight 450cc titles starting in 2000. “It is getting more and more popular every year.”
Social media propelled him forward.
Motocross has not achieved the popularity of the UFC, but has seen the same social media engagement from some of its athletes.
Roczen has 1.5 million followers on Instagram and 201,000 on Twitter. Eli Tomac, currently second in the season standings, has nearly a million on Instagram and 133,000 on Twitter. Three-time champion Ryan Dungey, who returned this season after a five-year retirement, has 800,000 Instagram followers and another 213,000 on Twitter.
Many runners are hyper-active on social media, giving fans 24/7 coverage. The races take place on Saturdays, but the pre-game broadcasts on social platforms take place several days before.
“As they prepare for the events, it becomes a kind of symbiotic relationship,” Coombs said. “They get a glimpse of what’s going to happen over the weekend and it gives us a chance to show what we’re doing.”
What they see is a sport with bigger and faster runners than old school runners could ever have imagined.
In the beginning, motorcycles were basically trail bikes with a few tweaks. Today’s motocross bikes are like two-wheeled Formula 1 cars, finely tuned technological marvels with power that allows riders to clear what was once a quadruple jump with a quick twist of the throttle.
The track designers have tried to keep up, building bigger jumps and more obstacles that make the race more stunt but also keep the bikes from rocketing off the track.
Even the runners have changed.
Before Carmichael came along, the best drivers could win races simply by having more talent. Carmichael transformed the sport into a more athletic endeavor, using intense off-track workouts to complement his formidable talent.
Following Carmichael’s example, today’s runners have become some of the most conditioned athletes in the world, spending their days training, watching what they eat, and even hiring trainers and nutritionists. just to keep up.
“Race rhythms have gotten so much harder, you can’t afford not to have that stuff these days,” Dungey said. “You have to have all of this or it will show.”