The riders have a second week in a row off, which is a fortunate thing, given the way the schedule has worked out this year. There were 13 races in a row, and now two well-earned weeks off. During those long weeks on, we saw some amazing highs—70,000 fans in San Diego and Atlanta, thrilling battles between Ricky Carmichael and James Stewart, wide-open 250F-class races—plus a few not-so-great notes, like the fuel situation and, worst of all, the injuries to James Marshall and Ernesto Fonseca.
I FedExed a new magazine to Ernesto at the rehabilitation center in Colorado he is now at. He will be there for the foreseeable future. The hope is that extensive rehab will help bring back some normalcy to his life. I wanted him to see the magazine in the hope of inspiring him, as several of his sponsors placed inspirational ads in the magazine, including Renthal, Answer, and Vans.
The news that these two young men had joined the list of severely injured riders over the years brought the safety issue of our sport into focus all over again. That’s not to say that safety conversation ever stops; track designers, team managers, promoters, industry friends, concerned fans, and, of course, the riders themselves are always trying to come up with ways to make things safer while keeping the sport as fun and exciting and competitive as possible.
With all that in mind that after the Fonseca crash, I asked readers and friends to feel free to send in their concerns, ideas, and personal experiences around racing that might help further the conversation. After all, I had been getting calls from everyone from Brett Racine, a top former amateur, to David Bailey, a top former pro, to Jimmy Button and Jim Castillo and Don Emde and Todd Lentz and Steve Whitelock and Denny Hartwig and the list goes on and on.…
No one wants to see an athlete injured—ever. No one builds tracks to get riders hurt, but there’s never a perfectly safe track. No one builds bikes to be dangerous, but there’s never a foolproof bike. No one goes out and rides to get hurt on purpose, though a fool and his spleen may soon be parted. And accidents can and will happen to anyone.
With all that in mind, this Racerhead is going to be based entirely on the topic of safety, and from here on out, it is your opinions, your ideas, your hopes for making motocross racing and off-road riding in general safer. The idea is to keep the conversation going, to possibly get people hovering around the same idea to learn from one another and expand on it. Because we’re not going to change gravity, and we don’t want to stop racing and riding and jumping, and I don’t want someone else to step in and stop us because they deem what we do to be too dangerous or unsafe. As for the photos here, well, they tell a story, too.
Oh, one more thing: As a policy, Racer X does not run anonymous letters—if you’ve got something to say, stand behind it and say it—but in this case, several people wrote from work with their ideas and asked that we respect their wishes to have their names withheld. In this case, we shall oblige. Also, we could not include all of the letters, as many focused on similar ideas to previous e-mails. We apologize to those whose letters were left off here.
Here are some of the letters:
Dear Racer X,
In reference to the safety issue, maybe have short second gear start straights with a ninety-degree or sharper turn, followed by a longer straight with qualifying for gate choice. This would surely stop the high-speed pileups and spread the field safely. And this would change the racing dramatically by being fairly sure who would get the holeshot but it would definitely stop major injuries from high-speed first turn crashes. We are pretty much the only motor sport that doesn't have a pole-position-type setup and while that makes us unique we could have the best of both worlds! I myself broke my neck my neck at the C7 level almost completely severing my spinal cord in a high speed first turn crash… Also make it compulsory for juniors to wear those rubber neck guards that Davi Millsaps wears. I'm sure some seniors don't wear them because they are awkward or feel funny but if you've been wearing them since juniors it will be second nature to wear them just like armour or knee braces!
John Mc Pherson (Australia)
Whoops: If the size and shape of whoops that occur naturally could be quantified, then artificial whoops could be made to adhere to that standard? Every track would have the same whoops, and riders would already be comfortable riding on them, and know their limits.
Jumps: Go back to singles. The speed and distance obtained would be self-limiting, as riders would have to adjust their speed to keep from damaging their equipment.
Bikes: Restrictor plates and suspension travel limits? “One design” racing?
Why not slow the bikes down? The AMA keeps talking about making the bikes quieter, but, at 3 db per year, it's going to take too long. Remember years ago when nobody in the 125 class was doing the triple jumps? Now, they clear everything the big bikes do. It makes the action in the SX class less exciting. I think they should quit screwing around and cut the decibels by 50 percent. Sure, this will greatly reduce power, but don't those four-strokes have plenty to spare? Slowing the bikes down will allow track designers to do away with these insane whoops, rhythm sections, triple-triple sections…. If the AMA can restrict noise/power, as NASCAR does, then the riders won't have to "hang it out" like so many do.
(NAME WITHHELD UPON REQUEST)
Bryan J. Carr
I think that supercross needs to tone down a little on the technical stuff and throw in some Euro speed terrain. It would make racing a lot closer, meaning more excitement for the spectators, and maybe a new rider or two with less tech good win or give a good run.
(NAME WITHHELD UPON REQUEST)
On the supercross tracks, some jumps having to small of a take-off. I noticed some of the step-ups in the race series having very short lips for the speed carried over them. For example, the jump that Steve Boniface crashed on at Atlanta SX track. The step-up seemed to be a little sketchy for some of the riders. I saw a lot of riders drop a front end off of the jump. I think the take-off was too short and not tall enough, at the speed the riders went off the take-off, their front tires were leaving the lip while the back tires were just starting the incline of the take-off. Personally as a racer myself I find these types of jumps very scary to approach fast as the pros. So that’s is one of the obstacles I think can bring problems to future supercross races.
Anyway, that's my two-cents worth. I am pulling for Fonseca, and I’m pulling for Marshall, and I hope they can prove the doctors wrong and make a comeback.
Alex Pina. Empire, MI
I don’t know what we can do about the spinal cord injuries, but I often wonder why more people don’t wear chest protectors. I feel like the more protection the better. I have worn a chest protector since I started racing, and if you always wear one, they are no more restrictive than wearing your helmet, or your gloves, or your pants, and goggles. It becomes a part of your riding gear.
It might sound shallow, but I think a lot of it comes from seeing the fastest riders in the world, not wearing them. ‘If they are not wearing them, I don’t need to.’ Nobody will admit it or state that, that is the reason, but I cannot think of another reason. The only professional rider I see consistently wearing one is Kevin Windham. (I see that ViIlopoto wears one, though. Good for him.)
(NAME WITHHELD UPON REQUEST)
Darren Cortines. Adelanto CA
(We will forward Mr. Cortines e-mails from here: email@example.com)
I think the majority of people will say SX needs to be tamed down in the sense that the jumps need to be smaller and the bike sizes cut down. All this will do is make the scale of supercross smaller but the risk factor remains. What the sport needs is drastic safety measures on the riders and on the tracks.
I've always entertained the idea of an airbag system. This airbag system can come in the form/shape/size of a chest protector and/or a helmet cam. The systems are attached to the bike by a strap that hooks the rider onto the bike (similar to one found on an ATV). When detached, the airbag system deploys and creates a bubble-like protection around key injury areas. I think there was a commercial of a guy falling off a building or scaffolding and then this big airbag deploys and he lands safely. Same concept!
I believe that if the displacement of today’s motorcycles was lowered (which would slow the motorcycle down), the severity of injuries would decrease. It is no secret that speed kills. Most serious accidents don't happen in corners but rather on jumps. Slower bikes would force jumps and rhythm sections to become smaller but not necessarily easier. Slower racing wouldn't take away from the fun, challenge or the battles, but instead it would increase the safety of riders. Also, Increased safety would lure more people into motocross racing. Overall I can see only improvement to the sport of motocross with tamed-downed motorcycles… And What about a helmet that, when struck on the top with a certain amount of force, releases an air neck roll-type of thing (think Davi Millsaps but much larger). I kind of got the idea when I saw the new Gold Wings with air bags. If you hit the top of the helmet with the right force coupled with being inverted a large neck roll would release stabilizing the neck and upper back. Like you said, if they can make a tree grow 15' in a year, someone could make it work in a positive way.
(NAME WITHHELD UPON REQUEST)
What I am suggesting is not an instant answer to the problem, but the start of a path towards prevention. First of all, we need an organization who would be interested in studying these injuries to take on the project. There are no shortage of sports institutions and post secondary institutions that could gain extremely valuable information on spinal cord injuries (and other types of injuries) simply by studying past records of motocross related injuries.
Secondly, after looking at the accumulated data, they could proceed to doing some real-world testing to gather information on what a motocrosser's body actually endures during a race. For example, can anyone tell me how much G-force a human body endures during a supercross race, and how that would compare to say flying an F-16 fighter jet?
Recording data such as this would be an important step in comparing what types of crashes and what types of obstacles are most likely to cause injury in relation to what the body was doing when it left the motorcycle and encountered terra firma. It may sound simple at first, but identifying things like this help to produce a set of values for designing safer and more useful safety equipment. Safety devices such as the HANS head restraint are developed in similar fashion with the input of a multitude of different medical and sports professionals, and are developed under intense scrutiny in order to be deemed truly safe.
My first idea was to have a device which inflates in similar fashion to an airbag under a helmet if the helmet is turned upside down, or possibly when it encounters an excessive amount of G-force. Maybe a device that would activate by means of a tether cord, or maybe even a passive device such as a more extensive neck roll (ala Millsaps)? The ideas are endless…. So the point being that if the industry wishes to do something, the effort will be lost unless doing something means looking at the "big picture" and committing to developing a long term pro-active solution, not just a knee-jerk response to the problem. That is truly what it is going to take.
Jarrett King, President. Grande Prairie, Alberta, Canada
Bring back Friday practice. Even the factory tests tracks aren’t up to the level of a fresh, prepped and watered racetrack. Ruts, slippery, dusty—they seem to cause the most wrecks (complacency from overuse?). The more time on the racetrack the better. And what about all the guys that don’t have a decent track to ride during the week? Yes, most injuries are happening during the week! Another thing is, how long did Ernesto have to wait before he was in a doctor’s care? Friday practice is a good idea in that it is also as one less day riding at home during the week is taken up with a day with a doctor on standby.
I would also like to point out how safe I thought the AMA tracks actually were when I did the tour last year. Down ramps were all rounded and looked safe enough to case. Back in the day over here in Australia at least down ramps were pointy and taller than the takeoffs sometimes. There was never any consistency to a track.
Also, take whoops out of motocross tracks. And maybe have a padded area on the other side of the first-corner berm…. That’s all I can think of for now.
A combination of the tacks and the bikes. In auto racing, when the cars get too fast they slow them down and make changes to the tacks, and make the cars safer. Just look at Formula 1: Senna, Tamborello-Monza and an F1 car today. In Supercross everyone is on 450s. I think they should have stayed with 250 two-stroke for supercross. 450s are too fast. Look at XR50 races, bike are slow, but the racing is just as exciting.
When I raced, for over 15 years, there were only two times I didn’t wear a full chest/back protector—both times ended badly. As I was reading your column I was thinking about a similar sport: football. Do you see quarterbacks skipping pads to create “more movement”? No, of course not. Do you see any other players skipping pads so they are cooler? No, of course not. So how about minimum pad/protector requirements? What would be so wrong with that?
Motocross is a super tough sport, a chest/back protector does cut some ventilation but so what? It is going to be hot anyway and the risk without it is huge. I don’t know if a good chest/back protector would have helped everyone but if you think about all of the great guys that are sitting in chairs now, it makes you think that surely some of them where salvageable.
Rob Green. Seattle, WA
I am beginning to think that perhaps the reason for these injuries is not the design of the circuits but how hard the soil on the tracks has became in the last 10 years. Also, the dirt appears to be a thinner that is was in the late ‘80s.
I know that tracks can't be compared, but the way bikes have advanced I believe the tracks in the ‘80s were as demanding on bikes and riders as they are today.
If there is more dirt on the stadium floor, then when a rider hits the ground the initial impact has to a little lower due to the cushioning that the extra dirt would offer. If it could be compared to face-planting when snowboarding, where would you rather face-plant? Hard groomed piste or a foot of powder? I know that it is not as simple as that but, if it makes 1 percent of difference in rider safety it has to be worth a try.
Ashley Kane. Gateshead, Tyne and Wear, UK
(A reader sent this link in: www.leatt-brace.com)
Jerry Leister. Windsor, CA
One thing the MX world may want to investigate was something I saw during the Olympics. The ski racers wear a suit made of a special material that is flexible but when the racer impacts a gate pole the fibers magically re-align to form a hard surface and protect the racer from the impact. I don't see MX riders being able to wear a suit like that but perhaps that technology or something similar can be designed into a vest or some strategically-placed pads. A material that is flexible yet can instantly morph into a hard material to disperse the impact may be enough to prevent some serious injuries. Seems a perfect fit for MX!
I broke my neck (C-6) in ’88. I have three pictures of the crash as it happened. My rear wheel kicked left and the bike flipped at high speed. My head hit the ground before my feet even came off the bike. I think I tried to tuck but my helmet caught and went under, flat against my chest. I know this wouldn’t help straight on impacts like James Marshall but if there was a device to restrict the helmets (similar to the NASCAR device) from going too far forward, I’m sure it would save some riders. That, along with a roll like Ryan Villopoto wears would help. To me it looked like Carmichael’s head went under a bit (at St. Louis) and that could have been it for him.
Andrew. Denver, CO
I do not understand why the tracks have to be designed in such a "do or die" fashion. As in Ernesto Fonseca's case where he apparently slammed into the face of a succeeding jump in a rhythm section, why not taper some of those faces and/or landings back to where they are a little more forgiving yet still challenging? The faster guys are still going to clear everything and overall everyone will be safer. Racing is racing and everyone must ride the same course and conditions—so what if the obstacles are rounded as opposed to peaky; so what if there are more tabletops than doubles or triples. Basically, it's still a race from corner to corner where, along with physical endurance, late braking and corner speed are the key ingredients of success and victory. I would venture to bet that regardless of the track design whether "gnarly" or "laid-back", the top three contenders would still be at the top and so on and so fourth. Hopefully, something can and will be done. After all, we are all mere mortals.
Paul Pederson. Los Fresnos, Texas
Mandatory licensed protective gear is a win win for all involved. Gear manufacturers make more money, the licensing bodies benefit by generating small licensing fees and everyone benefits from less injuries. Racers benefit by having less injury's, an equal playing field, and more local race tracks that can remain open due to lower insurance rates. Reality check: Less catastrophic injury lawsuits equals lower insurance rates and much more favorable outlook by local zoning regulators and city officials, etc. Bottom line: the riders would get used to the gear very quickly. The industry would improve upon designs within a few short years and like the NFL and NHL, the riders would dramatically benefit with each advancement. The entire sport would benefit from these improvements as local racing associations would follow suit and the casual/armature racer/rider would join the fray accordingly.
I'm happy that someone is finally speaking up. You know this topic is so ironic… I have lived, provided, and instructed for Danny Magoo Chandler for over ten years, and all we have done is attempted to spread awareness, and talk about the seriousness of neck injuries. It’s the most unfortunate thing. Yes, many people do start out their pro careers wearing chest protectors, however after their first few seasons they come off. We have all seen it from Pastrana, Carmichael, and Stewart…. What about neck rolls: how many of those do we see? After moving to Southern California two years ago I find that people wear less and less protective gear. I believe that so many moto riders are just a bunch of followers. If the big guys aren’t wearing all the protective gear, then many think that it must not be cool enough.… If people don't listen now I don't know what it will take to make them. For now I am off to church to pray for those that have been injured recently and in the past. My hearts go out to all the riders.
This letter concerns the tracks and safety of all our riders from beginner to pro. A champion or local track winner will come out on top no matter how difficult the track. But why do the tracks have to be so difficult, the harder the pro tracks, the harder the amateur tracks. The end result is serious injuries that this sport does not need. Technique should play more of a role than an extreme jump fest. Lets face it, when three men lap almost all the riders, on average up to fifth place by race end. I think everyone can see a change is needed. I'm not a track designer but I believe they should all be safer, and all racers should wear all the protective gear available, mandatory.
As you know, people from all walks of life and many disciplines are involved in motocross. I appreciate you calling upon all to help make the sport safer. A suggestion. In order to put more focus on the subject, more details of the injuries are required in order to focus on the type of hardware and/or solutions. Details such as type of injury, neck, upper or lower back or are the breaks from bending or compression impact. This may be to descriptive and dredge up bad memories, however, if we can help prevent just one injury, it would be worth it. Additionally, I wish someone could put motocross injuries in perspective compared to other sports by looking at statistics of injuries.
Thomas Dean. Superior, CO
We have the gear needed like chest protectors and Neck rolls, and these can be designed together to work for neck and back injuries. With this sport growing the way it is we need to make sure that all of the gear is worn in races and practices. You say yes if the AMA or the FIM makes these changes to the rules, this would only include the races and not include where most of the accidents happen at the test tracks, but if a SX rider is forced to wear the protective gear I can more than assure you that he will be forced to practice with this gear on. NASCAR has enforced the HANS Device for all drivers and now they wear it even during practice and every time they get into the car because it becomes they way they must drive and in motocross all of the added gear will require the riders to train with it. Plus it will help with the up and coming racers as well so if it starts at the top the only way it can go is down. While I know that this will not save every rider and will not protect against all major injuries, it could have helped Marshall or Ernesto. We will never know now the true effect it would have had on them but if we can start keeping racers on the track and stop the career ending injuries on at least one rider then we have made an improvement…. This is how football players resolved some of there issues. By shoulder pads and neck rolls. Something to think about.
Jay Rye. Anaheim, CA
First of all, trying to “prevent” a bad injury is impossible. Riding a motorcycle fast can hurt you. Can we all agree on that? What we CAN do is to help improve the lives of our fallen comrades.
Many things can be done to help the lives of people with spinal cord injury such as human embryonic stem cell research. The jackasses against human embryonic stem cell research need to get educated on what they’re really against. If I (or better yet an actual scientist) had five minutes with these people, the vast majority would probably realize there is no ethical issue. In fact these “embryos” are not embryos; they are blastocysts, which is a microscopic ball of cells that may be put into a woman if she wants to get pregnant. There are always leftover blastocysts at IVF clinics that will be THROWN AWAY. We just want to use the ones the IVF clinics are going to THROW AWAY for research that will improve the lives of millions. There is no abortion or cloning involved.
In my opinion it is unethical not to take advantage of science that could dramatically improve human life. Put your son, daughter, Mother, Father, etc. in that position and see what your attitude would be then. I’d bet that if GW’s daughter was on the hospital bed we would see a sudden change of opinion…. And by the way, stem cell research has possibilities that you cannot even imagine. It will not only help people with spinal cord injury, but it also has the possibility of treating cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, etc., the list goes on, and on, and on.
What really needs to happen is more research. This costs a lot of money. California voters actually passed Proposition 71 in 2004 that allocated $3 billion (yes billion) for stem cell research over the next ten years. Not one penny of this money has been given out yet because of special interest groups holding it up in court. People, this was a bill that passed overwhelmingly by Californian voters. Again, ignorant people are prolonging the suffering of millions.
So I’m calling you all out…let’s raise some money for spinal cord injury research. There is power in numbers and I know a lot of people view this site. I’ll put up the first $100. If we got 1,000 of you to put up $100 that is $100,000. This kind of money can make a big difference. My vote is for it to go to the Reeve-Irvine Research Center at UC Irvine. David Bailey will vouch for the center as will the Ricky James’ family. This center is quite possibly the best in the world at what they do.
Come on guys, let’s do this. They are really close in finding a “cure/viable treatment.” If you really want to help Ernesto, or James, or Jon Taylor, give them hope that they will walk again. The bottom line is that we cannot turn away from science. Where would this world be without penicillin? This letter is not meant to be political; I’m not a politician, but I am very passionate about what I think is right and how much of a positive difference YOU can make.
Davey, I sent you a packet from the non-profit I work with about three years ago trying to get a donation for a golf tournament we were having and I never heard from you. This did not surprise me. It’s sad that a celebrity has to be injured for someone to care, i.e. Christopher Reeve, Ernesto Fonseca.
Oh, and by the way, on February 27, 1999 I broke the 3rd, 4th, and 5th vertebrae in the thoracic region of my spine while practicing for a local MX race in Nor Cal, which left me paralyzed from mid-chest down. (Basically the same injury as Bailey.)
Jason Ellis. Modesto, CA
(Dear Jason: I appreciate everything you say here and agree 100 percent about stem-cell research, but I have been involved in so many charities and fund-raisers and know so many friends in dire straits that sometimes I just can’t do them all. Please accept my apology for not getting involved in this one. DC)
Thanks for reading, and thanks to all of those who wrote in. Does you have something to add? Please send them to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks for reading Racerhead. See you at the races.