Supercross FAQs

August 25, 2008 12:40pm | by:

New to the sport of Supercross? Never fear -- we've compiled the answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about stadium motocross. If you still have a question after reading through these FAQs, feel free to email Bill Ursic and he'll see if he can help.

What are the classes?

There are two main classes racing this evening: Supercross and Supercross Lites. The Supercross class is the “premier” racing division, where you’ll find riders like James Stewart, Chad Reed, Ryan Dungey, Ryan Villopoto, and Kevin Windham. These riders are allowed to race either 250cc two-stroke motorcycles or 450cc four-strokes, though the 450s are now used by almost everyone.

The Supercross Lites class is intended for younger riders, so the motorcycles are less powerful. Motorcycles eligible for Lites-class participation are 125cc two-strokes and 250cc four-strokes (again, four-strokes are used by most racers). Also, the Lites class is split into two regions—West and East—with separate series championships for each. Riders are not allowed to participate in both regions.

What kinds of motorcycles are used?

There are many different colors and brands of motorcycles, and the primary manufacturers are Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki, Yamaha, and KTM. There is no rule regarding what color your motorcycle has to be. Most of the motorcycles have either four or five gears. The gearshift is on the left side of the motorcycle, in front of the foot peg. The clutch is located on the left side of the handlebars, while the throttle and front-brake lever are located on the right side of the handlebars. The rear-brake pedal is located on the right side of the bike, in front of the foot peg.

Why do some number plates look different?
Supercross-class riders must use a white number-plate background with black numbers. The Supercross Lites riders use the opposite: black backgrounds with white numbers. The current points leader during a season may run a red background. This is a way to identify the champion if he chooses to run his permanent number rather than the #1.

How are rider numbers determined?
The top twenty-seven numbers are permanent. Therefore, each season, James Stewart will remain #7, Chad Reed #22, and Nick Wey #27. Numbers 28 through 99 are earned by scoring national points in either Monster Engery AMA Supercross or Lucas Oil AMA Motocross. Numbers 100-999 are then given to riders based on their requests.

How do the qualifiers work?
The Supercross and Supercross Lites main events are composed of twenty riders. Every lap of practice is timed by the official AMA transponder scoring team, and those practice-lap times will be used to seed riders into the evening race program for both the AMA Supercross and AMA Supercross Lites classes. Each class will then run two heat races, with the top nine finishers transferring to the main event. Both classes then run a Last Chance Qualifier (LCQ), with the top two finishers in the LCQ transferring to the main.

How does the starting gate work?
The starting gate is a rather simple device used to create an equal start opportunity for every racer. It falls backward, toward the riders, so a rider cannot “jump” the gate.

What’s that thirty-second board that precedes each start?
After all riders are lined up with their motorcycles running, the start procedure begins with the 30-second card. As soon as the card is raised, the riders have thirty seconds to get prepared for the gate drop. After thirty seconds, the card is turned sideways, signifying that the gate will drop in the next five to ten seconds.

How does the start work?
With riders all running lap times within a couple seconds of each other, a holeshot (getting out of the gate first) will give a rider a huge advantage for the win. What’s the key? A combination of concentration, quick reflexes, and throttle control.

How many laps are in each race?
The amount of laps raced around the track depends on the type of race. The main events are the longest, with the Lites class going fifteen laps and the Supercross class doing twenty.

What are the different flags I’ve seen on the track?
You will see several different flags waving at one time or another during the races, signaling to the riders what’s going on around them. A yellow flag means another rider is down or stalled on the track ahead, a red flag means that a rider is seriously hurt and the race will have to be restarted with the riders going back to the starting gate, and a blue flag means that you are about to be lapped by the leaders. A white flag at the finish line means there is one lap to go, and the checkered flag means the race is over.

What’s a factory rider?
The five bike manufacturers that participate in Monster Energy Supercross—Honda, Kawasaki, KTM, Suzuki, and Yamaha—all try to hire the best riders to use their equipment. That means they are paid salaries, their motorcycles are state-of-the-art and well maintained, and the riders get to work out of the large factory rigs.

What’s a privateer?
Independent riders who lack factory sponsors are considered privateers. They have limited sponsorship, and they often buy their equipment and pay their own way to the races. They are the working-class heroes of Monster Energy Supercross.

Where do mechanics fit in?
Each rider has a designated mechanic who rebuilds the race bike from scratch before each race weekend. Most of the time, the mechanics build practice bikes for the riders to use during the week, and they usually attend test sessions with the riders to learn new setups and try new parts. In addition, most of the factory teams employ several specialized technicians, such as engine and suspension experts. They work with the mechanic, rider, and other team personnel to create the best motorcycle possible.

What’s a works bike?
The riders on the factory teams run what are commonly called “works bikes.” These bikes start as regular off-the-showroom-floor machines, but they are fitted with special handmade parts. No part of the machine is overlooked in the quest for speed, and putting a value on the bikes is nearly impossible.

How much money do these riders make?
Most of the riders in supercross race full-time. The top riders in the Supercross class can make millions of dollars a year from sponsors and endorsements. The majority of the riders on teams make over six figures.

What are the age requirements to race professionally?
A person must be at least 16 years old to obtain an AMA Professional License and race in the Supercross or Supercross Lites class. The exception is the young boys and girls in the KTM Jr. Supercross Challenge, who are 7 or 8 years old.

What is a lapper?
A lapper is a rider who has been lapped by the race leader. You will often see an AMA official waving a blue flag; this signifies that the leaders are coming through and you should move to the side and let them race through.

What is a tear-off?
A tear-off is a thin, transparent piece of plastic that covers a rider’s goggle lens. When mud or dirt gets stuck on the goggles, the rider can tear off the piece of plastic, giving him clear vision again. As many as fifteen tear-offs can be used in one race.

How is the track built?
A company called Dirt Wurx has been building the race tracks for the supercross series for over a decade. Hundreds of truckloads of dirt (mostly clay) are brought in and laid down over the stadium floor. More dirt is piled on that base and used to shape the jumps, berms, and bumps you see in front of you. At the end of the night, Dirt Wurx starts tearing down and usually has all of the dirt out within twenty-four hours. The dirt is stored at private locations and reused every year.

How does someone get started racing supercross?
In the same way baseball starts with Little League and gradually moves kids up through the ranks to the big leagues, supercross has an in-depth farm system. Local races take place all over the country on any given weekend, with amateur nationals in Nevada, Texas, Florida, and Oklahoma. The amateur national finals take place at Loretta Lynn’s Dude Ranch in Tennessee at the end of the summer. From there, riders can move into arenacross to get some experience before making the move to supercross, the world’s biggest stage for stadium motorcycle racing.

How much are the top bikes worth?
A new 450cc motocross bike retails for around $6,000. From there, race teams will spend months working on the machines to improve performance on the track for their riders. Everything from the engine, the exhaust system, suspension, tires, transmission, ignition, and even the new fuel-injection systems (on some bikes) are scrutinized. Teams will build parts for their race bikes that aren’t even available to the public and have astronomical price tags. Many of these parts are often made of titanium or magnesium to reduce weight. By the time the race bikes roll out of the shop and to the races, they can be worth as much as $70,000.

Why do some riders take their hand off the bars in the air?
There are several reasons why they might be doing this. First, if their vision has been obscured by dirt, they might be reaching up to pull a tear-off. Another reason, and this one is common, is that they have arm pump. Arm pump is a condition that many riders get during the race when too much blood and lactic acid has built up in their forearms causing them to lose hand strength and their grip on the handlebars. Arm pump is a product of riding tense and holding on to the handlebars too tight, and all riders are affected by it at some point. By taking their hand off the bars and shaking them, they can try to loosen up their grip. The easiest time to remove your hand without losing time (believe it or not) is in the air. The third and best reason they do this is if they are celebrating a good finish. Many riders will salute the crowd as they sail past the checkered flag.

Why do some riders’ rear wheels stop spinning in the air?
This is a technique for adjusting the bikes position in the air. The gyroscopic effect of the spinning wheel coming to an abrupt stop throws momentum in a forward direction. If a rider’s front wheel is too high coming off a jump, he can pull in the clutch and stomp on the rear brake pedal. This will drop his front end and get his bike back to the angle he wants.

What does a rider's team consist of?

Each top factory rider has an army behind his success. Teams equip riders with a personal mechanic, but each team also has suspension and engine specialists, as well as test riders and test mechanics who work on developing the bikes. Teams also have PR staffers who work between the riders and the media. Most riders also hire trainers and riding coaches to improve their performance, as well as agents and accountants to handle their business. Back at home, some even hire staff to maintain their practice tracks and practice bikes. They'll also deal with reps from each of their sponsors, including someone who handles their riding gear, goggles, and boots.

What are the mechanics writing on those boards during the races?
Those are called pit boards, and they are the mechanics’ only way to communicate with their riders during the race. While each rider and mechanic have their own way of doing it, most riders want to see what their previous lap time was, what position they are in, and how many laps are left. Mechanics also use the pit board to motivate their riders and keep them focused, often reminding them to breathe, be aggressive, relax, or just focus. While many riders are part of a team, the mechanic and rider also become their own team during the race. The pit board is a crucial tool for every rider during a supercross race.

How much money does a supercross rider make?
Supercross racers compete for prize and bonus money like other racers, but the bulk of their income comes from the salary and bonuses from their team and other sponsors. A top factory rider in the Supercross class generally has a base salary that clears seven figures, and win bonuses can reach $100,000, with another million for a championship. There are usually bonuses for top-three or top-five finishes. Riding-gear contracts can reach the million-dollar mark as well, with goggle and boot contracts in the six-figure range. And don't forget outside deals like energy drinks, shoes, and cell phones. Add in supercross prize money, and a top rider can easily clear $5 million during a good season.

How is supercross different from motocross?
Supercross takes place on a manmade course built inside a football or baseball stadium where the best twenty riders in the world compete for twenty laps. The tracks are tight, with jumps and whoops in every lane. In fact, riders spend about as much time in the air as they do on the ground. Supercross is easy for a casual fan watch in person because they are indoors, near a large city, and the entire track is easily viewed from any seat. Motocross is the original form of the sport. A typical motocross track is about a mile in length and, because it is so much longer and requires more space, is generally in a rural area. Motocross tracks are considerably faster and rougher, with fewer jumps. Outdoor motocross events are also susceptible to elements such as rain, humidity, heat, and cold. Also, motocross races have forty riders and race two motos, each thirty-five minutes in length. Supercross starts in January and goes until May; motocross starts at the end of May and finishes the first weekend of September. Most riders compete in both series.

Which celebrities are into supercross?

While most celebrities are reluctant to be seen in person by such a large crowd, many stars follow motocross closely. Brad Pitt is a fan of the sport and has even gotten his son, Maddox, a dirt bike to start riding. Former Friends star Matt LeBlanc (Joey Tribiani on the show) is a motorcycle fanatic. He has a massive ranch outside Santa Barbara with trails and tracks all over it. In fact, if you look closely, you can see all sorts of motocross brand logos on Matt and the Friends set. Other stars who attend the races on a regular basis include Vince Vaughn, Ben Stiller, Pamela Anderson, Lyle Lovett, Sheryl Crow, Stephen Baldwin, former NBA all-star Ric Smits, Broncos tight end Stephen Alexander, Utah governor Jon Huntsman, and talk-show star Adam Corolla. NASCAR stars Jimmy Johnson and Clint Bowyer are also huge fans. In fact, both of them raced motocross for years before they even learned how to drive a car!

What are the riders reaching for under their bikes on the starting line?
The most nerve-racking time for any rider is the few minutes before the race down on the starting line. As a result, riders tend to indulge in nervous habits while waiting for the gate to drop. Most will reach down at least once and check to make sure their fuel switch is on. Because a bike will run for a minute or two with the fuel in the off position, every rider has experienced the humiliation of his bike quitting on the first lap because they forgot to turn the gas on. Other nervous habits include shaking out their hands, tugging on their helmet straps, and futzing with their goggles. Once the gate drops, the riders focus on the track, but those few minutes prior are torturous.

How do riders train for supercross?
Scientific tests have suggested that motocross/supercross is the second most physically demanding sport in the world, just behind soccer. Only unlike soccer, where common injuries include muscle pulls and bruises, supercross racers face broken bones, torn ligaments, and other serious physical injuries if mistakes are made. Supercross requires riders to be absolutely focused the entire time they are racing, and that requires near-superhuman cardiovascular endurance, as well as strength, power, agility, flexibility, and timing. While many privateers are forced to implement their own training regimen, top racers hire trainers to build strength-training and cardiovascular programs for them, and even ride and train with them to make sure they are on-track. Top trainers in supercross can make six figures if their rider has a successful season. Most riders utilize road bikes to build a cardiovascular base and do their strength and core training in a gym. Running, swimming, and other traditional activities are also used.