Redux: Garden Statement

Redux Garden Statement

April 23, 2014 9:50am

The timing wasn’t right for the sport, but it sure was for me. Twenty-seven years ago, AMA Supercross visited the New York market for the first time via a race at (the old) Giants Stadium in New Jersey. It lasted five years but failed to really build a crowd, and was off the schedule by 1992. This weekend’s return will serve as a true test as to how much the sport has grown in the last two decades.

(Note: Let’s just get this stupid “It’s not New York it’s in New Jersey!” thing over with. Yes, the stadium is in New Jersey. I was born and raised in New Jersey. I have every reason to be a homer for the Garden State but I’m reasonable enough to know the only reason MetLife Stadium and the whole Meadowlands Complex exists is because of New York City. Like any sports complex built in the 1970s, they found a big swath of land outside the city and moved out there—it’s just like Qualcomm Stadium sitting 15 minutes from downtown San Diego, except here the state of New Jersey is 15 minutes outside of the city. Do you know some people in New Jersey try to claim the Statue of Liberty is theirs, too? Yes, it’s in the middle of the water that divides the two states but the only way you could possibly believe that France said “We want to give the U.S. a symbol of freedom that immigrants can see on their way to New York City, but we really want it to be in New Jersey” is if the French government had joined the mob. In the 1880s. Let’s just use the term “market” as in “New York market” if you want to really describe where this race is.)

I have to give credit to the supercross promoters of the 1980s. They knew they were sitting on an awesome concept but the public at large just didn’t get it, so they poured a lot of thought into trying to make it grow.

They tried!

Ricky Johnson won back-to-back races in New Jersey in 1987 and 1988.
Ricky Johnson won back-to-back races in New Jersey in 1987 and 1988. Photo: Thom Veety

The 1980s saw a lot of changes with different formats (two motos in 1985! An experiment with inverted starts that ended like this) and different markets (Kansas City, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Washington, DC) and even (thank God for this one, a gift that keeps on giving) a movie about supercross called Winner’s Take All. They tried but I still don’t think the growth was huge. Plus, the ‘80s hosted some of the best racing ever, which just goes to show good racing alone has very little impact on popularity. Isn’t it strange that the fantastic battles of the ‘80s resulted in little movement yet Jeremy McGrath bashing everyone to bits ten years later was akin to launching a rocketship?

Anyway, they took another big swing holding a race in New Jersey the New York market. Risky business. This was far from a hot bed for the sport. Old timers like to claim the sport was bigger back in the day because they crammed 70,000 people into the Big A in Anaheim, but a look at the motocross landscape back then shows an obvious picture: the sport was big in Southern California and way less so everywhere else. Finding enough other markets to support the series was so tough that they ran double headers at venues that did get some traction, like Houston, Pontiac and Seattle. It was hard to fine three more decent solo rounds, and the sport didn’t even have the clout to get into the best buildings or cities.

Going to Giants Stadium didn’t guarantee a big crowd, but it sure as hell guaranteed high costs. First, everything in New Jersey costs more. And also, everything in New York City does, too, so you’re screwed either way. Second, Union Labor pumps through the arteries of the Northeast as much as tomato sauce, so if you want to get some work done, you’re going to have to use ‘em and pay ‘em big for it. My grandfather spent a few decades collecting tolls on the New Jersey Turnpike and now lives like a king off his pension and such. He tells me it’s because “I collected the tolls, Jace, I was the one bringin’ in trillions ‘a dolla’s, Jace.”

Okay, the road brought in the money, not the toll collector, but the union had carved out a nice slice of the pie with that argument. And indeed, the Turnpike does bring in trillions ‘a dolla’s because people have to use it to get in and out of NYC. But supercross doesn’t have to do anything—they could hold a race somewhere else for much less money.

So you’ve got high costs and potentially slim crowds. I did some digging and found the following crowd counts for those 1987-1991 races: 30,000, 31,000, 29,000, 36,000 and 36,000. These were decent crowds for that day—pretty much average—but remember, they were spending way more money to still only get an average number of people. And, the race didn’t draw too much attention from the coveted New York media (although at intermission one year the city’s biggest rock station had two star DJs battle in an oval race on Honda ATVs. Like I said, they tried.) It might have been worth losing money at the race as an investment in publicity and visibility, but Rick Johnson never got on the Today show.

Jeff Stanton and Erik Kehoe battle in New Jersey back in 1990.
Jeff Stanton and Erik Kehoe battle in New Jersey back in 1990. Photo: Thom Veety

The races were pretty damned good, though. The ’87 and ’88 tracks were identical, which seems crazy. Back in ’87 I had just turned nine and didn’t have favorites—I was just amazed I was going to see Johnson, Jeff Ward, and Ron Lechien in action. I didn’t care who won. When I first walked through the concourse and got a glimpse at the track from the stands, I absolutely couldn’t believe it. My mind was blown. The track looked unreal! It was so colorful, so gnarly, so much more amazing than a local race at Englishtown or Arenacross at Madison Square Garden (yeah, they did that, too).

These days I walk into a stadium and see a track 17 times a year. The only thought I have is, “Get a pic on Instragram before Davey calls and asks for it.” But at age nine, it was incredible. I’ve seen the Grand Canyon in person and let me tell you it does not compare to seeing a supercross track in a stadium for the first time.

Oh, you know what else I remember? Back in those days it seemed like there wasn’t any security in supercross. Dudes were just all over the floor, photographers shooting anything, and then on occasion riders would just come back out of the pits and walk the track during the night show! I specifically remember RJ checking out the track after his heat race and wearing this awesome aqua Fox gear that I could recognize from the back corner of the nosebleed section. A few fans leaned over the wall and gave him stuff to sign—this was going on during the semis!

After that I was pumped on RJ. Then Wardy crashed in a heat and jacked his ankle. Lechien gave it a run in the main before crashing. RJ took the lead and, from what I remember, did approximately 1275 cross ups, one handers and thumbs ups over the jumps. I’m talking thumbs ups on every jump several laps from the finish. Then he did the exact same thing in ’88 (hey, what do you expect, it was the exact same track). I think one year RJ even crashed while doing a trick, got up and still won. These days I have a hard time remembering if RJ really was that crazy of a showman, or if I just have the usual “Space Mountain used to have a loop” revisionist history going on.

Oh, and not only did RJ do the exact same thing in ’87 and ’88, Wardy also cased a jump and jacked up his ankle both years. These races were like watching that Bill Murray movie Ground Hog Day. Hmmm, maybe they needed to change the track up.

So they did for ’89. They changed everything. RJ wasn’t even there because of his wrist injury and instead Jeff Stanton was the new king, which, if you were someone who only checked out this one race every year, would have made absolutely no sense. “Wait, the guy who finished 18th and 8th the last two years is now the guy to beat?!”

The ’89 track sucked. They decided to hold a mud bog for trucks alongside the supercross, maybe to bring in more fans? The layout was really compromised in order to fit a mud pit so dudes with lifted four-cylinder Toyotas from South Jersey could compete on the same night as the best athletes in the world. Again, they tried.

Making the mud pit worse, it rained on and off during that ’89 event. And Wardy’s black cloud followed him through the storm, because he had the main event won, totally and completely, until his transmission blew out of nowhere and he DNFed.

I suspect that when they blew up the old Giants Stadium in 2010, Wardy flew in from California to get a finger on the switch.

What I remember most of that ’89 race was the constant blaring of that year’s hit song “Fire Woman” by the Cult. That’s Cult hit not cult hit. The guitar rift 30 seconds into the song is awesome, so whoever was playing the music in the stadium couldn’t resist. But the further along the song went, the more I realized they were essentially stamping Stanton as a “Fire Woman.” Hmmm.

The ’90 race was also plagued by rain. It was okay on race day but it rained all week leading up to it, so the track was crazy rutty. The layout was better than ’89 because the mud bog was gone, but two-straight years of spring showers had added yet another wrinkle: the race wasn’t growing much in terms of fans, it was still expensive to produce, and now the weather was iffy. On the fan front, another movement was coming: Jean-Michel Bayle won the race, his fourth career SX win, but also his fourth in the last five races. The Frenchman was figuring things out quickly and you could sense American fans were getting nervous. The only thing that kept him afloat was another hilarious new promotion idea.

Each night at the races, they’d pick some cool thing in a heat race as the Camel cigarettes “Smooth Move of the Night.” Bayle got the award, and he was rewarded with a kiss from Miss Camel! So the crafty Frenchman, complete with Camel trucker hat and classic ‘90s mullet, moved in for the kiss and the crowd went nuts! They were so pumped he went in for another! Legendary announcer Larry Maiers took it from there and kept the pump spraying—by the end of the night JMB was a damned American hero. Perhaps it was those moves that led my friend from DMXS Radio, Kevin Kelly, to invent this quote from JMB: “Winning your championships is like your women—easy.”

Denny Stephenson won the 125 class in New Jersey back in 1990. 
Denny Stephenson won the 125 class in New Jersey back in 1990.  Photo: Thom Veety

But like any trophy girl love affair, this one was short lived. By the time SX came back for 1991, Bayle was on the verge of a championship, and the fans did not like it. I knew this during opening ceremonies when I heard The Situation yell, “Hey! Michel is a girls name!” and then started high fiving his buddies. C’mon guys, the French built the Statue of Liberty and put it in New Jersey!

While Bayle rode in points protect mode, Stanton and Damon Bradshaw put on one of their all-time classic battles that night, dueling for 20 laps. Stanton prevailed. America, eff yeah. But more Jersey SX? Eff no.

For the final take on what’s at play this weekend, let me share this: in 2006 the SX people put together the superb “retro night” in Anaheim and let Johnson and David Bailey tour the place on dirt bikes one last time. Just to see Bailey on a bike again at all—let alone next to RJ—was guaranteed to bring the place to tears. But you know what? The RJ/Bailey Anaheim ’86 battle was 20 years old by then, and it’s a good bet that half of the supercross fans that night weren’t old enough to remember it. But they all remembered McGrath and Carmichael (who were still racing that night) and gave them huge cheers when they came out next.

This is a sport that has celebrated its growth over the last 20 years, and will surely trot out the “appeal to the youth demographic” if anyone in the New York media or marketing world asks. By those definitions, things are a lot different for supercross than they were in 1987. Let’s hope it works this time.