It hasn’t been a season of change for this sport, but it definitely has been a season of talking about change. #Whosnext essentially delivered #TheSameGuy since Ryan Dungey has already been there done that. Yeah, Ryan Villopoto is no longer Monster Energy Supercross Champion, so that’s a change, but the Ryans have been gobbling up the majority of the titles for the last six years. This year wasn’t as shocking as it first seemed.
In fact, Dungey’s title drive became so dominant and procedural that we started talking about a completely different type of change. What if the promoters could tweak some rules to tighten the racing and the points? You know, kind of like Amsoil Arenacross, which hosted a ridiculous two-guys-tied-and-a-takeout final round in Las Vegas. Arenacross used a Race to the Championship format, with the points reset and tightened for the final stretch of races. In Vegas, Dungey was asked about using such a format in supercross. Shockingly, the man who wrapped things up four races early thinks the current format is fine.
The AX Race to the Championship format is cribbed in more ways than one from NASCAR’s Championship Chase format. Until then, playoffs were unheard of in racing, but it made sense coming from NASCAR, which has never had a problem making huge changes and breaking from tradition. Yes, it celebrates its tradition, but it isn’t bound to it. NASCAR has made huge, risky moves throughout its history in an unapologetic drive for a bigger audience. You can argue against the merits of this, but NASCAR did grow from a regional racing series to arguably the second biggest sport in the country. Change, apparently, is good for them.
Lately, I’ve been poking around the NASCAR world more, with NBC adding some four-wheeled reporter duties to my contract, which is still built around hosting the twelve Lucas Oil Pro Motocross rounds. As a racing fan and a car guy, I’ve always followed NASCAR, but not even close to the way I follow motocross. I’m basically a neophyte and a novice in oval circles. Hence, I ask a lot of questions, and what I’ve learned is that change isn’t always as good as it seems.
There are two such examples. The most obvious one is NASCAR’s overstated “decline” over the last ten years, with crowds getting smaller and TV audiences shrinking. It’s enough to make you think the sport is failing, until you really look at it and see, again, that it’s arguably the second most popular sport in the country. Less popular than it once was? Yes. Still massively popular? Yes.
But when audiences shrink and ratings decline, people lose money, so people work hard to figure out why. I’ve heard a million theories already, but one I can’t get away from is that the sport did things to alienate its most hard-core fan base. NASCAR’s Car of Tomorrow (CoT), introduced a decade ago, was designed to be safer for drivers and less costly for teams. Great goals. But it also made every brand of car look the same, sans for some different stickers on the front. This is oversimplifying things a bit, but from what I’ve learned, fans hated these cars and they rebelled.
Look, this doesn’t really make sense because prior to the CoT, NASCAR had already made a huge break between “win on Sunday, sell on Monday.” Stock car racing hadn’t used stock cars in a decade already. The entire concept of this being car versus car as opposed to driver against driver ended in the early 1970s. The Chase has added drama, for sure, and it’s merely shadowing what every sport has always done. But the fans knew what they knew and wanted what they wanted. To alienate them is dangerous.
There are a million other reasons why things have declined a bit, but I can see what NASCAR’s doing to try to get it back. As always, NASCAR isn’t afraid to change things, so it has tweaked rules, times, formats, and everything else, over and over. To dive into that world and then come back up into motocross is shocking. In motocross and supercross nothing ever changes ever. In NASCAR the fans have gotten so used to change that every Monday they’re asking for it.
When a NASCAR race is boring, there’s immediate talk of what can be done to fix it. Can they change the rules package for the cars? If so, what should they change? Should they shorten the races? Change the point structure? There must always be some sort of magical change around that corner that will make everything awesome for everyone. Once you see enough things change, it’s easy to believe this.
In motocross it doesn’t happen, and I’m not sure it should. I’m using what I’ve learned from NASCAR as a cautionary tale. This supercross season might not have been amazing, but it left no doubt that Ryan Dungey and his Red Bull KTM team had taken the throne, and were worthy of all accolades. Similarly, when Eli Tomac destroys everyone at Hangtown, all praise goes to him. We watch a race and find out who is the best racer. There’s a certain value to that, and while it might not outweigh the drama of having every race go down to the last lap, you have to be careful not to tweak too much in order to make that happen.
Plus, people like it as is. Hangtown’s 450 motos were, by definition, snoozers as far as battles for the lead goes. However, I doubt any fans there were disappointed. Hangtown featured all the fans have ever wanted. It was outdoor motocross. The weather was great, the track was rough, and the riders showed how good they are. Yes, Eli Tomac won easily, but to the core fan base, watching him pin it through a straight filled with peg-deep ruts then hop over breaking bumps we’d all know as whoops is everything. It’s the essence of it all—the better man wins. To change anything takes it away from that essence, and that’s a scary prospect. What would you rather think about? Tomac being awesome, or “What kind of changes can be made to make sure this doesn’t happen again?”
I’ve long been a proponent of changes. I want every race to be closer. I want the sport to be bigger and better. But I’ve seen how it goes for others. Change doesn’t always come in the form of a magic wand, and many sports (American road racing, ahem) would be happy to just have what motocross and supercross has right now. We’re all part of the hard-core fan base. If we didn’t like it the way it is right now, we wouldn’t be here in the first place.