A few weeks ago, I was talking to the Icon, David Bailey, for the Red Bull Straight Rhythm pre-race show, and I said something quite strange. I asked David if he liked the event, because it helped appeal to some of the traditions of the sport. Considering RBSR only debuted as an actual race a year ago, there should surely be nothing traditional about the event.
Yet, deep down, it feels like the early days of supercross. Today, the formula for racing is pretty well defined. We watch seventeen Monster Energy Supercross races on similar tracks, with the same one-main, twenty-lap format each time, take a short break, and watch twelve rounds of two-moto-format races in Lucas Oil Pro Motocross. Many of the venues remain the same, especially in the Nationals, which specifically and proudly deal in heritage (and all hail—Southwick is back!).
These off-season events—Straight Rhythm and next weekend's Monster Energy Cup—break the mold. But back in the early 1980s, there wasn't a mold. No one was quite sure what would work, but enough people knew that a dirt bike race in a stadium would be big enough to keep trying. Back then, AMA Supercross was run by a variety of promoters, and that meant various track builders and track designs. No one was quite sure what obstacles and tracks worked, and even when they did get it down, bikes and riding styles evolved so rapidly that it would change again quite quickly. For example, in the early 1980s, riders didn’t even have supercross practice tracks, but they started to become more common by the end of the decade. That's a massive line in the sand in how the riders approach the races.
If you pick up a supercross program from the 1980s, you'll see a lot of emphasis placed on the track. The obstacles themselves were stars, from the "stutter bumps" or "moguls" to the Coke Catapult, which offered a cash reward to the rider that jumped the furthest. And the triple jump was something you had to see to believe. The whole dirt-bikes-in-a-stadium thing was new, the jumps were new, and the bikes and riders kept evolving to the point where a 1982 supercross track and a 1987 supercross track looked nothing alike.
Eventually, though, everyone figured out what worked and what didn't, and we also got to the point where no obstacle itself could really blow anyone's mind, because we’d seen them all a thousand times already.
Oh, yeah, Crazy Balls Stewart might quad a rhythm lane, but that's just a way to get through a regular rhythm section faster. No one eyed up that rhythm lane in the morning and said, "Wow, a bunch of jumps in a row. Are the riders even going to be able to get through this?"
Plus, the 1980s launched the off-season European supercross, birthed in Bercy, France, and that race inspired the U.S. Open in Las Vegas, which we know today as the Monster Energy Cup. These off-season races carry a different vibe. Some riders take them seriously and rail; some others just show up. Rarely do they actually help you predict anything come Anaheim. This is the stage of the year we're in now. These races will be big shows, they'll have weird tracks and formats, you'll see surprising results both good and bad, and we'll wonder what it means for the future of the sport, only to see it doesn't really change anything come January.
Yes, we will see evolution at work during this stage of the year. Just look at this racing calendar. We just wrapped the Monster Energy FIM Motocross of Nations, the oldest modern motocross race, and now we head to Red Bull Straight Rhythm, the newest. These two events are about as far apart as any two events in the same sport can get, but they not only feel very different from each other, but also feel different from the stuff that makes up the bulk of the season.
As for Bailey, he expressed that Straight Rhythm felt a little like racing in his day, because riders were quickly and constantly innovating in the new fangled supercross thing. Back then, the riders worked on sections to see what could be done, although in the days before supercross test tracks, a lot of that just went on in the hills. Today, Straight Rhythm is one of the few events left that can offer new limits.
So now the transition is on. We go from the long grind of the regular season, to the tradition of the des Nations, to the new stuff with RBSR, and then to MEC. After a break, the 2016 season will begin. Those regular championship races aren't the oldest like the des Nations or the newest like Straight Rhythm, but these days, they've become the most familiar. The rest of this stuff is just different, and that's what they'll forever have in common.