Most fans have their favorite riders, but it's easy to be a fan of the sport first and any specific rider a distant second. Motorsports pushes everyone in that direction. Team sports are built around the concept of us versus them, and while the NFL has made great strides in making every fan care about every game, the league is still built around the home game and the away game, with the crowd making it obvious where everyone stands. The home crowd wants their team to win and the other team to lose.
In motorsports, home games are hosted in an indirect sense, like when a local rider or driver competes. But even then, the outcome doesn't entirely hinge on the performance of the local guy. He could finish second or third, still doing well but also not winning, straddling some sort of middle ground between an unforgettable event and a disappointing one. Also, if the local product is way back but two others battle to the death for the win, the fans are still going to like it. Yes, in Italy the fans want Valentino Rossi to win in MotoGP and Ferrari to win in Formula 1, and those folks are rabid and ravenous. But the event still isn't black-and-white good or bad based solely on that. Rossi could finish third and the battle for the lead could be amazing, and fans could still go home happy.
In team sports, winning isn't everything—it's the only thing.
Even the most ardent hometown fan is still a fan of the racing, first. When John Dowd or Doug Henry won Southwick, the fans loved it, but if they lost, the fans didn’t boo the winners, walk out in silence, and stare at the walls for the rest of the weekend. The point of the race was to watch a race, not to only see the home guy win.
Recently, we saw the only races in the motocross sense that can mimic that team-sport formula. First came the Motocross of Nations, which is as close to "us versus them" as this sport gets. It’s actually closer than any motorsports gets. We're lucky to have a sport so universal that we can watch an international battle with reasonable expectations of a fair fight. Yeah, there are subtle variations in racing in Europe and racing in the U.S., like track prep and some rule details. But motocross is pretty much motocross, worldwide.
Consider that in car racing, America’s biggest thing is NASCAR, and Europe's biggest is F1. You'll never be able to pair the drivers up in a race expecting a fair fight, because the series, cars, and tracks aren’t even close. In motocross, the Nationals and the GPs are 90 percent the same sport, whereas most other different motorsports series aren’t even the same sport at all. To take it further, American sporting events like the World Series are pitched as international events by name, but they're almost purely American. You want to pit the Major League Baseball all-stars against the best from England? Yeah, I know, the Olympics, but they butt up against the weird rules of amateur sporting rules. Then sometimes that flips, like when NBA players compete, and the whole deal changes drastically. Meanwhile, Europeans watch soccer, and yes, we have it, but MLS versus Premier League is like IndyCar versus Formula 1.
That's what makes the des Nations so good. There's no place to hide. There might be small variations in how tracks are prepped, but no matter what nation you’re from, you can see the event as "us against them" on a fairly level playing field. No matter what, one nation will win and one will lose. That's what makes it so vexing, so intriguing, so emotional. The outcome can ruin your day or make it. Meanwhile, at Anaheim, you might be a Ken Roczen fan or a James Stewart fan or a Chad Reed fan or a Ryan Dungey fan. But, mostly, you will be a racing fan, and you’ll just want to see a battle. At the des Nations, you don't want to see a battle; you want to see YOUR TEAM WIN. Same way with an NFL game. Do you wake up Sunday morning saying you hope the game is close, or hope your team wins?
(There's always that small slice between the win or loss called the moral victory. Team USA seemed to get one of those this year with the hard efforts of Justin Barcia, Cooper Webb, and Jeremy Martin. Occasionally, a sports team puts in an expected playoff run, and the fans are proud even when it comes to an end. Such moments are rare—most games end in black and white, not shades of gray.)
We’re lucky to have a sport so universal that we can watch an international battle with reasonable expectations of a fair fight.
Now we have Red Bull Straight Rhythm, and while it's just a fun one-off race that's not supposed to seriously prove anything, it presents one irresistible fact: There's no place to hide. It's one on one, head to head, and someone is going to win and someone is going to lose. The results say Ryan Dungey finished third. But did he finish third, or get beaten by James Stewart? That sounds like a silly debate, but if you like one rider more than another, the event begins to resemble the "us versus them" format that drives team sports and the des Nations.
Allow me to pour some gas on the fire to demonstrate. Dungey rode very well. Heck, he Roczen, and Stewart were all ripping and crazy fast, and the fans seemed respectful to all, as were the riders to each other. But so much of the praise heaped on Dungey was along the lines of "Wow, that was so impressive! Dungey actually beat Stewart in one of the races!"
Impressive, yes, but isn't it almost a backhanded compliment when you praise the defending supercross and motocross champion for actually beating someone? That’s basically saying you expected him to lose to a rider who hasn’t even raced in a year, which really isn't a compliment. I get it: this event is the perfect fit for Stewart's strengths, not Dungey's.
Regardless, Dungey is the champ; he's not slow. His life doesn’t depend on this event, but his own personal expectations are to never just be a chump when he gets behind a starting gate.
"I don't enter a race I don't want to win—I definitely try to win each and every race," Dungey says. "But it's a one-day thing, kind like the Monster Cup, and it's not the end of the world, whereas the motocross or supercross series, now you're talking a championship and every point is important. Those are the main championships."
"When I came here I knew, no matter what, even if we're just racing around two barrels, these guys want to win," said Stewart. "Especially the last thing they want me to do is have me come back [in my] first race, we race each other, and I’m close or win against them."
In a normal race, the yardstick for success varies. Someone will win, but two others will score consistent championship points with second and third. Someone might log a solid come-from-behind ride after a bad start. At Straight Rhythm, everything boils down to a forty-second run—one guy wins, one doesn't. It's that rare moment when the big picture of "good racing" starts to be clouded by the results it produces. Luckily, this is just a fun off-season event, not one to be taken too seriously. But if you did care at all, you could easily find yourself starting to care a lot more than usual.