Much discussion over my colleague (sounds so professional, doesn’t it?) Steve Matthes’ 250 Words piece on Wednesday. He suggests changing the 250 class so teams and sponsors are encouraged to pump more money into the 450s. No idea is perfect, and Matthes said he’s just spit balling. I will sum up the premise here:
Too many good 450s riders are struggling to find good rides. Why? Partly because the industry pumps A LOT of money into the 250 class, which actually offers more “factory” rides than the big class. That seems strange compared to most other motorsports. In NASCAR, the Sprint Cup Series (Monster Cup?) has massively larger budgets, sponsorships, and many, many more good-paying seats than the second-tier Xfinity Series. There are only a few dudes really “making it” via the NASCAR Xfinity Series, while there are quite a few making huge coin in NASCAR Cup. Hey, a lot of Major League Baseball players are making huge money, too. AAA minor leaguers ain’t making much.
So motocross/supercross has this strange situation where the supposedly second-tier class is a near equal to the premier division. That’s cool in some ways but an issue because of this: Justin Bogle, Broc Tickle, Malcolm Stewart, and Dean Wilson are trying to make money for 2017. [Ed. Note: After much deliberation, on December 1, RCH/Yoshimura Suzuki finally announced they had signed Tickle and Bogle.] They’re having a hard time doing that. They have all won 250 championships, which means they have already accomplished more than several of today’s 250 riders ever will. Further, right now, they’re probably better riders than a lot of these kids. Like, literally put them on the track together and they’re faster than a lot of the 250 riders with guaranteed deals. They should be—they’re in their prime years versus kids who are just learning. In most sports, the kids would be making the league minimum hoping for the huge payday later when they hit their prime.
It leaves a strange situation. At the very top, the Ryan Dungey-level 450 guys make way, way more money than any 250 rider. But the mid-level 450 guys are left scratching for pay, and hence make less than some 250 guys.
I understand Matthes’ concept of trying to minimize the 250 class to force sponsors to pump more money into the 450s, thus opening up more opportunities for the Tickle/Bogle/Wilson/Mookie riders of the world. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that will ever work, because of one major problem this sport has, but would really rather not talk about:
We don’t have parity.
We all believe this is the greatest sport ever, but the hard truth is that few sports see so few athletes actually win. The 2016 season of 450 class racing in both Monster Energy Supercross and Lucas Oil Pro Motocross produced only four winners. In 29 races! Ryan Dungey, Ken Roczen, Eli Tomac, and Jason Anderson won races. Anderson only won two, Tomac won three, and Roczen and Dungey won every other race. Just two riders won 83 percent of the races! Plus, Dungey and Roczen also led most of the laps in most of the races they won. It’s not like 2016 was some sort of exception, either. Heck, it’s been even worse, like Matthes mentioned yesterday with the Jeremy McGrath and Ricky Carmichael days. Good luck to anyone else who wanted to win a supercross in the heyday of RC/Stew/Reed bashing off of each other (lots of very talented riders from that generation retired without a single SX win). There were times when those guys LAPPED EVERYONE ELSE.
Unfortunately, I will warn you now: Do not attempt to solve this problem. It’s actually inherent to the sport, all the way down to your local track, where I guarantee you know who “the fast guys are” in the A class, and also where they will probably finish.
The first reaction to the lack of parity is to blame tracks or bikes. But McGrath dominated supercross like no other, and he did it in the two-stroke days. It’s not like we had crazy battles and tons of different winners before four-strokes came along. Also, when MC was winning, they tried everything with the tracks. In his best year, 1996, they purposely made the tracks easy to try to minimize his advantage. He won 13 races in a row. In 2000, they made the gnarliest tracks ever. He still won 10 races while also becoming the oldest supercross champion ever. McGrath was just really good and no one could do anything else about it.
How many winners will we really get in 2017? Maybe the same four guys, and if we’re lucky a few more. Cooper Webb? Marvin Musquin? Justin Barcia? Chad Reed? Cole Seely? I can keep adding names to this paragraph to avoid a rider getting pissed off on social media and saying “Weege didn’t list me as a guy that can win, flame him” but I’m just going by averages here. Roczen, Dungey, and Tomac, for example, could build a wall again and score the majority of wins. Just like McGrath, Stew, Reed, Carmichael, Stanton, Bayle, Bradshaw, Johnson, Ward … man we have to go way, way back to find anything different.
So we’re in a world where we want to see more than 20 guys with good rides, but in that same world, more than half of them will not win a race. Many might not even battle for it. That becomes the problem. Teams know when they hire a 10th place guy, they’re literally getting a 10th place guy. He’s not going to become a winner overnight, most likely.
MotoGP might actually be similar to 450SX/MX in terms of dudes that can be expected to win, but the first few laps of those races are insane, and often the seventh or eighth best guy is in the battle for a few laps, looking like a contender. MotoGP simply offers incredible racing. It has its own problems, namely the insane amount of money spent on the bikes and technology, but competitive racing is not an issue.
What we need are more races like Anaheim 1 2016—furious first few laps, Barcia looks good, Canard looks good, Seely leads a bunch of laps, Anderson comes through to pass everyone and win, and then Dungey steals second from Seely on the last lap. If we had those races all the time, we’d be good. One winner, but many contenders at the front.
Unfortunately, that was the only race that played out like that all year. So, we go another direction. We just rely on a second class! With two classes racing each night and each afternoon, there’s double the odds of good racing. Plus, the small-bore class always offers better racing, anyway. Lower-powered bikes help that (you ever watch the Moto3 races in MotoGP? Ridiculous.) but the prime factor is that in the support class, anyone who is good enough to dominate gets kicked out of the class. You want to know why 250SX West Region could be a barnburner this year? Because Cooper Webb had to leave. But Jeremy McGrath never had to leave the big class, nor does Ryan Dungey.
This sport has less parity at the top than the others, so it messes up all the metrics when you try to make comparisons. I’ve heard this time and time again from team people and sponsors when they go shopping for riders: we want wins, or the potential for wins. That’s number-one on the list. Top 10s don’t get the wallets to open. I’ll give you a perfect example. Kevin Windham is one of the coolest and most popular riders of all-time. It’s easy to think he kept getting paid because of his popularity. But when I would talk to some of his backers, they often cited his popularity as a nice bonus, but his ability to win races was his number one. At any race for almost 20 seasons, if Kevin was on the line, it could be “the night.” I can’t possibly overstate how important that is in a sport were so few riders can or will win.
Four years ago, Dean Wilson was absolutely identified as a guy that can win. For that, he was paid well. The last few years have been rough on him though, and I don’t think a team is putting him on the absolutely will win a race at some point list. In this sport, the line between “wins or the potential for wins” and everyone else is massive. MASSIVE. If we routinely saw a dozen 450 race winners each year, it would be more valuable to throw good money at 20 different riders, because the odds of being one of the dozen winners would be pretty good. But 20 riders in a field where only four will probably win? Ugh. Let’s try to win some 250 races.
Plus, we don’t get to hide behind the equipment. Look, we know Dungey and Roczen are good, and they’ve proven it by winning on different brands. Formula One is terrible in terms of parity year-to-year (for the last few seasons, you’ve basically had the two Mercedes guys winning all the races) but it’s always one rule change away from flipping completely. The Red Bull or Ferrari drivers absolutely have the potential to win and the drivers on those teams have won already. They’re just one engineering breakthrough or technical rule change away from doing it. It would be almost impossible to determine who is the better driver between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel. Just depends on who has the good car. Throw the right driver in the right car at the right time and you have the potential for wins. Throw an amazing driver in a bad car and you still have the potential for wins as soon as the car gets fixed.
Also, the bigger the pie, the bigger the pieces for everyone. F1 and MotoGP don’t really offer more spots in the big class, but the overall money spent in those two series is far bigger than motocross and supercross. That means the winners make more, and the guys that are just hanging on, racing in the back, make more. The drop off is the same, but when the top driver makes $50 million, well, the 12th place dude can take a huge cut compared to that and still make bank.
We all love this sport so much. But there are certain qualities inherent to this sport that are constant, and they make it hard to make comparisons to the others. One thing that’s cool is that we all want our heroes to succeed, to get paid, to make it in this sport. But it sure isn’t easy.