Exhaust: How Many Main Mains?

Exhaust How Many Main Mains?

April 14, 2017 12:00pm

We’ve reached the stretch run in Monster Energy Supercross, and I’m really excited about this new Chase playoff format that has reset the points and left Ryan Dungey and Eli Tomac tied with three races to go. Wait, this happened organically? Wait, I just used “organically”? Incredible!

Well, now we know what a Chase playoff format would look like, although we also know the standard points structure actually kept things more exciting this year. Dungey was better than Tomac at the first three races, and now we’ve watched two months of Tomac trying to claw his way back. It’s the type of chase anyone can appreciate.

The real format change that did happen this year is a switch from supercross’ time-honored 20-lap main events to a timed 20-minutes plus one lap main. It’s had a bigger impact on the races than expected, but not for the expected reason. Fitness? This isn’t the ‘90s anymore (dammit!) so all of the factory dudes are fit and ready to go the distance. Big fades haven’t been a big story. The extra time hasn’t led to extra comebacks, either, as starts have been a bigger topic than ever and we’ve seen very few passes for the lead after the first few laps.

What has changed are the tracks. They’re more beaten up and broken down than the vehicle list of most of our new hires. Four-stroke power can move mountains, or at least mountains of dirt, and we’re seeing chewed up whoops, concrete in corners, and ruts galore. Doesn’t help that California had its rainiest winter since dinosaurs ruled, so tracks have been softer than usual, too.

When you have soft dirt and add in some extra time on the track, you get a really rough track.
When you have soft dirt and add in some extra time on the track, you get a really rough track. Rich Shepherd

We knew the tracks would break down more with the extra laps, but we didn’t think they would change this much. Meanwhile, now that there’s actually been one change made, other potential format changes are being bandied about behind the scenes. Maybe we’ll see another change, like two-or-three race formats (think Monster Energy Cup). Maybe just go back to the laps?

Let’s think about some other potential moves, and the pros and cons of each. We clearly got thrown for a curve with the impact of the timed mains. Maybe this time we’ll see the good and the bad coming from a distance.

Lemme See the MEC: Three Main Events

Thanks to the Monster Energy Cup, we’re familiar with the strengths and weaknesses. The great part here is that EVERY RACE COUNTS unlike the current format, which baits you in with heats, semis, and LCQs that actually don’t count for points. Look, we’re all for spreading the love but how many of you went back to your DVR to re-watch Broc Tickle win Semi #2 over the weekend? (Trick question, Tickle didn’t actually win Semi #2 over the weekend. Dean Wilson did, but no one remembers.)

The good: Three mains means that the stars are in all the races and every race counts (toward an overall, which pays points, or maybe every race would count for points individually, like motos do outdoors). No more clicking away while waiting for Dungey to race again for 90 minutes.

Also, three mains means three starts, upping the chances for chaos, and the chances the two fastest guys get off the gate together. I’d imagine some sports exec will someday go to a supercross and say, “Wait, all this build up, and then one dude just got a good start and another got a bad one and that’s just it for the whole night? Really?”

The bad: You can’t do three 20-lap mains, that’s too much riding and dudes would probably get tired to the point of danger. At least I think they would, but it’s never been tried. Anyway, Monster Energy Cup runs three 10 lappers. Dude, you think starts are important now? Also, the pack stays pretty close in the 10 lappers, which sounds good, but I’ve noticed that when the races don’t string out, TV people don’t have time to go back to 11th place to find a good battle, and thus the 11th place rider never gets seen on TV. Just as an example, Shane McElrath raced MEC last year on a KTM 350 and went 12-10-10. A good ride, but he was barely seen. If there were more laps to work with, he would have been. Plus, take away semis and heats, and now you’re really building a top-heavy show with lots of Tomac/Musquin/Dungey and not much of anyone else. Is that okay?

Two is Better Than One: The Two Moto Format

This is the standard deal for motocross, and for a funny reason. See, back in the day, bikes broke a lot, and promoters worried that fans would show up to watch Roger DeCoster, and his bike would break on the first lap. The solution was to run two races. We’ve stuck with that idea to this day, even though DNFs are far less common.

The Pros: You get some of the advantages of the three-race format above—two starts so better odds of two contenders starting together—and you could run two 20 lappers or two 15 minute races. This maybe gets the field stretched a little more than the three 10 lappers in the Monster Energy Cup, so the 10th place guy gets some more love. Maybe starts will be a little less important than with three 10 lappers, also (maybe).

One other advantage of multiple races: Every marketing genius now lives by the credo “Millennials have short attention spans! Must make things shorter!” so now you get shorter races to put on YouTube, so those millennials can watch on those phones they can’t put down. Yeah, marketing really is that easy!

The Cons: There will be one main argument against the three and two moto format: It’s too hard to understand who wins! Yeah, this has been the thorn in the side of the two-moto format forever, and while all moto heads get it, even I realize it’s strange to watch an entire one-hour moto from Millville on NBCSN, see Jeremy Martin win it, but then suddenly the announcer (hate that guy) says “But the overall will go to Cooper Webb!” Most races have one race, and the winner of that race is the winner of the race.

I think there’s a simple solution via a running overall scoreboard that stays on the screen for the entire race (we actually started doing that during the Nationals last year, hope you noticed). In every stick and ball sport ever, fans understand looking to the scoreboard to understand who is winning. Can we do that here?

The Old Standard: One 20 Lap Main

You know all about this one.

Pros: For anyone scared that a two-race or three-race format would confuse people, this is the ultimate solution: one race, 20 laps. Winner of the race is the winner of the race. It’s the simplest possible solution.

Cons: This went away because bikes got too fast and lap times got too short. We were down to 15-minute main events at some races. Attempts were made to slow the tracks down via walls and tight turns, but that often leads to tracks that are hard to pass on. This year, I’m hearing a lot of riders tell me long rhythm lanes lead to passes, because you get the entire section to try to inch up on a guy, get next to him, and then pass him in the next corner. If you only have 50 feet of obstacles before a corner, you can’t gain enough time to pull up next to a guy and pass. But if you make a track with more long rhythms, we’ll have 40-second laps.  

Of course, you could always try to slow the bikes down, but, oh no, you could never, ever do such a crazy thing like that. I mean, what motorsport ever makes changes to equipment rules to change the racing? Oh, all of them?

Yeah let’s just move along, please.

The Current Standard: 20 Minutes plus One Lap

Pros: I like this one. More time with the stars is good, and the races don’t feel too short or too long. You also get the very simple format where whoever wins the race actually wins the race.

There’s also one small advantage to the one-main format you’ll never hear about. Sometimes, you don’t actually want to know what would happen if two contenders started 1-2. Sometimes the mystery and “maybe next week” is better than the reality of finding out one dude is just way faster than everyone else. Sounds insane, I know, but this really has been discussed behind the scenes through the years.

Cons: We’re seeing a problem with track destruction. I believe Feld Motor Sports will work some more dirt and maintenance into the program in the future. We’ll see if that works, or maybe 450 destruction just can’t be contained for 20 minutes. While a rugged, beat up track should be a separator toward guys that have a certain set of skills, it seems more like the riders are just circulating and surviving the latter laps, and passing is out the window. I know, rough tracks sound awesome, but I always go back to Broc Hepler telling me that once half the lines in a section are blown out, you’re now racing on a track that’s half as wide, and that’s never good.

There are other crazy ideas out there, I think the Australian Supercross series once ran a different format in every race, and even tried some round-robin match races and stuff like that. Maybe the solution is to try several of these formats in one season and see how it works? Nah, on second thought, that’s kind of hokey.

Personally, I like the multi-race format, and I’m probably leaning toward the three-race one the most. I think it’s the best balance for a fun night where every race counts, and you have good odds for the battle you want to see. But these aren’t my decisions to make, and I admit I’m not smart enough to have all the answers. This season has worked out perfectly to create a wild battle down the stretch, and each one of these three gate drops will create anticipation of the highest order. You can try all kinds of stuff with the rules, but sometimes racing luck trumps all.