In 1972, a new format emerged for dirt bike racing dubbed "The Superbowl of Motocross" which was held, most fittingly, in the Los Angeles Coliseum, the site of the first Super Bowl in pro football.
The event proved so popular that in 1974 Supercross held its inaugural season with three AMA sanctioned races spread over several weeks. Forty years later Supercross boasts some of the most popular motorcycle races in the United States often selling out football and baseball stadiums across the country.
Mike Goodwin is credited for bringing Supercross to the United States when in 1972 he brought his idea of putting on a motorcycle show in a stadium to fruition. A former rock concert promoter, Goodwin's idea stemmed from a 1971 race held inside Daytona International Speedway that used a more traditional motocross track. In essence, Goodwin, who was convicted in 2007 of murdering his former business partner and racing legend Mickey Thompson in 1988, created a new sport.
Ad in Cycle News Promoting the first Supercross - Courtesy Tom White
The first Supercross race featured some of the most popular motocross racers and its heavy marketing campaign attracted celebrities to the coliseum like Steve McQueen. There was never any doubt about the success of Supercross as Goodwin made money at the "Superbowl" and quickly expanded his invention to the Rose Bowl and other cities like San Diego and Anaheim.
Tom White, then an up-and-coming rider in Class C who was ranked in the Top 20 in the nation for dirt-track racing, said he initially wasn't excited about this new sport taking people away from dirt-track yet he attended every early Supercross event.
"It was so different than any other form of racing and it was major entertainment," said White who owns and operates The Early Years of Motocross Museum in Villa Park, CA. "The dealer that sponsored me in the beginning, Southland Cycle Center in Garden Grove, would hire a bus and fill it up with customers to drive up to the LA Coliseum. By the time we got there, we were all 'beer'd up'."
Supercross was nothing short of spectacular and White gives a lot of credit to Goodwin hiring Larry Huffman as announcer.
"Larry got it. It was about entertainment and only the real traditionalist's didn't buy into this new form of motorcycle racing," White said.
Marty Tripes owns the distinction of the first Supercross winner, a feat he accomplished at only 16 years old and in 1973 he defended his Superbowl victory. That first Supercross race launched his career in the sport and he went on to win 11 National Championship races including the first 250cc United States Motocross Gran Prix at Unadilla in 1978.
Marty Tripes with John Desoto - Courtesy Tom White
The inaugural Supercross season in 1974 held a one-day event at Daytona and a two-day Astrodome Indoor Spectacular that counted towards the championship. Pierre Karsmakers of the Netherlands gets the distinction of winning the first Supercross season race in the 250 class. He took second in Houston making him the first Supercross champion.
Davey Coombs, editor and founder of RacerX Illustrated, said the third race held in 1974 at the LA Coliseum technically didn't count as that race was still part of the Inter-AM Series which ended a year later.
"Daytona included three motos per class, 250 and 500, while there were two motos per class in Houston two Friday and two Saturday," Coombs said. "Technically, the races were counted as overalls like an outdoors, not by simple race finish, like Supercross does now."
Supercross is sometimes considered the "Americanized" version of Motocross, which arrived in the United States from Europe in the 1960s. Supercross' immediate distinction from its Motocross counterpart was an ability to reach fans. To watch Motocross, fans typically drive to an out-of-the-way place with limited viewing. In Supercross, fans flock to a stadium like baseball or football and every seat offers a decent view of the entire track layout.
Supercross also separated itself from Motocross by trucking in dirt to create a man-made track featuring jumps, tight corners and whoops built more or less on the playing field of whatever stadium held the race. Motocross is an outdoor closed-course over natural terrain (muddy or dry depending on weather) with steep inclines, tight cornering some added jumps.
"Other than a hard-core fan, who wants to go to some remote location, sit on dirt, search for porta-potties and food, and bake or freeze while watching," White said of Supercross' appeal. "Supercross offered comfortable seats, hotdogs, popcorn, drinks easily available and an entertainer like Larry Huffman explaining to all of the newbies what was going on. What could be better?"
Gary Jones at 1975 Supercross - Courtesy Tom White
Like all sports, Supercross faced several changes over the years most notably to the racing format. In the beginning, Supercross embraced Motocross' then three-moto format. The rider with the best overall won. Future formats included the addition of heat races, semis and even four 20-man heat races where the top 50 from those races went on to the main. The last format change occurred in 2007.
Engine sizes also changed over the years. The 500cc engine lasted only two years but the 250cc engine held on strong eventually giving-way to the pinnacle 450cc class in 2006 won by none other than Ricky Carmichael. In 1985, the West and East classes emerged featuring the 125cc 2-stroke which morphed into today's 250 East/West class by 2007.
Each decade of Supercross also seemed to offer a changing of the guard, so to speak, when the current King of Supercross handed over the crown to the next generation of rider.
Supercross in the 1970s
The beginning of Supercross featured three different winners until one Bob Hannah came along and became the first back-to-back winner and set a precedent that wouldn't be duplicated for 14 years. Hannah won the Supercross championship three years in a row to close out the 70s. Hannah is widely considered a pioneer of the sport.
Supercross in the 1980s
The baton for the new King of Supercross took a while but featured a back-and-forth dual between two of the best riders of the 1980s. The 80s started out much like the 70s did in that no winners seemed to find that magic touch to defend their title. In fact, seven different winners opened the decade then Jeff Ward who won in 1985 took the title back in 1987 from Rick Johnson, who then grabbed it from Ward in 1988. Jeff Stanton finally put a stop to all the back-and-forth when he won in 1989 and defended his title a year later.
Supercross in the 1990s
Stanton became the sports second three-time winner when he won again in 1992 but his feat was quickly forgotten when a young and up-and-coming rider made Supercross into Showtime. Jeremy McGrath quite simply owned the 1990s and not only re-wrote history but re-defined what it meant to win.McGrath's donminance started in 1993 and didn't stop until the new Millenium. He won an unprecedented and still un-matched four Supercross championships in a row and ended his decade of dominance by winning three more in a row. His seven Supercross championships remain unchallenged and his dominance ranks near the top of one of the all-time feats in the history of sports. If not for a flat tire in 1997, McGrath very well could own a record considered unbreakable. He lost his championship bid in 1997 by 15 points to Jeff Emig.
Supercross in the 2000s
While McGrath shined a spotlight on Supercross a young amateur named Ricky Carmichael started his ascent in Motocross. A three-time 125MC Class winner, Carmichael won the 2000 250MX title and in 2001 McGrath handed over the crown by finishing second to Carmichael in Supercross.
Carmichael easily filled McGrath's shoes by winning three-straight Supercross championships. If not for a neck injury, Carmichael very well could have challenged McGrath's record but he sat out the 2004 season and closed out his career with two back-to-back championships. Carmichael's dominance prompted fans to bill him as the GOAT - Greatest Of All Time. Carmichael's resume boasts 150 career AMA wins compared to 89 for McGrath.
Supercross 40 years and BeyondAfter Carmichael hung up his boots, Supercross went five years without a back-to-back winner. James Stewart who battled with Carmichael to the delight of fans in 2006 took the title in 450SX class in 2007. Chad Reed, who won the year Carmichael rested his ailing neck, won again in 2008 then Stewart took his second championship in 2009. Ryan Dungey, a rookie in the 450 class, won in 2010.
Much like Carmichael did while McGrath dominated the 90s, a young Ryan Villopoto ripped off three straight Motocross Lites wins from 2006-08 and in 2011 won his first Supercross championship. Today, Villopoto is a three-time defending champion, currently leads in points and is widely expected to be the first since McGrath to win four straight Supercross championships.
Ryan Villopoto at Indianapolis 2014
The Supercross course is much different today than it was 40 years ago. Whether or not rolling back the clock for the 40th anniversary race (held in Anaheim in January featuring an exact course replica from 2001) benefited Chad Reed who won, today's riders would likely face little difficulty managing those early tracks.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Daily News, Bob Hannah, a three-time Supercross champion, said his Yamaha bike from the 1970s could not handle today's courses.
"If you took a modern-day bike on an old course, it would be pretty easy," Hannah said.
Current tracks feature much more doubles and triples but on the other hand technology allowed dirt bikes to keep up. Or perhaps it's the other way around. Regardless, today's bikes feature modern suspensions, traction, stronger handlebars and of course the necessary power to easily best whatever track Supercross dreams up.
"The 4-strokes have really changed the track designs as we saw this last weekend, Indy was awesome," White said. "Groves or lines formed everywhere and the riders struggled."
White said the East Coast offers more challenging tracks and it's those tracks that challenge the best riders in the world keeping people in their seats and televisions on after the holeshot.
"A more technical track, and I'm not talking huge triples, makes for real racing," he said.
Supercross today is as much a spectacle for fans as it is racing for the riders. Explosions, fireworks and just plain loud pretty well define a Supercross race. The series touches nearly every corner of the country and schedules 17 races over five months. Oh and yes, there were scantily clad girls at Goodwin's original product.
White gives credit to Feld Entertainment for their stewardship and promotion of the sport saying Supercross is an adventure and something more of the public needs to see. He said incorporating rider personalities and their individual stories is one tool that could work in the future to get more press to the sport.
The biggest riders in motorcycle racing all found success in Supercross. Names like McGrath, Carmichael, Stewart and Villopoto get more love than anyone who throws a ball around for a living in households that follow the sport.
And they make a pretty good living too.
|Jeremy McGrath||7||'93 '94 '95 '96 '98 '99 '00|
|Ricky Carmichael||5||'01 '02 '03 '05 '06|
|Bob Hannah||3||'77 '78 '79|
|Jeff Stanton||3||'89 '90 '92||Ryan Villopoto||3||'11 '12 '13|
|Jeff Ward||2||'85 '87||Chad Reed||2||'04 '08|
|Rick Johnson||2||'86 '88||James Stewart||2||'07 '09|
|Ryan Dungey||1||'10||Jeff Emig||1||'97|
|J.M. Bayle||1||'91||Johnny O'Mara||1||'84|
|David Bailey||1||'83||Donnie Hansen||1||'82|
|Mark Barnett||1||'81||Mike Bell||1||'80|
|Jim Weinert||1||'76||Jim Ellis||1||'75|