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The History Of: Supercross

the beginning and current top riders

Supercross. It’s widely considered to be not only the most exciting of motorsports, but one of the most exciting athletic competitions in general! But how did someone coming up with the idea of hauling 500 truckloads of dirt into a stadium even happen? Let’s take a look at the birth of the sport we all know and love today. This is—The History Of: Supercross.

THE BEGINNING:

 Most people believe that the whole premise of Supercross (stadium-based motocross) started in the 70s. Well technically the first motorcycle race to be in a stadium was at Buffalo Stadium in the Paris suburb of Montrouge on August 28th, 1948 (although it was on a racetrack, not dirt). The first AMERICAN version of this type of event was held in 1971 at the famous Daytona International Speedway. The track was relatively small, built on the grassy area between the main grandstand and the pit lane.

“The Superbowl of Motocross”

A 1972 ad for "The Superbowl of Motocross"
A 1972 ad for “The Superbowl of Motocross”

The race that REALLY paved the way for what is now modern-day Supercross was the race held at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in 1972. Promoted by a man named Mike Goodwin (a former rock concert promoter who took note of Daytona’s success the year prior) and the then-president of the AMA (American Motorcycle Association) Terry Tiernan, the event was dubbed “The Superbowl of Motocross”. This is actually what led to coining the term “Supercross”! Thanks to heavy marketing, the event attracted lots of people, including celebrities like Steve McQueen.

It also attracted some of Europe’s top motorcycle talent despite it being scheduled in the midst of the old Grand Prix season. Stars like Thorlief Hansen and Torsten Hallman (the founder of THOR) showed up to compete in front of a 30,000-person crowd, a magnitude of attendance that had never been seen before in any U.S. motorcycle event. A local 16-year-old by the name of Marty Tripes earned the distinction of the first-ever Supercross winner. To an effect, Mike Goodwin had just created a brand new sport.

A young Marty Tripes riding his way to become the first-ever Supercross winner.
A young Marty Tripes riding his way to become the first-ever Supercross winner.

And this brand new sport exploded in popularity. Goodwin quickly expanded to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, and cities like San Diego and Anaheim. There were several factors that led to the immense popularity in Supercross, and they’re quite sensible in their advantageousness versus traditional motocross. First off, the focus of these events was primarily on entertainment. Goodwin hired the now-legendary Larry “Supermouth” Huffman, who provided not only entertainment and hype, but made understanding what was going on in the races accessible to those who would otherwise just see a bunch of dirt bikes revving around.  

Not Just A One-Time Thing

The 2nd iteration of “The Super Bowl of Motocross” held the following year was met with even greater success than the first, and led to the creation of the AMA Supercross Championship.

SUPERCROSS BEGINS:

The very first season of AMA Supercross took place in 1974. It consisted of just 3 races: Daytona, Houston, and Los Angeles. The first-ever Supercross champion went to Pierre Karsmakers of the Netherlands. From the “Superbowl of Motocross” until 1975, Supercross events mimicked the structure of motocross at the time: a 3-moto format, with the rider that had the best-combined score winning the event. Season-long points were accounted for separately.

In 1976, the AMA decided to re-format, switching from three motos to a system of four 20-man heat races, two semifinals, a last-chance qualifier, and the main event. This generally didn’t go over well with riders, who complained about the new setup. The heats were overcrowded, with as many as 120 riders signing up to compete in the 80 spots. This lead many to be rejected from entering. This led to turn-outs shrinking, reducing Supercross races to three—and eventually two—heats.

Back in the day, AMA Supercross races were promoted by different companies. Mike Goodwin in the West, Super Sports in the East, and Pace Motorsports in the mid-west/southwest. This would change over the years, but more on that later.  

Bob "Hurricane" Hannah was the first real "dominant" rider in SX. Credit: racerxonline.com
Bob “Hurricane” Hannah was the first real “dominant” rider in SX. Credit: racerxonline.com

Early Supercross had no clearly dominant racer. The first three seasons had a different winner every time. That is—until Bob “Hurricane” Hannah came around. Winning 3 straight titles, there’s a good reason that Hannah is a common-knowledge name to anyone into dirt bikes. He’s considered the first-ever “dominant” Supercross rider, and the first real celebrity to emerge from the sport.

Supercross: 1980s

While consistently growing for about the first decade since its inception, the modern Supercross schedule has since become more condensed. The schedule would run from February all the way to November, with both moto and Supercross seasons coinciding with one another. By the time the 1986 season came around, the schedule was compacted to run January to June. The “outdoor” (a.k.a. motocross) season begins just as Supercross ends, preventing too much overlap.

'A video still of some 80s legends at the 1985 LA Supercross. Credit: quora.com
A video still of some 80s legends at the 1985 LA Supercross. Credit: quora.com

There was a short-lived attempt during the 80s to once again re-format Supercross. They called it the dirt-track system. The idea was to divide riders into four 20-man heat races, with the top half of each race moving on. This was beloved by fans but despised by riders, and for the same reason. The best of the best went wheel-to-wheel 3 times in one night. The format lasted just one season.

The AMA then switched to basically what the current Supercross format is; two 20-man heats, two semis, an LCQ, and the main event. Gone were the days of hundreds of strictly 250cc two-stroke riders descending on a stadium to qualify. The AMA likely did this as another change in addition to their creating of the 125 East/West Regional Championships. This made it more accessible for younger, inexperienced riders to break into the SX scene. Big names of the era include the famous Jeff Ward-Rick Johnson rivalry, with Jeff Stanton making his mark by the end of the decade.

Rick Johnson circa 1985. Credit: racerxonline.com
Rick Johnson circa 1985. Credit: racerxonline.com

Supercross: 1990s (The McGrath Era)

Stanton becomes the second-ever three-time winner in 1992. This feat would have likely had more staying power, but a new up-and-coming rider by the name of Jeremy McGrath was about to change the sport forever.

Hailing from a BMX-oriented background, McGrath didn’t get on a motorcycle until the age of 14. His dominance in part came from his pedal bike discipline, employing techniques that let him stay a foot or two lower than most riders, giving him a huge speed advantage. Just how dominant was McGrath? Here’s a quick lil’ list of just how ridiculously dominant this guy was:

The absolute GOAT: Jeremy McGrath. Credit: pinterest.com
The absolute GOAT: Jeremy McGrath. Credit: pinterest.com
  • AMA 125cc Western SX Championship: 1991, 1992
  • 250cc AMA Supercross Championship: 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1998, 1999, and 2000
  • 250cc AMA National Motocross Championship: 1995
  • FIM World SX Championships: 2
  • US Motocross des Nations Team: 1993, 1996

So yeah, the world of MX/SX in the 90s belonged to Jeremy McGrath.

CHANGING OF HANDS

The format of the series continued to develop as well to just about the same layout it is today. The season shifted a bit towards how it currently stands, starting early January and ending early-mid May, with races happening weekly on Saturdays with the exception of Easter weekend. The season always begins in the Los Angeles area, and ends with the final, early-May race in Las Vegas. This Vegas race also serves as the kick-off for the motocross, or “outdoor” season.

The logo of the AMA. Credit: amasupercross.com
The logo of the AMA. Credit: amasupercross.com

This was in part by the changing of promotional hands during this decade. After partnering with Mike Goodwin, Mickey Thompson (head of MTEG, the west coast promoters) and Super Sports (eastern promoters) both went bankrupt. They were sold to Pace, the at-the-time standalone AMA Supercross promoter. In 1998, Pace was bought by a company called SFX Entertainment. This was subsequently purchased by Clear Channel in 2000.

Supercross in the 21st Century: 2000-2010

The man/myth/legend, Ricky Carmichael. Credit: racerxonline.com
The man/myth/legend, Ricky Carmichael. Credit: racerxonline.com

Just as McGrath was the shining beacon of 90s moto/Supercross, Ricky Carmichael just about as thoroughly dominated the 00’s with his superior skill. Dominating both disciplines of the sport, Carmichael was a 7x AMA Motocross Champion and a 5x AMA Supercross Champion. Thus cementing his place amongst the all-time greatest to ever race a motorcycle. Carmichael racked up 150 career AMA race wins, easily eclipsing the 89 of his GOAT predecessor McGrath.

There were quite a few changes to the sport during this time. Clear Channel, who had run the SX show for the first half of the decade, split apart. Their live events division became (as some of you may recognize) Live Nation in 2005. Three years later, they would sell their motorsports division to Feld Entertainment, who currently promotes the sport today.

The differences between a 2-stroke and 4-stroke engine. Credit: quora.com
The differences between a 2-stroke and 4-stroke engine. Credit: quora.com

This decade also saw the death of the two-stroke. In 2006, the AMA replaced the 125cc two-stroke with the 250cc class, and the 250cc two-stroke became 450cc. All bikes became 4-strokes, a push from factory race teams to showcase their latest and greatest inventions. From 2007-2012, Feld adopted formula-style categorization, with the 450s being known as ‘Supercross’ and the 250s being known as ‘Supercross Lites’.

Supercross: 2010-2020 and Beyond

Feld implemented a few changes and additions to the SX season during this time. Capping off the season as the final race is the Monster Energy Cup. Held at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas, Nevada, this 3-moto formatted race features a $1 million purse prize. Ryan Villopoto dominated the inaugural cup in 2011, taking 1st in all 3 races. The same year, the season-ending East-West Shootout for the 250 class began, determining both regions’ champions in one event. This has been shifted to be held mid-season at the Indianapolis round as of 2018.

The Monster Energy Cup track layout from 2018. Credit: supercrosslive.com
The Monster Energy Cup track layout from 2018. Credit: supercrosslive.com

In 2012, Feld made a return to traditional nomenclature, calling both SX division ‘450cc’ and ‘250cc’, rather than ‘Supercross’ and ‘Supercross Lites’. They also established the same year that the rider who’s in first in the Series’ Points Lead will use the red number plate in the following event.

Since 2018, there have also been three “Triple Crown” races peppered into each season. These races run the format of the old three-moto system, often being considered more challenging than an average race. The rider who places best over the course of the 3 events wins the “Triple Crown Cup”. This event is accounted for outside of the overall season’s points. (Eli Tomac was the first Triple Crown winner).

Everyone still misses the Dunge. Credit: speedsport.com

The past decade saw riders like Ryan Villopoto, Ryan Dungey, Cooper Webb, Eli Tomac, and Ken Roczen come to prominence, with some of them continuing to compete in 2020 and beyond.

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE:

Supercross and motocross are as popularized as they’ve pretty much ever been. Fresh blood like Aaron Plessinger, Dylan Ferrandis, and Adam Ciancirulo have taken the torch, leading this sport towards a bright future with the promise of explosive talent and potential.

And this new and exciting talent is positioned to have more eyes on it than ever before. Last year (2019), NBC Sports Group signed a multi-year contract with Feld to broadcast races, heats, and LCQs. This is a welcome change from Fox Sports to NBC Sports Network. (Fox frequently had to shuffle Supercross events around its other major sport, UFC). This shifts all SX events to a primary network (compared to FS2) and grants increased coverage.

The future of Supercross has never looked brighter! Credit: ultimatemotorcycling.com
The future of Supercross has never looked brighter! Credit: ultimatemotorcycling.com

With a plethora of young talent, exciting recent racing changes/additions, and a new dedicated broadcasting network, the future of Supercross has never looked brighter. Here’s to the future!

Check back for more ‘The History Of…” entries in the near future, and don’t forget you can get any and all motorcycle gear at BTOSports.com!

Trevor Edwards
A wordsmith that also keeps it wide open, I have been known to win a race or two. The world of music and dirt bikes come together in my life for an epic ride sesh!