State of the Nation(s)

Steve climbs the soapbox for a Team USA perspective

What we thought was going to happen was confirmed at Washougal when Eli Tomac said that he would most likely not be going to the upcoming Motocross des Nations in England.

“Right now, it’s looking like a no. It’s schedule,” he said. “We have to go race USGP and then you have two weekends off then you make your way to England and then a couple weeks after that you have Monster Cup. For us, and for me, it’s like…. we’ve been racing since the first weekend in January and you’re basically putting yourself through the meat grinder all the way through the middle of October. Right now, it’s probably a no.”

This is on the heels of Tomac bowing out last year after racing the two USGP’s after the 29-race USA schedule ended. And of course the now-retired Ryan Dungey begged off the last two years as well (although he was recovering from an injury last year). What in the heck is going on with Team USA?

“Where does it start and stop? That’s the thing for us right now,” says head of Kawasaki racing’s Bruce Stjernstrom on the possibility of Tomac not racing the MXDN (Bruce was unaware of Tomac’s comments as was I when we spoke) “So, for Eli if you go back two years, last year we raced two USGP’s, the year before one USGP, and he hasn’t missed any races. He went 31 the first year and 32 last year. If you add up all the top guys on this planet in that class, nobody’s within ten of what he’s done. So, we’re looking at that as the cumulative effect. He’s a valuable commodity not only to all these promoters but to us. We need him ready to go.”

In talking to some managers in the pits it’s not one thing that’s causing the elite USA riders to look the other way. It’s a few and let’s cover them here:

1) The USA nationals have, for the last few years, ended earlier than ever due to their TV package. The MXDN, compared to the decade of the 90’s, has been pushed back more and more towards the traditional date that the US Open, now Monster Energy Cup, has had since 1998 and that’s mid-October.

With supercross being so important to the teams and riders, the Monster Cup is looked at being the start of the ‘new season’. An elite rider is supposed to race 29 races here in 34 weekends, keep riding for another 3 weeks to stay ready for the MXDN, come back from that race and immediately be into full supercross testing and riding. When is the rest period supposed to come in? Ryan Dungey just retired at 27, Ryan Villopoto retired at 26, Ricky Carmichael at 26 – and all of them cited burnout at the effort needed to be the top dog in the sport.

Honda’s Dan Betley, who’s been on three winning Team USA teams as a mechanic loves this race but he understands what’s going on now.

“I believe the riders in the current environment, we do too many races. The riders have a lot on their plate – not just racing but training and doing PR and everything else that’s involved,” says Betley. “They need some off time. Something’s got to give somewhere down the line. It’s unfortunate. It really is. I don’t know where it’s going to be fixed.”

2) The cost of the event. I’m not sure if you’ve looked around but there aren’t as many motorcycles being sold anymore. And the costs to go to this event have risen dramatically over the years. Now as a former member of Team USA, it didn’t cost us that much when we went with Tim Ferry but it was still plenty over the meagre money that AMA chips in. And you could argue the current teams do overdo it with all the personal they send over but they want to do it right and I respect that. By some estimates I’ve gotten in talking to current team managers, it’s somewhere around 30 to 50K to send a team with shipping of two motorcycles. And let’s not forget, as hard as it is on the riders, the team personal have been working just as hard.

3) Apathy. Yes, perhaps the most puzzling of the reasons why USA hasn’t been sending it’s best is because no one of importance at these teams is making it a priority. Everyone I’ve spoken to understands how great the event is and they insist that the losing streak has nothing to do with the feelings they have. The season here is a grind for everyone involved, the work involved in getting ready for it, the thought of one more race, detached as it is from the schedule over here and costing so much money just leads these VIP’s from the teams shrugging their shoulders at it. Even the great Roger DeCoster, the man responsible for getting Team USA to this race way back in 1981, showed complete understanding in Dungey skipping the race the last couple of years. Amazing right but hey, don’t shoot the messenger here.

Now, as mentioned, I’ve been on Team USA as a mechanic in 2003 and as a freelance journalist, I’ve paid for my way to the last ten MXDN’s to cover them for Racer X, Pulpmx and my other clients. And also, being Canadian, I like to think I’m a little different from the flag wavers here in the USA.

All that being said, I really think that Youthstream should show some flexibility and help Team USA get to this race. They’re unquestionably the stars of the race, they sell tickets to the event and ask David Vuillemin, winning member for Team France in 2001, what it’s like to win this race without having Team USA there. It simply doesn’t mean as much. Would you hold a rock festival, book U2 as your headliner and then make it massively inconvenient and costly for them to be there?

I’ve seen the swarms of fans at the paddocks of the USA riders, I’ve seen the press room get overloaded when Team USA is giving their press conferences and then empty out when they’re done, I’ve seen the cheering by the fans whenever a Team USA rider gets passed or falls. All eyes are on the red, white and blue and having been to eleven of these races, you’ll never convince me otherwise.

So whether it’s scheduling this race closer to the end of the USA nationals, whether it’s some sort of fee to help the costs of traveling all the way to Europe every single year or even the promise of a USA track hosting the event every three years no matter what, some sort of olive branch should be held out to the USA team. Maybe you think this isn’t fair to the other countries, well I got news for you. Team USA is a big deal and they’re the U2 of this race. Sorry, not sorry.

If there’s nothing offered than I would completely understand USA pulling out of this event for all the reasons listed above. If you can’t send your best, why bother going? In my opinion it wouldn’t take too many years of Team USA not showing up before something is done to help them out. Either way, I’ll be there. I love the race. I just wish USA riders and management felt the same way.

Photos by Cudby/Shepherd

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