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Motocross accelerates through 50 years of progress

The early days of motocross were technically the same as they are today: riders riding dirt bikes over bumps and around berms, fastest wins.

In fact, after 50 years, it almost looks like a different sport.

The motorcycles are faster, stronger. The drivers come from all over the world and belong to the fittest athletes of all sports. The tracks feature jumps that old-school riders wouldn’t even have thought of, obstacles that would have been unfathomable.

And notoriety has skyrocketed from a dirt-covered launch pad thanks to TV and social media.

“Oh man, that’s like looking at the 1972 Olympic basketball game compared to what we have now with the Dream Team,” said Davey Coombs, President of MX Sports Pro Racing, which runs the Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship directs. “What used to be a dirt bike race of sorts in the country of Alabama has morphed into a global phenomenon.”

The Lucas Oil Motocross Championship kicked off its 50th season in Pala, California, moved north to historic Hangtown and will be raging on the edge of the Rocky Mountains outside of Denver this weekend.

It was quite a ride.

The origins of the circuit date back to 1972, when the parts of several series were merged into one. Few people outside of the die-hard fans knew who any of the riders were, the tracks mostly meandered through natural terrain and the bikes broke down so often that the organizers opted for three 20-minute motos, allowing time for repairs.

The only way to see live racing was when the circuit came to town or you were willing to take a long drive. Even stills from the early days are hard to come by, let alone video footage.

The sport started gaining momentum when marketable stars like Jeremy McGrath, Ricky Carmichael and Travis Pastrana started making noise. Motocross remained a niche sport, but interest in the high-flying, fast races began to grow as some of the world’s best riders flocked to the United States.

Australian Jett Lawrence won the 450 title last season and the series features German two-time 450 rider Ken Roczen, Frenchman Marvin Musquin, a two-time runner-up, and up-and-coming Japanese rider Jo Shimoda.

“We’re seeing the best of every other country in a way we’ve never seen before,” Coombs said.

And more and more people are watching them race.

Prior to MX Sports Pro Racing’s acquisition in 2009, live racing was an afterthought, leaving fans agonizing over figuring out when and where to watch the races. A key move was a partnership with NBC, allowing for mostly live racing with some tape lag. A deal with MAVTV has enabled the circuit to be televised in its entirety this summer.

“The level of recognition and awareness of the sport is tremendous,” said Carmichael, who has won seven straight 450 titles since 2000. “He’s getting more popular every year.”

Social media pushed it.

Motocross hasn’t reached the popularity of UFC but has seen some of the same social media engagements from some of its athletes.

Roczen has 1.5 million followers on Instagram and 201,000 on Twitter. Eli Tomac, currently second in the season standings, has nearly a million on Instagram and 133,000 on Twitter. Three-time champion Ryan Dungey, who returned this season after five years of retirement, has 800,000 followers on Instagram and another 213,000 on Twitter.

Many drivers are hyperactive on social media and cater to fans 24/7. The races take place on Saturdays, but the pregame shows on the social platforms take place days before.

“As they prepare for events, it becomes sort of a symbiotic relationship,” Coombs said. “You’re seeing a preview of what’s going to happen over the weekend and that gives us a chance to show what we’re doing.”

What they’re seeing is a sport with bigger and faster riders than old-school riders could ever have imagined.

In the early days, bikes were essentially trail bikes with a few modifications. Today’s motocross bikes are like two-wheeled Formula 1 cars, finely tuned technological marvels with performance that allows riders to overcome what was once a quadruple jump with a quick twist of the accelerator.

Track designers have tried to keep up by building bigger jumps and more obstacles that make the race more acrobatic but also keep the bikes from going off the track.

Even the drivers have changed.

Before Carmichael came on the scene, the best drivers could win races just because they had more talent. Carmichael transformed the sport into a more athletic endeavor, using intense off-track training sessions to complement his impressive talent.

Following Carmichael’s example, modern riders have become some of the world’s most conditioned athletes, spending their days training, watching what they eat, and even hiring trainers and nutritionists just to keep up.

“Race speeds have gotten so much tougher, you can’t afford not to have that stuff these days,” said Dungey. “You have to have it all or it will show.”

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