Supercross bills itself as “America’s fastest growing motorsport,” and there is certainly a lot of merit behind the claim.
In an era where dwindling interest in cars has resulted in less mainstream interest in car racing, the Monster Energy AMA Supercross Championship is the cross section between traditional motorsports and action sports.
And while it remains a niche entity, it is one that has experienced a tremendous amount of growth over the past decade.
The AMA season begins on Saturday nights in early January, right after the holiday season, and largely avoids major sporting conflicts with the exception of a stray football game after the start of the new year.
It is certainly the talk of the motorsports world without any mainstream competition until at least mid-February.
The retirement of superstars Ryan Villopoto and Ryan Dungey over the past half-decade did little to slow the momentum as ratings continued to grow under the emergence of new stars like Eli Tomac, Ken Roczen, Justin Brayton and reigning champion Cooper Webb.
With traditional motorsports skewing older, Supercross boasts both a fanbase that resides squarely in the middle of the coveted 18-40 demographic. The roster of riders is primarily twentysomethings with a firm grasp of social media and how to engage with their fans across multiple platforms.
Supercross moved from Fox Sports to NBC Sports in advance of the 2019 season, important because NBC has positioned itself as the home of motorsports, which allowed an effort to cross-pollinate with fans of NASCAR, IMSA and IndyCar.
The events take place in some of the most decorated venues in the country like Angel Stadium of Anaheim, AT&T Stadium in Dallas and Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
The sport is starting to garner a more diverse following, reflected in both attending fans and those who cover the events. To better understand where the discipline came from and where it’s going before its 2020 season opener in Anaheim on Jan. 4, Autoweek interviewed veteran television presenter Ralph Sheheen, five-time 450cc class champion turned television analyst Ricky Carmichael and The Athletic’s Jeff Gluck â a renowned NASCAR reporter and Supercross enthusiast.
WHY SHOULD YOU BE WATCHING SUPERCROSS?
Carmichael: It’s the motorsport where the human element is the most prevalent. If you watch a lot of four-wheel racing, it’s about the equipment and engineering. In our sport, I would say it’s 85-90 percent the rider. You could take a great rider and they could tune that bike to where they need to be in order win races and compete for a championship.
Sheheen: I have broadcasted a lot of different forms of motorsports over the years, and there is nothing really close to Supercross. Itâs by far the most exciting thing that I get to do each year. You have no idea whatâs going to happen when you line up 22 bikes at the starting gate with an equal shot. Every event is an unknown.
Gluck: Supercross has figured out the right formula to capture the attention of the next generation of race fans. They have action-packed, short events, badass athletes â who happen to be accessible and visible in their pits on event day â and a culture that emphasizes entertainment.
EVERYTHING IN SUPERCROSS FEELS YOUTHFUL
Carmichael: From a social standpoint, we are front and center. We have big personalities and young athletes. We have more personality than Formula 1 and more youth than NASCAR — even after this (most recent) youth movement. We have less eyeballs than traditional motorsports, but this feels more real. Itâs not as corporate as other motorsports. The fans like it because they can really relate to our riders.
Sheheen: This is a young manâs game. Youâre getting old when you reach your 30s. Your body takes such a beating over here. The list of injuries these guys have, if you were to read it, you would be surprised they could even hold a fork. Ken Roczen, for example, has beat himself up over the years, but heâs an incredible athlete and itâs a testament to how tough these guys are.
Gluck: The sport is extremely dangerous â half the battle in the championship is avoiding serious injury â and there are few gimmicks in terms of the race itself. It’s not uncommon for a rider to win by 10 seconds, and there are no free passes into the main event if a rider screws up in the heats.
WHAT IS THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE MANUFACTURERS AND THE RACING?
Carmichael: These are factory spec bikes. Yamaha, Suzuki. KTM, Kawasaki, Honda, Husqvarna. But you can do a lot of different things — gear ratio, pistons, crank. You can add or take away power. They give you a lot of leeway to ride in a way that fits your style.
Sheheen: A lot of our fans, theyâre true enthusiasts. They ride, themselves. A guy who rides Kawasaki, his favorite riders ride Kawasaki, too. Itâs a lot like you used to see in NASCAR, and still do sometimes, with fans who are very passionately Ford or Chevrolet fans before the drivers that drive them. Those are our fans. They are very loyal to their brands.
Gluck: Ryan Villopoto told me last year that these bikes can be purchased from a dealer, and with just a few upgrades, could run top 10 in a Supercross main event with the right rider. It’s really about the talent and fitness level of the riders much more than the equipment itself, which is refreshing.
WHATâS NEXT FOR SUPERCROSS IN TERMS OF NEW VENUE TYPES OR MARKETS?
Carmichael: We need to focus on making this a world championship. We need to get these meets in front of more eyeballs, more live coverage across the globe, expanding to a global championship with some international races. I really think weâre close to reaching that scale. We just have to continue improving the experience and sharing what makes this so exciting.
Sheheen: I really do believe this can become more mainstream. It has all the right ingredients to take off. Itâs not the biggest motorsport, not yet, but it can be. We race at world-class facilities, venues where the Super Bowl and national championships are decided. We have laser shows that look like a Kiss concert — all the bells and whistles. Where can we go next? Thereâs probably room for more races, a bigger schedule and spread out more into the summer.
Gluck: I’m not sure if Supercross can ever break into the mainstream, but it seems to be doing pretty well in its niche.
2020 Monster Energy AMA Supercross schedule
Jan. 4: Angels Stadium of Anaheim, Anaheim, Calif.
Jan. 11: The Dome at Americaâs Center, St. Louis
Jan. 18: Angels Stadium of Anaheim, Anaheim, Calif.
Jan. 25: State Farm Stadium, Glendale, Ariz.
Feb. 1: Ringcentral Coliseum, Oakland, Calif.
Feb. 8: Petco Park, San Diego
Feb. 15: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla.
Feb. 22: AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas
Feb. 29: Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta
March 7: Daytona International Speedway, Daytona, Fla.
March 14: Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis
March 21: Ford Field, Detroit
March 28: Centurylink Field, Seattle
April 4: Broncos Stadium at Mile High, Denver
April 18: Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass.
April 25: Sam Boyd Stadium, Las Vegas
May 2: Rice-Eccles Stadium, Salt Lake City, Utah
Before you go, the video below features Western Regional 250SX rider Chris Alldredge as he walks you through the skillset needed to grab the all-important holeshot.