Will A Return To Pro Racing Be MX’s COVID-19 Cure?
Over the last few weeks we’ve explained the many details that have to be sorted out for Supercross, and in turn Pro Motocross, to run their events in 2020. The challenges that the two organizations have faced are daunting and every week has brought a new detail or issue that they had to address immediately. Both groups have tried everything in their power to create plans that will allow racing to occur in some way, shape, or form and now we all wait to hear if these will be in compliance with the current situation that the world is in. We should in the next few days if the seven-race run to complete Supercross and then the 11-round Nationals will take place, something we can all agree would be a welcome sight.
I’ve been a very vocal skeptic of the current plan to have the Supercross season wrap up in May-June, but not for the reasons that everyone assumes. Yeah, the thought of being exposed to and potentially contracting COVID-19 is a bit unnerving, but it’s something that all of us are open to every time we step outside the house and go through life (full disclosure: many in the sport, myself included, believe we already had our bout with the illness earlier in the year). So no, the virus isn’t my main concern when it comes to holding races. I’m worried more about the financial state of the industry and how a rushed return to racing, just to say we wrapped up a championship, might not be the best thing for us all. Stay with me here.
I want racing to resume in the worst way. On a professional level, it’s how I’ve made a living for the last ten years and is the only thing I see myself doing for a career (I’m a college dropout that devoted my life to knowing everything about motocross, so yeah, I’m going to be here for as long they’ll let me). On a personal level, it’s the thing in life I love the most, something that has given me incredible friendships, a feeling of self-worth and confidence, and the opportunity to see the world at a young age. My whole purpose in life is to help motorcycle riding and racing become the best it can be. When I hear that we could be back to it in the next few weeks, I’m equal parts optimistic and concerned, because what we all do now will have a major impact on the image and future of the sport.
It’s no secret that professional racing is the centerpiece of our sport. Nearly every brand involved with motocross puts part of their annual budget into supporting riders or teams, fans from around the world eagerly watch the top talent every time the gate drops, and the bulk of our editorial attention is devoted to discussing what happens on the track. But, it’s just one part of an enthusiast driven activity that is constantly trying to figure out how a way to get more people on motorcycles.
The effects of COVID-19 have caused nearly every company involved in motocross to adjust their finances. Some have been able to get by with reductions in advertising spends or product allowances, while others have been forced to lessen their operating hours, the salaries of their staff or worse, end employment completely. We know of factory-backed riders that have had their paychecks altered from the OEMs and sponsors, something that is set to continue for the time being, and that some teams have been told they will not receive funds from sponsors until racing resumes. Although a return to action seems like a quick fix for some, it doesn’t correct all of the financial issues that certain people and companies face. If anything, it could magnify them.
Say, for example, there is a company that has been hit hard by the financial burden of the last two months, with a staff of full-time employees and an agreement to sponsor a race team. If the company has been forced to change the compensation of their staff and paused payment to the team, a return to professional racing would not guarantee that all of their problems are fixed. The company would be expected to immediately resume payment to the team as part of the sponsorship, but if there’s no additional money coming into the company’s account from consumer sales, they might have to further reduce their staff salary and size. How many cost-cutting measures could a company take before they stop being profitable and go out of business? A return to pro racing doesn’t mean much for the traveling sales reps, warehouse workers, or other employees that have been impacted by the economy.
Teams of all sizes face a similar scenario, as the sudden stop and potential for a restart have forced them to adjust their budgets. Many teams had their guys take a break from riding over the past few months, which was helpful, because no riding meant no parts were being used, no expensive race gas was being burned, and no daily duties for mechanics to keep bikes maintained. The talk of Supercross resuming in May ended that hiatus and for the last two weeks, everyone has been back into their usual routine of practice motos. This is a complete guess, but I would think that running a practice day for factory-level guys is at least 300-dollars when you factor in transportation of the bike in a box van or pick-up, private track prep or gate fees, fuel and parts, food, etc. That number would be considerably less for independent teams and privateers, but their annual budgets are a fraction of what the well-funded teams have, so it could be even more of a hit to their finances. Everyone that hopes to compete at the remaining Supercross events will spend that much a few days a week so that they are in race-ready shape.
If Supercross does go through with their current plan to finish out the remaining events in one place, well, that’s a whole other part of the budget that needs to be looked at. The rigs will be stocked with the bikes and parts necessary for an extended stay far from home, then driven thousands of miles to the destination. Although fuel costs are the lowest they’ve been in years, it takes a lot to run a diesel pulling a race shop on wheels. Money that was allotted to flights and hotels for the original cross-country schedule will be redirected to lodging and transportation to the new location, so that’s partially covered, but this is where a new concern comes up. Will everyone remain in place for the full duration of the schedule or will they be permitted to travel home and back between races? If they stay, then factor in the cost of hotel rooms for weeks on end, plus food per diems. If they go back home, how pricey will it be to catch multiple flights a week to a still undetermined city?
Once teams and riders at the stadium, things become even trickier. We’ve been told that if racing happens, everyone at the venue will be required to have their temperature taken upon arrival and will have to wear gloves and a face covering, as is recommended by the federal government. In an effort to promote social distancing, mechanics wouldn’t be able to join their riders on the starting line and wouldn’t congregate in the usual signal area during the race, issues that the groups will have to sort out in creative ways (riders would be recommended to gauge the position by glancing at the big screens inside the stadium, there would be little chance for mid-race repairs). I can only imagine what post-race podiums, press conferences, and interview opportunities will be like; I just hope like hell that I get to attend and do my job. If media other than NBC Sports is able to attend, it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to bounce between teams in the pit area like usual, because they’ll likely limit access to the riders and staff in an attempt to lessen the chance of exposure.
Which leads to the ultimate doomsday scenario: what if some that’s allowed access to the event tests positive or comes down with the virus? Does that mean that they are forbidden from attending or does it put a complete halt to the entire project? Should something happen that keeps Supercross from running as hoped, all of that expense (between teams and Feld this attempt to finish out the season will collectively cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more through bonus money payouts and the like) and effort will have been for naught. If this doesn’t work out, the financial fallout could be a disastrous end for many teams, riders, and companies.
Although many have eyed this as our sport’s opportunity to get mainstream attention through live television coverage on NBC Sports, a positive test and the potential for people in the paddock to come down with the illness could be disastrous for the image of motocross. Look at the way meatpacking plants around the country have been hit by the spread of the illness among their staff. A mistake here could make us look uneducated and careless, the two things that many in society think when they see dirt bike crash clips, two things that none of us are.
I applaud what Dave Prater, Mike Muye, Sean Brennen, Davey Coombs, Roy Janson, Tim Cotter, Mike Pellitier, Jeff Canfield, and everyone at Feld Entertainment and MX Sports have done over the last few weeks. These are people I consider friends and to an extent, co-workers in our pursuit of a common goal, and I know they have the best interest of the industry in mind during their efforts. They are just as vulnerable to every challenge that I’ve laid out above because they have financial sponsors, staff, and logistical operations that rely on this race season being a success. Every decision they make will have a direct impact on those of us that get a paycheck from the powersports industry, a pressure that I can only imagine having to deal with. So to them, I hope that you understand what I’ve written or said over the last few weeks isn’t a knock on what you’re doing; it’s been an attempt to explain to the masses that this is not as easy as going to a track and running a race. You’re doing all that you can to make these events happen, with safety as the priority.
No matter if pro racing picks up in the next few weeks, our industry as a whole will still have plenty of challenges to face. In Kickstart, I made mention of the record-setting sales that certain dealerships and shops have reported, which is a sign that people are back on their bikes or will be as soon as their local riding spots re-open, and I truly believe that’s where much of our efforts need to be directed. California tracks have been given the go-ahead to reopen and the Race Leadership Team has coming up with a package that they hope helps government officials see that motorcycle riding can be done in accordance with social distancing efforts. Getting this information into the right hands will be important so that the general population can have some sort of riding season this summer. The powersports industry was greatly aided by a recent declaration that says employees are essential workers, so the flow of goods to consumers shouldn’t be interrupted anytime soon.
We shouldn’t expect a massive government bailout to save our sport. Yeah, many companies were able to make use of the emergency funds that were released a while back and that certainly helped but getting through this unscathed is going to be our responsibility. If you have the means to buy a bike, parts, gear, helmets, or goggles, please do so. If there’s a practice day or race in your area, go to it. The money we inject into the industry is going to be what keeps everyone going through the uncertainty of the next few months-years, because it becomes paychecks for the employees at shops, OEMs, and brands. At this point, I cannot say that you shouldn’t ride, either. It’s a personal decision that you’ll have to make on your own and for what it’s worth, as soon as I get the chance to throw a leg over a bike, I will.
With everyone in a similar situation and with ample time to talk, we should take this as our chance to decide, together, what we want the future of motorcycling to be.