Since their invention in the latter part of the 19th Century, motorcycles have spawned a virtual plethora of racing disciplines. Whether it be pursuit of straight line top speed on the salt flats or a low E.T. in the quarter-mile, racing a closed course over dirt or pavement, climbing a mountain, navigating a section of terrain more suitable for a mountain goat, or pitching it sideways on dirt ovals, racing on two wheels has taken on many shapes and forms over the past hundred-odd years. And within that canon of motorcycle competition are a host of disciplines that either prospered or faded into oblivion.
In post-World War II America, before roadracing came of age and before motocross was imported from Europe (eventually upstaging “hare and hound,” which was off-road racing over a natural rather than defined course), flat track reigned as the premiere motorcycle competition. With its roots in boardtrack, flat track grew out of the former’s demise. When the boardtrack venues started disappearing in the late 1920s due to a backlash of bad press from the numerous fatalities (“Time of the Motordromes,” January ‘13), racers simply transferred their competitive zeal from the high-banked walls of “the boards” to dirt track ovals. Flat track is one form of motorcycle racing that is wholly American. To this day — despite some gallant efforts by the Japanese and Brits in the ‘70s and ‘80s — even the bikes that have proven themselves the most effective tool on the big ovals are good old American iron.
Flat track racing, also known as dirt track, enjoyed a respectable amount of popularity in the ‘40s and ‘50s, each season culminating with the crowning of a National Champion based on the results of a single race held at the Springfield mile in Illinois. In 1954 the AMA introduced the Grand National Championship. The new, expansive and innovative series was comprised of 18 points-paying races spread over five disciplines: short track, TT, half-mile and mile ovals, and roadracing. The inclusion of roadracing in the otherwise all-dirt competition made this a unique and demanding series intended to test a rider’s versatility on contrasting machinery and, in theory, decide the best all-around rider.
For years the Grand National Championship was the most popular motorcycle racing series in America, carrying a degree of challenge and prestige not unlike that of the mixed discipline ten-event Decathlon of the Olympics. (The ten-event Decathlon evolved from the five-event Pentathlon of the ancient Greek Games, with its highly reverential crowning of the best all-around athlete). Like many enthusiasts in my age group, I discovered the Grand National Championship in the 1971 movie On Any Sunday, which showcased the series and made a legend out of 1969 champion Mert Lawwill. But in the late ‘70s, with competition from the explosion of popularity in European-style motocross, and with roadracing carving out its own rapidly expanding niche, the AMA decided to revamp the Grand Nationals, removing the roadracing element (which became its own independent program) and making the championship a dirt-track-specific series.
The concept of crowning an overall champion based on versatility was resurrected in 1979 when promoter Gavin Trippe created a made-for-TV race that borrowed from the concept of the Grand National Championship. Dubbed the Superbikers, the single annual event was created to attract top riders from a variety of racing series and pit them against one another on a track that combined asphalt and dirt. The event evolved rapidly with all the major manufacturers showing up each year with impressive purpose-built, one-off machines. The Superbikers provided some great racing among a cadre of diverse top-tier champions who would have otherwise never found themselves on the same track. Although enjoying respectable success into the ‘80s as an ABC Wide World of Sports broadcast, the Superbikers ultimately failed to garner traction beyond the annual race and was eventually shelved. Ironically, in the ensuing years, the Superbikers concept found new life in Europe as “supermotard,” which then crossed back across the pond two decades later to become known in the U.S. as supermoto. In the late ‘90s and into the early 2000s, supermoto enjoyed the limelight as a burgeoning sport before the enthusiasm inexplicably waned.
With shades of the ancient Greek Games, the idea of a series to decide the best all-around rider still holds merit. The concept begs serious consideration — if even just for the sake of conversation — at how such a series could be created and what disciplines it would involve. Imagine a modern two-wheel Pentathlon consisting of five disciplines with riders specializing and training for the diversity of riding styles and machinery, competing to become a true Grand National Champion.
Without question the two most popular forms of motorcycle competition worldwide are roadracing and motocross — with supercross being a serious contender to traditional motocross. Therefore the series would undoubtedly consist of those two base disciplines. From there it gets less certain. Flat track would be a natural format given the history of the championship. Of course, throwing a bike sideways at 130 mph on a mile dirt track is a discipline that requires a good amount of experience, so perhaps limit this category to half-mile, or perhaps even the less insane short track or TT. Then, to take it even further into the realm of true variety, what if you had observed trials or hill climb, or maybe even a short off-road rally in the vein of Dakar — say three days as opposed to the Dakar’s fifteen?
The concept of inventing a whole new genre of racing that could become popular with spectators and respected by racers isn’t that far-fetched. Supercross, which today enjoys phenomenal status, started out as a once-a-year event known as The Superbowl of Motocross. In 1972 promoter Mike Goodwin conjured the somewhat (at the time) ludicrous idea of filling up the Los Angeles Coliseum with dirt and putting on a motocross race. Motocross purists felt it was a bit of a gimmick, a pale sideshow spin-off of their beloved sport. But the race attracted top Americans and Europeans and introduced motorcycle racing to a large segment of the general public who otherwise would have never made the trek to a traditional outdoor MX venue. The notion that the event would eventually morph into its own series over time and come to compete with — and eventually overshadow — the till-then hallowed realm of traditional motocross was unthinkable. But there it is.
There are a number of roadracers who go very fast on a motocross bike. Conversely there are motocrossers who have dabbled in pavement with impressive results. The fact is that most riders who have achieved success in one particular discipline, especially at an international level, whether it be MX, roadracing, rally, speedway, etc., tend to possess a certain amount of confidence and ability that carries over to other two-wheel formats. You have to wonder how some of today’s top MotoGP, WSBK and AMA roadracers would stack up against the current crop of top-ranked motocrossers, rally riders and flat trackers over a range of events. In time, if the series was a success, riders would start to specialize in the program and then you would see some amazing racing. The most interesting aspect of this concept would be the reality that most likely there would be no runaway star sweeping the series. The degree of diversity involved would translate into multiple race winners with consistency and adaptability being key. As a result the points chase would get very interesting, rewarding the most versatile rider.
Could this new “Motorcycle Grand Championship” have any traction in an increasingly specialized motorcycling world? We may never know.