Recently my old school friend Ronnie Welch sent me a bunch of pictures from TVRC’s annual “King of the Ant Hill” race in Texas. If you were under the misguided belief that pitbike races were some new phenomenon, well, let me assure you that the only thing truly new in dirt biking is the backflip.

There were plenty of cool XR75s, including some single-shock models using aftermarket swingarms. But Ronnie was representin’ for all the Po’ Boys who had to ride ’em like they came from the factory. His beater SL70 was sporting nothing more than a Green Weenie filter and a DG-style megaphone.

Wish I had been there. I have two SL70 project bikes sitting around the house here somewhere if I can ever get back to them…

pitbike_gate

pitbike_start

xr75-single

mediazone_noticeLast week I got email notification that MediaZone is closing their Moto Channel. This is a big disappointment to me, as I just signed up for a 1-year subscription when I watched the MXdN on live video.

MediaZone will refund my subscription fee on a pro-rated basis, but the money isn’t really the problem. I’m disappointed that what seemed to be a really good service for catching all the GPs has gone by the wayside.

I don’t know anything about what motivated the closure, and the email gave no reason. But if you read my post on The right broadcast model for motocross you know I think full length video on the web is the right way forward for MX.

I suspect MediaZone lost their agreement with YouthStream, or the licensing fees went way up, or maybe there just weren’t enough subscribers to pay the fees. I don’t know. But I do know it’s a loss.

Over on Eternal Two Stroke Derrick Harris is talking about the same topic in his post Which “M” is in?. Derrick points to this cool video highlight site for Australian Supercross.

Personally, I’m not happy with highlights. I want full race coverage. If not live, at least same day. And I’m willing to pay for it. Hopefully, MX Sports will be able to negotiate something along those lines in the near future. For now, we’ll have to get by on the oddly structured SPEED TV coverage.

I got my call sign assignment from the FCC yesterday — KJ4HFJ. That seems a little unwieldy to me, but maybe I’ll get used to it. Kilo-Juliette-4-Hotel-Foxtrot-Juliette. For $12 I can get a vanity call sign (a bit like vanity license plates.) I might do that and get something I can remember like K4TWF — Kilo-4-Tango-Whiskey-Foxtrot.

sandblasterOne of the tools I’ve always wanted is a blaster for cleaning metal. A blast cabinet would be nice, for doing small parts in an enclosed area. But I wanted a bigger unit that would also let me work on frames and bigger pieces.

A couple of years ago I bought a 60-gallon, two-cylinder, 12 CFM compressor that was on close-out (about $350, I think) at Lowes. I had an electrician come in and wire a 220 outlet into my garage and hook it up. But I never used it. Not even once. I never even turned it on except to be sure it ran. I didn’t have any piping or anything. So, like most of my projects, it sat for a year and a half while I went on to other things.

Back in the spring I bought a spinner bike that had been in a fire. It’s a nice unit — a Lemond Revmaster — but the paint was pretty badly smoke damaged. I plan to rebuild it and I have all the parts, but I needed to paint the frame. Before I can paint I need to get the burned powder coat off. Sanding it by hand was not getting me anywhere — there are just too many nooks and crannies and odd angles. I needed a sand blaster! At least, that’s what I told myself.

So I went to Tractor Supply and bought one of their 20-gallon pressure pots for $129. It’s made by Clarke Products and is, at best, a piece of Chinese crap. But I knew that going in. Really, it’s not too bad. I mean, a metal tank is pretty much a metal tank. It’s just that the fittings and manifolds and filter/gauge are junk. The pressure gauge was actually broken on the one I bought.

So I bought a better pressure gauge at Sears ($10) and, using some Black Diamond blast media I got at Tractor Supply I tried blasting. It didn’t work at all. Clogged up immediately and wouldn’t blast a wet paper bag. I was unhappy.

So I started reading the stickers on the side and one of them said, “Use only 80-grit or finer media.” I don’t know anything about blasting grit, but it looked to me that the Black Diamond I bought was pretty coarse. It didn’t say anything about grit on the package. So I dug around on the internet and found some info that said it was probably 30-60 grit.

Aha! I thought. I need finer material. So I did more research, talked to a couple of people, and learned that I needed something called Star Blast. It’s about 100-grit, and I bought it locally at a blasting specialty shop downtown for $10/50lb bag.

I came home and tried it again. It worked better. But after a little bit the sun started to set, the temperature went down, and suddenly my blast nozzle was spluttering, spitting, and spewing water. Bad. I Looked at the cheap Chinese filter and thought it was at least part of the problem (I can’t afford an $900 chiller/dryer right now.) The next day I had to go to a plumbing supply house so I stopped by Northern Tool on the way home and bought an Ingersoll-Rand filter for $50. I put that on and tried it again.

Sure enough it worked better. But the unit still didn’t work very well. It just didn’t put out enough volume and the pressure in the tank wouldn’t stay high enough to do the job.

When I hooked it up I used a 3/8″ ID hose, because that was all I had fittings for. I had a 1/2″ ID hose, just no fittings for it. So today I went to the hardware store and bought the necessary fittings and adapters to connect the bigger hose to the unit.

Voila! It works like it should now. 30% more air volume did the trick. The compressor is big enough to keep it full, but the little hose was choking it down. Now the unit will stay at about a constant 70psi, which is enough to do a decent job of blasting. I will eventually replace the fittings with American units of better quality, and maybe look for some way to replace the manifolds — which are threaded with straight 3/8″ threads instead of tapered pipe threads, so they don’t seal well. But as a blaster it works quite well now, much faster than before. At some point I might even try upgrading to an even larger, custom-made 5/8″ ID or 3/4″ ID supply hose.

Still, blasting takes some time, and some technique. Adjusting the amount of material that comes through the hose is important for both efficiency and effectiveness. I have learned there is an art to taking off as much material as possible with each pass of the nozzle. The angle matters a lot. And it is still tedious. Even though I believe I have the unit working at full capacity now, blasting a whole frame is quite the undertaking.

It could easily take 5-6 bags of media, which is $50-$60. I don’t know of any way to recycle media when you’re blasting outside. Not to mention the mess that much media makes in the driveway. I will probably just blast all the welds and hard to reach areas, then sand and feather the flat surfaces into the blasted metal.

The Star Blast does a great job. At 100-grit it doesn’t remove much metal at all, and it leaves pretty much a primer-ready surface — not at all the rough surface you see with commercial aluminum oxide blasting. I could basically wipe it down and prime it once I’m through. That’s nice.

So the bottom line for effective blasting is you need lots of clean, dry air. Getting that in a home shop is not necessarily cheap or easy. But it makes the job a lot easier. I have some old CZ engine cases that aren’t good for much so once I finish the frame I will try blasting those to see what it does to the aluminum. I also have some broken magnesium hubs that I might try it on, too. I will post pictures of the blasted frame before I paint it.

The press conference this morning revealed the big changes coming for the 2009 season. 2009 is the first year that MX Sports will own the series. The big hitters are:

  • New class names — 250 and 450. Imagine that. Somebody actually listens to Jody Weisel.
  • Tracks — all the same tracks as 2008.
  • Races — still two 30+2 motos, folks. 450 class will run first.
  • TV — 3 live races on SPEED. All others broadcast same day at 10:00pm ET. 250 races on the following Tues. First motos, both classes, live and free on the internets.
  • No. 1 plates — If you’re a defending champ you have to run the Numero Uno. That’s the way it should be.
  • No Side plates — side numbers no longer required. Transponders have rendered them unnecessary and you can’t read them anyway. So the riders are now free to add more “bold new graphics”.

Also, the WMA gets a lot more coverage in 2009 with 8 National events, SPEED and internet coverage. You can infer from this announcement that two-stroke and four-stroke bikes of equal displacement will have to compete against each other. We’ll have to see what this means in practice. Will there even be any two-strokes since all the MX manufacturers have pretty much given in to Honda’s marketing assassination of the ring-dingers? We can hope.

Given all the wild rumors floating around about what would, and would not, happen I’d say this is a great start for rebirth of MX. I give Davey Coombs and the entire MX Sports organization an A+ for their first foray in the Pro Motocross management role.

This is not really about motorcycling, except that I got the idea to do this from a post on the Wild Goose Moto Guzzi discussion board. I’ve been thinking about some way to have communications on my street bike for a while. Emergency communications mainly but, ultimately, I want to be able to do bike-to-bike with other riders.

I looked into a lot of different walkie-talkie radio systems. The cheaper units (under $150) all got bad user reviews. I concluded that they are basically junk. The more expensive ones cost as much as handheld Ham sets and you still have the issue of having to have matched units to talk to anyone else.

In my research of available options I saw a post by a Guzzi rider showing the water-resistant, mil-spec Ham unit he uses. The idea of having a licensed radio that could reach repeaters and such seemed like a good idea, especially since the best riding roads are often off the cell phone grid — at least if you have a Sprint cell phone.

I like the idea of having a license to operate it. The test is not hard. Anyone who puts in even a little effort can pass it. But that’s the deal, you have to put in at least some effort and it’s clear that operating a Ham radio is a privilege, not a right. The privilege comes with an obligation to know the rules, abide by them, and act responsibly. I like that. And there is a lot more to Ham radio than just walkie-talkie function.

I’ll get to explore that over the coming years, and I look forward to it. I don’t have anyone to talk with yet — at least not on the bike. But that’s ok. I don’t have a radio yet. I don’t have a call sign either. But the FCC will assign that in a few days. I’ll post it here when I know it. In the mean time, let me know if you’re an operator interested in motorcycles. Maybe we can have a rag chew.

In today’s Racerhead column Davey Combs announced a press conference to be held tomorrow morning at the MGM Grand Hotel. Coombs will announce some of MX Sports’ plans for the 2009 Pro MX season. There have been a lot of discomfiting rumors flying about. Many sound far-fetched, to me. But you never know. Hopefully we’ll get answers that put the worst of them to bed.

The following was posted on RacerX today:

Monster Mountain MX Park, one of the premier facilities in the Southeast, is for sale. Built into the beautiful rolling hills of Central Alabama by MX legend Mark Barnett and Glen Bates, the facility offers MX, Lighted SX, GP, Pit Bike, and seven miles of trails spread over its 200 acres. Concession stand, bathrooms with showers, and a newly constructed 4000 square foot steel building containing a 1500 square foot residence. Serious inquiries only please. Contact us at 334-799-5931 or Andy@MonsterMX.com

This is a very cool facility. I’ve had the chance to ride a couple of vintage events there. I hate to see it go on the block again. I know it’s changed hands a couple of times already since it was built. The maintenance costs of a facility like this are enormous and, being in the deep south and not close to a major population center (the greater Montgomery area has fewer than 350,000 people) I’m sure it’s hard to make a go of it.

That’s the tragedy of our time — you need to be close to a population center with about 1 million people to support a facility like this, but you can’t find or afford the land in those areas. It’s the kind of track where you could hold a national, but the facility would need lots of upgrades. And the population just isn’t there.

I wish the owners good luck. I hate to see another fine facility bite the dust.

Here’s a great MX story by Rick Sieman, aka Super Hunky, rider, racer, and former editor of Dirt Bike Magazine. Hunky has been everywhere, done everything, and has more stories than any 10 normal people. He’s an undisputed icon in the dirt bike world.

My friend and fellow Weedie Bill Ramsey, owner of Motorcycle Accessory Shop in Mesa, AZ, recorded this little video at an AZ awards banquet. Bill wants some support to get Rick to sit down with a mic and a video camera and record lots of his stories. Rick has already put his stories into the highly entertaining book “Monkey Butt” (available on his site,) but I think video is a fantastic idea. Video can capture a person in a way that print never can. Sometimes this is good, sometimes it’s bad. But this sample shows that with Rick, it’s good.

As many of you know, Rick is battling prostate cancer. Things look good for him at present, and all our hopes are that he continues for a full recovery. But this still serves as a reminder that none of our legends live forever and now is a great time to get SH to put his legacy on video.

If you would also like to see this please take a moment to post a comment in support. Maybe we can show enough enthusiasm that Rick will take the bait.

dutch_satellite_dishesLast weekend I got up early (too early, it turns out) to watch the MXdN live video feed via MediaZone. I really enjoyed it — well worth the $24.99 I paid for a year’s subscription that also buys me full coverage of the 2009 GP season and access to the archives for 2005–2008. If you want a recap of the coverage itself see Davey Coombs’ Racerhead #40 over at RacerX.

What I want to talk about is a realization I had while watching — that Internet video is the right medium for motocross. Not broadcast TV.

It’s no new idea that motocross is a niche sport. I think we all know this and, to my mind, it always will be. A big niche, perhaps, but a niche nonetheless. It’s a special sport. A different sport. It’s an extreme sport, but not a circus like Supercross. There is a history, a mind set, and a culture that are inherent in the way man and machine attack the terrain and the elements. There is an endurance aspect that simply doesn’t exist in other forms of closed course competition. It is not a complicated sport, yet it requires understanding.

None of this fits neatly into 1–hour, commercial-laden segments of American broadcast TV. The sport, at it’s core, does not match up well with normal, accepted TV practices for niche sports — 8 minutes of action punctuated by 1.5–2.5 minutes of commercials. Then repeat the cycle over and over.

It’s unrealistic to think motocross will ever get a regular 3–4 hours of live network coverage like NASCAR. Just won’t happen. We’re even unlikely to get extended coverage of once-a-year events like the Indy 500 or Petite LeMans can do. The best we can hope for is the foreshortened, summarized coverage of one moto or the other that is shown by SPEED TV. And the truth is, from a race fan perspective, that coverage is pretty poor. I don’t mean to bash SPEED. I’m grateful they show it. I understand the limitations, I know why it is what it is.

Start with the internet in mind

And that’s my point. In all the discussions of “going mainstream” and getting bigger audiences and live TV I’ve tried to maintain an open mind. There are a lot of people at MXSportswho are far smarter and more experienced than I. They are sincerely interested in doing the best thing for the sport — their livelihoods now depend on it. Besides, I never had a clear vision of what should happen, vs. what is being proposed to happen. It’s clear to me now that what should happen is a comprehensive plan to develop the future of the sport (and perhaps all niche sports) around Internet video.

The for-pay, real-time and on-demand video of the MXoN was excellent. It was a bit small on screen, but that’s the limit of current bandwidth and technology. Hopefully it will get better, but I was happy to pay for it. I got my coffee and sat in front of my nice LCD monitor and kicked back to watch the races. I chose to watch it live, but I didn’t have to. I could have gone riding in the morning and come home to watch it afterwards with the same effect. I have since watched portions of it again.

I didn’t suffer through commercial interruptions that broke up the races based on contracted commercial time, or a video editor’s idea of a good time-point to insert meaningless drivel. I didn’t suffer through commercials at all. There was plenty of screen real estate that could have been used for clickable adverts had MediaZone chosen to do so, but there weren’t any.

This is the viewing experience that befits motocross — not commercial, broadcast TV. Yet I fear that we may well abandon the fundamental personality of the sport in pursuit of something we can never achieve — mainstream, commercial television appeal.

The challenges of broadcast

I have no idea of the financials at work in this. The facilities expense for doing decent coverage is the same, whether you’re sending the signal out via commercial broadcast or on-demand. I don’t know enough to know whether on-demand is a viable model, but if we can’t get enough paying on-demand customers to make it go, how is it we’re going to draw enough sponsors to make a commercial broadcast viable? Maybe the difference is that in the US there is a well-established entity — SPEED TV — that can manage the broadcast logistics and the hope is that a package can be devised that will convince them to pay lots of money for the rights. Just remember that when Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation bought SpeedChannel in 2001 the plan was to make it into a 24–hour NASCAR channel. This has implications I’ll discuss in a moment.

Either way, we may still have to give up certain fundamental elements, like the beautiful, natural terrain courses in the middle of nowhere that used to be the heart of MX. Tracks bulldozed out of the infields of road race courses are Supercross tracks, not MX. Thankfully, the AMA contract for SX stipulates that any facility with more than 30,000 fixed seats is SX. But that still leaves a lot of potential facilities that aren’t really suitable for MX. But I digress.

I realize the driving motivation for all this TV talk is to bring in more money — money that can give promoters more capital for improving facilities, pay riders better purses, and provide a better overall experience for fans. I hope this works. But I also know this whole process has been done. It’s called Supercross. And it is not motocross.

The audience matters

If you look at what does get lots TV coverage, it’s clear that the mainstream TV audience is just not right for MX. I mean, really, SPEED TV reruns the same Monster Truck shows over and over at 6:00pm every day. There is obviously a huge audience for this motorized version of the WWE.

Want another indicator? Look at the coverage given to the MXoN on the most popular, dedicated, multi-disciplinary racing show in the US — Dave Despain’s Wind Tunnel. On the day the US claimed their 19th victory, the MXoN — one of, if not the, largest outdoor off-road motorcycle events in the world — got barely a mention. This unprecedented domination of a huge international event didn’t even warrant a still photo of Stewart or Villopoto taking the checker. That says something important about where we fit in the overall scheme of TV spectator motorsports. Despain is a motorcycle fan. The night of MXoN he had Ricky Carmichael in studio talking about his stock car racing. On tonight’s show he had James Stewart talking about his switch of Supercross teams. But motocross races don’t make the cut.

The 900-lb gorilla of motorsports, NASCAR is also sports entertainment. There hasn’t been a technical development for street cars or any level of consumer technology to come out of NASCAR in decades. The entire discipline is micro-managed to the smallest degree to remove as much technology as possible from the racing equation. NASCAR is pure entertainment, and there is a huge audience for this.

But it’s not the technically literate, participatory audience that is drawn to motorcycle racing. The motorcycle racing community is all about technology, performance, and improvement. This little disconnect is at the heart of the goat rodeo that has paralyzed professional road racing in the months since AMA Pro Racing was purchased by NASCAR-centric DMG. While motocross is an entertaining sport, it is not sports entertainment. The difference is big and significant.

I will still keep an open mind about whatever comes out of the current management meetings. MXSports is as good as anyone to shepherd the sport forward. But I sincerely hope they do not get sidetracked by the lure of an unattainable goal. Preserving the soul of our sport should be the first priority.