evs_rc-evoThere were a handful of new safety products announced at Indy. I didn’t see them all but I did get a chance to see a couple of them up close and talk to the manufacturers. EVS Sports announced their RC-Evolution Race Collar, a less expensive competitor to the Leatt Brace. The RC-Evo is similar in design to their RC3 foam collar, but has much larger plastic support pieces and a molded helmet cradle similar to the Leatt. The pre-production prototype on display at the show was a little rough – it’s definitely not as nicely finished as a Leatt, but it retails for $200 less as well. It’s terrific to see more neck protection options coming on the market. We do not know nearly enough about the effectiveness of these devices and it can only help to get a broader range of ideas and price points into the market. For my money everyone on a dirt bike should wear some form of neck protection, but we don’t have enough data to say for sure what type of protection. Not everyone is willing to pay for a Leatt and I’m glad to see less expensive options beginning to appear.

Patrick Lynch, motorsports director for Shock Doctor, showed me some very nice impact shorts that are under development. They don’t list them on their site yet and I don’t have a picture, but think about something like baseball sliding pants or SixSixOne’s Bomber shorts, except with a flex padding that looks like black, high-density bubble wrap. It’s a new material that’s supposed to provide good protection with a low profile while maintaining good fit, light weight, and durability. It looked like a much better option than standard compression shorts and did not seem nearly as bulky as some of the other options currently on the market. No word on availability or price.

bell_moto8_whiteThe best item I saw was the new 2008 Bell Moto-8. Back in my day the only helmet to have was a Bell. If you drove cars you might wear a Simpson, but if you rode bikes you wore a Bell – unless you were a dweeb who wore something from Montgomery Ward or K-Mart. There’s a pretty sordid back story about what happened to Bell — product liability issues, stupid decisions by management, corporate divestiture, clueless money-grubbing, horrible outsourcing, zero quality control, and an extremely questionable character. But move forward to 2002–03 and Bell Powersports, the corporate entity, buys back the Bell name and rights and begins a new product development program. It’s taken about five years to get it right, but the result of that program is the 2008 Bell Moto-8. I had a chance to talk with the Bell’s marketing director who confirmed much of what I thought I knew about Bell’s history. According to him the company has been working very hard to correct those problems.

They have created a state-of-the-art research, design, and testing center in Santa Cruz, CA., where helmets are tested both during design and production phases. According to Bell the production standards for the new Moto-8 were so strict that the company fired two different manufacturers before they settled on one that could consistently meet their specs. The new helmet shell uses a complex weave of Kevlar, carbon fiber, and fiberglass that provides high durability with extremely light weight. The shell design also underwent extensive wind tunnel testing to ensure the venting and airflow systems worked exactly as intended. Even the middle snap that usually holds the visor in place was removed because it interfered with airflow. In it’s place is a unique twist-lock mechanism on each side of the adjustable visor that secures it in place with a simple twist.

I put one on and can say it is the best-fitting helmet I have ever worn. I have tried both Shoei and Arai and the Bell fit me better than either. It was snug, but without a single pressure point. And it didn’t smash my cheeks in to give me that classic chipmunk look. The Moto-8 shell is shaped differently than any other Bell helmet, so you can’t judge its fit by trying another Bell helmet. You need to try on the Moto-8.

The finish quality was outstanding. This is a beautiful helmet. At $350–$395 the Moto-8 is targeted squarely at the Shoei and Arai markets. It’s not cheap. It isn’t hand-made, and it isn’t hand-painted, but in every other respect I’d bet it’s the equal of them in quality. It’s likely I’ll be wearing one for the 2008 season.

There’s a video review of the Moto-8 over at motocross.com. Oh, stay away from bellhelmets.com. This is not Bell Powersports but is instead a web store run by the guy who is responsible for the total crapification of Bell motorcycle helmets in the ‘90s. He has been accused, more than once, of misleading customers and misrepresenting products on his site. Bell has forced him to put language on the site stating he’s not affiliated with them, but it’s not a real forceful disclaimer. They need to stop the guy from selling their product altogether but I guess they can’t for some reason. Go buy your Bell from a legitimate dealer and be sure you get the Spring 2008 model that is Snell M2005 certified. This is not your father’s Moto-8.

leatt-braceMy new Leatt brace arrived today. Ordered it from BTO Sports. I also ordered an EVS Revolution 5 body armor which is designed to fit around the Leatt.

Last Friday I got my new Organic air-cushion body armor from RXR Protect North America. RXR got me setup with one to test with the Leatt. The plan is to try the Leatt with both pieces of body armor and see which works best and what I think about each, and then do a little report for the VMX community. We old guys have to watch our bones. Once you get past 40 your bones start to get brittle, even if you have good bone density. Get-offs that you would have walked away from at 35 will put you in a hospital at 45. And that’s no fun. So safety and protection are the name of the game for the happy VMX racer.

rxrlogoGot my RXR Protect Organic chest protector today. Thanks to Chris Favro of RXR Protect North America for fixing me up with a sweet deal so I can test this with the new Leatt Brace. After talking with Chris we determined that the best path forward was to just get one and see how it worked. The RXR is not designed specifically for the Leatt, and some riders have liked it, others not. I promised Chris I’d test them together and share my findings with the VMX community via this website and McCookRacing.com. Unfortunately, it looks like that’s going to be a little ways down the road, as work and travel are making it almost impossible to get any saddle time and it will be hectic until the Holidays. But hopefully I can get in a little riding before then.


red-cross-flagToday I ordered some modern protective equipment – a neck brace and a couple of different chest/body armour units to try with it. The neck brace I bought is the Leatt, the new and somewhat controversial HANS-style device invented and patented by South African Dr. Jeff Leatt. For core protection I ordered an EVS Revolution 5 that is designed for the Leatt, and an RXR Protect Organic.

First released about a year ago, the Leatt has gotten a lot of publicity and raised a lot of arguments both for and against its use. Former riders such as David Bailey and Danny Chandler have spoken out strongly in favor of the brace. As far as I know there haven’t been any riders speak out strongly against it, but it certainly hasn’t been adopted by riders everywhere, for a variety of reasons.

The most common argument against the device is the absence of substantial field-level proof that it actually works as claimed. Such arguments are inherent in any new equipment of this type and will be resolved over time – either favoring or discrediting the Leatt. In the meantime there are a number of riders who feel the unknowns about the device make it not worth the cost, inconvenience, or restriction in range of motion.

But for me it seems to be the right choice to try one. From what I read of the riders who use the Leatt it takes a little getting used to but soon fades from your perception as a rider, blending into the background such that you hardly notice it. This has certainly been the case with the Asterisk Cell knee braces I use. Once laced up and seated on the bike they all but disappear from my consciousness. If the Leatt provides even a modicum of protection against Spinal Cord Injury (SCI), and I suspect it provides more than that based on my reading of the design and research papers, while tasking me no more than my knee braces I will be a very happy camper.

But before making this decision I had to resolve a couple of vintage issues in my mind. Vintage racing is fun, and one of the enjoyable aspects of the hobby is reliving the atmosphere and environment from “back in the day.” For me that meant wearing vintage leather Hi-Point boots, an open-face helmet, old hockey-style shoulder pads, and other early-‘70s era gear. That was part of the fun. But the reality is we’re still racing motorcycles, and we still fall off. While I’m a pretty conservative and thoughtful rider – taking care to stay within my limits and keep my head on straight – there are still times in each race where things can go wrong. And I had to ask myself, “What’s more important – having the look and feel of the ‘70s in my outfit, or taking advantage of the vastly improved technology we have today to minimize my chance of serious injury?”

Giving up the vintage look is not a small matter. It’s not the same to be out on the starting gate with a bunch of ‘74 MX bikes and guys in rugby shirts when you’re decked out in the latest techno-garb. But then again, my goal is to keep riding as long and as healthily as possible, not pose for the best pictures. And then there is the “macho” factor – is all that protective gear really necessary? Anyone who’s ever suffered an SCI will tell you yes. Hell yes. Wear the gear. Get the brace, Whatever. Just take as many steps as you reasonably can to prevent SCIs. We all know riding and racing motorcycles is riskier than babysitting, washing the car, or playing basketball. We all know it’s more dangerous than watching football on TV. But that doesn’t mean we blithely accept the idea of debilitating injury. Bumps, bruises, and even the occasional fracture are part of the game – especially as we get older. But we’ve still got to go to work and make a living. Wheelchairs are not part of the long-term plan.

I’m guessing there’s not a single motorcycle-related cervical SCI victim today who wouldn’t go back in time and wear a device like the Leatt – proven or not – if they could do so before their accident. Life with an SCI is miserable. Life with a cervical SCI can be worse than death. So I will try to accommodate the vintage fashion police by keeping my helmet white, my pants and jersey plain and unadorned by modern graphics. I’ll keep most of my specialized protective gear under my clothes. But my boots will be modern and among the best our modern technology can provide. My helmet will be a new full-face model with modern features. And my neck will be surrounded by the best device that modern medical research and development has yet devised.

I can still get hurt. I can still suffer an SCI. Hell, I came really close 10 years ago when I broke three vertebrae in my lower back by rolling a pickup truck at 50 MPH – a far worse injury than I ever suffered on a motorcycle. Nothing is perfect. But I’ll feel better knowing I’ve stacked the odds a little bit in my favor. And I suspect my subconscious will let me ride a little freer, a little looser, have a bit more fun. And that’s what this is all about anyway.

stingley_caoakOn Aug. 12, 1978 Darryl Stingley, a wide receiver for the NFL’s New England Patriots, was leaping for a pass he had no chance of catching. Stingley was airborne, his body almost parallel to the ground, arms outstretched. Jack Tatum, a defensive back for the Oakland Raiders, was running at full speed toward Stingley. Tatum launched himself, missile-like, at Stingley’s head. In one thunderous, perfectly legal collision Tatum’s helmet collided with Stingley’s, and Darryl Stingley’s life changed forever. His 4th and 5th vertebrae were crushed and his spinal cord was severed. (Source: “Darryl Stingley: Happy to be Alive” by Darryl Stingley with Mark Mulvoy.) Stingley would spend the next 29 years, until his death early in 2007, as a quadriplegic.

On February 18, 2001 the 43rd running of the Daytona 500 NASCAR race was underway. In the last turn of the last lap of what would become a key turning point in NASCAR history, Dale Earnhardt’s car hit the wall in what seemed to be a routine, for NASCAR, crash. Though the angle of impact was pretty severe, the crash did not appear life-threatening to observers. But they were wrong. Dale Earnhardt was dead. Investigation would later reveal that Earnhardt died instantly of head trauma. (Source: CNNSI Dale Earnhardt Chronology)

A responsible governing body takes action

What does this have to do with MX/SX and the AMA? Nothing. And everything. In the spring of 1980 the NFL rules committee instituted the first of a series of changes to protect the head and neck area of players and later to prevent players from using the front or top of helmet to strike another. Over time the NFL increased the severity of penalties for such hits to the point players could be ejected from the game and/or fined for flagrant offenses, as well as working to educate both players and referees about the dangers. The changes, often denounced by players and fans for making the game “too soft,” were designed to ensure the long-term health of the sport and to try and put some limits on a game that thrives on violence.

Immediately after Earnhardt’s death NASCAR launched a significant investigation. Independent medical experts were brought in to review the accident records and autopsy report. Ultimately, NASCAR would conclude that Dale Earnhardt died of a severe whip-lash that fractured his skull. But before the controversy ended Bill Simpson, founder of Simpson Safety Equipment and maker of Earnhardt’s seat harness, was forced to resign. And NASCAR officials were under intense scrutiny for how they handled the situation.

By November 2001 NASCAR had formally mandated a head-neck restraint device for all drivers in its Winston (Nextel) Cup, Busch Grand National, and Craftsman Truck series (Source: Jeff Gordon online.) Both major open-wheel racing associations – CART and F1 – had done the same. Numerous drivers complained about the devices, claiming they impaired peripheral vision increasing the chance of accidents, gave them claustrophobia decreasing their ability to concentrate, and could potentially cause other injuries in non-life threatening crashes. Despite the protests the devices were required in an effort to ensure the long-term health of the sport and return the risk of death to the periphery of racing, where it belongs.

Contrast this to what happens in MX/SX. I’m not going to waste space here recounting specific incidents. But if you are an MX/SX fan you know all too well the stories of David Bailey, Danny Chandler, Chase Borders, James Marshall, Ernesto Fonseca, Donovan Mitchell, Jimmy Button, and dozens of others who have suffered spinal cord injuries. Add to that the numerous occurrences of severe concussion and brain trauma that have left racers fully or partially disabled for weeks, months, and sometimes forever.

Yet there are no investigations of these accidents. There is no formal program, even at the national event level, to try and categorically understand the causes of these injuries or ways to prevent them. And there is certainly no movement to require the use of safety devices that might preclude or reduce the severity of such injuries.

And therein lies the problem. A governing body whose sole function was to protect, nurture, and grow the sport of MX/SX – and whose long-term financial health was tied directly to the health of the sport – would be aggressive about protecting the talent on which the sport is built. Such a governing body would, at its core, understand that racing is a talent-based entertainment business and, while part of the excitement is risk and danger, long-term success requires that the talent be able to show up every week and race. Consistently putting your talent in caskets or wheel chairs is just plain dumb. Letting your sport become too closely associated with permanent disability is irresponsible.

The NFL, NASCAR, CART, F1, and the IRL have figured this out. Even when it’s unpopular these organizations make safety decisions if they think it’s for the long-term betterment of their sport. But not the AMA.

The root of conflict

The AMA believes motorcyclists have individual rights and should be allowed to choose their safety equipment. The AMA’s position in support of voluntary helmet use says the following:

Although the Association strongly encourages helmet use by all motorcyclists, it maintains a long-standing fundamental belief that adults should continue to have the right to voluntarily decide when to wear a helmet.

The AMA opposes provisions conditioning rider choice of helmet use on economic criteria such as, but not limited to, additional insurance coverage, which is based on the negative and incorrect view that motorcyclists are a social burden. The AMA believes accepting such requirements is contrary to the long-term interests of motorcycling.

This position may well be the correct one for an organization that represents 100,000+ street riders. But it is certainly not appropriate for a governing body that wants to promote and protect a high-risk activity like MX/SX racing. Can you imagine if NASCAR or CART or the NFL tried to operate in today’s world with such a philosophy?

I’m not suggesting that the AMA, or anyone else, doesn’t care about safety. God knows, there was ample uproar after Ernesto Fonseca’s injury to make it clear that people both inside and outside the AMA are worried about this. And I’m not even suggesting that the AMA, or anyone else, should be mandating some specific safety device such as the Leatt brace.

What I am suggesting is that there is a reason why, despite all the outcry and good intentions, nothing (or at least very little) happens.

That reason is that the AMA is in fundamental conflict. The AMA’s allegiance to street riders – comprising two-thirds of its core purpose of Rights, Riding, and Racing – and its subsequent position on safety equipment, are in fact in fundamental conflict with the philosophies held by other well-governed sports organizations. And this conflict has consequences.

Such a conflict makes the AMA slow to address safety issues if such action might be seen as infringing on a rider’s individual rights. It took the AMA until 2007 to mandate something as simple and non-controversial as the Hats Off Emergency Helmet Removal device. The chances of mandating something as controversial as the Leatt brace – setting aside for the moment arguments about its effectiveness – in such circumstances are nil. And you can forget about mandating equipment such as chest protectors, back protectors, etc.

In a world where MX/SX was run by a dedicated organization – one whose primary focus was to promote, protect, and grow the sport for the long-term –  rider safety would likely be a priority. If nothing else the public outcry from the recent rash of horrific injuries would be forcing the organization to put resources into research, understanding, and experimenting to solve the problems.

But in a world where racing governance must compete with street rider’s rights, and where resources must be shared among street riders, historic preservation, government relations, and all manner of other worthwhile but unrelated motorcycle issues, indecision and the requirement to reach consensus before acting will continue to paralyze safety efforts in the same way injury is paralyzing our racers.