Ryan Villopoto sent out a tweet earlier today saying he will be on Sunday’s (11APR2010) Wind Tunnel with Dave Despain for a live interview. I’m a big fan of Despain. Even though Wind Tunnel is 80% NASCAR, Despain does his best to get the moto guys on the show. As Dave said a couple of years ago… “Of course there’s too ?*^!$^% much NASCAR on the network. There’s too $!?*#&% many NASCAR fans. And whose fault is that? It sure as hell isn’t mine.”
I frequently make reference to NASCAR when discussing MX/SX racing, MX/SX governance, and the general business of motorsports. And just as frequently someone rolls their eyes and remarks “Motocross is not NASCAR.”
Yep. I got that. You see, it’s pretty obvious. After the NFL, NASCAR may be the most popular sports business in the US. It’s inarguably the most popular motorsport. MX/SX is not. NASCAR enjoys legendary, life-long fan loyalty. MX/SX does not. Despite the fact that NASCAR’s growth rate is slowing, NASCAR events can still draw anywhere from 90,000 to 240,000 attendees. MX/SX, well, you know.
I definitely get it. The question is, do you? Do you think there might be a reason the Greatest Of All Time is leaving MX/SX to try and get into NASCAR? Do you understand that there just might be some valuable lessons to learn by studying a motorsports organization as effective as NASCAR? Do you grasp the fact that MX/SX, while definitely unique in content, may not be unique as a business? In fact, it just might have more in common with NASCAR, F1, CART, etc. than we’d like to admit. And maybe, just maybe if we ran MX/SX more like a dedicated motorsports business we’d be able to solve some of the issues that seem to plague the sport.
So maybe we should stop being pissy and actually take a careful look at what NASCAR, F1, etc. do well and see if we can learn something about how to make our own sport better. Keep in mind that NASCAR, as a private corporation, doesn’t publish much info about its internal structure and operations so what follows is based on my own observations over the years and what I can find on web sites. You’re welcome to send in corrections and clarifications.
One Leader, One Mission
One key characteristic is structure. NASCAR is not a committee. It’s a corporation and it’s run by one man, just like any other major corporation. For years it was Big Bill France. France was bigger than life and made all the decisions. In 1972 he passed the torch to his son Bill France Jr. who oversaw the organization’s phenomenal growth through the ‘80s and ‘90s. The following is from wikipedia but it’s pretty accurate from what I remember:
After serving as vice-president for six years, he became the head of NASCAR when his father Bill France, Sr. retired on January 10, 1972.  The International Motorsports Hall of Fame describes the transition: “Other than the founding of NASCAR itself, Bill Jr.’s appointment to leadership is probably the most significant event in the history of the sanctioning body.”  NASCAR went from a Southern regional sport to a national sport during his tenure. 
(By the way, according to wikipedia Bill Jr rode off-road motorcycles and competed in enduros in the ‘60s, going so far as to enter the Baja 1000 on a bike in the early ‘70s. I don’t have any validation for this point.) F1, arguably the second most successful motorsports franchise, has Bernie Ecclestone in a similar capacity.
Another characteristic is simplicity of mission. NASCAR has three racing divisions – Nextel Cup, Busch Grand National, and Craftsman Truck. They also encourage participating teams and tracks to provide support, via driver participation, promotion, etc. for lower levels of racing such as ARCA and dirt track events. But whatever NASCAR does, it is designed to capture fans, grow the sport, and increase revenues from racing. There is no distraction. NASCAR does not have a government relations committee to fight seat belt laws. It does not run museums to preserve the history of the automobile – NASCAR race cars and drivers, yes. But not the automobile. And while NASCAR creates fan events and promotions away from the track they are all single-mindedly directed at getting people to the races. There are no generic road rallys and car shows.
Having said that, the France family controls a number race tracks, including Daytona International Speedway and Talledega Speedway, via their controlling interest in International Speedway Corporation. But pretty much everything NASCAR and the France family does is focused directly on the growth, operation, and improvement of racing.
One mission, one leader, no competing priorities. If we look at other successful motorsports organizations we can see that the successful ones share the singleness of mission characteristic. The single, iconoclastic leader appears to be both blessing and curse. Tony George has, arguably, been the downfall of the IRL. But I can’t find any example where running a racing organization by committee led to lots of success.
All business, no politics
Another interesting characteristic is revenue. NASCAR doesn’t sell memberships or seek out corporate donations. Corporate sponsorships, yes. But not donations. NASCAR sells a talent-based product – racing – to a mass market audience. This hasn’t always been the case, but it is now. That’s the way it works in F1, CART, IRL, and pretty much all the big car series, too.
The major auto manufacturers don’t have a seat at the voting table when NASCAR makes policy decisions. Oh, they vote with their dollars. But they vote in a very different way. NASCAR’s job is to find the right mix of audience and exposure to make sure the auto makers want their name associated with the sport. But NASCAR doesn’t worry much about what the automakers think about their policy decisions. And they don’t worry about whether or not their racing program results in direct sales of cars by the Big 3 (and now Toyota.)
NASCAR has also really come to terms with the idea that the drivers are talent, and it treats the drivers in that way. Driver accessibility for the fans is phenomenal. Driver protection is also big on NASCAR’s list, as a talent-based business can’t survive if the talent winds up in hospitals all the time.
And now, the world of AMA MX/SX
So how does all this stack up against MX/SX as run by the AMA? First, I admit that we cannot compare MX/SX to today’s NASCAR in some key categories. The size of the sports makes a big difference in the way corporate relationships, sponsorships, TV deals, and revenue are managed. But NASCAR has not always been the 900–lb gorilla of motorsports. 35 years ago NASCAR was at best a regional attraction with about the same TV coverage as motocross. We’d see the Daytona 500 and a couple of other key races a year, just like we’d see the USGP on Wide World of Sports. In fact, in the heyday of the Continental Motosport Club and Trans-AMA motocross may have actually had more active participants and total fans than NASCAR. But that sure isn’t the case anymore, and it’s perfectly reasonable to ask what happened.
Quite a bit has been written about the AMA’s entry into motocross, the competition with the CMC, and some of the conflicts in the early days of the sport. I don’t want to rehash history and debate motivations about why the AMA got into motocross. The reality is that the AMA did assert control over the sport by the mid-‘70s and has retained it ever since. So for better or worse, whatever motocross has (or has not) become in the past 30+ years has to be laid at the feet of the AMA. And motocross, which is at least as exciting as stock car racing, has clearly not become as big as NASCAR.
So what’s the difference? Well, the AMA is run by committee. They have a president but it’s not the same as a for-profit CEO. The typical non-profit is subject to a lot more restraint and the Directors are lot more active. That’s intended to provide consensus and representation and “fairness” because non-profits don’t have the same success metrics as for-profit enterprises. The primary decisions of the AMA are made by a committee of 12 Directors, 6 member-elected and 6 corporate. (Source: AMA Code of Regulations.) Ever try to get 12 people to agree on anything? Right.
NASCAR’s mission is to run races and make money. The AMA’s mission is, ostensibly, to “pursue, promote, and protect the future of motorcycling.” NASCAR doesn’t have a slogan. You couldn’t hear it anyway over the roar of the engines. The AMA’s slogan is Rights, Riding, Racing. So let’s take score:
One leader, one mission: NASCAR 1, AMA 0
According to the AMA History page, the organization traces its roots back to a New York motorcycle club around 1900. But the real origins of the modern AMA were in 1920 when the Motorcycle and Allied Trades Association was founded. This group of motorcycle manufacturers and tradesmen needed a way to grow their market, so they created some committees to go out and organize events at which they could promote their motorcycles. That is the guiding philosophy of the AMA til this day.
The AMA allows any motorcycle-related business to become a Corporate Member and each such member gets one vote at any Corporate meeting. That means Honda, Suzuki, Kawasaki, Yamaha, H-D, BMW, etc all get seats at the table when major AMA policies are decided. Do you really think NASCAR would have grown to be the largest sports entity in America if Ford, GM, and Chrysler (all of which are teetering on bankruptcy, btw) had been making decisions for Bill France? Hell no!
Since it’s guiding principle is to protect the market for motorcycle sales the AMA does not understand why it should treat its racers as talent. The AMA fences off pit areas and makes most riders off-limits. With rare exception any public appearance, PR training, or accessibility is left completely to the rider or his team. The AMA demonstrates little, if any, respect for riders once they have collected the annual fees. In fact, it’s quite likely that most racer/members of the AMA are members only because they have to have a membership to race. Let’s take score again:
All business, no politics: NASCAR 1, AMA 0
Total : NASCAR 2, AMA 0
So I get it. AMA MX/SX is definitely not NASCAR. No sir. And we are all the poorer for it.
On 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.