Bringing it on home at the Reno Supermoto A-Go-Go

Freestyle motocross superstar Travis Pastrana is getting the hang of this supermoto thing.

Freestyle motocross superstar Travis Pastrana is getting the hang of this supermoto thing.

Photo By Raymond Gundy

It has been, at one time or another, the daydream of every red-blooded American: to race unbridled through the streets of the city, oblivious to stop lights, radar guns and the everyday rules of the road, throttle wide-open, rear-end busting loose, streaking to victory in the Monaco Grand Prix, or at the very least, the race home from work.

Few of us ever get to fulfill this fantasy. Walter Mitty-like, we live out lives of quiet desperation. But every so often, the chance to live vicariously through others presents itself. Such is the case on the weekend of Oct. 1, when some of the biggest names in motorcycle racing converge on downtown Reno for the AMA Red Bull Supermoto A-Go-Go.

On modified dirt bikes, these modern day gladiators will roar between the casinos, throaty exhaust notes booming off gaudy facades, a gauntlet of rabid spectators urging them on. They will pitch their machines sideways through the corners, luridly sliding at impossible angles. They will catapult as high as 20 feet in the air off steel ramps laid out on city streets. Some will crash hard, breaking bones, bike or both. With excitement like this, it’s no wonder that many are calling supermoto the next big thing, and quite suddenly, Reno finds itself in the center of a cutting-edge sport.

An estimated 20,000 fans attended the premiere of supermoto in downtown Reno last year, easily the largest turn-out of the fledgling sport’s seventh-round season. Reno was the fourth race on the schedule; the grand finale “A-Go-Go” event was held in Las Vegas. But the fans and course in Reno left a lasting impression on the riders, the American Motorcycle Association (AMA) and sponsor Red Bull, so this year, they honored the biggest little city by making it the ultimate round of the season, where the 2005 national champion will be crowned.

“The folks in Reno came out in droves last year, so we wanted to treat the fans,” says Red Bull spokesman Steve Pegram. The energy drink company has become one of the biggest sponsors in motor sports, two- and four-wheeled, and supermoto is its baby. “We want to bring eyeballs and participants to the sport, and one of the ways to do that is to hold a marquee event like the Reno Red Bull Supermoto A-Go-Go.”

Reno is unique on the AMA Supermoto tour. The other events have taken place in out-of-the-way speedways or go-kart tracks. The Reno Super Moto A-Go-Go is the only race on the calendar that takes place on downtown city streets. If the riders, promoters and fans have anything to say about it, it’s a safe bet that other cities will soon follow Reno’s lead.

“The entire town of Reno is incredibly supportive of this race,” adds AMA Supermoto manager Todd Eagan. “The visual impact of speedy supermoto bikes running wide-open through the city streets is something fans will long remember. It’s easily the most unique setting in the championship.”

Teenage supermoto specialist Chris Fillmore is ripe for his first victory.

Supermoto pilot Kurt Nicoll, who won the unlimited class in Reno for Austrian motorcycle manufacturer KTM last year, concurs.

“It’s the proximity of the fans; they’re hanging right over the fences,” he explains via telephone from Austria. “It really captures the essence of supermoto. White lines and traffic lights—to me, this is what supermoto should be.”

Built for speed
It has taken almost three decades for supermoto to find its form. The sport traces its origins back to the late 1970s, when ABC’s Wide World of Sports created the made-for-TV program “The Superbikers.” The idea was to pit top-flight riders from various competitive disciplines such as road racing, motocross and flat track against each other in a once-a-year event that would determine the fastest man on two wheels.

Because road racing takes place on asphalt, and motocross and flat track take place on dirt, a half-asphalt, half-dirt course was devised to equalize the competition between these highly specialized disciplines. Since machinery for each discipline is equally specialized, the racers reached a compromise, settling on two-stroke 500cc motocross bikes fitted with 19-inch flat track tires—the precursor to today’s supermoto bikes.

“The Superbikers” functioned as advertised, becoming a legitimate measure of the best overall motorcycle racer. Moreover, the riders loved it. Although the dirt-oriented machinery favored motocrossers, the slick asphalt benefited road racers and flat trackers, who were more accustomed to sliding on smooth surfaces. Motocrossers Kent Howerton and Steve Wise won three of the events; world champion road racer Eddie Lawson returned the favor by winning twice. But despite the intense competition, TV ratings fizzled, and the program was canceled in 1986.

However, much like the genius of Jerry Lewis, the sport was rediscovered by the French in the 1990s, who renamed it super motard (motard is French for motorcycle). Super motard flourished throughout Europe in the late 1990s; by the turn of the century, street-legal super motard motorcycles were a common sight on European roads, and super motard specialists dominated at the race track.

“European supermoto evolved over the years to being basically run on go-kart tracks with a small dirt section,” says Nicoll, a British native. American supermoto has also adopted the smaller dirt portion, but like the original “Superbikers,” it has also attempted to foster competition between different racing disciplines. “European supermoto is quite set in its pattern. There are a lot of specialists. American supermoto has stuck more to the original idea of bringing different riders together.”

One thing that has definitely changed from the “Superbiker” days is the machinery. Motocross bikes are still de rigeur but are now fitted with 17-inch road racing slicks and larger brakes to aid in slowing the machines down from higher speeds. Thanks to environmental regulations, two-stroke, single-cylinder engines have been practically phased out of existence, replaced by increasingly powerful four-stroke singles. The AMA has created three classes, based on engine size, for professional supermoto racing. The Supermoto class is for machinery up to 450cc in size and is considered the premier class. Supermoto Unlimited allows engines 490cc and above. This year marked the debut of the Supermoto Lites class, for 250cc four-stroke singles.

European marques KTM and Husqvarna are the only manufacturers that currently produce both race-ready and street-legal supermoto bikes, but almost all the major factories—Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki and Kawasaki—make machinery that can be adapted to the sport with relative ease. Honda’s CRF-450 is currently the most popular mount in the Supermoto class; KTM’s 525 SMC is the weapon of choice in Unlimited. Yamaha’s Mark Burkhart has dominated the Supermoto Lites this year, winning every event so far on his YZ-250F.

Smiling through the pain: Like many racing stars, Travis Pastrana has had more than his fair share of injuries.

Speed thrills
KTM has been instrumental in bringing supermoto back to the United States and encouraging the Japanese factories to become more involved in the growing sport. As both a racer and worldwide team manager of KTM’s racing efforts, Kurt Nicoll has been in the thick of it, winning the AMA Supermoto Unlimited title last year. This year, he’s sticking to 450cc Supermoto class. Like many of the racers comprising supermoto starting grids today, he’s a former championship caliber motocrosser, having won the British national championship seven times and finishing runner up in the world championship four times. Supermoto has allowed the 40-year-old to extend his racing career.

“Motocross and supercross are incredibly demanding on the body,” says Nicoll, adding that the treacherous off-road terrain motocross and supercross take place on can lead to serious physical injury—he’s broken both legs and both arms three or four times each during his career. “Because supermoto takes place 85 percent to 90 percent on asphalt, the focus is more on technique than physical exertion.”

That’s not to say the element of danger is missing in supermoto.

“Supermoto is actually no less dangerous than motocross and supercross,” Nicoll elaborates. That fact was made abundantly clear when factory Yamaha rider Doug Henry, the points leader heading into the Copper Mountain, Colo., round in August, unloaded coming off a small jump in practice, breaking his pelvis, cracking his ribs, puncturing a lung and dashing his championship hopes for the season.

“Obviously, the danger is still there,” says Nicoll.

The debate over who’s faster, the road racers or the dirt bikers, remains a facet of American supermoto racing as well. Current AMA Supermoto champ Jeff Ward, who assumed the points lead after Henry’s mishap, hails from motocross, having won seven U.S. national championships in the 1980s and early 1990s. After retiring from motocross, “Wardy” went on to join the Indy Racing League, so he knows a thing or two about racing on pavement. He finished in the top 5 at the Indianapolis 500 on three out of four attempts and won his first IRL event at Texas Motor Speedway in 2002. Now 44, he rides for the Troy Lee Designs Honda supermoto team.

American road-racing sensation Ben Bostrom is no stranger to asphalt, either. One of the top competitors on the World Superbike circuit, Bostrom stunned the motocross crowd in 2003 when, clad in metallic gold one-piece leathers, he came out of nowhere to win the inaugural Red Bull Supermoto A-Go-Go in Las Vegas. To prove it wasn’t just dumb luck, Bostrom won again—in front of millions of live television viewers— when supermoto debuted at the 2004 X-Games.

A scheduling conflict with World Superbike prevents Bostrom from appearing at the Reno Supermoto A-Go-Go this year. Brother Eric Bostom, a top-level racer for Ducati on the AMA Superbike circuit, has ridden select supermoto events this year for KTM, but he will also be absent due to post-season shoulder surgery. However, with the AMA Superbike season concluding in early September, it won’t be surprising to see more than a few road racers turn up in Reno as potential spoilers, including supermoto regular Larry Pegram and, perhaps, former world champion Kevin Schwantz.

Despite the effort to attract riders from other disciplines, specialized riders have also invaded American supermoto and will inevitably dominate the sport as it becomes more prominent. German KTM rider Jurgen Kunzel finished second to Ward in the championship last year and currently sits second behind Ward in points. Frenchman David Baffeleuf, also a KTM pilot, is always a threat to finish in the top five. Australian Husqvarna rider Troy Herfoss has been scoring excellent results in both the Supermoto and Unlimited classes this year, as has his Italian teammate Ivan Lazzarini. But not all the supermoto specialists are foreigners: Chris Fillmore, 18, is among the first of a new breed of young American riders who race only supermoto. A teammate of Ward’s, he sits third in Supermoto class points.

2004 AMA Supermoto champ and current points leader Jeff Ward is the man to beat in Reno.

Photo By Raymond Gundy

Unsafe at any speed
One rider who will definitely be on hand, barring injury, defies classification. Travis Pastrana, one of the few people who can do a backflip on a motorcycle, has become a celebrity, thanks to his acrobatic freestyle heroics in the X-Games. He’s also a former national motocross champion, and he’s currently burning up the automobile rally racing circuit as a member of Team Subaru. Pastrana took the gold medal in freestyle once again at this summer’s X-Games and finished 10th in the supermoto race, which was won by Doug Henry. He nabbed a fourth-place finish at Copper Mountain and is stoked about his chances in Reno.

“I thought the race last year in Reno was the best event of the season,” he says with trademark exuberance. Pastrana finished 13th last year on a highly modified but underpowered Suzuki 400. This year he has the benefit of riding Suzuki’s new RMZ-450. “I’m super-excited about my fourth-place at Copper Mountain, and the 450 is so much nicer. I hope it wasn’t a fluke.”

Reno’s longer-than-average dirt section, set up on Virginia Street between the El Dorado casino and the RTC bus station, should favor motocrossers like Pastrana. However, the lengthy rectangular asphalt section that encircles the Silver Legacy and the City Center Pavillion with four wide, flat, 90-degree right-hand corners will put the 21-year-old freestyle fanatic’s sliding skills to the test.

“The dirt sections are always on my side,” says Pastrana. “The biggest struggle for me is the pavement. The trick is to not slide too much, to get the sliding down to a science, instead of throwing it in sideways at full-lock.”

If there is one element of supermoto that sets it apart from other forms of motorcycle racing, it is the way the riders slide the bikes sideways through the corners. Other disciplines, such as speedway, use a similar technique. But speedway takes place on dirt, a far more forgiving medium than asphalt. Chop the throttle too much during a slide on asphalt, and the bike will lurch up and throw you over the handlebars in a wicked high-side. Give it too much gas, and the bike will slide out in a low-side. But when it’s done correctly, with multiple riders hitting the corner in tight formation, rear wheels hanging out, bikes drifting precariously close to one another, power sliding can be a thing of beauty.

“It’s a pretty amazing feeling when you do it just right,” says Mickey Dymond, 40, another former national motocross champion who has extended his racing career through supermoto. A KTM team member, Dymond currently sits second in points in the Unlimited class and hopes to challenge for the championship in Reno. He explains his technique: “You’re in fourth or fifth gear and you shift into first for the corner, then really put the bike in sideways hard. The rear wheel gets really light. It helps get your turn started.”

“Because of the way these bikes are set up, you can’t steer them like road racing bikes,” Nicoll adds. He prefers to back into the corners—a style that’s come to be known as “hacking"—using the rear brake to set the machine up. A special “slipper clutch” prevents the high-compression single-cylinder engine from locking up the rear wheel, an event that can cause the rear wheel to hop, leading to a high-side. Once the bike is pointed in the right direction, the rider gets back on the gas.

“It’s the guy who turns the throttle on first who wins,” Dymond says assuredly.

Winning, of course, is what it’s all about. Motorcycle racing is big business, from the AMA Supercross series—motocross events staged in football stadiums that draw hundreds of thousands of spectators each year—to MotoGP, the international road racing series in which current world champion Valentino Rossi earned upwards of $40 million in salary and endorsements in 2004. If supermoto, a hybrid between those two forms, truly turns out to be the next big thing, winning could become very lucrative indeed.

For now, supermoto racers like Dymond will settle for a little respect. They found it last year in the biggest little city, and with the increased stature granted to this year’s Reno Supermoto A-Go-Go, they’re expecting the best race to date.

“Even in Vegas, we were treated like circus freaks, stuck under a tent out there in the middle of nowhere,” Dymond says. “Here we’re right in the middle of everything.”

Smack dab in the middle of everything—what better place to put the next big thing? For at least the past decade, Reno has been shopping for a big event, something to draw a diverse audience to the region. It may have found it with the Reno Supermoto A-Go-Go, and if the sport takes off, the biggest little city may take credit where credit is due.