On any Saturday

In praise of dirt bikes, motor sports and world-class cities

Rockstar Makita Suzuki’s Mike Alessi won last Saturday’s Hangtown Motocross Classic.

Rockstar Makita Suzuki’s Mike Alessi won last Saturday’s Hangtown Motocross Classic.

Photo By PHOTO By kelsey Falle

For more information on California’s state vehicular recreation areas, go to www.parks.ca.gov.

The very first Hangtown Motocross Classic was held 41 years ago, three years before the documentary film On Any Sunday, featuring Malcolm Smith and Steve McQueen, turned America on to motorcycle racing, particularly the then relatively unknown sport of motocross. Last weekend, the 41st running of the classic demonstrated that dirt-bike racing in America is alive and well, despite a relatively dramatic change.

For the first time ever, this year’s event was held on Saturday.

Change was good for the nearly 30,000 local hard-core dirt-bike fans who made the journey to the Prairie City State Vehicular Recreation Area in the rolling hills south of Folsom to watch the top outdoor motocross riders in the world carve up the hillsides and fling their bodies and machines into the void.

If you don’t follow motor sports—and if you’re reading this, there’s a high probability you don’t—then the significance of the change to Saturday is best summed up by the phrase, “What wins on Sunday sells on Monday.” This goes for all forms of motor sports, but more so for motorcycle racing, which remains much more closely tied to production machinery.

In case you didn’t know it, the Chevrolet Monte Carlo Jimmie Johnson drove to victory at last Sunday’s NASCAR race in Dover, Del., bares little resemblance to the automobile available down at your local dealer. But you can buy a near carbon copy of the RMZ 450 Suzuki Mike Alessi rode to two moto wins at Hangtown last Saturday at PCP Motorsports on Florin Road in south Sacramento for about $6,000.

In fact, for about the price of a respectable college education, say, $30,000 annually, you can train your kid to be a motocross racer instead of a doctor. Sure, everybody says they want their kid to be a physician, by why fork over all that bread just so the little nipper can talk down to you, when you can be like Mike Alessi’s dad and manage his career, or at least have a good excuse to take the family dirt-biking every weekend?

Maybe, if your kid gets good enough, like Mike Alessi, you’ll turn him over to “The Man,” Roger DeCoster, the legendary five-time 500 cc motocross world champion and current team manager for Rockstar Makita Suzuki. Back in the 1970s, DeCoster, a Belgian native, led the European invasion of America, teaching our best how to do it in the dirt. Since then, DeCoster’s name has become synonymous with motocross.

So when The Man sat down next to me in the heart of Hangtown last Saturday, to say I was in awe would be the understatement of the year.

I’d met him once before, 32 years ago, at the Trans-AMA race in Puyallup, Wash. The Trans-AMA was the annual fall showdown between the best American and European riders, and the Europeans schooled us for most of the 1970s. That day at Puyallup, I watched DeCoster and Bob Hannah, the American who would finally break the European domination of the series the next year, fight tooth and nail in the Pacific Northwest mud for fourth place.

The five-time world champion signed my ball cap after the race, like all the professional motocross racers still do. I still have the hat. Last Saturday at Hangtown, his 65-year-old blue eyes sparkled and he cracked a smile, as if he was completely aware of this fact.

Naturally, I was speechless.

We were sitting in the shade provided by scaffolding erected for the Speed Channel’s infield camera, minutes before the second moto would be broadcast live on national television for the first time. Live TV is the holy grail of all motor sports, and despite the protestations of dirt-bike dealers nationwide, who’ve been opening their doors on Saturday so they can race on Sundays and sell on Mondays for decades, the American Motorcycle Association switched days to get the open Saturday broadcast slot on Speed.

I’ve never personally been witness to such an event, the birth of a great Sacramento tradition on live national television. I can tell you that the very act of being televised live transformed the last moto of the 41st Hangtown Motocross Classic, for both racers and spectators. There was a palpable sense of urgency on behalf of the riders, and we cheered them on just a little bit harder, perhaps because all of us knew we were being watched by millions of viewers.

Obviously, I didn’t see the live broadcast, but I can take a guess at what viewers around the world must have seen: the best motocross racers on the planet duking it out on a track expertly prepared by the Dirt Diggers North at an event that is a cornerstone of American motocross.

And it all happened right here, in Sacramento, USA.