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Insider's Line: Moto Safety?

While serious injuries and fatalities in Motocross and Supercross seem to be on the rise, the sport is also becoming more popular. This past year the injury and fatality rate has increased especially on the amateur level. While some people think the sport is fine the way it is and any regulation will ruin the sport, others believe jumps need to be smaller, and tracks need to be slower. So this week we tackle a sensitive subject in motocross racing. We asked many different people in the moto community and got the perspectives from professional Supercross riders to the local C rider, as well as track owners and parents. Here’s the question we gave them:

Serious injuries and fatalities in Motocross and Supercross seem to be on the rise in the past year especially on the amateur level. While some people think the sport is fine the way it is and any regulation will ruin the sport, others believe jumps need to be smaller, and tracks need to be slower. Considering many factors involved, from track design to equipment, do you think something needs to be done to make the sport safer? Why or why not? If so, what do you think needs to be done to make the sport safer?

Dean Wilson – Red Bull KTM
I don't agree that jumps need to be smaller. I believe tracks are too smooth and fast and the speeds are so fast now that when you crash it's at a higher speed. I think the tougher and rougher tracks are the better as the pace is slower.

AJ Catanzaro – JMR Racing / Suzuki
I believe on an amateur level, there is more that can be done to make the sport safer. These kids growing up know nothing but wide open, where as I was raised with the main and strict focus on technique. These kids are definitely going fast, but at a much higher risk. I do believe the tracks could be a bit slower. The same track layouts from 15 or 20 years ago just aren't going to work anymore when you are on a 450 that’s faster than you can imagine. I don't necessarily agree with the smaller jump aspect, because that will only make the tracks more high speed. The smaller jumps are usually what cause the biggest crashes due to scrubbing or endo’ing. At the pro level, I think this is even a harder question. Again, I think it comes down to the competitiveness and the level this sport has risen to. I myself am not willing to ride out of that comfort zone, but to win and be up front consistently, that's what you have to do. Pros are wearing less protective gear than ever right now, so I'm not sure if that has anything to do with it. We have done away with the chest protectors, elbow pads, kidney belts, and almost everyone has gotten rid of the neck brace. I myself am guilty of all of that, and I don't think it sets the best example for amateurs and for children. Almost all of the bad crashes you see at the pro level are from the riders overriding the track. Over scrubbing jumps, and catching the footpeg has become a common thing and leads to some of the worst crashes. Just off the top of my head. Jason Anderson’s crash at Detroit, Zach Bell crash at Dallas, Trey Canard crash at Washougal.

Candice Statler – Women’s Class Warrensburg, MO
I do not think the sport needs to be safer. With all of the gear and equipment companies are coming out with for us to wear, there are ways to make the rider as safe as possible. Motocross is a dangerous sport and the rider and their family just needs to accept the fact that anything can happen in a blink of an eye no matter what that the track is like. Dirt bikes are fast, heavy machines that can have technical fouls in the blink of an eye which can be just as if not more dangerous than big jumps or fast tracks. You just have to be a knowledgeable rider and know your limitations.

Bubba Pauli – Pro Supercross/Motocross Racer K1 Speed - BWR Engines
Yes, I think something needs to be done, but it hard to say where it needs to be. The tracks have pretty much been the same for some time now but I think the bikes are getting so good and they don’t match the tracks anymore. Most 250’s at the top level are producing as much power as the 450’s have in years past. It’s not going to be today, tomorrow or even next year but at some point they’re going to have to enforce some sort of restriction on the motorcycle being raced.

Aaron Ridenhower - Ride Organic
Safety is definitely the top concern for most parents. We try to teach our kids to wear the right gear and ride with control but there is only so much we can do. As you build your skill level to conquer big obstacles you also build self confidence and self-esteem. Also comes the drive to set goals and test your ability against others. The more your ride the more comfortable you feel and become more likely to get hurt. It’s a huge part of this sport ad injuries are inevitable. Practice the fundamentals and take care of your body.

Zack Hoffman - A Class Rider Walnut, IL
I do believe it is the bad side to our sport, however I don’t think there is anything we can do about it. If we slow the bikes down then everyone will be trying to do things that our bikes just cannot do. If we make the jumps smaller and tracks slower it will take the fun and excitement out of the sport. I also believe that the AMA bump riders classes up to easily at the local level and then when they ride big races such as nationals they are in a class that they are not fast enough or experienced enough to be in, and that can cause injury to themselves or others. I think if anything needs to be done something needs to be put into place with any track that has sanctioned events, that they must have all necessary proper track equipment and must know how to operate the machinery and properly maintain a track. I also think the tracks should get random checks at events to make sure all is done as it should be. There will always be injury or in the worst case death, sadly enough it’s the nature of our sport, and nothing can change that.

Alex Morris – C Class Rider St. Charles, MO
I think the sport has really progressed so much in the past ten years. The bikes are faster, have EFI and don’t bog the way the used to, motors put out more horsepower, and the suspensions are awesome compared to the old bikes, but I don’t think the bikes are the problem or need to be toned down. The bike only goes as fast as you twist the throttle. I think it’s the tracks that need fixed because they are a lot more technical and high speed. Just to do a five lap race you have to be in really good shape even in the slower classes. I think if they toned down the tracks and slowed them down, it would be safer. So many kids want to make it and will do anything just to win, that’s what makes Motocross the hardest sport out there. Even with a toned down track, there will always be the kids that will push the limit and that’s when the really bad wrecks happen.

Travis Eck – A Class Rider Collinsville, IL
I think that the amateur level is being pushed to such a high intensity now that in order to compete riders are pushing the envelope more and more. Track wise most of them are safe how they are, if the track developed a hole in a jump face all the riders have to do is tell the track crew and most of the time they will take care of it. Young riders need to take in to account that being fast on a bike is not all about bike skill. Proper training, and stretching will reduce your chances of an injury.

Ozzy Barbaree – Professional Supercross/Motocross Racer
Well Motocross is and always will be a dangerous sport. Nowadays the machines have much more power than they did twenty years ago. The faster the bike the higher the risk. I would not be opposed to lowering the displacement of the 250 or 450. It might be good idea to create a bike to help bridge the huge gap from supermini to 250f. As far as safety equipment, every year the stuff gets more and more advanced. I don’t see this as a problem. One thing to consider is the fact that we are living a time where everyone is connected through social media. There has always been tons of injuries, concussions, and deaths that were isolated to the area in which the accident occurred, now each and every one is blasted all over the internet.

Mark Weishaar – Professional Supercross/Motocross Racer - 2Diat
I think the safety stuff is going in the right direction like with the new Fox helmets and their new MIPS system, which I think is better than what 6D is doing with their helmets. I don’t think neck braces are where they should be yet because the way it seems right now they just chance place where you’ll break you’re back. Tracks on the other hand are a huge thing that I think could be changed. The first thing that I think should be changed is the speed tracks shouldn’t have sections where your fifth gear on a 450 that’s way too fast for any amateur. The way to fix that would be to make the track rougher and with more ruts. As far as the jumps go that’s a fine line between having safe jumps and jumps that riders enjoy.

Timothy Calhoun - SpeedMob President
Just a couple of thoughts on the Supercross/Motocross issue. Over the last few years I have watched some of the tracks that Carmichael & others have created that have lent themselves to some old school designs and some interesting challenges for today’s riders….all while not making jumps higher, farther apart or increasing the danger factor for the rider. Even Daytona while having fast straights kept it in check with very tight corners and amazing rhythm & whoop sections. The addition of sand, dual course turns or turns with left/right or right/left transitions add challenge. Adding flat track or TT sections are fun to watch, offer good passing opportunities all without really compromising the riders safety. Old school downhill or uphill off-camber stuff is effective as well and ensures that a rider has a complete skill set. While the jumps are spectacular, the results are often tragic. I just think bigger is not always better and there are plenty of ways to challenge riders and add excitement to racing through creative track design without increasing the risk to riders careers. That is my two-cents worth.

Steve Siu – SourceMX Graphics
Unfortunately, although in this world of sound-bite media the temptation is to make quick and catchy statements about things and then parrot them around the internet until you appear to have popular support, that isn't the way safety in the sport should be approached. A parallel to this would be what happened in the medical establishment when they found that even young soldiers killed in World War II had fatty deposits in their arteries when they were autopsied. The fatty deposits contained cholesterol, and so the immediate conclusion was that cholesterol was evil and caused heart attacks and strokes. The natural result that eating dietary cholesterol was vilified as being the cause of heart attacks, and through the 50's and 60's the government, medical establishment, nutritionists and food corporations launched an all-out attack on animal fats and pushed artificial fats on the consumer, We were told that margarine was healthy; butter was not. We were told shortening was healthy; lard was not. We were told not to eat eggs any more. This was despite the fact that nobody had done any research to prove whether eating animal fat actually increased cholesterol or heart attacks. What was the result of all that? Through the 60's, 70's and 80's heart attack incidence rose dramatically and heart disease became the biggest killer and largest drain on medical resources.

In the late 70's and early 80's some researchers began to test the hypothesis that eating animal fat didn't raise cholesterol. Studies were done where subjects had to eat large amounts of eggs, yet cholesterol didn't go up. At first the government and nutrition industry ignored these findings because "everyone knows cholesterol is bad". Finally, decades later it has been made clear that eating animal fat and cholesterol is not the problem; indeed it's eating margarine and shortening that causes clogged arteries due to trans fats. All of that is a long way of saying that quick changes made based on what seems to be the natural conclusion may not fix the problem and indeed may harm things.

In order to solve the problem, we need to define whether we actually have a problem and if we do, what its causes are. To do that will require research into the injury statistics over time. Is there really an increase in deaths or is it a reporting artifact that we now hear about all the deaths instead of only the ones proximate to us? Along with that there needs to be a study of the circumstances of injury and mechanisms of injury so that any patterns of injury can be elucidated. For example, if deaths mostly occur because of collisions with tractors or grooming equipment it doesn't make sense to change the bikes or the tracks to solve that problem. To this point nobody has been keeping these statistics or doing these studies. The reason for this isn't clear, but it is likely a combination of ostrich head in the sand not wanting to know and a lack of a responsible party caring about it. One thing that is clear is that the industry should not wait until a government regulatory agency decides it's going to be the one to bring safety to the sport.

One could argue forever about who should be looking at this, but it's clear that the AMA doesn't really have a concern about the problem at this time; they are more interested in lobbying for removal of road helmet laws. Grassroots safety organizations have sprung up in recent years, and the occasional celebrity statement gets some press when a safety issue comes up, but nothing meaningful in way of change will ever come that way. Though the major industry players should have an interest, they really don't. They don't want all their customers to die or to sue them, but their primary interest is financial gain. I would propose that the most logical organization to head the safety research effort should be MXSports. Though this was not what they started out to be (they were magazine publishers and race promoters), they are now in the position of running the national level racing program for amateurs and for outdoor motocross. All motocross racing, whether at the professional level or all the way down to the local track level amateurs, is affected by the things MXSports does with their racing programs. The Pro Motocross series is what amateurs aspire to. Loretta Lynn's and the qualifier system is how they get there, along with the new amateur national series, the WMX, and the way racers earn their license to race supercross.

There are a number of things that should be examined. As I have mentioned before, the actual statistics of incidence of death and serious injury should be tabulated to see if there are any trends, real or just apparent. Serious injuries and deaths should be examined as to how they came about. Was it a matter of inexperience? Poor judgment on the part of the rider? High speed or low speed? From a jump or crash on the ground? How skilled was the rider? What were they doing or trying to do? What safety equipment were they using? Did the safety equipment perform as intended? Do some kinds of safety equipment protect better than others? What kind of bike were they riding? What was the configuration of the track where they were injured? What were the weather conditions?

After these kinds of statistics are gathered, one can then begin to examine the effects of different factors such as type of bike, type of track or track obstacle, equipment variations and so on. It certainly is true that bikes, particularly with the advent of the modern 4-stroke engines, are a lot easier to ride fast and a lot easier to clear obstacles with. A corollary of that may be that riders are encouraged to jump bigger jumps before they've acquired a lot of riding skill and riding experience because the bikes themselves make it easy to do even if you aren't a good rider. Another corollary may be that tracks have been changed over the years to accommodate these bikes with greater abilities. Jumps are made bigger and longer to suit the bikes. Jumps are positioned closer to corners or difficult rhythm sections are used to create places where skill or courage can give an advantage. These are all among the hypotheses that should be tested. But to make drastic changes without evidence to support the hypothesis will be difficult to carry out. It may be that we should go back to simpler bikes with two-stroke engines, but it will be hard to convince the manufacturers who have put all their money into 4-stroke R&D. It may be that we should dial back the engine size to limit speeds, but there is already outcry about that. It's not as if that hasn't been done in the past; witness the end of the 500 class.

In summary, I don't think anything will get done unless it's done by an organization with clout, and to me that is probably MXSports. It will require proper evidence-based research to prove the need for change to everyone, and then the firmness and courage to make the rule changes that will fix the problems found once the evidence is in.

Matt Sweeney – Track Owner, Track Designer, Racer, Moto Dad
I think a few things can be done to make it safer without ruining the sport. First, there needs to be a few designated people watching the track and jumps faces especially for kickers. I think the main issue is kickers or holes in jump faces. Track prep throughout the day is the only way to keep a track safe. I don't think the jumps need to be smaller because you need that variation for different skill levels, but you can have big jumps and different obstacles and be safe at the same time. The next thing that I think is getting better is safety equipment and I'm sure gear can keep improving as well. Look at where this sport has come from the 80's and early 90's. As far as bikes now, we don't need 450's. The best riders in the world aren't riding these wide open all the time. I would really like to see them all go to a 350 four-stroke or back to just 125 and 250 two-strokes. I honestly think one of the biggest issues with the four strokes is when the riders let off the gas on a jump is the natural engine braking of the motor make front end heavier and that’s why we’re seeing these bad crashes nowadays. The other thing we could look at is possibly changing the age when the kids can ride these bigger four-stroke bikes and let them get more mature and experience first. I don't have all the answers but I don't like seeing all these kids and older people getting hurt or killed. This sport is dangerous and we all know that but I'm sure some things can be changed.

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