With talk of a new Supercross format on the horizon, it's a good time to look back at the way it used to be—and might return to.The AMA Supercross program has changed five times since its
inception 40 years ago. And for those not in the know, the first four
years of the AMA Supercross competition had a three-moto format.
The current AMA Supercross system was introduced in 2007. Here is a quick history of Supercross formats.
FORMAT ONE: In the beginning (1972 to 1975), Supercross mimicked the
motocross events of the day with a three-moto format. The rider with the
best combined moto score was the winner. The scoring was by the Olympic
system with a 3-1-1 beating a 1-2-2. Season-long Supercross series
points were tallied separately.
FORMAT TWO: In 1976, the AMA switched from three motos to a system of
four heat races, two semis, a Last Chance and a main event. As you would
expect, the riders grumbled about the new format, claiming that they
preferred the old three-moto system. The four 20-man heat races were
jam-packed, and the AMA often rejected riders who wanted to race. There
were no 125cc East or West races in the good old days.
FORMAT THREE: The next big change was a short-lived attempt in the 1980s
to have the riders divided into four 20-man heat races with the top 50
percent moving forward to two 20-man semis. The top 50 percent from
those races went on to compete in the 20-man main event. This format
only lasted one season because the riders didn’t like having to race
three times in the same night (these obviously weren’t the same
riders who preferred the three-moto system of the ’70s, or the ones who agreed to race the 2011 Monster Cup).
Although this dirt track-style advancement system was discontinued, it was the most popular with the fans because they got to see the stars of the sport in their heat race, in their semi and in the final. The action pitted the best riders against each other three times.
FORMAT FOUR: After the demise of the dirt-track system, the AMA switched to the tried-and-true format of two 20-man heats (with four riders going directly to the main), two semis (with five riders moving to the main), a Last Chance (two riders moving to the main) and a 20-man, 20-lap main event. The idea of four 20-man heat races was nixed when barely enough riders showed up to fill two heats—let alone four. The bonus was that in 1985 the AMA added the 125 East/West Regional Championships, which allowed young inexperienced riders a chance to get their feet wet in Supercross (and their races could fill the spots of the missing heat races).
FORMAT FIVE: In 2007, the Supercross format was changed again, this time to two heat races (with nine riders advancing directly to the main event) and a Last Chance (with two riders moving to the main). The semis were dropped from the program, which meant that instead of two heats, two semis, a Last Chance and a final, there were only two heats, a Last Chance and a 20-lap, 20-man final. By this time, the 125 East/West had turned into the 250F East/West series. Format five was a copy of the 250F East and West program that was used since the little class’ inception back in 1985.
HOW RIDERS MAKE THE SUPERCROSS PROGRAM
Under the pre-2007 system, racers raced their way into the night program. Daytime race qualifiers, held before the fans showed up, whittled the field down to fit the racing format. From 2007 on, the AMA replaced both the daytime qualifiers and the semifinals with timed qualifying. In timed qualifying, the riders were separated into different groups (normally by current points
standings, but often by favoritism), and the fastest 40 riders in timed qualifying were assigned to the night program’s two heat races. Everybody else was sent home (although it was possible for the 41st fastest qualifier to get a spot in the night program if one of the fast 40 couldn’t make the heat race). Gate pick was assigned for the night’s two heat races by time. The fastest rider got first pick at the gate and so on.
PROVISIONAL STARTS: Under format five, a rider who is in the top 10 in points but fails to make the main event will be allowed to take the 21st spot on the 22-man starting gate (even though the main event is only configured as a 20-man race). This option is open to two top-10 riders at each race—two only. On a side note: If there are only 20 riders in the race, no one is allowed to take the innermost or outermost starting gate spots.
The provisional start format was not very controversial when it was introduced in 2007, because the AMA claimed that only once in Supercross history had a top-10 rider failed to make the main event. That statistic didn’t last long. At the first 2007 event where the rule was in force, Tyler Evans failed to qualify for the main and used the provisional clause to start in the 21st spot. The AMA was stunned by having to use the provisional the first time out of the box. It turns out that when they switched from the heat/semi/Last Chance/final format to the heat/Last Chance/final format, the riders had a 33 percent reduced opportunity to make the main event; thus more top-10 riders failed to qualify than ever in the past. Although there is precedent for provisional starting spots in NASCAR, the most likely reason that the provisionals were put into the system was to buy support from the factory teams. Without the factory teams being guaranteed that their riders would be in the main event, they probably would not have agreed to the 2007 format change.
THE FANS: You don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes’ younger brother to realize that the paying fans were getting less for their money under format five compared to all the previous formats. Before format five, they got to see six races. After format five, they got to see four races—for the same ticket price.
For the hardcore fans, this was a rip-off. Not only did they not get to see the two semifinals, but even the KTM Pee-Wee race was dropped for a few years (when KTM wouldn’t pay a claimed $250,000 to the promoters to host the half-time show). Although the older fans were hostile, the new fans didn’t know that there had ever been semifinals, so they didn’t know that some of the racing had been taken away. Serious fans wished for a return to format four, but boiled down to its essence, format three is really the ultimate race program for Supercross. Why? Because it makes sense, unfolds in a logical progression, and builds rivalries and drama as the night progresses. As for the three-moto format? It might work in a limited-entry, one-off event like the Monster Cup, but it would totally eliminate more than 20 riders appearing before the paying fans...unless they added a loser’s race for the riders who didn’t qualify for the three
Pick your poison, but since the system changes once every eight or nine years, we are ready for an update.