Mike LaRocco earned the 1993 500 National Championship, but never got to defend it. The AMA no longer recognized the class from 1994 forward. How could the 500s go from being the most prestigious class in motocross to being dropped? In the December, 1993 issue of Dirt Bike, Roger DeCoster told us how it went down.

Congratulations and condolences to Mike LaRocco. Last month he wrapped up his first 500 National Championship. Unfortunately, it will also be his last. In fact, it will be America’s last. Mike will never even get to ride with his #1 plate, because next year there will be no 500 class in America.
Even in Europe, the 500 class is taking a back seat, with the FIM directing TV coverage to the 250s and the manufacturers directing their teams likewise. What happened? How is it possible that the 500 National Championship, once the most prestigious class in motocross, has come to an end? It’s a complicated issue, but in truth, the 500 class hasn’t suddenly dropped dead just now. This is only the burial. The class actually died, or at least began to die, back in the early ’80s. That was when various forces first started to combine to eventually result in this situation. The first factor was the rise of Supercross as a 250/125-only sport. Open-class bikes simply weren’t suited for tight stadium tracks, so they were excluded and relegated to outdoor-only tracks. It didn’t take long for manufacturers to realize that Supercross was where the bulk of MX spectators were. Soon, most of each company’s development effort was concentrated on the 250 class. Marketing executives wanted their teams to win in front of the big Supercross crowds, so the factories went all-out and made major changes on the 250s more often than on the other models.

Mike LaRocco rides with his number one plate on his KX500 for a Dirt Dike Photo shoot. He never got to race with it, at least not in the U.S.

The next blow to the 500 class came in the form of a worldwide sales slump in the mid-’80s. Motocross bikes were less affected by the slump than street models, but nonetheless the factories suddenly had less resources to draw upon for racing. Suzuki and Yamaha made the first big cutbacks, deciding to stop competing in the 500 class in both Europe and in the U.S. Their Open bikes had sold poorly–Suzuki stopped manufacturing its RM500 altogether. In the U.S., that left Honda and Kawasaki as the only two manufacturers to support the 500 class.
Another factor was the changing nature of track design. Outdoor tracks became more and more like supercross. It was only natural–spectators got used to seeing riders get big air in stadiums and began to expect it outdoors, too. Also, young riders wanted more jumps. They had grown up learning to double jump before they even knew how to ride down a rough straight. Those kinds of tracks are more suited to 250s.

Jeff Ward’s 1990 KX500 was almost the same bike as LaRocco’s in 1993.

So, now we get to the point where there are not enough teams in the 500 class, not enough riders and not enough bikes. It was time for the burial. At this point, it seems silly to point out what could have been done to save the class. Some action would have been better than no action, though. While I don’t have all the answers, I think the class could have been saved if early action had been taken, both in Europe and in the U.S. In Europe, the FIM is notorious for ignoring problems or denying that they exist. It would have been possible to design tracks with Open bikes in mind, for example. It’s kind of boring to watch a 500 on a really tight track, but the sounds and the power that a big 500 makes when it has a little open space are exciting in a very different way. I think spectators would respond to that and be eager to see 500s in the right environment. That, in turn, might have brought more sales to the 500 class.
Another possibility might have been to enforce the production rule in just two classes while the 500 class was left open to works bikes. In Europe and in the U.S., each class could have its own attraction: The 500 class would be for works bikes, and maybe even four-strokes in the future, the 250 class for production-based 250s, and the 125 class for younger riders. Now the 125 class has the most rigorous travel schedule in both Europe and the U.S. In America, the 125 outdoor schedule is as long as the 250 and 500 circuits put together, and in Europe the 125 s are required to travel to South America twice in the series. With less travel and perhaps an age limit (or a champion-moves-up rule like the U.S. had), the 125 class would be cheaper for manufacturers as well as privateers, allowing budgets to be stretched to cover all three classes.

Roger DeCoster performed his own 500 shootout in the pages of Dirt Bike in 1995. Click on the image above to see which was his favorite.

At any rate, the time for thinking about what could have been done is past. It’s more beneficial to think about the future, and what will fill the place of the 500 National series here in the U.S. I think the AMA’s plan is a good one. The 500 class will be replaced by a new six- to eight-race series called the “Fall Classic” (interesting how it could become a classic before the first race is run). By the time you read this, the new series will already be underway. The attraction of the new series will be the fact that it will be open to any bike over 250cc. No weight limit, no production rule, two-stroke or four-stroke, as big as you like. In a way, it’s an attempt to revive the old Trans AMA series.
The rules, or the lack of rules, might stir up some interest in big bikes. Someone like Eyvind Boyesen might send a rider to test some new ideas in an actual race. I don’t think there will be many works bikes from Europe showing up, though–basically, there aren’t any, aside from Jacky Martens’ Husqvarna four-stroke. Still, the possibility is there.
Whether or not he rides, I think that Martens will have an effect on this new series in the U.S. He just won the 500 GP title in Europe on his thumper, becoming the first rider to do so since Jeff Smith did it in ’65 with his works BSA. On top of that, Joel Smets finished third on a Husaberg four-stroke this year. This seems to be generating a resurgence of interest in four-stroke motocross. This new class is a natural for four-strokes. In the future, it might even be conceivable to change it to an all-four-stroke series, although if that were to happen right now, they might have a hard time filling the gate. It will be interesting to watch and see if interest keeps going in that direction. The sounds alone might be enough to draw spectators to big four-stroke races. I have even heard that Honda has talked with Martens about testing a new four-stroke in Europe next year, with the intention of racing it in ’95. Wouldn’t that be an interesting twist?
So while I would be dishonest if I said the death of the 500 class didn’t disappoint me, I think it’s pointless to mourn for it now. The future actually looks more exciting than it has in years. Motocross, as always, is in the process of big change–and change isn’t such a bad thing.


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