In 1997 Supercross was a very different sport. Or was it? Jeremy McGrath was at the height of his powers, and the demands that he faced were much the same as they are today for Eli Tomac or Cooper Webb. In the May, 1997 issue of Dirt Bike, Roger DeCoster explored the relationship between fans and racers. Along the way, he shared some stories that help us understand that all stars were once fans themselves.

Who is the most important person in professional motocross? Easy answer: the professional motocross fan. Racers can’t exist without fans–it’s always been that way. Smart racers know it. These days, it seems like smart fans know it, too–perhaps a little too well.
Not only have the bikes evolved during the last decades, the fans have changed, too. Just like the riders expect more from their equipment, the fans expect more from their favorite riders. Years ago, fans didn’t get much and didn’t expect much. I still remember one of the most exciting moments I experienced as a boy. It was at an international event in Belgium. For a long time I had been standing a few feet away from Sten Lundin, watching him change the oil in his forks. I was taking in everything, watching the tools he used, the way he held them. Sten was a two-time world champion, and he and his equipment were always impeccable. Everything was spotlessly white: his car, his trailer, even his clothes. That was very rare at the time. Motocross was generally a very grubby sport. The rider got his five jerseys and two pairs of leathers for an entire season and that was it. If he destroyed them, he might have to buy a replacement, or just ride looking grubby. Not Sten, though. He Was Mr. Clean.
He noticed me standing there after some time and asked if I would hold the bike while he adjusted something. I was speechless! He needed me! I felt pretty important, and looked around to make sure people saw me working with Sten on his bike. For years after that, I felt a special closeness to him. Much later, when he was near the end of his career and I was just coming up, I talked to him about that day. He laughed and nodded, but I’m sure he didn’t remember me from that race. I remembered, though, and I always will. In that era, motocross champions sometimes had postcard-size photos to give to special fans or to customs agents at international borders. That could speed up border crossing immensely. Most of the time, riders paid for these themselves, and 500 copies would blow your year’s budget.

Today, things are different. Now most teams hand out over 1000 full-size posters at a single race. Still, some fans seem to push for more, bigger souvenirs. They want race jerseys, goggles, every piece of clothing from bottom to top. Some even think the riders can give away helmets. Others ask for parts of the bikes. At times there are so many fans pressing in, all demanding the same things, it can be scary. Not all the fans are rude; most of the time they seem to appreciate any attention they get from a McGrath or Albertyn. However, when a few start to get pushy and demanding, it seems to spread. A crowd can get ugly quick.
What happened? How did we go from bashful kids wanting to help to unruly mobs demanding free products? I suppose it’s a sign of the times. We’ve become such a throwaway, consumer society, most people assume that every top racer gets everything new, plus a lot of extras for every race. It happened gradually. A few years ago, some clothing producers suggested that their riders throw old jerseys and hats into the crowd. That practice grew and grew.
Now it has gotten to the point where there are safety concerns. When a rider tosses his jersey to the crowd it could, and sometimes does, start a fight. The organizers don’t want people hurt and they certainly don’t want lawsuits.
Also, souvenir venders complain that their business is suffering. Who can sell a poster when there are free ones to be had in the pits? So they have asked us to refrain from gift-tossing. The fans don’t always understand that.
The pressure on the riders today is incredible. They earn every cent they are paid. Compare motocross to any other sport–nowhere will you find the stars more accessible. Today you have to pay big bucks for an autographed baseball. Sure, motocrossers are lucky to be doing something they enjoy, and their bikes are fantastic and all that, but they have to live by a schedule you wouldn’t believe. Race day is hectic–ask any racer what the hardest part of his job is and he won’t say anything about getting good starts or clearing the triples. He will talk about his P.R. duties and the time he has to devote to his fans. A typical racer flies on Wednesday if it’s his turn to attend the press day (when most local media does its interviews). He gets to his hotel and has to wait by the phone for an interview or two, then gets dinner nearby. Friday is practice, and the riders spend most of the day finalizing suspension and gearing. Then he has to rush to the hotel for a quick shower before making an appearance at a local dealership.
That can last an hour or two, then he has to break away early enough to get dinner and a good pre-race day sleep. Saturday he is expected to be at the track ready to go by 10:30 for the riders meeting. Practice starts at 1:00 and lasts until about 3:30, then it’s a non-stop schedule where he has to talk with the mechanic about the bike, watch videos of the practice session and eventually be available for the fan’s autograph session. TV interviews and VIP introductions follow. The riders should be exhausted by the time the race starts. From the opening ceremonies to well past 1:00 a.m., the demands on the riders come non-stop.

Jeremy McGrath worked with DeCoster in 1997.

Fans need to understand that if a rider seems distant or unenthusiastic, he might be dealing with various types of pressure. I think that racers and most people involved in the sport today are trying to give spectators the best value possible. Everyone wants the sport to grow, and it is. At an advisory board meeting recently, we had some good suggestions. What if we held a souvenir auction? The various pieces of gear could be used to generate support for the Make a Wish Foundation or the Motocross des Nations team.
In the meantime, understand that the riders are doing their best. They do get a lot from the fans, as well. At Atlanta this year there was a break for the KTM Pee-Wee riders to take to the track (as there has been at every supercross). Afterward, one of the riders, maybe six years old, marched right up to McGrath. Jeremy readied himself for the usual routine, grabbing a poster and magic marker. But the kid wanted to give Jeremy his own autograph. Jeremy graciously accepted the gift and smiled. Yes, racers need fans just like fans need racers.

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