'The quick start is why we can race now:' How the 2020 pro motocross season was saved
The AMA Pro Motocross Series makes its return to Spring Creek MX Park in Millville this weekend. Some quick thinking last spring by series officials helped salvage a 2020 season, amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began in mid-March, there was no panic in the offices of MX Sports Pro Racing.
Leaders at the company that handles all race-day operations for the AMA Pro Motocross championship series knew immediately that the 2020 racing season was going to look different.
So they embraced the challenge: How, they asked themselves, do we create a season that by necessity is different, yet familiar?
The answer: Don't be afraid to ask for help.
"We're a small, family-owned business," said Tim Cotter, the Events Director at MX Sports Pro Racing. "It's more of a passion for us than it is a business. But we realized quickly that we weren't equipped to navigate through a pandemic.
"We came up with the idea of a Safe To Race Task Force. We reached out to friends who operate other racing disciplines, to people in the medical field, I.T., logistics, to government relations."
The goal of the 43-member task force was to reopen motorcycle/motorsports racing venues and recreational riding areas as safely and efficiently as possible. The task force was broken down into five committees that were assigned to build return-to-racing models for specific aspects of motorsports, then determine the proper protocols to resume seasons safely.
When all of the committees had reported back, their findings and recommendations were combined into one document, the "Safe To Race Tool Kit." That tool kit was distributed to racing governing bodies across the world, from motorcycle racing to stock car racing. The tool kit not only includes guidelines on how to allow drivers/riders and fans to safely return to racing, it also includes helpful information on things such as where to place signage about social distancing and how to properly word those signs.
"We created this document and said 'OK, we want to tell all motorsports people in the world about it,'" Cotter said. "We gave them all the document free of charge, creating everything from a signage package for facilities to how to implement these protocols.
"We got back to work. Slowly, we got all these different racing communities to agree."
'IT'S TAKEN A LOT OF HELP'
There were times over the past six months, more toward the beginning of the pandemic, Cotter said, where he wondered if there would be a motocross season in 2020. But the staff at MX Sports Pro Racing didn't stop working to create one.
Motocross fans in southeastern Minnesota can see the fruits of MX Sports Pro Racing's labor this weekend. The AMA national championship series makes its annual visit to Millville on Saturday, with pro racing set to begin at 1 p.m.
"It wasn't easy," Cotter said of getting a season going. "It's been hard, no question. It's taken a lot of help from a lot of people. We had to give up a lot of things and change the way we do some things."
“On a daily basis I can dominate him” - @JeremyMartin6 😂 #TBT to @RedBull’s Moto Spy featuring the Martin Brothers in their backyard #MillVille pic.twitter.com/DMmDtOyNsU— Pro Motocross (@ProMotocross) September 17, 2020
Cotter and his West Virginia-based team are in charge of everything from scheduling and approving race venues, to hiring race officials, to negotiating and creating TV packages, to assisting local promoters and race organizers in the marketing of their events.
When the COVID-19 pandemic started to gain steam in March, some of Cotter's team members were on their way from Florida to Indianapolis with the AMA Pro Supercross Series. Another series that MX Sports Pro Racing works with, the Grand National Cross Country (ATV) Series, had just finished a weekend of races closer to home.
"We were on our way home from Georgia when everything went sideways," he said.
That's when the ground floor of the Safe To Race Tool Kit was laid, and those early discussions are the reason why the AMA Pro Motocross Series is able to have a season that closely resembles a normal summer schedule.
The start of the pro motocross season was delayed by three months, from May to mid-August, in order to allow the riders to complete the supercross season -- which they did in a "bubble" in Salt Lake City, with no fans in attendance for the final seven rounds that were completed there.
The pro motocross schedule went through dozens of iterations, with social distancing and event attendance guidelines changing weekly or daily in many of the states where the national championship series holds races. One of the states that caused concern for series organizers early on was Minnesota. Had the motocross season started on time in May, it's likely that Spring Creek would have been forced off the schedule. Fans weren't allowed into events such as auto races until mid-June, and even then only a small percentage of a track's seating area could be filled.
Motocross tracks, particularly Spring Creek, offer a different viewing and seating experience than most other sports, though. There are almost no bleachers or permanent seats; instead, fans are encouraged to bring blankets and camping chairs and find a patch of grass on a hillside from which to watch the races.
And, of course, motocross has one built-in advantage.
"Our best friend is the great outdoors," Cotter said. "We feel we're able to go back to racing safely."
Pro riders aren't COVID-tested on a regular basis by the series, but most riders who race on a weekly basis are backed by large factory teams such as KTM, Suzuki, Honda, Yamaha and others. Those teams often have strict guidelines of their own about when a rider and his team members must be tested.
And through five rounds of racing, Cotter said he's not heard of any positive tests among riders or staff members.
Like all sports, pro motocross officials have adapted their policies to meet current safety standards. The pro pits are closed to the public this season at all pro motocross races, and Cotter said he expects crowd sizes to be half -- if not less -- of what they are in a normal season. The Spring Creek races annually draw upwards of 20,000 spectators.
"Motocross is a very accessible sport," Cotter said. "It won't be this year. In the past, fans could come to the pit area to see their favorite riders, get autographs and pictures. That just can't happen right now."
SETTING A SCHEDULE
Once officials from the AMA and MX Sports had a green light to set a schedule for the 2020 motocross season, it didn't take long to pull together. Some traditional venues were sacrificed because of restrictions on sporting events in some states.
The traditional season opener at Hangtown in Sacramento, Calif., was scrapped this year and instead the series opened with back-to-back races at Loretta Lynn's Ranch in Hurricane Mills, Tenn. Fox Raceway -- Pala, just north of San Diego, was the second stop on the circuit last summer. The Pala race has been moved to the end of the season this year, on Oct. 10.
Spring Creek was able to keep its place on the schedule, too.
For a time, track owners John and Greta Martin were fearful that they wouldn't be able to host the pro nationals for a 37th consecutive year.
"With all of the state restrictions and everything, we knew we'd have to (delay the start of the series)," John Martin said, "but everybody in the series is working hard. MX Sports formed a task force that hit it out of the park with their work. Everything has worked out and we're going full guns ahead for (this weekend).
"We have such a large spectator area that if everyone minds their ps and qs and keeps their 36 square feet to themselves, we'll be OK."
Once the schedule was put in place and Martin was certain that the pro nationals would be returning to Millville this year, he said it has been pretty much business as usual for him and the crew of workers it takes to put on this weekend's races.
"It's not that much different for us this year," he said. "Pretty much everything is the same. We're just getting the track set up -- Schaefer Tracks, a motocross track building company from California -- comes out and puts the professional touch on everything."
Spring Creek would likely be quiet this weekend had the Safe To Race Task Force not been put in place five months ago.
"Without question, the quick start (to planning) is why we can race now," Cotter said. "As race organizers, we're adaptive and can figure things out. We're stubborn at times and like to do things our way, but we realized this was way above us and we weren't equipped to do it.
"Reaching out for help is the best thing we ever did."
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PRO MOTOCROSS RETURNS TO MILLVILLE
What: Round 6 of the 9-round AMA Pro Motocross national championship series.
When: Saturday. Pro practice and qualifying begins at 8 a.m., opening ceremony at 12:30 p.m., motos begin at 1 p.m.
Where: Spring Creek MX Park, near Millville. This is the 37th time the series has visited Spring Creek.
Tickets: A Saturday-only adult general admission ticket is $51; a children’s ticket (ages 6-12) is $26.
Pro pits: The pro pits are closed to the public this year.
TV coverage: MavTV will air the first pro motos live from 1-3 p.m. Saturday. NBCSN will air the second pro motos on tape-delay, beginning at midnight. All qualifying races and motos will air online on the NBCSN Gold website.