Insight: Off-road racing’s identity crisis

Image by Nicolas Stevenin

Insight: Off-road racing’s identity crisis

Insights & Analysis

Insight: Off-road racing’s identity crisis

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By all measure, the sport of off-road racing is now enjoying its next golden age.

Unlike the mortgage-loan fueled boom of the mid 2000s, today’s environment feels much more like the late 1980s and early 1990s when there was a ton of vehicle development, new technology, enthusiastic support of racers from all walks of life, and, notably, the active participation of vehicle and tire manufacturers.

While vehicle diversity (like this at the Mint 400) is the backbone of off-road racing, the time has come to condense and streamline myriad of classes.

Set aside the fact that short-course racing is still struggling to recapture lost momentum and gain stability; beside that, off-road motorsports sits in a great place right now.

Yet, there is one glaring anchor in desert racing weighing down any real ability to become a more recognized and respected form of racing: the lack of a clear identity. Not as an overreaching broad stroke, but in one specific overall upgrade to its overall presentation.

Stated simply, the time has come for our sport to condense and unify its rules packages and class designations.

While that idea has been bubbling beneath the surface for some time, it was brought to light again watching the coverage of last week’s King of the Hammers Toyo Tires Invitational (photo above). An otherwise logistical masterpiece of live coverage was lessened to a great extent by event organizers being forced to call the near million-dollar unlimited trucks racing that day “T-1 trucks.”

The fact is, for 99.9 percent of anyone who cares, these captivating, insane machines are known as “Trophy-Trucks”.

Despite years of effort by Best-in-the-Desert (BITD), the great universe does not understand or relate to a “Trick Truck.” Certainly, adding yet a third description to the same pile via the KOH “T-1” moniker isn’t helping, nor is the fact that the upcoming Mint 400 will rely on the term “Unlimited Truck.”

Four different names for exactly the same thing.

Why, you may ask, is this happening? The backstory is that in the early 1990s SCORE International and its president, Sal Fish, invented the SCORE Trophy-Truck class, thus creating a premiere platform for the rapidly emerging speed and technology that had transcended the sport’s original Class 8 for big production-based trucks. Locked in a battle for control of big-league desert racing with the High Desert Racing Association (HDRA) and others, SCORE protected its flanks by trademarking the Trophy-Truck name. Of course, this move blocked others from using the description, eventually forcing BITD founder Casey Folks to create his “Trick-Truck” class. Never one to back away from a challenge, Folks went on to create new names for all his desert classes despite SCORE International’s original designations being the standard bearers.

Now, almost 30 years later, the same legal mindset remains, but the world has changed. Today, SCORE’s lane is all based in Baja, with BITD sharing space in the United States with the Martelli brothers’ BFGoodrich Mint 400 and Dave Cole’s King of the Hammers one-off events.

And, let’s remember, that is just one class. A quick glance at the entry lists and individual rules for each sanctioning body tells the real story. While entry fees and “run what you brung” are the bread and butter of the off-road promotional business model, the landscape reflects the same “everyone gets a trophy” mindset permeating soccer fields and baseball diamonds everywhere. SCORE International now has a whopping 50 classes for motorcycles, ATVs, UTVs, trucks and buggies, with BITD not far behind with 41 racing categories. For the upcoming Mint 400 there are 39 bike classes and 42 total car classes or events.

The two-wheel contingent is one of the sport’s time-tested strengths, but too many classes water down competition and recognition.

Contrast that to the original National Off-Road Racing Association’s (NORRA) inaugural Mexican 1000 in 1967 that had but seven categories for all vehicles including bikes.

No wonder the prize money pool is spread so thin and event trophy presentations so long and boring.

As one might expect, there exists the unnecessary need for each sanctioning body to put its own twist on regulations despite the vehicles being essentially the same. This scenario has long plagued the ability of short-course racing to unify and grow, with two factions (West Coast and Midwest) constantly engaged in protective defense instead of overall growth offense.

Happily, it seems that both the Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series (LOORRS) and the new Championship Off-Road (COR) group have, at the very least, agreed to keep the designations for their premiere classes – Pro 4, Pro 2 and Pro Lite – the same. In terms of creating a professional environment for both, that is a very good thing.

Maybe it’s time to lock everyone in the same room, set aside the history and egos, finally lock arms and work together. I will slide pizza and bottles of fine Petron under the door.

The first goal would be to finally come up with a universal set of class designations across the board –- including and especially the universally understood Trophy-Truck title.

From there, who knows what’s possible? Maybe, finally, the sport’s collective brain trust can agree to set up an annual summit to collectively bargain for more universal rules across the entire sport, perhaps even combining or even eliminating some classes.

 

Is there hope for simplifying and streamlining classes on the off-road racing horizon?

Yes, it would be painful. Yes, it would require old and outdated grudges from the past to be set aside. Maybe the rapid take-over from the UTV/side-x-side market is the place to start.

But … just start somewhere. Motorsports history has repeatedly proven that that simplifying and streamlining is the only path toward more universal growth and respect for all.

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