A motocross legend revs up a new generation of riders

By on July 3, 2012
DirtWarrior

You’re off. The motorcycle roars to life and you’re racing through dirt and air, your bike acting as an extension of your body. You’re digging into the ruts, you’re flying through a double jump, you want to hit that whip just like Ricky Carmichael Jr., or nail that jump like Travis Pastrana — at the same time being aware of everything from landings to turns, to the two riders trying to pass you on either side.

Welcome to the world of motocross racing. Think motorcycles plus cross-country — the race course winds through natural terrain, with riders maintaining top speed for a good 40-minute long race. (Supercross is similar, with the riders competing on man-made dirt tracks inside a stadium.) Motocross evolved 100 years ago from motorcycle trials and is one of the fastest-growing motorsports today.

Jeff Ward, one of the sport’s legendary riders, won every motocross and supercross series in his career — seven national titles, 56 national race wins and seven team victories during the USA’s 13-year domination of the Motocross des Nations, also known as the Olympics of motocross. Though he hasn’t competed since 2008, Ward has returned to the sport, this time as the owner of his own racing team.

“It’s a lot different being the owner rather than the rider,” says Ward. “When you’re riding, the focus is just on yourself and preparing yourself to win races. As a rider, you don’t really see what goes on behind the scenes, what it takes to get to the racetrack. My goal is to make sure we have the right bikes, the right parts, the right tracks, the right everything to give the riders the best opportunity they have to perform at their best.”

That means getting the right sponsors to fund the team, getting the right mechanics and managers to operate the team and getting quality riders to race for the team.

Ward feels good about his accomplishments there, particularly in landing Kawasaki as a sponsor.

“I raced 14 years with Kawasaki — pretty much my whole career,” he says. “Bringing them on board to be part of my race team was like coming home.”

His riders, Josh Grant and Kyle Chisolm, are racking up some good numbers in the team’s first year. In the 2012 AMA Supercross series, Grant scored six top 10 finishes in seven races, while Chisholm has remained among the top 10 riders all season. Now they are taking their skills outdoors for motocross season.

“Both Josh and Kyle are accomplished riders,” says Ward. “It’s tough being a rider. They have to put everything on the edge every week.”

Making the move

After Ward finished riding in motocross and supercross, he joined the IndyCar circuit. He garnered Rookie of the Year honors in 1998 (the previous Rookie of the Year was Tony Stewart); and in 2002, he claimed a racing win at Texas Motor Speedway and a second-place finish at the Indianapolis 500.

During his time with IndyCar, Ward forged a long-standing relationship and friendship with IndyCar team owner Chip Ganassi. “Chip and a couple of other IndyCar owners that I worked with really know how to put an organization together, hiring the right people for the right job. I talked to Chip about the team because he’s a great guy to ask questions and to learn the ropes of how to be an owner — a lot of it has to do with sponsorship and a lot of it has to do with people. I was always an individual in my career as a one-guy racing machine. Now, dealing with different personalities and different situations that go on in any business — that’s a learning curve for me,” he says.

In 2011, Ward partnered with two-time AMA Supercross Champion team owner Mike Kranyak’s L&M Racing team. Originally formed in 2006 by Kranyak and Larry Brooks, the team had already picked up 25 wins, 47 heat race wins, 56 top-five finishes and 85 top-10 finishes before rebranding itself as Jeff Ward Racing. “L&M is excited to join forces with Jeff Ward,” says Kranyak. “Combining our existing infrastructure with Jeff Ward’s lifelong experience in motorsport racing is really going to elevate our team to a new level. I am really looking forward to 2012 and beyond.”

Looking ahead

Thanks to various sports sites like supercross.com and motocrossmx1.com, the sport is growing in nationwide popularity, as fans can follow their favorite riders from California to Unadilla and beyond. The appearance of motocross and supercross in ESPN’s X Games (in which Jeff Ward has won two gold medals) has also popularized the sport.

“This sport just keeps growing,” says Ward. “It had a huge growing curve when the X Games started happening in the mid-1990s. As the games moved into the mainstream, industry sponsors began paying attention outside their normal interest in stick and ball sports. The core of motocross today are the kids who are 6, 7, 8 years old, the kids who want to ride minibikes. They see the races on TV. They follow everything on the Internet. All that plays into the future and there’s a never-ending list of young talent coming up that will keep the sport going and healthy. There are really good people who have a passion for this sport. It’ll never die — it just keeps getting bigger.”

Jeff Ward’s Motocross/Supermoto Wins

  • 1984—AMA 125cc national motocross title
  • 1985—AMA national 250cc motocross and Supercross titles
  • 1987—Second AMA national 250cc Supercross championship
  • 1988—Second AMA national 250cc motocross title
  • 1989—AMA national 500cc motocross championship to become first rider to win every major AMA national motocross title
  • 1990—Second consecutive AMA national 500cc motocross championship
  • 2004—AMA Supermoto Championship, at age 43 2006—X-Games Supermoto Championship, at age 45
  • 2006—AMA Supermoto Championship (second title)
  • 2008—X-Games Supermoto Championship , at age 47 (second title)

About Chuck Miller

Chuck Miller is a freelance writer based in Albany, New York.

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