Motocross: The Danger Factor

Chad Reed’s crash at Millville this weekend got me thinking about crashing, and the reasons we take the risks we do to ride motocross. If you saw the crash you know how horrific it was, and if you didn’t here is your opportunity.

I would argue that motocross is one of, if not thee most dangerous sport in the world. I’m not saying this in a ‘macho’ kind of way, I’m just being realistic and opening the topic for consideration and discussion. The danger in motocross is primarily a ‘limited’ kind of danger. It is rarely ‘fatal’, but the injuries are more common and often more severe than in other sports. If you try to do the research, however, it becomes obvious that motocross hasn’t been properly researched in this regard. Several lists have ‘bull-riding’ as the most dangerous sport in the world. I agree, getting on a pissed off two-ton bull has got to be pretty dangerous, but if you read the statistics that apparently make it the most dangerous sport I’m afraid motocross likely has it beat. An article in the Calgary Sun claims bull riding is the most dangerous sport based on a study that found the sport was responsible for 49 ‘catastrophic’ injuries between 1989 and 2009. They define a catastrophic injury as one causing death or a ‘life-changing’ injury. I would have to believe, without having the stats, that motocross has killed or maimed more than 49 people in the last 20 years! In fact that sounds closer to an annual rate than one for two decades in motocross. Just here on the island I can think of half a dozen riders who fall into this category in just the past few years, not the least of which is Andrew Belin with his shattered legs, and Ross Sherman with the coma he fell into after he hit the dirt in Calgary last year. It’s pretty obvious that motocross has been overlooked in the research when BMX and Cheerleading are showing up on lists that don’t have motocross on them!

You really have to wonder about the criteria of the research when Cheerleading is showing up on 'Most Dangerous Sports' lists that don't have motocross on them!
Ross Sherman (813) shown here getting inside his old rival Nick Syrotuck (751). Ross suffered a truamatic head injury last year in Calgary that left him in a coma for a couple of weeks. Ross is back at school and doing fine, but he likely won't race again and still struggles with short-term memory problems. It was definitly a 'life-changing' injury. (photo:Myrna Hansen)

Of course, in order to make any kind of claim to being the most dangerous sport, you have to define the criteria by which you are judging. Base jumping and cave diving come up consistently high on these lists due to the high number of fatalities among the small number of people who engage in the activity. When defending the safety of motocross I often hear myself saying that ‘very few people actually die racing motocross’. Now if you include motorcycle racing as a whole, and throw the ‘Isle of Mann TT’ into the mix, then you’ve really got something! I’m not doing that however; I’m just talking motocross here. At the other end of the danger criteria you have the cheerleading and BMX thing where they are counting up the sprained ankles and broken wrists. On one list they reported there were more fatalities in lawn bowling than in any other sport, but they did admit this probably has to do with the average competitors age of 75! If you define some middle ground, however, and count broken bones, and then give extra points for injuries that are considered ‘life-changing’ or ones that ‘require surgery or hospitalization’, and then compound this with a percentage of participants who experience this kind of injury, I suspect motocross would move to the top of the list. How many motocrossers do you know who have not had one of these types of injuries? In the past several weeks I have had two friends fall into this category, and of course I’ve been there myself. I just got an email from my old +40 nemesis Paul Wilkinson informing me that he crashed on his Maico and broke his pelvis. He spent five days in the hospital. Another age-class racer and former Pro, Darcy Lalonde, fell in Nanaimo the day after the Nationals and broke several bones requiring two surgeries to be put back together. We love this sport so much, but we pay a heavy toll. As we often say in motocross, “Its not a matter of IF, its a matter of WHEN!”

My good buddy and racing nemesis Paul Wilkinson broke his pelvis this week. He is offering his bikes and gear for sale cheap! It begs the question, 'When is enough, enough?'

This all begs the question, “How do you decide when enough is enough?” After his five days in the hospital thinking things over Paul Wilkinson summed it up pretty nicely in his email. He says, “I love being on the start line with another bunch of guys. We are going to race as fast as we can; bumping and barging into each other without actually knocking each other off is a rush for me. Trouble is as time goes on you have to balance that rush with the pain you suffer when it goes wrong. I have now got to the point after 36 years, with a few years off now and again, that the injuries I am getting out-weigh the rush a little. Pressures of work, responsibility, and the agony when you actually break something takes a toll. I am now at the point of quitting racing.” Paul’s email ended with an offer to sell his bikes and gear cheap! I called it quits last year after my fourth major accident in as many years. Four years ago I came up short on a table top and endoed onto my head. When I came to I had couldn’t remember my buddy’s name, didn’t know which bike was mine or where I kept it, and had no recollection of the fifteen or twenty minutes surrounding the accident. At the hospital I was told I should not do anything to risk another severe concussion. I think I know what the doctor was implying, but I bought a better helmet and continued racing. The next year someone cased their bike on my handlebar and nearly severed my pinky. The doctor who examined me in the Emergency ward wanted to amputate it, but I convinced him to leave it on and send me to a specialist. After two surgeries and seven pins in my tiny digit, my finger was saved but it is permanently bent in the shape of the throttle grip I asked the surgeon to set it around. The next year I plopped over in a slow 180 degree hairpin and broke six ribs. If you’ve ever had a broken rib you know how painful it is. Six broken ribs left me completely helpless for almost two weeks; I don’t know how I would have survived it without my little friends ‘Perky’ and ‘Set’! Then last summer I was trail riding with my bud Chris Stokes and I lofted off a 5 foot embankment into a river. My front wheel stuck in the mud upon landing, I endoed, and planted my right leg. I hyper-extended my knee and heard an audible pop over and above my panic-revving engine. I’ve already had surgery on that knee once. As I lay there grimacing in the river, pinned under my bike thinking about another trip to the hospital, I finally came to the conclusion that enough was enough. I haven’t ridden since, but I can’t say I have completely given up on the idea.

This is the bike I didn't recognize after I knocked myself silly, and that is the better helmet I bought after I had my head examined. Many people would suggest that all motocrossers ought to have their head examined!

My friend Chris is also talking about hanging it up now, and he is the most dedicated dirt-biker I know. We have these long, circular discussions about when you know its time to pack it in and Chris says things like, “Ya, man, since I broke this shoulder last week I’ve been thinking about giving it up”. Then he shows up at the next race, races, and then complains about how much his shoulder hurts, saying out loud, “I probably should have given it another week or two”. That’s the thing about motocross; it’s addictive! I think it would be easier to give up crack-cocaine or heroin. I’ve spent a year without riding now, but I still think about it all the time.

My good buddy Chris Stokes talks a lot about retiring from the sport, but its a tough decision to make. This photo shows him about a foot away from revisiting the discussion!

For an adult, deciding whether or not to continue racing is a matter of personal priorities, values, and risk versus reward calculations. A much more complex, and touchy issue, is considering the sport as it applies to our children. Many responsible parents look at motocross parents and rightfully ask, “How could you subject your kids to that kind of danger?” This one is tough. I think about it more and more as Tanner progresses up through the classes. It didn’t seem like much of an issue when he was racing in the 50cc class; he rode faster on his bicycle. Already by the 65cc class, however, the kids are clipping along pretty good and starting to get more air. This year Tanner is moving up to the 85cc class, and I would argue that it all starts to get pretty real at this level. Our good friends pulled their kid out of the sport last year after Ross Sherman suffered his head injury. Cody Sutherland was a promising young 85cc rider who rode consistently near the front of the pack. The fast 85cc riders are hitting the jumps pretty fast, and spending a significant amount of time in the air. At the ripe old age of 12 Cody already had some pretty serious motocross related knee issues, and when Ross had his accident Cody’s parents rethought the whole risk versus reward thing and decided to pull the plug. I respect their decision, but obviously haven’t come to the same conclusion. Granted, Tanner is not riding as hard or as fast as Cody was, but he will be soon enough.

By the time kids get to the 85cc class they are going fast enough and high enough to be at considerable risk of injury. As parents we have to weigh the risk against the reward of participating in the sport.
It hurts parents almost as much as it hurts the kids when we see them hit the ground hard, but they usually get up and walk away from it.

My partner and Tanner’s mother, the sexy and dauntless DJ, counts up all the positives associated with motocross and weighs them against the risk of injury. Taking note that Tanner’s brother Myles is no longer able to race after a seizure inducing head injury suffered a couple of years ago, DJ still sees the merit in racing. There is the family element; every race weekend we go camping as a family and spend good times with friends. Tanner runs around in a pack of kids his age and has the time of his life. No other sport offers this kind of community spirit, and the family time and bonds developed are invaluable to us. Tanner learns about sportsmanship and responsibility, and he gains respect for motorized vehicles. I think DJ has a valid point when she says that Tanner will be a better driver when the time comes. He knows how to handle a motorized vehicle; a 450 motocross bike has the highest power to weight ratio of any retail vehicle (roughly comparable to a Formula 1 race car!). If Tanner is like most teens when he gets his license he will experiment with some burn outs and skids; the difference between Tanner and many other kids is that he will already have experience with handling a motorized vehicle. Many more teens are killed driving cars than riding motocross, and many of those deaths might have been avoided if the kids had experience with motorized vehicles before they hit the streets. It is also true, as DJ points out, that almost all kids suffer a broken bone at some point doing something. Kids fall off trampolines, crash on their skateboards, and do face-skids off their bicycles all the time. Motocross may be slightly more risky and cause slightly more severe injuries than many of these activities, but it occurs in a controlled environment and teaches respect for all other activities. Tanner won’t ride his bike or skateboard without a helmet, presumably because his experience with motocross has impressed upon him the importance of minimizing risks. On this note, motocross teaches kids to play within their limitations. Kids see the results of others who choose to ride over their heads. I will adamantly encourage Tanner to push harder into corners, but only nudge him gently if he isn’t doing a double or step-up I am sure he could do. Tanner knows his limitations and is not shy about sharing them. If I assure him he has the speed to make a jump he thinks he is not capable of he is quick to come back and say, “Are you nuts man?” Racing motocross makes kids acutely aware that accidents really do happen, and they learn to not take inappropriate risks. This may all seem like a sad case of rationalization, and perhaps it is, but I have an ace up my sleeve.

Both DJ and I would throw ourselves under a train to save Tanner (left) and I'm sure most motocross families are the same (such as the parents of David Bradley, shown right). Many parents may question the seemingly contradictory logic in allowing our children to race motocross, but I believe motocross may one day save Tanner's life. Not to mention the smile it puts on his face!

The real reason I allow Tanner to participate in such a dangerous sport has to do with many of the reasons I have mentioned, but compounds them. Motocross requires a certain degree of focus. Even at an amateur level most motocrossers train, abstain from smoking, and indulge in little or no drinking or recreational drugs. Motocross is a sort of drug unto itself. Recently a young motocrosser identified what I have always said about riding motocross; it takes you somewhere else. Riding motocross requires your full attention and focus; like a drug it takes you away from your everyday life. When you are on a motocross bike that is the only place you are! When you are not on it you have to take care of it: wash it, clean air filters, adjust valves and the like. You also have to train: go to the gym, go running, and eat properly. Racing motocross sucks up the majority of excess energy and adrenaline young adults experience, leaving them little or no time to indulge in other, considerably more dangerous, recreational activities. I use myself as an example. After I gave up motocross as a young man, I had to find something to do with all my youthful vigor. I took to partying, drinking, smoking, recreational drugs, and driving my 400 horsepower hot-rod Camero around with Bruce Springsteen and the Doors pounding on the stereo. Unfortunately I admit to often doing all of these things at the same time. I nearly killed myself many more times in that car than I ever could have on a motocross bike. I had two friends overdose and die, and several more (including Ronny from last week’s article) die in street vehicle accidents. It was a crazy time, and I wholeheartedly believe that it would have been much less crazy if I had continued to race motocross. I wouldn’t have had the time or energy for the craziness. I would have been trying to get a good night’s sleep on Saturday nights before the races, instead of racing in the street with Sally on my lap and a beer in my hand trying to get the kind of adrenaline rush motocross provided! I support Donna’s decision to keep Tanner in the sport not for the considerable value he is getting out of it as a ten year old, but because I believe it could save his life when he is a young adult. When I hear motocross parents considering the cost and danger of the sport my standard response is, “How much is your child’s life worth to you, and how many times would you have to put a cast on your kid’s limb before it becomes more painful than putting your kid in the ground one time?”

A slightly blurry photo from a very blurry time in my life. This is the 'deadly' fast Camero I bought with the money I got when I sold my motocross bike. This car nearly killed me many more times than a motocross bike ever could. Keep your kid on a motocross bike!

It may or may not be the most dangerous sport in the world, depending how you define that classification, but there is no doubt motocross is a dangerous sport. Eventually, and somewhat traumatically, there comes a time in every rider’s life when the body seems to break faster than it heals, and a hard decision must be made. As adults we have the tools to decide when to call it a day and hang up the leathers. As for our children, we have to weigh the risks and decide if our consciences can live with the possibility of a catastrophic injury. For myself the gains outweigh the gore. I will support DJ in her decision to allow Tanner to race motocross for as long as he wants to do it. I believe the most dangerous sport in the world may save his life one day. If you struggle with allowing your child to race motocross I say, “Don’t.” When you see the big boys crash, ooh and awe, and remember that these riders made conscious decisions to do what they do. Motocross is as addictive as heroin, but far less dangerous!

Now you can enjoy these crashes with a clear conscience!