SpectaCross: the First of Many State Fair Cyclocross Races?

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May 21, 2009; Conshohocken, PA, USA:  “We had to manipulate time and space,” says Ken Getchell.  “We wanted to adhere to tradition, but at the same time create something new and special.”  No, he’s not talking about this summer’s blockbuster Star Trek movie; Getchell is discussing something decidedly more down to earth: the adaptations his SpectaSport company has needed to make to bring cyclocross racing to an arena at a state fair; an arena that’s normally home to demolition derbies and tractor pulls.  The New Jersey State Fair SpectaCross on July 31 and August 1 will put cycling, and especially cyclocross, into the limelight as the principal special event of the opening weekend of this year’s New Jersey State Fair in Augusta.  Unlike Star Trek though, customers at the fair will be spared the sight of a heaving green woman (although the race, with its accompanying midway and fried foods, has been cheerfully billing itself as having “more ways to puke than any other race”).

While it’s tempting to think of the SpectaCross as a one-off exhibition race (even its name brings to mind a one-off spectacle), Getchell disagrees.  “July 8, 1972,” he grins.  “That’s the date of the first-ever Supercross motorcycle race.  They thought that was a one-off exhibition race too, but look at Supercross now.  We haven’t spent thousands of dollars on infrastructure, and who knows how many man-hours, just for a one-race exhibition.”  SpectaSport appears to be borrowing heavily from Supercross in its plans for the New Jersey State Fair.  Not only does it face the same challenge of fitting a sprawling outdoor sport into the confines of a spectator stadium designed for other purposes, but the comparative histories of motocross in the 1970′s and cyclocross in 2009 show some remarkable parallels.  In 1972, motocross was growing rapidly in the U.S., much as cyclocross is today, and was poised to overtake the traditional flat track disciplines in popularity.  At the time, no American had yet won a Motocross Grand Prix (the equivalent of the World Cups in cyclocross) and, in an all too familiar refrain, the Belgians were thought to be unbeatable.  There had been several small-scale attempts to race motocross in stadiums, as there has been for cyclocross (notably the smaller-scale cyclocross races held at the NJ State Fair in 2006 and 2007).  But 1972′s “Superbowl of Motocross” in Los Angeles’ 1932 Olympic Coliseum was the first large-scale stadium racing production.  Likewise, the NJ State Fair SpectaCross, held in the shadow of New York City, will be on a much larger maginitude than any previous so-called “indoor” events.

With the benefit of experience, (Getchell promoted his first bike race in 1982 and went on to create the SKUSA professional go-kart racing series that was paid to compete at NASCAR tracks), as well as the history of both Supercross and the previous cyclocross races as a guide, Getchell knew that certain changes had to be made to adapt cyclocross racing to a State Fair environment.  “Those first races essentially took a standard club cyclocross race and just plopped it down in the middle of an arena,” he said recently.  “That didn’t work in a fair environment, even though it did prove that it can be lots of fun to race on a track like this.  The fair wanted a bigger, more artistic event, but they didn’t want an all-day event where the participants never left the track or went into the fair.  So we split it into sessions of 3-4 races each and made sure each session had its own main event.  There were also some, for lack of a better word, ‘theatrical’ considerations to take into account.  We learned that tape and stakes look good in a field but not an arena, so we changed that.  We also learned that, because the arena is on one end of the fair, next to the majority of the food vendors, there is an ebb and flow to the walking traffic.  So we timed the featured events to take place when the most people are near the arena, instead of at the midway on the opposite end of the fair.  And we added trials to the program about a year ago, long before Danny MacAskill’s video became a sensation, because everybody loves sick stunt riding.”

Getchell, though, is clearly uncomfortable using the word ‘theatrical’, fearing that it might stir up images of professional wrestling and past promoters who have shown up in cycling through the years with big promises that were heavy on flash but light on content.  “We’re not trying to fundamentally change the sport.  We’re not on some mission to turn it into roller derby or anything like that.  I love cyclocross.  We’ll actually have a more traditional racing program this year in New Jersey than any other indoor or arena cyclocross in the world, including Belgium.  No sprint races, no LeMans starts, just pure cyclocross; just with more laps than usual.  That’s why we already have commitments from people who are trekking in from the Midwest, the South and New England to race here.  We’re making adaptations, sure; like not pulling lapped riders.  But that’s only because we have time, space and other constraints that are different from most other races.”

One of those constraints is the physical size of the facility.  While the Miller Lite Outdoor Entertainment Arena area is easily one of the largest parts of the Fair, it is still a very small area for a cyclocross race.  “The previous races here proved it was viable to race in a facility like this, but there is no way the track will be big enough for a hundred-plus riders at a time like we normally have in this region, so we’ve split the larger classes into halves so we can accommodate the number of expected entries,” says Getchell.  The event, especially during the Cyclocross Magazine Friday Night Sprints also sees some unusual class combinations, a move driven primarily by the desire to accommodate as many racers as possible during the after-work hours.

One change that Getchell admits may seem drastic to the tradition bound cycling community involves class combinations and how individual classes are scored during a race.  But even that change has a pragmatic background.  “Personally, I’ve always felt that the way cycling handled races with multiple classes was excessively complex and lead to hurt feelings and upset customers.  With our short course, we don’t have the ability to have separate starts anyway, so I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to score classes the way they do in sports car and endurance motorcycle racing.  Basically, everybody who’s on the track at one time will be part of the overall race and will be competing for both overall honors and positions in their sub-class.  So the top finishers are actually collecting two prizes, one for their overall position and one for “best in class” position.  It means writing a few extra checks, and traditionalists get all uptight about “double dipping”, but it should be much simpler to keep track of during the heat of battle since there is only one “leader” on the track at a time.  We’ll see, but I’m confident that once people experience it, they will prefer it.”

Obviously though, the biggest difference between SpecaCross and every other cyclocross in America is that it will be seen in person by thousands of non-cycling spectators.  Whereas Supercross made motorcycle racing more accessible by bringing motocross to a stadium near where people lived, SpectaCross is making cyclocross racing accessible by bringing it to a stadium where people already are.  Upwards of 12,000 people are expected to watch the cyclocross and speed trials races in the Fair’s 4,500-seat arena during SpectaCross’s two day run.  As a mid-sized fair, nearly a quarter-million people visit the New Jersey State Fair every year.  Most come with the expectation of seeing something that they never would have experienced otherwise, and many come from rural communities where NASCAR is king and people inherently understand the rhythm and strategy of racing sports.  According to Getchell those numbers are important, “Beyond the fact that it’s just really cool to compete in front of a lot of people, we are making the sport accessible and exposing people to cyclocross for the first time.  As a cyclist myself, I’ve noticed that drivers are generally more tolerant of riders in regions that have a big bike race.  We expect to make a lot of people a whole lot more tolerant of bike riders on July 31 and August 1.”

Chris Pine, the actor who plays James T. Kirk in the new Star Trek movie, offers a surprisingly parallel summary of what Getchell expects from this first SpectaCross.  “The goal this time,” Pine told Benjamin Svetkey in the May 8 issue of Entertainment Weekly, “was to make a Star Trek that wasn’t alienating to nonfans.  We mainly wanted it to be accessible.”  In the end it probably makes sense that Captain Kirk is quoting the objectives for the New Jersey State Fair SpectaCross.  After all, it’s a race that’s boldly going where no ‘cross has gone before.

The New Jersey State Fair SpectaCross takes place as part of the 2009 New Jersey State Fair / Sussex County Farm and Horse Show in Augusta New Jersey on July 31 and August 1.  The event takes place in the Fair’s Miller Lite Outdoor Entertainment Arena and features cyclocross racing and speed trials stunt racing.  Registration is strictly limited to pre-registration only (no day-of registration) exclusively through BikeReg.com.  More information about the event can be found at www.SpectaSport.com

 

 

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