Supercross Soars and Cripples

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The dirt bike racer with the intense blue eyes and No Fear sweatshirt sat in the pit area amid a symphony of growling engines. A young boy approached, wanting a photo with his hero. With a nod of his head, Donovan Mitchell invited the boy to stand next to his latest machine.

A state of the art battery-powered wheelchair.

There was a time, before November 1999, when Mitchell's machine was a high-performance motorcycle that cost as much as a down payment on a house. He was 19, an up-and-coming pro on the Supercross circuit who had been invited to show off his highflying style at a promotional event in Palmdale.

And then Mitchell was soaring off a hill like a hawk on a thermal, a jump he had performed a thousand times before. Only this time, the rider in front crashed and Mitchell fell from the sky above him.

He speared the ground head-first, crushing the fourth cervical vertebra in his neck. He couldn't breathe, couldn't move. He nearly died. He may never walk again.

And he has no regrets.

"If I had done this in a car crash, I'd kill myself," Mitchell said before a recent race in Anaheim that he craved to be in. "But because it happened biking, I can deal with it."

Off-road motorcycling has never been more popular.

Or more dangerous.

At its heart, some suggest, is Supercross--a jaw-dropping spectacle of 70-foot jumps, hairpin turns and washboard straightaways that leaves riders little margin for error.

The sport was born in 1972 on a man-made track in the Los Angeles Coliseum, a supercharged cousin of European-exported motocross.

As the size and length of the jumps have grown, so, too, has the audience. Nearly 135,000 people paid as much as $75 at three sold-out Anaheim races in January and February. Last year, 797,119 fans attended the EA Supercross Series 16 races, which are broadcast on ESPN2, ABC and pay-per-view TV.

Supercross has redefined all of off-road motorcycling, infusing the sport with a love of risk and "catching big air."

"Everybody wants to jump," Mitchell said of today's riders.

The number of dirt bikes in the United States grew by 60% between 1990 and 1998, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council. Last year, sales of new bikes exceeded half a billion dollars.

But while on-road motorcycle injuries have been slowly declining, off-road injuries requiring emergency room treatment have doubled in the last four years to an estimated 52,588 in 2000, according to federal safety regulators. Just as many motorcycle injuries now occur off the road as on, even though street bikes outnumber dirt bikes 3 to 1.

"I've been to way too many hospitals and seen too many guys paralyzed," said Rick Sieman, a former motocross racer and founder of Dirt Bike Magazine who broke his back after coming up short on a jump in 1979. "It has become nothing more than the Colosseum and the gladiators. The lions are the jumps and the promoters are throwing the riders to the lions. . . . To make it this lethal is stupid. To promote it is immoral."

But the 60-year-old writer--a well-known voice in American motocross--is in the minority. He and others who question how Supercross has influenced dirt biking have been dismissed by proponents as being out of touch.

"Yes, there's danger involved," said David Coombs, a track operator, race promoter and founder of Racer X Illustrated, a magazine that celebrates the sport. "Some people like to climb mountains. Some people like to race cars. Some people like to cross the street without looking. . . . If you do something stupid, you're going to get hurt, no matter what you're doing.

"The sport is no more dangerous than it's ever been," he said. "It's just more popular."

Separating the 'Men From the Boys'

Still, last year several of the sport's top 20 racers were sidelined by serious accidents. One had surgery to fuse his spine after a crash in practice. Another was nearly paralyzed after he came up short on a practice jump before a Supercross race in San Diego.

When the online publication Motorcycle Daily asked readers at the time whether Supercross had become too dangerous, the e-mails flowed in.

"The difficulty of the tracks will separate the 'men from the boys,' " was one typical response. "This is how it should be."

Supercross' trick-jumping offspring, Freestyle Motocross, has upped the ante even more. In 1998, Travis Pastrana, the 17-year-old wunderkind of both sports, spent two months in a wheelchair after his spinal column was dislocated from his pelvis when he came up short on a 120-foot jump.

"The doctors, after they saw my X-rays, were pretty much amazed that I wasn't paralyzed," Pastrana told Cycle News later. "Three transfusions of blood and two surgeries later, I was back on the bike. . . . Now, I'm actually stronger."

In January, Pastrana was injured again, suffering his ninth concussion after a fall during a Supercross event in San Diego. He took a few weeks off to heal.

That desire to ride, that bravado, isn't limited to pros. On the Web site http://supercross.com, a chat board on injuries reads like a cross between an emergency room log and the script to the recent teen movie "Dude, Where's My Car?"

"I crashed . . . over a double jump," one author from Iowa wrote. "I was in a come [sic] for 7 days and i had 7 shears in my brain. . . . I was rushed to the hospotal [sic] in Des Moines where i was clinicaly [sic] dead. They jump started me 5 times."

"Sorry it happened to you and glad youre back," came one response, "but whats youre point? Dont crash and slip into a coma?"

In fact, it's hard to find a racer--pro or amateur--who hasn't been injured.

Donovan Mitchell has met 10 other riders in wheelchairs since his accident 15 months ago. Most are just average guys who liked to jump motorcycles. "Nobody hears about them," he said.

Mitchell was born to the sport, the child of a "motomom" and "motodad" who bought him his first motorcycle when he was 2. It sat in the living room for a year. At 3, he began riding it in the backyard with training wheels attached. By 5, he was jumping off ramps.

"He was a natural," Donna Mitchell says of her son.

The dirt bike bug bit her in the 1970s. Instead of an engagement ring, Donna's husband gave her a motorcycle, and she couldn't have been happier. The two would ride every chance they got, rain or shine. Over the years, she broke her tibia, hand and ankle in spills.

"When I broke my hand, I didn't get a cast because that would mean I couldn't ride the next week," she said. "I don't know how to explain it. It's a different mentality when you're in the sport. The normal mother, if her child breaks a leg, she calls an ambulance. We just kind of take it in stride. 'So, you broke your leg? Can it wait until tomorrow?' As a parent, you have to be calm about the whole thing.

"You pray that it [a life-altering injury] doesn't happen. In our case it did. But you don't just stop doing the sport."

Donovan Mitchell didn't profit financially from racing. In his first year as a pro, the $15,000 he earned was gobbled up by expenses. Shortly before his accident, he signed a coveted "factory contract," getting $5,000 upfront from motorcycle manufacturer KTM to ride on its team.

Only a handful of top Supercross riders earn a million dollars or more a year. The vast majority cobble together smaller endorsement contracts from equipment and clothing makers, and dream of a big payday.

Mitchell's contract didn't include health insurance. His $750,000 medical bill to date has largely been covered by his mother's plan. KTM has kept Mitchell under contract since the crash. That and an outpouring of gifts have kept him afloat.

"When I dream, I dream that I'm riding, running, everything that I used to do," said Mitchell, whose unyielding optimism is tempered by a handshake as soft and weightless as a baby's. "When I dream, I'm never in a wheelchair. Never."

He misses the speed and power of his bike, the way he could coax it to fly. He misses the dirt and the sweat and the smell of exhaust. He misses the adulation of the crowd.

Today, another motorcycle stands in the living room--a new rocket that Donovan's sponsor gave him. It's in front of the family fireplace beneath a framed color photo of Mitchell in his racing gear. The photo was shot a half-hour before his accident.

Teenagers in the Riverside neighborhood who have seen the bike--the ones who launch themselves off local hillsides and makeshift mounds--are impressed.

And the wheelchair? "They don't take nothing from that," Mitchell said. "They don't comprehend the stuff they're doing."

Behavior, Not Product Design, Determines Risk

Dr. Robert Waters has seen young men like these before. Risk takers in the prime of their lives. Lives that too often are shattered in the fraction of a second it takes to damage the spinal cord.

"I don't approve of the sport," said Waters, chief medical officer at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center in Downey, one of the nation's leading spinal cord injury centers. The chance "of a debilitating injury is so high, the consequences so dramatic that it's just not worth it."

No one, Waters said, has tracked the number of spinal injuries in off-road motorcycling. He has lost count of the number of victims his hospital has treated.

But the recent surge in off-road injuries prompted analysts at the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to question what was going on.

"Our hazards department did eyeball it" but no further study was ordered, said commission spokeswoman Jane Francis. "The reason it hasn't gone any further is that we need to feel that there's something in the product that can be improved to make it safer."

The answer: There probably isn't. The issue is behavior, not product design, Francis said.

Rich Daly decided to speak out about the hazards of today's jump-inspired riding after attending a Florida motocross event in the mid-1990s at which, he says, six amateurs were taken to the hospital with broken femurs.

"I'd get resumes from all these kids trying to get sponsored," said Daly, whose upstate New York company manufactures dirt bike and snowmobile exhaust pipes. "You read them and they all had injuries. They've broken their backs, they've broken both legs. . . . I said, 'That's enough.'

"It's a male thing. A macho thing. An idiot thing."

Daly started a Web site and posted the stories of injured pro and amateur dirt riders. When he wrote an article in 1998 suggesting the government might regulate motocross unless safety were improved, he got a letter from Ed Youngblood, then-president of the American Motorcyclist Assn., telling him the sport is safe--and, in effect, to back off.

"If you want to bring hysterical safetycrats down on organized motorcycling, I can't think of a better way to go about it than to systematically circulate information that presents an inaccurate and overly negative depiction," Youngblood wrote.

Aaron Baker wouldn't want the government sticking its nose into the sport he loves either. Jumping is a matter of choice. You do it, you accept the consequences.

He has.

Baker learned to ride a motorcycle when he was 5. Today, at 21 and with three shattered vertebrae, he's learning to walk again.

On a recent Saturday, Baker sat in the parking lot outside Anaheim's Edison Field stroking a puppy in his lap, waiting for a friend to wheel him into the pit area where mechanics readied bikes for the night's race.

"When I go in the pits, all my friends are happy to see me--for a while. I remind them of what could happen," he said.

In May 1999, Baker was a rookie pro. He was training for a Supercross race when his engine cut out, and he came up short on a jump. He soared 70 feet before being flung over the handlebars, into a life of pain and uncertainty.

"These guys out here are professionals who know what they're doing," said Baker, who lives in Chatsworth. "They don't get paid enough to do what they're doing. No amount of money is worth a spinal cord injury. . . . Any money I made riding is long gone."

His friend carefully pushed Baker through the crowd. Past the adults who glanced at his chair and self-consciously looked away. Past the children who followed him with their eyes.

He considered what he would tell a teenager who wanted to get into this sport he loves and misses so much.

"I'd tell them to just look at me and think," Baker finally said. "I'd tell them that this is what can happen to you. Then they need to make up their own mind."

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Rough Riding

The number of dirt biking injuries increased nearly 100% between 1997 and 2000.

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Number of injuries based on emergency room treatment from 1997 to 2000: 52,588

Source: U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission

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