Thrills of motorcross racing zoom into city arenas

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Promoter Mike Goodwin held a motocross race this past weekend at the Los Angeles Coliseum and more than 61,000 people showed up. Motocross, in case you didn't know, is a bunch of fearless guys riding motorcycles who try to tame a man-made obstacle course that resembles a bombed-out city.

Originally motocross racing was held on some out-of-the-way piece of land that had enough natural disasters of its own, like potholes, hills, gullies, rocks, and water hazards, to please the customers.

But since 1971, when Goodwin got the idea that his sport should be brought to the city and could be if places like the Coliseum would let him haul in about 5, 000 cubic yards of dirt, people can watch it just as they do a football game.

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Of course the dirt isn't dumped indiscriminately. It is arranged so that the riders fly over it, under it, through it, and around it. If you don't lose control of your bike at least once during the evening or bump a fellow competitor, you're just not trying. If there's anyone in this sport over 30 years old, he isn't telling.

By the time a driver finishes, he's so covered with mud, dirt, and debris that even his own mother wouldn't know him. Although there are reports that some of the top bikers make as much $250,000 a year, the bulk of that money comes from commercial endorsements.

All you have to meet is about three motocross drivers before you start to get the impression that most of them would try wire walking if they had the chance, volunteer to put out oil well fires, or drive without brakes on the Hollywood Freeway. They have nerves of steel.

Motocross racing makes money because where else can you see a whole covey of Evel Knieves trying to wear out a motorcycle in one evening? The truth is that some of them do it in half an evening, and I guess that's what puts all those spectators in the stands.

One of the Golden Boys of motocross right now is Mike Bell, who at 6 ft., 3 in. and 190 pounds is considered too tall for the sport. This game is supposed to be for little guys who can hide behind their handle- bars, keep their bodies out of the way so that the air resistance doesn't slow them down, and don't have too far to fall.

But Bell, who won last year's Supercross Championship with seven wins, one runner-up showing, and four third-place finishes, doesn't worry about such theories. He just jams the throttle full on and dares whoever is around to catch him.

After a race, Mike is generally the guy who looks as though he just exited from the home of the Creature From the Black Lagoon. You need a knife to get the mud off him.

Most city motocross races are held over a twisting half-mile course that has been laid out within the dimensions of a football field. It takes at least 50 contestants, according to Goodwin, to give the customers what they want, which is a series of 12 events which eventually decides who is champion.

Network television, now that motocross has tailored its sport to where it will fit inside a 24-inch screen, can't wait to get its cameras rolling. There's so much action that instant replays sometimes only duplicate what is coming up next.

In fact, motocross racing has become so popular that it now runs regularly before huge crowds in places like the New Orlans Superdome, Anaheim Stadium, the Houston Astrodome, and the Silverdome in Pontiac, Mich.

The best place to watch motocross racing is partway up in the stadium, where the sight lines are good and there is no chance of winding up sharing your seat with one of the drivers. Powerful binoculars are also recommended.

How you identify the contestants amid the dirt, speed, and fast-moving competition is something you'll have to discover for yourself.

This year's L.A. Coliseum event included four 10-lap qualifying heats, one semifinal, and a consolation race, plus the championship event. It was won by Mark Barnett, an adventurous young man from Illinois.

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