Tonight, top motorcycle riders from across the country will be leaping over and powering through a demanding obstacle course on the floor of Qualcomm Stadium.
But these are not daredevils. They are finely tuned athletes, the fastest of whom earn seven figures a season.
Yet Supercross is as dangerous as it is spectacular.
Most riders are broken or retired well before their 30th birthday. And some riders pay a much bigger price.
Since the 2000 season, one rider has died during the annual Supercross at Qualcomm. Another, James Marshall, was permanently paralyzed. A third, Jimmy Button, suffered a serious spinal cord injury. Two more riders suffered paralyzing injuries at other events last year.
It’s the side of the sport you don’t see on those flashy television commercials.
“Riders know the risk,” Button said Thursday. “But you are young and believe it can’t happen to you. For motocrossers, there is a small window of opportunity. At the same time, you need to be aware it can end in an instant.”
Since recovering from the injury he suffered here, Button has become a rider’s agent. He has also founded the Road2Recovery Foundation, which offers assistance to injured riders and leads a drive to improve rider safety.
“Riders today have neck protection that reduces some of the risk,” said Button. “But the sport is what it is.”
Currently, a pro Supercrosser has to pay $39,000 a year for $1 million of Disability insurance.
“Most riders can’t come close to affording that,” said Button, whose group is backed by riders, fans and sponsors. “So Road2Recovery helps any way we can.”
Button’s road to recovery from his 2000 accident at Qualcomm was long. He still walks with a decided limp. “But I walk,” he says. Button was hospitalized for eight months after his accident.
Button, who considers himself fortunate, was paralyzed when he left the track that night.
“Four weeks after the accident, one of my fingers started to move,” Button said. “Five months after the accident, I was able to stand.”
The common link between the three most serious racing accidents at Qualcomm is that none was a product of speed or a jump.
Jason Ciarletta, 19, of Riverside was killed on Jan. 24, 2004, when he crashed over a berm while braking at a turn. Marshall and Button were injured when they hit a hole.
“I was moving a little quicker than I could walk, maybe three miles an hour,” said Button. “I was just studying the track after they made some changes. I hit a hole and plunged face-first into the ground.
“When I was lying there, I realized not a damn thing was working. Had I been going faster, I probably would have bounced and rolled and broken something. But at those speeds, I was like a lawn dart. I’d have taken a broken femur any day of the week.”
Instead, Button, who was one of the series’ top riders at the time, suffered a bruised spinal cord and damage to the area of his third through sixth Cervical Vertebrae.
“I never lost consciousness, which probably saved my life,” he said. “I was having a terrible time breathing. Had I been out, I don’t think I would have kept breathing.”
At the time, Button’s accident was the first serious accident in Supercross since 1987.
IRL-Champ Car merger?
A date conflict involving the Long Beach Grand Prix could be the last major hurdle in the way of an immediate merger between the Indy Racing League and the Champ Car World Series.
The plan would merge the warring open-wheel series before the start of the 2008 season.
IRL founder Tony George has offered Champ Car teams free chassis and Honda engines (to replace their Champ Car equipment) in addition to $1.2 million per team (the same amount the IRL already pays its teams).
The IRL would also pick up at least three races – Long Beach, Edmonton (Canada) and Australia – from the Champ Car schedule to add to its current 16-race schedule anchored by the Indy 500.
The two series have battled for the ever-dwindling open-wheel market since George formed the IRL in 1995. George almost bought the rival series at a bankruptcy hearing in 2005, and there have been other merger talks since.
During the conflict, drivers (notably Tony Stewart, Juan Pablo Montoya, Dario Franchitti and A.J. Allmendinger) and sponsors have fled to NASCAR while open-wheel attendance and television ratings plummeted.
The Long Beach Grand Prix is scheduled to open the Champ Car season on April 20, a day after the IRL series is to run at Montei, Japan, the base of its Honda engine supplier. At the moment, officials of neither race are willing to accept a date change.
Rookie Antron Brown jumped to the top of the Top Fuel rankings, while the leaderboard in Funny Car (Scott Kalitta) and Pro Stock (Greg Anderson) went unchanged yesterday in the second of four qualifying rounds for the National Hot Rod Association’s season-opening Winternationals in Pomona.
Brown, a former Pro Stock Motorcycle rider, covered the quarter-mile in 4.495 seconds with a top speed of 330.07 mph. That topped Thursday’s best run of 4.513 seconds by five-time series champion Tony Schumacher, who remains second on the ladder.
Meantime, 14-time Funny Car champion John Force slipped to 19th in qualifying while Robert Hight is 21st after two rounds. Only the top 16 qualifiers advance to tomorrow’s finals after today’s final two rounds.
By Bill Center
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER