What's The Difference Between Motocross And Supercross?

Since the early 1900s, bike enthusiasts world-wide have thrilled to the sights and sounds of motocross. Athletes on screaming dirt bikes careen around a winding track at speeds greater than 60mph, frequently becoming airborne as they fly over steep dunes and jumps. It’s a thrilling experience for participants and observers alike and one that has evolved into a multi-billion dollar industry since its birth at the turn of the century.

In 1906, a group of early adopters of motorized cycles called the Auto Cycle Club began meeting to put on time trials. These quickly turned into weekly races, or “scrambles,” wherein members competed for titles like “fastest on the track.”

The end of World War II made 2-stroke bikes that had been used by the Army available to civilian hobbyists, and although the prices of motorcycles were high, so was the nation’s enthusiasm. By 1924, thousands of people owned bikes and belonged to bike clubs.

Informal racing was an exciting pastime among owners of street bikes, and the name “motocross” (an amalgam of the French “motocyclette” and “cross country”) had come into popular use. Around the same time, the first official scramble was hosted in Camberely, England, with all proceeds being donated to St. Dustan’s Hostel for the Blind.

As the sport evolved, so did the mechanics: street bikes morphed into sport bikes, with switch fork rear suspension and larger tires with deep tread patterns to improve traction. In 1952 the FIM, or Federation Internationale de Motocyclisme, became the sport’s official governing body. By the early 1960s, athletes rode both 250 and 500 cc engines around the track.

Then, in 1972, a former rock concert promoter named Mike Goodwin conceived of an indoor motocross race. Dubbed “the Superbowl of Motocross,” it was held at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and was essentially the love child of a massive dirt track race and a KISS concert. A gifted salesman, Goodwin devised a sophisticated marketing and promotional campaign that included radio, TV and print ads and attracted thousands, including celebrity fans like Steve McQueen. Given his experience with concerts, Goodwin knew that fans would flock to a big, comfortable venue that offered comfortable seats, snacks, and excitement, and from the outset, he emphasized entertainment, hiring Larry Huffman to be the first supercross race announcer. A successful disc jockey with an electric personality, Huffman would eventually earn the nickname “Supermouth” for his 300-word-per-minute commentary.

Motocross vs. Supercross

Both motocross and supercross involve racing on an oval dirt track punctuated by obstacles. Riders need terrific balance and agility and must be skilled at maneuvering their bikes around tight turns, up steep ramps and hills, and along narrow, zigzagging paths. However, a few key factors differentiate one from the other.

Since Supercross began in the U.S. and is sanctioned by the American Motorcyclist Association, most fans regard it as the American version of the sport. In comparison, many view motocross, with its British origins, French governing body, and early domination by European competitors, as a European-style event, even though pioneers like Ed Youngblood began sponsoring races throughout the US in the early 1960s.

As previously mentioned, compared with motocross, early supercross events were heavily promoted, and Mike Goodwin’s early emphasis on entertainment made an indelible mark. Combined with the fact that supercross races typically take place in large, metropolitan areas, their highly-visible marketing campaigns and top-dollar sponsorships meant that Supercross could reach a larger and more diverse audience, attract new fans more easily, and offer prestigious prizes – and paydays - for competitors. However, today’s motocross and supercross events are both widely advertised and televised, so in this regard, the line between the two has blurred.

Most importantly, however, is the difference in physical location. Since motocross is held outdoors, typically in a rural location, fans must drive to an out-of-the-way site and endure inclement weather, portable toilets, limited seating, and other inconveniences. Televised motocross events alleviate these problems, but viewers miss out on the live event.

Supercross races offer the excitement of a shared experience, plus all the amenities of the hosting venue: indoor plumbing and bathrooms, concession stands, electric heating, cooling, lights, and sound systems. Fans enjoy stadium seating from which most if not all of the track is visible, and many arenas even have big screens that bring the action even closer.

Additionally, supercross features a man-made track. Dirt is brought into the arena and sculpted into jumps, turns, and other obstacles, so organizers have a great deal of control over the challenges the race presents and, ultimately, the audience’s enjoyment of it.

With their carefully designed and constructed tracks and high production values, supercross events are in many respects much more of a spectacle than motocross races. Some fans prefer the outdoor version for this very reason: landforms like hills and gullies present natural, unpredictable, and unexpected challenges, and racing conditions can change in a heartbeat if a spring shower or brisk wind comes up.

Aficionados of both sports also note that because supercross track designers must cram the course into the relatively confined space of an arena, riding can be somewhat more dangerous. Since motocross races take place outdoors, there’s more room for riders to move around in, and it’s easier for them to get out of each other’s way.

Additionally, designers’ main motivation is to make supercross thrilling, so they tend to push the envelope, creating higher and higher jumps, twistier twists, and increasingly challenging obstacles – all of which contributes to the degree of risk riders must take.

One final difference between motocross and supercross is the make-up and schedule of their series. Supercross starts in January, while motocross begins in May, and there are a different number of events each: 12 races in the motocross series and 17 for supercross. Races take place in different locations around the country, but various networks televise the events, so no matter where you live, you can get a taste of either format.

These days both motocross and supercross have sophisticated sponsorship agreements and broadcast formats, so you can watch pre-race interviews, analyses, and highlights from past events to get to know the sport and its athletes in detail.

Enduro

Whether you’re a fan of motocross or supercross, you might want to take a look at enduro racing. As the name suggests, enduro is a form of motocross designed to test athletes’ endurance. Races last anywhere from three hours to a full day, and feature obstacles like streams, boulders, and tree limbs. Most riders use 450cc bikes. In enduro challenges, race officials time the riders’ progress on downhill stretches, and while riders must complete the uphill portions, those sections are untimed.

Trials

Whereas motocross and supercross are all about speed and agility, trials are about accuracy. In this off-shoot sport, athletes must complete a timed test in which they conquer obstacles without letting their feet touch the ground. Each touch results in a penalty point and judges assess additional penalties for finish late, going out of bounds, and going backward. Trials are also called “observed trials,” and competitors ride specialized, lightweight bikes with shortened suspension and no seat. The sport is most popular in Spain and the UK.

Getting in on the Action

If you’re a fan of motocross, supercross, or any of their variants like enduro, you might be tempted to try riding a dirt bike yourself. And why not? Some community colleges offer motorcycle riding lessons, or you can take a course from the Motorcycle Safety Foundation.

There are dirt track parks throughout the U.S. where you can ride, and good, used bikes are available at various price points – just do your research and bear in mind that used motorcycle values can vary widely depending not only on make, model, age, and condition but also on the bike’s location.