It is hard to ignore the fact that the FIM Motocross World Championship has gone from strength to strength recently. A handful of factors have contributed to that, of course, including the fact that two unlikely MXGP champions have emerged and shocked the most passionate fans. With the Grand Prix of Qatar just seventy days away, everything is starting to ramp up and now seemed like a perfect time to catch up with Youthstream’s David Luongo.
MX Vice: It has been a brilliant year for MXGP, of course, but could you pinpoint one specific thing that you are the proudest of?
David Luongo: It has been a great year for MXGP in general. I mean, the top class was very exciting with a lot of different winners and, for the second year in a row, we had the rookie come from MX2 to win the MXGP class. But, if we could highlight some specific aspects about this year, it would certainly be the fact that we reduced the number of injuries compared to the 2016 season, thanks to the work of Youthstream who collaborated closely with the organisers and thanks to the help of the FIM. After 2016 we employed Rui Goncalves [MXGP rider] as an advisor for the track preparation and maintenance – that helped all of us to increase the quality of each race track.
Then, of course, we are proud of our staff, especially in the USA during the Monster Energy Grand Prix of the Americas in Charlotte. They saved the race on Saturday by working all night long to pump the water that covered the track, after the hurricane, and we delivered a top-class track for the American public. The Motocross of Nations in Maggiora was again a very good event, where we continued to make history with more than eighty thousand spectators. Finally, we are proud of the level of the World Championship riders that has been constantly increasing over the last ten years.
On the other side of the coin, is there a certain area that you are keen to grow or improve in 2017?
We are working into the sport, you know, and when you are sportsmen you always want to improve. In general I would say that we have to improve in all the different aspects of our work to continue to take the MXGP series higher. Last year we invested a lot to bring live coverage to the Saturday activities, like the MXGP/MX2 qualification races and the EMX races, because we wanted to give fans a chance to follow as much MX as we can offer, so thanks to MXGP-TV.com that is now possible.
We were broadcasting more than nine hours of live coverage during a full weekend this year, which is quite unique in our sport. We want to continue to improve the quality of this programme. We also want to present our sport better every year to attract new fans.
Motocross is a fantastic sport, but nowadays the people have the choice between so many activities that you really need to be visible and appear nicely to attract new fans. For this reason, we are trying to improve every year by investing in the facilities for the public that attend the event (during the Swiss Grand Prix, for example, there was free WiFi access through the whole paddock) and in the TV production to deliver a great programme to the TV broadcasters all around the world.
Finally, another important novelty for 2017 will be the new start procedure. We will close the access to the starting gates and the neutral zone area before the start; the riders will have to wait in the waiting zone under the ‘Sky Box’. It will not be possible for the riders to prepare their gate. At every Grand Prix we will build a concrete zone out of metal, where the riders will access the grid with their bike.
With this new system, all the riders will start with the same chance and the same grip. We will not face some discussion about riders who took somebody else’s gate, like in the past. We made the first test during the Monster Energy SMX Cup and the feedback from all the riders was very good. The grip was just amazing!
There is no doubt at all that the series is going from strength to strength and the calendar serves as proof of that. Do you feel that we’ll have the right mix of flyaway and European events in 2017? If not, what would you consider the perfect amount?
It has to be global to be a real world championship, otherwise you could call it a European championship. We have been able to open new markets for the industry by going global, as well as answer the will of fans around the world who wanted to see the Motocross World Championship and live this experience. Our aim is to develop this sport and this championship. Today we can say that MXGP is a real world championship. We will never forget that the heart of our sport remains in Europe, where motocross was created and the hardcore fans still are, though.
About the repartition between the flyaway and the European rounds, the future will give the answer. In principle we will keep a majority of the rounds in Europe, but we are working to take MXGP to some important countries like Japan, Australia and South Africa. In these three countries you have a lot of motocross fans. The fact that Russia is back on the calendar is also a great sign, as motocross has been a very important sport in that country in the past. Indonesia is one of the biggest motorsport markets in the world too.
The MXGP class is really in an interesting spot, as it’ll feature the best of the best from the series next year. That must be an exciting prospect from where you are sat?
On the point of view of the sport, the 2017 season will be one of the best in history. We have so many different riders that are able to win a Grand Prix that it would almost be impossible to predict the future world champion. Our targets will be to give those guys the best tracks possible to really enjoy the season, express themselves in the best way possible, allow the biggest number of people to watch it live or on-site and maybe for new people to fall in love with the sport.
But, in general, the last five years have been amazing. A new generation of riders came through the European Championship and mixed with the experienced guys – the general level is much higher than ten years ago. When you have a look at the entry list you have fifteen riders who have already won a Grand Prix in their career. Besides that, the official manufacturers have invested a lot into the sport over the last few years and the technology of the bikes has improved amazingly.
That level of competition is a product of the age-restriction rule that has been enforced in MX2 and almost proves that it has worked as intended, right? The most talented riders have risen to the top and will now duke it out for the greatest prize…
This change was a turning point for the quality of the MXGP class. One of our main targets when we took back the rights to manage the Motocross World Championship was to simplify the full structure of the championships to attract new fans and create a pyramid system, like you find in all the other sports on the planet. You have academies, then national championships, then European championships and finally, for the crème de la crème, the world championship with one prime class.
When you take the example of football, every football player’s dream is to play in the English Premier League. In motocross that was not the case, as in the past there were MX1, MX2 and MX3 classes where you could be crowned world champion and make a complete career.
We created this pyramid some years ago, where you could go through the European Championship and ride on the same weekend as the pro riders in the 65cc, 85cc, 125cc, 150cc and 250cc classes. The kids start to ride in front of the public, TV [cameras] and, even more importantly, the professional trainers and teams. If you have talent, you can integrate into a factory team to ride EMX125, EMX250 and then MX2.
The MX2 class has to stay as a way to access the prime category, the MXGP class, otherwise some riders would stay in MX2 and block access for some young riders. We needed some years to create the flow from the lower classes to the MXGP class but, now, we have more than three thousand riders through all those categories and many talented riders are entering the MXGP class every year.
Thanks to this system, when you are in MXGP class you cannot release the pressure. You always have a rider, who is young and hungry to beat the experienced ones, behind you, which creates a great dynamic to improve the level. The last two years the rookies won the MXGP championship, as I mentioned above. When you arrive to the MXGP class, finally, you are definitely under the spotlight and our top MXGP riders are considered true stars and become an example for the younger generation.
Could you explain more about what led you to move the 2017 Motocross of Nations from Glen Helen to Matterley Basin? It sounds like it was a decision that was best for both the event and also Bud Feldkamp.
The Monster Energy Motocross of Nations is the diamond of our sport. It has reached an unbelievable level of popularity over the last ten years. The USA has always been a very important market for motocross, on the other hand, and we were really happy to organise a round of MXGP over there. When we decided to bring an MXGP round back the USA three years ago, it became like clear water that we would do it with Mr. Feldkamp in Glen Helen.
We always had a great relationship and have always been clear in the fact that we would assume the financial risk together. The last two editions of the MXGP in Glen Helen did not have the public attendance that was expected, unfortunately, and we decided together, in common agreement, to not organize the FIM Motocross of Nations in Glen Helen in 2017 and to move it to UK, to a track and organization we know very well and where we are sure to have a great turnout.
Although that specific situation was not the best, there is no doubt that the MXoN can work in the USA. It sounds like there is the potential for the event to return there as soon as 2019? I presume you are looking at all of the options?
The American fans deserve the Motocross of Nations. It has been a while since we last took it back to the USA so, for sure, we are working on it, but it needs to go to the right place, so it has the success it deserves. It would be a bad signal for all of us to have twenty thousand spectators at the MXoN, after the great attendance and success we have had the last [few] years. We are definitely working on that.
Southern California is considered the hub of the industry. Is it important for MXGP to have a round there or, seeing as there is such a strong online and TV package, are you more interested in continuing to capture the attention of America as a whole? Charlotte obviously has the potential to be a massive event again.
USA is a strong market, in general, for motocross and it is important for the MXGP series to be there. You have to be present in the biggest markets on the planet to be global, as I mentioned above. The MXGP in Charlotte showed to us that there is not just Southern California. The crowd we got in North Carolina was impressive for a first year, despite the disastrous weather. The arrival of Ryan Villopoto in 2015 definitely opened a new bridge between US fans, the US industry and the MXGP World Championship.
Today, when you look at the partners of the MXGP, more than seventy percent are American brands, which also shows the interest of the American market in MXGP. Our TV statistics in 2016 continued to highlight the huge amount of US fans that follow our different races on TV and on our online channel, which shows the great interest of the USA.
The Monster Energy SMX Cup is not listed on the 2017 calendar at the moment, so do you know whether that event has a future?
The Monster Energy SMX Cup was an amazing experience. It was the first time since the ‘Masters of Motocross’ in the nineties that we were able to present such good a lineup of riders in a stadium in Europe; four world champions were present with Dungey, Gajser, Febvre and Herlings, as well as many other great riders. The stadium was great, the concept was exciting and the track was a mix between supercross and motocross to allow both experts to have a chance to win the competition. We had great TV and media coverage, along with fantastic races, but despite all of this we didn’t receive the spectator attendance [that we] expected.
Our staff put a huge amount of work, time and energy into this project and the results were great, but in the end the fans did not respond (for reasons still to be defined). We first have to really understand the reasons why it was not a success, then we will take the decision about the future of this event. We don’t have a clear vision at the moment, so this event is not programmed. We will concentrate on the development of the FIM MXGP World Championship.
Interview: Lewis Phillips | Lead Image: ConwayMX