(AP) — The early days of motocross were technically the same as today: riders racing dirt bikes over humps and around berms, fastest person wins.
After 50 years, it actually looks almost like a different sport.
The motorcycles are faster, more powerful. The riders come from around the globe, are among the fittest athletes in any sport. The tracks feature jumps old-school riders wouldn't have even considered, obstacles that would have been unfathomable.
And the exposure, thanks to TV and social media, has skyrocketed off a dirt-covered launching pad.
"Oh, man, that's like watching the '72 Olympic basketball game compared to what we have now with the Dream Team,” said Davey Coombs, president of MX Sports Pro Racing, which runs the Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship. “What used to be sort of an Alabama country dirt bike race has turned into a global phenomenon.”
The Lucas Oil Motocross Championship kicked off its 50th season in Pala, California, moved north to historic Hangtown and will be roaring along the edge of the Rockies outside of Denver this weekend.
It's been quite a ride.
The circuit's origins date to 1972, when the pieces of multiple series were cobbled into one. Few people outside diehard fans knew who any of the riders were, the tracks mostly weaved through the natural terrain and the bikes broke down so often organizers opted for three 20-minute motos so there was time for repairs.
The only opportunities to watch live racing was if the circuit came into town or you were willing to take a long drive. Even still photos of the early era are hard to come by, much less video footage.
The sport began to gain traction when marketable stars like Jeremy McGrath, Ricky Carmichael and Travis Pastrana started to make noise. Motocross remained a niche sport, but interest in the high-flying, fast-moving races started expanding as some of the best riders in the world flocked to the United States.
Australian Jett Lawrence won the 450cc title last season and the series includes German two-time 450cc rider Ken Roczen, Frenchman Marvin Musquin, a two-time runner-up, and up-and-coming Japanese rider Jo Shimoda.
“We're seeing all the best of every other country in ways we've never seen before,” Coombs said.
And more people are watching them race.
Before MX Sports Pro Racing took over in 2009, live racing was an afterthought, leaving fans scrambling to figure out when and where to watch the races. A major step was a partnership with NBC, which allowed for mostly live racing with some tape-delay. A deal with MAVTV has allowed the circuit to be televised in its entirety this summer.
“The notoriety and awareness of the sport has been huge,” said Carmichael, who won seven straight 450cc titles starting in 2000. “It's becoming more popular every year.”
Social media has thrust it forward.
Motocross has not reached the popularity of UFC, but has seen some of the same social media engagement from some of its athletes.
Roczen has 1.5 million Instagram followers and 201,000 on Twitter. Eli Tomac, currently second in the season standings, has nearly a million on Instagram and 133,000 on Twitter. Three-time champion Ryan Dungey, who returned this season after a five-year retirement, has 800,000 Instagram followers and 213,000 more on Twitter.
Many riders are hyper active on social media, providing fans with what amounts to 24/7 coverage. The races are on Saturdays, but the pregame shows across social platforms play out for days before.
“As they prepare for the events, it becomes sort of a symbiotic relationship,” Coombs said. “They’re previewing what’s going to happen on the weekend and that gives us a chance to show what we’re doing."
What they're seeing is a sport with bigger and faster riders than old-school riders could have ever imagined.
In the early days, the motorcycles were essentially trail bikes with a few adjustments. Today's motocross bikes are like two-wheeled Formula 1 cars, finely tuned technological wonders with power that allows riders to clear what was once a quadruple jump with a quick twist of the throttle.
Track designers have tried to keep up, building bigger jumps and more obstacles that make the racing more acrobatic but also keep the bikes from propelling off the track.
Even the riders have changed.
Before Carmichael arrived on the scene, the best riders could win races just by having more talent. Carmichael turned the sport into more of an athletic endeavor, using intense off-track workouts to supplement his formidable talent.
Following Carmichael's example, modern-day riders have become some of the best-conditioned athletes in the world, spending their days working out, watching what they eat, even hiring trainers and nutritionists just to keep up.
“The race paces have become so much harder, you can't afford not to have that stuff these days,” Dungey said. “You have to have all that or it's going to show.”