The murky future of women's motocross
This feature is the fourth installment in Women Of Action, a new series about women in action sports rolling out every two weeks this spring on XGames.com. The series explores the often-underexposed issues surrounding females of all ages and abilities and covers a range of stories, from the changing tides in women's professional surfing to profiles on some of the most powerful and talented women you've never heard of to blurred gender lines in motocross racing -- which we explore below.
In the winter of 2010, Hannah Hodges faced a decision that would dictate her fate as a professional athlete.
She stared silently out the window of her father's truck while they drove to Bithlo, a motocross track in Orlando, Florida. Wayne Hodges had just presented her with a dilemma, and he told his daughter to take her time considering it.
This was heavy stuff for an 11-year-old Hannah. She knew she wanted to be a motocross champion, but she wasn't anticipating her first appearance at the Amateur National Motocross Championship at country music icon Loretta Lynn's ranch in Tennessee to be against boys.
The Hodges planned on having their daughter compete in the girls 11-15 age class, but a recent change in class structure meant she was one year too young for the newly formed 12-15 age class. Hannah's choices were to race the bike she normally rode, in the 65cc division, against boys aged 11 and younger, or bump up to the women's class in which the fastest riders would be several years older and riding more powerful 85cc motorcycles.
Hannah waited five minutes to answer her father.
"Dad, I want to race [with the boys]," she said.
Wayne looked at his daughter and replied, "Hannah, that's going to be a big mountain you're going to try to climb there. I know you can do it, but it's going to be really hard."
That August, Hodges made her debut at the biggest amateur motocross race in the United States as one the country's 42 fastest 65cc riders. She went 24-25-32 in three races, finishing 29th overall. Today, Hannah competes with both men and women and is training toward a goal of becoming the best rider in the world, period.
Women have raced motocross on the opening weekend of the Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship every year since 1998. From 2009 to 2012, the Women's Motocross Association (WMA) held an eight-race series that ran races on the same days as the men's professional tour (prior to that, they ran on amateur day -- the day before the main event). The women who raced in the series were considered professionals.
In 2013, WMX was cut to a three-round triple crown and this month at the May 24 Pro Motocross opener at Glen Helen Raceway, females will be completely absent from that event for the first time in 16 years.
When MX Sports, promoters of Pro Motocross, took over rights to that series in 2009, it also purchased ownership of the WMA. The first major change to Pro Motocross was a switch to a single-day format with all practice, qualifying and championship racing happening on Saturday rather than spread across two days. In 2011, the entire motocross series began to be broadcast on live TV and online on NBC Sports and Fuel TV. Davey Coombs, MX Sports' vice president realized he had a logistics problem.
"The series [was] out of time," Coombs said. "It's hard to explain that to 30 girls who put years of work and practice into being a professional athlete, but there just wasn't room for them to be professional athletes in this series."
Coombs said he tried to offer solutions, like going back to the amateur day of the Pro MX weekends or even a one-race format on Saturdays. He was met with resistance and, in the end, "real animosity" as he maintained that the women were not going to be able to fit into a traditional program of their own in a packed day: Eight 15-minute practice/qualifying sessions, two consolation races, four prerace sighting laps, four 30-minute two-lap races and track maintenance, to boot.
"I failed to make it work for the women in that I succeeded in making it work better than it ever had for the world's best 250 and 450 riders," Coombs said. "The problem is the amount of time in the day."
Before the 2012 WMX season started, Ashley Fiolek, then the defending champion, was upset about the way the series was being operated. Her chief complaints were an overall lack of gender equality, no TV coverage and a race-day schedule that put women on the course for their final race at 6 p.m. -- when the sun was getting low, the track was at its roughest and the spectators were heading toward the exit.
The position Fiolek once held, as a fully supported and salaried athlete of American Honda, no longer existed. The same went for Jessica Patterson with Rockstar Suzuki and Tarah Gieger with Troy Lee Designs Honda. No pro races meant no pro sponsors.
Fiolek talked to Honda and some of her other sponsors and told them she needed their help. They told her they didn't know what they could do. "They didn't help me with my concerns. So I told them, 'OK, I'm leaving.' That's it."
Fiolek asked to be let out of her contract with Honda before the season started, an agreement that two sources close to Ashley have confirmed was worth $250,000 with victory and championship bonuses combined -- two things she did a lot of from 2008 to 2012. According to Fiolek, Honda refused to let her out of her contract. She begrudgingly competed and won her fourth title in five years.
In the context of being asked to help shape the direction of the WMA, American Honda maintained it was not a battle for them to fight.
"Ultimately the promoter has to decide these things," said Ray Conway, director of racing motorcycle sports motorcycle division, American Honda. "Honda's position is, we're not going to tell the promoter how to run their business."
On May 17, 2012, two days before the first round of the WMA and Pro Motocross series, Fiolek released a tweet that was as shocking as it was confusing and vague: "I wanted to let everyone that follows me and the WMA that this is my last year racing the outdoor nationals."
When Fiolek and her father and manager, Jim, realized they were at an impasse with both the promoters and her biggest sponsor, she won the title, then walked away.
At just 21 years old, the most popular female motocross racer of all time was finished.
Though she never officially announced retirement, she hasn't raced since September 2012, and the website of a foundation she runs says, "I am a retired professional motocross racer."
Fiolek was alone in the fight. She knew none of the women were happy with the way the series was being run, yet none of the other top riders, like seven-time champion Patterson or veteran racer Gieger, joined her.
"I knew it was a dead end," Gieger said. "We were fighting already to be there. [MX Sports] never hid the fact that they were doing us a favor being there. We wanted to work with them, not tell them to give us more stuff. There [was] no point in trying to demand it and stage a coup."
Still, Gieger, who moved on to opportunities with X Games Enduro X in 2013, said the timing of the changes in the men's program against what the females athletes were building upon was unfortunate because she was one of the few making a living off racing the WMA.
"We were getting tons of support because we were on the same day [as men]," Gieger said. "We were there and we were starting to get a following. It was pretty bad timing."
Three-time X Games Women's Moto X Racing gold medalist Vicki Golden had a different take. She walked away from the WMA in 2011 and made the decision to race against the men, but mostly because she wasn't having any fun racing motocross, not because of how the sport was being managed.
"I think I have so much more potential to be so much better and I [didn't] want to take a step backwards," Golden said. "It's not a professional class."
In March, Golden, 21, became the first female to complete Ricky Carmichael's Road to Supercross, a qualification program within the Amsoil Arenacross series that all riders must complete in order to race Monster Energy Supercross. When she registers for her first race in 2015, she won't be the first female to race supercross against men, but she'll be the first to do so in 15 years.
Golden doesn't care about being the first. Her first goal is to advance through pre-qualifiers at a supercross event, then she will focus on qualifying under the lights for the main event.
Mackenzie Tricker, 18, wanted to win the WMX title since she was a little girl in Vineyard, New South Wales, Australia. By the time she reached her first WMA race in May 2013, the series she had grown up watching had been whittled down to three events. Nevertheless, she finished fourth overall last year, then came back to the U.S. in March to win the 2014 season opener in Daytona Beach, Florida. She's won five of six races so far this year.
"It doesn't feel like it's a series this year," she said. "It's not as much excitement. I think it's going to grow, but seeing what the girls used to have compared to now is definitely heartbreaking."
Tricker works at McDonald's to assist her parents in paying for her trips to the U.S. The cost of competing in amateur competitions is much higher without the benefit of professional prize money.
"It's expensive to go racing." Tricker said.
Of the $2,000 prize purse in a contest, Tricker gets $300 per win in each race, which is down from $650 a year ago. Her equipment sponsor, Yamaha, provides her with bikes and parts, but does not pay her a salary. And she has to pay to ship her bike.
Yamaha offers a $1,000 contingency bonus to any rider who purchases their bikes and wins a WMX event. The other brands do the same but at wildly different rates. Suzuki is the highest at $2,500 a win and Kawasaki and Honda are the lowest at $250 a win. The bonuses are applied to debit cards that the athletes can use anywhere. Tricker said she spent close to $2,000 to ship her bike and herself to California, plus other expenses to compete.
Miki Keller was excited that the WMA -- the series she founded and tirelessly devoted nearly a decade to building -- would finally have the promotional, marketing and operating power it needed to keep growing when it was acquired by MX Sports in 2009. Today, she is trying to remain optimistic.
"I hoped it would have continued to grow," Keller said. "The new generation of women racers won't have the same opportunity to ride for a team, compete on the same tracks as the men pro racers or have the same media exposure. The nationals were such a great marketing tool for encouraging more girls and women to get into the sport -- not necessarily to race, but to ride and feel like motocross is for them, too."
For his part, Coombs says they're not done and they're not trying to kill women's motocross. But he believes, at this moment, the series is right where it belongs.
"I have optimism that we will see what these girls wanted, but the last five years, during the recession, during a time when we finally got professional motocross on TV, that wasn't the time. Their time will come," Coombs said.
Sue Fish was the fastest female motocross racer in the United States in the late 1970s and dominated women's events. In 1977, she asked herself if she should continue to race a limited number of local events with a women's class and a once-a-year championship or compete against men.
"All I knew was that if I stayed [in women's motocross], I wasn't going to get anything better," Fish said. "There wasn't any opportunity. I wanted to be the best racer I could possibly be and [racing men] was the next step to go to. It had nothing to do with gender."
Although injuries and sporadic mechanical issues derailed her pro motocross aspirations, Fish made enough of an impression that she became the only female motocross racer to be inducted into the American Motorcyclist Association Motorcycle Hall of Fame.
"There was a lot of press, but for me it was never about proving a point," she told the AMA after accepting her nomination.
Hannah Hodges is now 15 and balances the often banal life of a typical American teenager with that of one who wants to be a professional motocross racer:
The first Hodges is a sophomore who recently got her braces removed, loves Chipotle, frets about her hair, tweets about weather and gets angry when people misspell her palindromic first name.
The second Hodges can push 400 pounds on a leg press and bust out 20 pullups, has over 11,300 followers on Instagram and tweets about everything from her goals to riffs on work ethic. Judging by comments in social media that are not direct marriage proposals or 'I love you' notes, she is being heralded as the next messiah of women's motocross.
Much like Fish did 36 years ago, Hodges is now reevaluating her options. In December 2013, a few days after MX Sports announced the new structure of the WMX, Hannah tweeted, "The women's 'pro' is the biggest joke ever."
According to Wayne Hodges, Hannah was planning a move to full-size motorcycles in 2014 in preparation for a run at the WMA series in 2015. Because WMA is no longer a pro circuit, she has decided to stay on her super-mini bike and compete in the women's amateur class, as well as in the highly competitive super-mini class against boys.
At the major amateur races, Hodges trounces the women in the 14-plus amateur class and is solidly in the top 10 against the fastest boys in the country. She's a member of the Farren Racing/MavTV/Lucas Oil Suzuki team, the only female in amateur racing to receive such support.
If a Jan. 26 tweet is any indication of what her future plans include, then she may already be looking beyond the WMA, if she decides to compete there at all:
"I wanna be the first girl to qualify for a supercross race. #goal."
Hannah's immediate goals are to win the women's class at Loretta Lynn's event and stay on her super-mini through October, when she hopes to become the first female to race that class with men at the Monster Energy Cup, a major supercross race held in Las Vegas.
Wayne is proud and worried at the same time.
"She's pretty much forced to set her goals in the men's side of racing right now to try to somewhat control any destiny she might have in the sport," he said. "That's a goal that she's going to have to know 100 percent that's what she wants to do, because as a parent that really scares me."
Coombs, who also is the editor of Racer X Illustrated magazine, doesn't think that women choosing not to race his WMX series will negatively affect the future health of women's racing. He also isn't bothered that the young woman being touted as the future of women's motocross in America might choose the same path.
"Hannah Hodges is the fastest female minicycle rider I have ever seen," he said. "Hannah is an exceptional talent with a very rare chance to choose her own path through motorcycling racing, and I believe every young female athlete would look up to her and the young men would respect her and be impressed by her."
While the opportunity for women to race other women at a professional level and earn a living at it has disappeared for 2014, a growing number of females are still racing motocross.
It took until 1997 for the women's class at Loretta Lynn's to field a full 42-rider gate. In 2013, the event offered three different female divisions and 572 riders attempted to qualify -- the most ever. In the premier women's 14-plus division, 345 riders competed for the 42 spots available, a class won by Tricker. Hodges, riding her minicycle against 250cc four-stroke motorcycles, finished fifth.
Tricker and Hodges will square off again in August at Loretta Lynn's. It's the biggest race of the year, and it's the event Farren Racing most wants to see Hodges win.
But it doesn't hide the fact that the current queen of the WMA and the young woman being tapped to carry the future of women's motocross on her shoulders won't have the opportunity to face off in a pro-level race.
"It's better than nothing, but there are quite a few fast girls that can run at the top level and we deserve more of an opportunity to get rides and be with the pro guys," Hodges said. "Because we work just as hard as they do."