One Heck Of A Show

Extreme Motorcycle Racing

If one hasn't come to your city's local arena or stadium yet, chances are it will soon.

Extreme motorcycle competition is taking off in popularity, and as Correspondent Jim Stewart reports, it's not a sport for the faint-hearted.

Offroad motorcycle competition and freestyle jumping and racing are both examples of "extreme sports."

How else could you describe a competition in which young men launch themselves and their machines off steep ramps as high as they can, dismount in mid-air, and then climb back aboard before crashing to earth?

And they do that – provided they don't fall off, which happens occasionally –over and over until one of them wins.

Big-money motorcycle racing is becoming one of the hottest sports in the land. It's also one heck of a show.

Kenny Bartram, or "Cowboy" Kenny Bartram as he's known to his fans, may be the poster boy for "Don't try this at home."

At 24, "The Cowboy" has lost seven teeth, broken 19 bones and ruptured a blood vessel in his brain. Despite these injuries, he is today one of the star attractions in Freestyle Motocross – a sport so new they're still refining the rules, the ride and the language.

For example, Bartram performs extreme jumps such as the "Double Saran Wrap."

"A Single Saran Wrap is taking one foot off the handlebars in between your hands, and then taking one hand off, bringing your foot around and then putting your hand back on," says Bartram. "So a Double Saran Wrap is doing both feet."

But is it safe to take your hands off this 230-pound motorcycle when you're 40 feet in the air?

"That's the point of freestyle," says Bartram. "Is just getting off the bike and getting back on in as many different positions as you can."

The sport has some 100 recognized maneuvers with names like "The Kiss of Death," "Lazy Boy" and "Rock Solid."

In Philadelphia, a near sellout crowd has gathered to watch Bartram and fellow freestyle riders in a competition that rewards whoever can do the most outrageous of these extreme stunts with the most style, without falling off. It all takes place during a harrowing two seconds of virtually zero gravity hang time, while flying 40 feet in the air and nearly 70 feet in distance.

Bartram considers himself an athlete and a performer – but not a stunt man.
"A stunt to me is something that you set up and do it one time for a camera. But our stuff is calculated. It's a science. We do it every week," says Bartram. "We're about like Evel Knievel. Just, I think, we break less bones though."

It's the latest chapter of an American love affair with off-road motorcycles, which has its roots in the European sport of motocross, a cross-country motorcycle race that typically takes place over rough farmland.

Today, it's called Supercross and it's reached the big time. In 2002, more than three quarters of a million people went to see events like the THQ US Open in Las Vegas. It's the second most popular motor sport in the country, with only NASCAR racing attracting more fans. It's known for speed, big air and combat-like intensity.

"I say very proudly that Supercross racers are modern-day gladiators," says Rick Johnson, a two-time national Supercross champion. "They're not out to kill each other, you know, it's not that extreme. They're not out to hurt each other. In competition, when you get back and forth, there is some bumping and banging, and if somebody hits you a little harder, it gets you a little angry."

Riders navigate through a series of bumps, turns and jumps that sail man and machine some 80 feet down the track. And it's all compressed into 15 or 20 madcap laps.

"You feel like your lungs are going to blow up, your muscles are wanting to seize up," says Johnson. "It's the most fun you could ever have. But to me, I like to live close to the edge. You have to have your vices. Mine is somewhat of an adrenaline junkie."

And not surprisingly, it's also very dangerous. During the 2002 season, nearly half of the top 40 riders in Supercross were forced to sit out at some point - all with serious injuries.

"A lot of riders have a 10-year, maybe, if they're lucky, window to make a living at this sport. So they're going to push themselves," says Johnson. "Also, the tracks are technical, so when you push yourself, put yourself in that realm of being physically fatigued, you're taking the chance of getting hurt."

One of the few riders who has spent most of his career at the front of the pack and away from injury is Jeremy McGrath. He is a virtuoso on a motorcycle, a seven-time national champion. In this sport, McGrath is known as "The King of Supercross".

"I think the fans come to see the Supercross because there's a lot of jumps. Some of the fans want to see the mistakes. They want to see the crashes, but it's reality," says McGrath. "I think it's just a really fun atmosphere. Everyone from the 5-year-old to the 65- to 70-year-old can enjoy our sport."

And this sport has made riders like Jeremy McGrath, and racer Ricky Carmichael, into marquee athletes. Recently, Carmichael has been McGrath's toughest competition. He is the current Supercross champion, for three years running. He gets rock star treatment and wants to keep it that way.

"I would do just about anything within my limit. Now I'm not going to go out there and do something I think may hurt myself or it isn't worth it in the long run," says Carmichael.

"Would I brush somebody? You know, take care of them? If I had to, I would. But, you know, it's not good to race like that, because I don't want to get into playing games … it's not fun to race like that."

Racing has made Carmichael a 22-year-old millionaire. "I make great money," he says. "And it's hard work."

"Some of the riders hope to make, you know, a million dollars throughout their career," says Ken Faught, editor-in-chief of Dirt Rider magazine. He's seen the sport grow from handing out just trophies, to million-dollar paychecks.

"A rider like Carmichael can make six or seven million in a year now," says Faught. "What's interesting is that amount has probably increased about seven or eight times in the just the last 10 years. There's about $50 million worth of product endorsements when it comes down to Supercross racing right now."

It's not hard to see why. The sport attracts the youthful audiences that advertisers crave. And winning riders have become mini-industries. McGrath, who recently retired at 31, has sold everything from video games to trucks, toys and sneakers - even long-distance telephone service.

You can find the Jeremy McGraths of tomorrow on hundreds of dusty tracks like one that 60 Minutes II visited in Turlock, Calif.

On any given weekend, this track is choked with families that have seemingly traded in their soccer cleats for a Suzuki that can cost as much as six or seven thousand dollars. And despite the pricetag, off-road motorcycle sales have nearly tripled in recent years.

The next generation of riders will most likely come from places like this, but only a handful will make the leap to freestyle competition, where the motto seems to be "Why ride when you can fly?"

60 Minutes II caught up with Bartram during practice for a freestyle event in Philadelphia.

Bartram was practicing a trick named after him called "The Bart Attack." You can guess how it got its name.

So what's his most dangerous trick?

"I would say the most dangerous trick out right now is the back flip," says Bartram. "A back flip is new, and so new tricks are always good. A back flip has never been beaten to this point … but it's scary. It's the scariest thing I have ever done on a motorcycle by far."

At the 2002 X Games in Philadelphia, Bartram was trying to beat a competitor, Mike Metzger, who had completed a back flip. Bartram was battling for first place, and he knew that in order to win, he'd have to pull off a back flip as well. He ended up breaking his leg.

Where does it all end?

"There is no end to it. It's wherever your creative mind stops," says Bartram. "That's where freestyle stops. And as of right now, there is no end in sight."