Cooksey, Straight To The Point: Developing or Manufacturing Talent?
Seeing Cooper Webb achieve his potential at Oakland on Saturday night was a reminder of the industry’s problematic approach to developing talent. As long as I’ve been around the sport, teams have provided riders a maximum of one or two years to prove themselves, be it in the 250 or 450 class. Webb, a three-time champion in the 250 class (two Supercross and one outdoor), was given a third year on a factory team. If his resume was that of Joey Savatgy, he probably wouldn’t have been afforded this opportunity. How many talented riders have been cast aside because they did not reach their potential in the “desired” time frame?
Looking at the teams who develop younger riders, the problem seems obvious. Too much money is exhausted on kids who are not yet on full-size motorcycles. Let me remind everyone I am a huge supporter of the Supercross Futures (the Supercross amateur day program) as it gives amateur racers additional opportunities to learn and develop their skills. Supercross Futures is a needed program. The problem is the level of factory support provided to the Supercross Futures rivals the previous night’s professional racing support. How are teams evaluating talent when the playing field is weighted? What I saw when watching the Supercross Futures looked like two separate programs. One was amateurs who received factory support, and the other group was everyone else trying to compete.
I have said it before and I will say it again, watching kids on their factory mini bikes is impressive, but not even close to fair. Their bikes look and sound better than their competition. Are they the best riders, or are they the riders given the best bikes and opportunities? I’m not denying the talent of these factory riders, they were selected for this reason and I don’t blame them or their families for accepting assistance...who wouldn’t? I do, however, question the amount of money delegated to amateur programs. Eliminating some elements of factory support has the potential to even out the field. It’s apparent that some very talented kids are slipping through the cracks due to the amount of money that has been invested into other riders. To be clear here, I am not referring to the amateur all-stars, as they are very close to turning professional. It’s the younger kids receiving support that bothers me, why are teams handing out five-year contracts to 12-14 year old kids?
Five-year contracts should be given to riders within a year of turning professional. This would allow a four-year development period, much like college provides for athletes in other sports. I watch Troy Lee Designs/Red Bull KTM rider Sean Cantrell and wonder if the years of amateur support he received would be traded for another year or two on his current contract? All the years he was groomed will be tossed aside at the end of this year, unless he makes dramatic improvements. Unfortunately, I don’t see Sean making this kind of improvement before losing his support. At the professional level, teams are not looking for good riders, they are looking for the next great rider. Sean may simply need a couple years to find his groove, or maybe he was mis-evaluated as an amateur because his equipment was superior at a younger age, it’s difficult to determine.
While teams spend truckloads of money searching for the next great talent, they fail to realize it almost never pays off. Money invested in a kid who is fast at 12 years old is money wasted. In my experience, when racers finally reach their potential there is no loyalty to the teams who developed them. Kawasaki developed both James Stewart and Ricky Carmichael, but both stars left shortly after realizing their potential. In hindsight, was it worth it for Kawasaki?
Let’s keep amateur racing amateur! Support for kids should be minimal so talent can organically rise to the top. Teams would be better suited using their money developing riders through their early professional years rather than pre-pubescent kids. Tossing kids aside two years into their professional careers is not a good return on investment.