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Back to the Future

Posted in Features on July 16, 2013
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Author:Craig Peronne    Photos:Joe Bonnello

SST Drivers Colisuem 8 2013 Photo 68810055

There are very few places that can claim to be absolutely hallowed ground for both off-road motorsports and the much larger world of sports in general. It is not often that both of these worlds intersect, and usually when they do it is just a fleeting moment in time and nothing of permanence. Locations that have given birth to two great forms of racing in the dirt as well as housed some of the biggest moments in the history of sports are indeed very rare. In fact, we know of only one and that is the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Standing underneath its famed arches with the Olympic torch positioned on top, it is easy to get a sense of the importance of the structure. Lost to many though, and especially the residents of its home city, is its very rich and unique history. Originally commissioned in 1921 as a memorial to veterans of WWI, the building of the Coliseum began later that year on December 21. Designed by John and Donald Parkinson, it opened in 1923 as the largest sporting venue in Los Angeles. It was quickly remodeled for the upcoming 1932 Olympics, expanding its seating capacity to a massive 101,574 (later that would be reduced to 93,000). Over the years, the Coliseum has hosted almost every major North American sporting event possible. It was not only the center of the 1932 Olympics, but the 1984 games as well, making it the only stadium to have hosted two Olympics. Unbeknown to many except a few crusty old timers, baseball was also played within the Coliseum and it is also the only stadium to have hosted both Super Bowls and World Series. The history of the Los Angeles Coliseum embraces both major teams and their milestones as well as the more obscure. Its very first event was a football game between Pomona College and the University of Southern California on October 6, 1923. USC made the Coliseum its home stadium in 1923 and UCLA would play its home games there from 1928 until relocating to the Rose Bowl in 1981. The Cleveland Rams moved to Los Angeles and the Coliseum in 1946 before moving to Anaheim in 1980. They would share the field with the Los Angeles Dons of the All-American Football Conference from 1946 to 1949 before merging with the NFL. Even the Los Angeles Chargers played at the Coliseum before moving to San Diego in 1961. And, of course, the much loved and hated Los Angeles Raiders called it their home turf from 1982-1994.

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Even though it was ill-suited to the task, baseball was very popular at the Coliseum. The Los Angeles Dodgers made it their home field upon moving from Brooklyn in 1958 until Dodger Stadium was finally completed in 1962. While some seats were over two football fields away from home plate, fans still flocked to the Coliseum with over 92,000 of them showing up for the three games of the 1959 World Series played there. It is an attendance record that is still in place today and, with the smaller size of most modern baseball venues, one that will be hard to break. Other major non-sporting events also took part at the Coliseum. It was the site of John F. Kennedy’s acceptance speech at the 1960 Democratic National Convention. Evel Knievel would use all of the distance offered by the Coliseum to jump 50 cars in 1973, a feat that was aired on ABC’s Wide World Of Sports. The Speedway World Final was held there in 1982 with local boy Bruce Penhall of Anaheim retaining his world title. And almost every major rock band has played at one time at the Coliseum.

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The Birth Of Supercross

While all of these are outside the realm of motorsports, and certainly outside of the Dirt Sports Nation, there was one very important event that was. In 1972, Michael Goodwin (the same Goodwin later convicted of murdering Mickey and Trudy Thompson) convinced the manager of the Los Angeles Coliseum to rent him the stadium for an event dubbed the “Superbowl of Motocross.” Previously, all of motocross racing happened at tracks that were often far from major population centers, but the popularity of motocross in the United States was on the rise thanks in part to the release of Bruce Brown’s epic film On Any Sunday. Goodwin theorized that if he could put a track smack in the middle of city, in a comfortable stadium that was an easy drive for thousands and with hot dogs at arms length, it would be a hit. A rock concert promoter, Goodwin knew that the race had to be as much of a show as an actual race. He trucked in thousands of tons of dirt, made huge jumps and turns within the confines of the Coliseum and advertised it heavily. Scantily clad girls, celebrities and the some of the top European riders of the time (where motocross was hugely popular) helped attract a crowd of 30,000 to that first race. In the end, the funky track that was extremely different from the big, flowing tracks of Europe threw off the top riders from the other side of the Atlantic and the inaugural race was won by 16-year-old Santee, California, local Marty Tripes. He remains to this day the youngest winner in Supercross history. While it wasn’t used in the premier race, the idea quickly formed to have the riders race up the stands and outside the Coliseum, do a quick 180-degree turn and then freefall back into it off the Peristyle jump. The 100-plus feet of air the riders usually got had a huge dramatic effect helping to add to the popularity of the race. It quickly spread to Anaheim, San Diego and other stadiums before morphing into what is now the wildly popular AMA Supercross series. All of it started with that first race at the Coliseum in 1972.

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Arie Luyendyk SST Photo 68810151

Mickey’s Dream Another man who had a huge dream and would make major history within the walls of the Coliseum was Mickey Thompson. By 1979, Mickey already was successful at promoting the annual short-course race that would often attract over 50,000 fans to the famed Riverside International Raceway. An avid desert racer as well as land-speed record holder and drag racer, Thompson had already formed SCORE International to oversee the Baja 1000 and desert racing in North America. After participating in many of those desert races, Mickey lamented that some of the best racing in the world was seen by “nothing but cactus and jackrabbits.” The idea to bring a chunk of Baja to stadiums around the United States was formed. While Supercross was already seeing success across the country, the idea of trucks and buggies battling within the confines of stadiums was not without risk. First, an entirely new type of vehicle had to be created that would work on the tight tracks. Massive amounts of dirt also had to be trucked in and new courses designed. The move was a big financial risk for Thompson but, not one afraid of taking chances, Thompson formed the Mickey Thomspon Entertainment Group (MTEG) in 1979 and the first stadium race was held in…the Los Angeles Coliseum. Much like Supercross, Mickey Thompson’s stadium races spread across the United States. While he was a master at making the show go off without a hitch, the business side was a bit more difficult. With some races making money and others losing up to $100,000 in a night, it wasn’t until 1984 that the series actually broke even. That same year Mickey learned that his beloved wife Trudy may never walk again due to knee problems. Deciding to focus on his wife, Mickey looked for a way to be less involved in the daily operations of MTEG and his answer came in the form of Michael Goodwin. Labeling himself as a promotional genius and with an already proven product in the form of Supercross, merging with Goodwin and his company seemed like a wise move. Goodwin also could protect Thompson from Pace International who, Goodwin claimed, had plans to move into Southern California. Almost immediately the deal fell apart, resulting in bitter lawsuits between Thompson and Goodwin. Thompson would later win a lawsuit handing him back his company, along with awarding him $768,000 in damages. The lawsuits would continue and become increasingly ugly. Just 48 hours after refusing terms laid out by Goodwin to settle, Mickey and Trudy were mercilessly gunned downed in their driveway by two assassins at 6 a.m. on March 16, 1988. It would take 19 years, but Michael Goodwin was finally convicted of their murders in 2007. MTEG and stadium racing would survive their deaths, but ultimately folded in 1995 due to lack of sponsorship revenue and the departure of the marque Grand National Sport Trucks.

Enter Robby Gordon

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Twenty-five years after the tragic deaths of Mickey and Trudy Thompson, the sound of engines driven in anger would once again bounce off the walls of the Coliseum thanks to Robby Gordon and his new Stadium Super Trucks series. Since the last time Mickey’s trucks had screamed around its track, things had changed quite a bit. The Supercross series left after the Los Angeles riots of 1992 had many not wanting to venture to the area, returning briefly in 1997 and 1998 before leaving the facility permanently. Al Davis took his Raiders back to Oakland in 1994, earning the hate of many Angelinos (those who didn’t hate him already). While the Coliseum may have lost a bit of its luster, when stepping inside of it one immediately feels its sense of history. For anyone who attended a Mickey Thompson race there, Robby’s new SST series immediately brought back a flood of memories. The famous Peristyle jump was back, albeit slightly modified with lines up the right and left before trucks came flying down the middle. One of the biggest differences was that much of the course was paved to save on wear and tear along with minimizing downtime between races. Echoes of the past were everywhere as the SST series is heavily influenced and inspired by Mickey’s version of stadium racing. Parallels can even be drawn between the heads of both series. Many of the same adjectives that described Mickey can also be used to describe Robby as well. Both are (or were) aggressive, confident, cocky and could make the seemingly impossible happen. Neither Mickey in his time nor Robby now were afraid of taking big risks in the face of many doubters. The shared similarities between both men was not lost on Mickey’s son, Danny, who continued MTEG and stadium racing after his father’s death and was returning to the Coliseum for the first time in many years. “There is a lot of crossover,” he explained. “They are both aggressive, they both have big personalities and they can both rush in and tell you what they are going to do and by the time they leave you believe them. “This is incredibly hard, what Robby has pulled off,” Danny continued. “It is an accomplishment to get this far. I know how hard it is probably more than most people do. He has done well and I wish him all the luck in the world with it.” While appearing a bit shell-shocked after days of frantic activity and then winning the SST race at the Coliseum, Robby Gordon shared his thoughts about returning to the Coliseum. “Last time I raced here personally was 1988. To come back to the Coliseum is awesome,” he noted. “This is a great family sport. It goes all the way from a young age to a granddad who can bring the kids and still have a good time. It is cool and a lot of fun to be back here.” In response to some of the doubters that his SST series has had, Robby said words that could have been uttered by Mickey many years earlier. “We still have doubters, but the reality is every week we are shutting them up. Day by day we are doing that and will continue to do that.”

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Mickey Thompson SST Photo 68810157

Two Legends Return Among the many drivers returning to the Coliseum were two who were no strangers to flying off its famed Peristyle jump during the heights of their Supercross careers: Jeff Ward and Ricky Johnson. For Ward, the Coliseum would mark the end of his Supercross days in which he won two AMA titles in 1987 and 1988 along with numerous AMA Motocross titles. “I raced here in my last Supercross in 1992 and haven’t been here since,” explained Ward. “It is cool to be back here as this is kind of the Mecca of motorsports. They had the first Supercross race here in 1972 and then the first stadium race with the trucks, too. It is a long time coming to get the stadium trucks back here.” After Supercross, Ward would go on to enjoy success in IndyCars along with Supermoto. More memorable to members of the Dirt Sports Nation was Ward’s debut 2009 season in a LOORRS Pro 2 truck where he missed the season title by a single point. While stadium racing was new for Ward, he is excited about its potential. “It is the future of off-road racing,” he enthused. “This is where it needs to be. When Mickey Thompson had it, it was huge, and Robby is taking it another step. Back then it was extreme, but these trucks can do so much now. I am so impressed with the caliber of the machines Robby has built and the talent of the guys who are driving. It is really cool. He paved the Coliseum! It is like what is next? This is something new, and it is interesting from the driver aspect of it. Hopefully the spectators will enjoy it. It is like Supercross in a way, where there are different obstacles every race you go to. This is going to be some exciting stuff.” Archrival to Ward during many of those epic Supercross battles was Ricky Johnson. One of the best races in Supercross history took place between Ward and Johnson at the Coliseum in 1987 where Johnson crashed in the first corner. After recovering in almost last position, Johnson would charge back through the field, passing Ward and eventually Guy Cooper for the win. While the Coliseum holds many great memories for Ricky, it also marked the end of his motorcycle career, being forced out due to a wrist injury. “My first year here was 1982 and my last year was 1989. I announced my retirement in 1990 here, and it was really tough to come out here and say goodbye to everyone. It was really emotional.” After leaving Supercross, Johnson would make his mark in the Mickey Thompson Grand National Sport Trucks with multiple victories before moving on to SODA, CORR, WSORR and TORC short-course racing. The significance of being back in the stadiums is not lost on Ricky. “I think this is a huge step,” reflects Johnson. “Robby is just crazy enough to try some things that most wouldn’t, like the crossover jumps, the big gap jumps and running on asphalt. There are a lot of things that you don’t know until you try them, and that was the same way Mickey was. For us to be in an area like this, it opens it up a whole new fan base. Some people won’t come out to a Lucas or a TORC race and sit around all day and watch trucks beating around. Society is very ADD, they want something quick, they want it good, they want to microwave it and they want it now. With this you are not going to have time to sit in your seat and it’s just going to be 100 percent banging. Like the popularity of the UFC, it is very physical.” When it comes to hallowed ground, most in the Dirt Sports Nation would rightly think of Crandon or Baja, but the Coliseum deserves to be added to our list of sacred places. It saw the birth of Supercross, the birth of Mickey Thompson’s stadium trucks and now the rebirth of Mickey’s original vision in the form of Robby Gordon’s Stadium Super Trucks series. All of it happened within the walls of an almost forgotten 90-year-old edifice sitting in the middle of Los Angeles.

RobMac SST Photo 68810067
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