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Who Killed The 500 Class and Where is The Body Buried?

by Jody Weisel on 11/27/2009

Where did the 500?s go? These monster two-stroke machines used to rock the race courses of America with a thunderous roar. Anyone who was anyone strove to graduate to the Open class. The 125 class was for schoolboys, and the 250 class was for paperboys-the 500?s were for men. The men might still be around, but the crackling cakle of the 500cc two-stroke machinery has faded away.

Today, the 500 class is all but forgotten. With the exception of the Service Cycle CR500AF and KX500AF, there are no classes for them in local racing, and not a single highfalutin” AMA National factory rider racing today has ever raced a true-to-life Open bike. It wasn’t always so.

Over the course of motocross history, the 500cc class had been the premier showcase of the sport. The emphasis on the 450 four-stroke class is a recent trend fueled by market force and a strange twist in the AMA rule book. For the first 40 years of the sport, true success was measured by success in the 500cc class.

Roger DeCoster moved up from the 250 World Championship when Suzuki called in 1971. Heikki Mikkola, the 1974 250 World Champion, used his 250 title as a springboard to get him into the 500 class (where he went on to win three crowns). Rolf Tibblin, Jeff Smith, Paul Friedrichs. Andre Malherbe, Hakan Carlqvist, Eric Geboers, Georges Jobe, Mark Blackwell, Brad Lackey, David Bailey, Ricky Johnson, Broc Glover, Jeff Ward, Jean-Michel Bayle, Jimmy Weinert, Marty Smith, Danny LaPorte, Jeff Stanton, Mike Kiedrowski and Mike LaRocco all earned glory in the 500 class.

What is the aura that surrounds the 500? It is exclusivity. Of all the men who have ever raced 500cc two-strokes, only a few have ridden them to their potential, and the men that rode them best proudly state that what they achieved on the big bikes stands highest in their echelon of achievement.

If the 500 class was the premier class for the first 40 years of the sport, what lead to it’s demise? The effects of time might erase the clues that would lead a detective to discover the true identity of the killer, but Sherlock Holmes and the MXA wrecking crew reveal all. The list of suspects is long, but their motives are singular: greed.

Suzuki won its one and only 500cc National Championship in 1979. After that high point, Suzuki continued to contest the class  until 1983 (with Alan King, Kent Howerton, Marty Smith and 1979 Champ Danny LaPorte), then they dropped out.

Sales of the new mellow RM400 and RM465 were less than stellar and, in a business move, uzuki eventually dropped the model from their line-up. For the next decade, Suzuki sat back during the AMA 500 National Championships and watched the other brands garner all the publicity and glory. Suzuki had no reason to keep the 500 Nationals alive.

Yamaha had been a big supporter of the 500 class from its inception in 1971. With Pierre Karsmakers (1973), Jim Weinert (1975), Rick Burgett (1978) and Broc Glover (1981-83-85), Yamaha won six 500 National Championships. Glover’s three victories were all the more amazing because he piloted the antiquated, air-cooled, Yamaha YZ490 against the incredible $50,000 works Honda RC500?s of Chuck Sun, Danny LaPorte, Magoo Chandler and David Bailey.

Yamaha’s interest in the 500 class waned after Glover left the team. even though Jeff Stanton, Doug Dubach and Damon Bradshaw managed to put the aged YZ490 and the resuscitated WR500 clone into the top five in 1987, ’88, ’89 and ’91. But the factory balked at having to race the warmed-over WR500 enduro bike against the full-race 500?s of Kawasaki and Honda. It was inevitable that Yamaha would either have to pull the plug on its 500 effort or build a new Open bike. Yamaha chose to pull out of the 500 class and. in quick rder, joined Suzuki’s anti-500 stance.

After Suzuki and Yamaha, AMA apathy was the third largest enemy of the 500 class. AMA National Sceduling had become a hodgepodge of juggled events. AMA scheduling confusion is marked by five major periods:

mxa_photo_3(1) In the early ’70?s, the 250 and 500 Nationals were held on the same day at the same track.

(2) In the mid-’70?s, the 125, 250 and 500 Natioanls were mixed-and-matched (sometimes with each other and often with support classes)

(3) In 1983, the 125, 250 and 500 Nationals were combined into one clear-cut schedule (all three classes raced the same number of Nationals on the same track on the same day)

(4) In 1986, the 250 National Championship series consisted of five races (held in conjunction with 125 Nationals) and the 500 class consisted of six races (combined with the 125 Nationals). That meant that the 125 National series was 11 races long, while the premier 250 and 500 classes were effectively half as long. The AMA kept this split 250/500 series until 1993 (when the 500 Nationals had been reduced to only four races).

(5) Over the winter of ’93. the AMA 500 National Championship was dropped from the AMA National Championship series (with encouragement from Suzuki and Yamaha)

The four weapons used to kill the 500 class were (1) Lower sales figures of 500cc bikes compared to 125 and 250 bikes, (2) Lack of participation by Yamaha and Suzuki. (3) The reduced number of big name riders in the 500 class. (4) The scheduling conflicts that the AMA had in juggling three different displacements. Those who fought against dropping the 500 class, which surprisingly dd not include Team Honda and Team Kawasaki (they looked at the death of the 500 class as a solution to budget crunches), claimed that the elimination of the 500 class was short-sighted for these six reasons:

(1) Spectator attendance at 500 Nationals was strong.

(2) The number of AMA riders, most notably privateers, signing up to ride the AMA 500 Nationals was considerable larger than the number of riders signing up for 250 Nationals.

(3) Without the high-profile publicity of the AMA 500 Nationals.local race promoters and riders would abandon the class, which would decrease sales of 500cc two-strokes even more.

(4) Since existing manufacturers like KTM, ATK, Maico and Husqvarna specialized in making Open bikes, dropping the 500 Nationals would adversely affect these small brands more than the big brands.

(5) If the bg four were no longer forced to race the 500 class, product development would cease on Open class machines being offered on the showroom floor.

(6) Pandering to bike sales as a rationale for the structure of the sport was a dangerous precedent that could tie future rules and regulations to the whims of the marketplace.

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Who killed the 500cc two-stroke? Well, it wasn’t Colonel Mustard in the library with the candlestick. It was a combination of forces, driven by all manner of motives, not the least of which was factory involvement. In the 1972 AMA 500 National Championships there were eight marques represented in the 500 class (Kawasaki, Yamaha, CZ, Ossa, Suzuki, Bultaco, Maico and Husqvarna). When the 500 class officially dies in 1993, there were three brands in the top ten (Kawasaki, Honda and KTM). How significant is this death of machinery? While it looks like a logical decision to make, it should be noted that the same statistics can be applied to all the clases over the same time period.

damon_mxa_5The death of the AMA 500 class lasted less than a decade, because in 1997 the MA passed a rule that allowed 550cc four-strokes into the 250cc class. The transition from the 250 class to the rebirth of the 500cc class started with the 1998 Yamaha YZ400 (which was joined by the KTM 520SX in 1999, the Honda CRF450 in 2002, Suzuki RM-Z450 in 2005 and Kawasaki KX450F in 2006).

It is hard to deny that the new 450 class (the AMA lowered the 550cc upper limit when KTM showed up with 540cc bikes and started holeshotting every race) is little more than a rebirth of the old Open class. The 450cc four-stroke is an extension of 500cc two-stroke development-since one of the big R&D moves of 1993 was to tame the power, not increase it. Thus a 450cc four-stroke is a tamer, more manageable version of the 500cc two-stroke.

Open bikes, as we know them, are dead! With the exception of a few boutique bikes, the Open class two-stroke has ceased to be (and not surprisingly, the 250cc two-stroke has also been blugeoned by a candlestick in the conservatory-the same forces that killed the CR500 also killed the CR250).

The good news: The open bike isn’t dead-it’s heart still beats-except that it now goes thump.

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