- American Bicycle Association
The American Bicycle Association (ABA) is a
United States-based Bicycle Motocross (BMX) sports governing bodyin Gilbert, Arizonacreated by Merl Mennenga and Gene Roden in 1977. It is the largest sanctioning body in the United States concerning BMX. It has tracks in Canada and Mexico as well as in the USA. It was and is known for its efficiency in running events known as Nationals, where BMX racers from around the country race in competition for points and in the case of Professionals, money, to determine who will earn the right to run a National No."1" plate in the several divisions the following year. The other leading sanctioning body, the National Bicycle League(NBL) also holds Nationals as do several smaller regional governing bodies.----Notes: This organization should not be confused with the American Bicycle Association that was formed in January 1975 by Bob Bailey in Torrance, California["Bicycle Motocross News" April 1975 Vol.2 No.3 pg.19] but ended operations in December 1975 (with only 20 paid members) after going bankrupt. ["BMX Weekly" October 1, 1976 Vol.2 No.4 pg.2] David Clintonwas its one and only No.1 racer. This organization is also not to be confused with the American Bicycle Motocross Association (ABMXA) that operated briefly for approximately two years from late 1974 to early 1976 and headquartered in Reseda, California.
Mennenga's direct motivation for creating the ABA was his and his family's bad experience with the now defunct International Bicycle Motocross (IBMX) (not to be confused with the now also defunct but respected International Bicycle Motocross Federation (IBMXF)). He was an IBMX track operator who was long dissatisfied with the operation of the IBMX. The precipitating factor in his abandoning the IBMX was that he had signed his son up for a tour of IBMX race events. Many things were promised to Mennenga's and other BMX families but few of those promises realized. This consumer dissatisfaction and the lack of alternatives to the IBMX tracks near his home town of Phoenix,
Arizona(they were once NBA tracks but the IBMX acquired them) was what compelled him to create the ABA. He wanted an organization made up of average people like himself were average people would be treated with honestly and with consideration not out of the motivation for quick profits. ["Super BMX & Freestyle" September 1986 Vol.13 No.9 pg.16] AS George Trevino the ABA's spokemen said at its founding in August 1977 it was formed for the "....fostering competition and fair play in the sport of BMX racing.""Bicycle Motocross News" October 1977 Vol.4 No.9 pg.18]
What was also stressed in the ABA was efficiency. Indeed, Mennenga came up with the idea of the Direct transfer System as opposed to the Moto or Olympic system of graduating racers to the finals from the qualifying heats were in part that it was easier to score and therefore the event could be run faster with fewer errors in paperwork. His philosophy is that anything that does not directly pertain to the efficiency of running the race was superfluous and was done away with. This gave the ABA the reputation of efficiency without the delays during racing the NBA was suffering at the time.
The first ABA National was held in 1978 in
Azusa, California. At that time it had 35 tracks and 3,000 members while the NBA had 50 tracks and 5,000 racers. The NBL at the time had 18 tracks and approximately 4,100 riders. By 1979, two years after its founding, the ABA had put even greater distance between it and the older NBL and passed the oldest and first sanctioning body the NBA to become the largest governing body in BMX. For a further period of two years the ABA continued to grow due to its reputation of honesty and efficiency. Mennenga designed and built the tracks that the nationals were run on, such was his attention to detail.
Still it too has gone through some controversies over its life time. There were criticisms, some legitimate like the perceived costly entry fees and sub par tracks that hosted nationals. There were also complaints of scheduling conflicts with the rival NBL and NBA; rules discrimination and the general politics between the sanctioning bodies and promoters. Most of these concerns were the worry of some of the governing officers of the ABA and outside observers in the BMX press. However, with the exception of the issues of entrance fees and the quality of the national tracks, the rank in file racers and families were largely oblivious. They were seeing well run races that met the needs of the consumer. This was reflected by the growth rate and attendance levels at both the local level and at its Nationals. The in house
tabloid newspaper, "ABA Action", was as efficient as the organization itself with its always current listings of points standings and race coverage, which were of course the direct concern of the rank and file racers. The ABA served the majority's needs and not the concerns, even the legitimate concerns of the Professional and top Expert racers, the BMX Press and the in house politicking between ABA officers. ["Super BMX & Freestyle" September 1986 Vol.13 No.9 pg.17]
Poor Pro Relations and the "BMX Action" Boycott
As the complaints from the BMX upper crust-the Pros and BMX Press-increased, the more Mennenga resented and took a defensive position. This defensiveness that perhaps slowly calcified to an unwillingness to listen help to create an unorganized Pro rider boycott in 1983 and into part of 1984. It was led unofficially by Greg Hill, one of the most respected and winningest professionals at the time, and included legendary racers like
Stu Thomsenover the alleged unfairness of its pro points system that was in place during that time. It was a long standing complaint going back to Mr. Hill's 1980 objections to the 1979 season points scoring. ["Super BMX & Freestyle" September 1986 Vol.13 No.9 pg.17] An editorial boycott by Robert Osborn, the Managing Editor, Publisher and owner of "BMX Action", a major BMX magazine, was over long simmering slights perceived by Mr. Osborn at ABA events but the direct cause of his boycott was his being denied a photographer's pass at an ABA national in 1980. ["Super BMX & Freestyle" September 1986 Vol.13 No.9 pg.17] Mr. Osborn had printed unfavorable editorials in his magazine about the ABA. As a result ABA racing events abruptly disappeared from the pages of "BMX Action" after the June 1983 issue when it covered the Elsinore National. Conversely NBL Nationals and Renny Roker's NBL sanctioned ESPN Pro Spectacular races received lavish coverage, particularly the 1983 NBL Grand Nationals. It had a full 19 pages dedicated to it in the January 1984 issue. BMXA didn't even cover the ABA Grand National for 1983. In contrast in its February 1985 issue it reported with photos of the United States Bicycle Association(USBA) race at the USBMX track in Azusa, California. The USBA was as time would show not merely an arch rival of the ABA but an arch enemy. The ABA was mentioned only obliquely and incidentally, which had been the case for the previous year and a half. It was not until the March 1985 issue did it cover an ABA event, the 1984 Grand National. It was 20 months since the last ABA national "BMX Action" had reported on. Reportedly, "BMX Action" ended its editorial boycott in part due to an agreement with the ABA to cease publishing its in house magazine "Bicycles and Dirt". ["Super BMX & Freestyle" June 1985 Vol.12 No.6 pg.43]
It was this boycott and the even more damaging Professional Racer boycott that was responsible in large part that would set the ABA and Mennenga on the hard road that would lead to his demise as the head of the ABA.
The Pro Boycott
Some pros always had problems with how the ABA decided its number one pros for the year going back to the 1979 season. The biggest complaint that it was canted to have the points work out so that the number one pro would almost certainly be decided going into the ABA's Grand National in November with the lion's share of the points being doled out then (the points that was earned was the amount of money that was earned through the year. At that time the ABA AA pro who won the most money was declared No.1 pro). The Pros claimed that this benefited the ABA since it meant an exciting finish to the season, but it was detrimental to the pros in that a season of consistent wins and near wins could be undone by having an off day and/or a normally inconsistent rider having a great day and capturing the number one plate. Other issues like a bigger pro purse and that purse be spread out over eight places instead of the top four at ABA Nationals which would ensure anyone making the pro main would get a share of the winnings was also a factor. The claim was while NBL, NBA and independent promotional races purses have gone up over the years, the ABA's purses had remained relatively stagnant.
The biggest irritants came in 1982. In that year, the ABA discarded their system in which how well a pro did during the season had at least some baring on who became Number one Pro for the year. Previously to 1982, who won the most money decided who was number one Pro. A pro's winnings were his points. The reason for the change was that Kevin McNeal, the ABA Number One Pro for 1981, had a runaway season and had wrapped up the title a full month before the Grand National, rendering the event vis a vis Number one Pro irrelevant. This resulted in a low turnout of big name Pros like
Stu Thomsenand Greg Hill, both of whom opted to attended the NBL sanctioned US$10,000 pursed Knott's Berry FarmMongoose International Grand Championships race being held the same weekend. Lack of pro attendance due to a forgone conclusion would mean lack of publicity for the ABA in the BMX press, which in turn would breed reluctance in both various BMX Industry and non-BMX Industry related companies to sponsor the Grand Nationals. The ABA wanted to make sure in 1982 that the Pros attended their Grand Nationals and it was a relevant event.
In 1982 the Grand Nationals at least as far as the professionals were concerned a one event championship. Instead of how much was won over the year, the Pros were required to attend at least eight nationals with the top 28 money winning pros, A or AA, eligible to compete in a special pro Car main in which the winning pro would receive a 1983 General Motors
Pontiac Trans Amautomobile and the title no.1 Pro for 1982, continuing the new tradition of giving the number one pro a Trans Am. Kevin McNeal, No. 1 Pro for 1981 also received one, so did Brian's brother Brent in 1980. Brian Pattersonwas the pro who had earned the most money prior to the Grand National with US$3,694 in winnings, ["BMX Plus!" February 1983 Vol.6 No.2 pg.48] so if the previous system of winning the number one plate was still in force, depending on how he did he probably would had won under the old system. Indeed, the situation would had been similar to Kevin McNeal, Brian Patterson had maintained the money lead since May.
Another great irritant was that it was open to all pros including A pros. Indeed, one pro was in the mains of the pro car race and therefore had a real shot at becoming National no. 1 pro, despite being only an A pro. On top of everything else, A pro needn't had been a pro at the start of the season. An amateur could theoretically race the required number of nationals as an amateur, turn pro before the Grand National and have a shot at the Pro number one title and the car.
Not that winning the race was easy. For this race the ABA abandoned its own commitment to the transfer system and not only had the Pros run the qualifying rounds in the Cumulative scoring manner, i.e racing three times in the qualifying motos and the pros with the eight lowest point scores transfer to the Main, but the Main was also cumulative, but not merely run three times but five. This greatly reduced the luck factor and awarded the most consistent. However what grated against the pros nerves that basically just one race was deciding the number one pro for the year. Brian Patterson eventually one the car and the plate (and also winning the conventional pro AA Main and Pro Open as well), but hardly any pros thought it was fair, least of all Greg Hill and not even the winner, Brian Patterson. By any account it was an exciting race for the season Championship.
Despite its laudable attributes to guard against luck it still can be regarded as rewarding a racer that happened to be hot that one day. After the '82 Grands, the Pros vehemently protested this way of selecting its Champion racer but apparently the ABA took a hard line. Another straw was that all of the pro classes would be subject to the transfer system just like the amateurs in the 1983 season instead of the cumulative system they were using for at least the qualifying rounds as they were before and during 1982.
Some of the top AA pros, Stu Thomsen,
Harry Leary, Greg Hill, Brent and Brian Pattersonamong them met with ABA officials met before the 1983 Winternationals to discuss the method of choosing the National number one pro for the year. Dissatisfied with the ABA's response, many pros, most notably Greg Hill, shunned the ABA circuit and focused on the NBL and third party sanctioning bodies like the regional United Bicycle Racers (UBR) and the National Pedal Sport Association(NPSA). This tactic was not new to Mr. Hill. He led a one man boycott of the ABA during the 1980 season in part due to Mennenga's perceived lack of concern for an allegedly unsafe number of racers at the starting gate of a national. Mennenga allegedly said to Mr. Hill that the "..ABA doesn't cater to the Pros". ["Bicycle Motocross Action" August 1980 Vol.5 No.8 pg.23] Even Tommy Brackenswho had a reputation of being low key and easy going had an alleged unpleasant run in with the alleged intransigence of Merl Mennenga. During the 1982 Fall National in a semi moto race there was an exceedingly close finish for the fourth and last position to qualify for the main between Brackens and Jeff Kosmala at the finish line. Merl Mennenga called the race in Kosmala's favor and against Brackens. Brackens tried to make an official protest Merl allegedly said check with the scorer as Mr. Brackens moved to do so. Larry Greer, the Race Director, allegedly threatened to have Brackens suspended for 30 days if he did not leave the track. Mennenga allegedly told Brackens shortly after that there would be no change in his call and whatever he says goes. ["Super BMX" February 1983 Vol.10 No.2 pgs.31-32] Such was the relations Mennenga had with the Pros. Indeed, the ABA decided to reuse the same system it used in 1982 to decide the number one pro for 1983. As a result many pros still feeling that they weren't being listen to stayed away from the ABA circuit and concentrated on the NBL and the NBA.
As pro attendance slackened at ABA events there was a very noticeable fall in coverage of ABA Nationals by the BMX press. This was due to the lack of top tier pros and conflicting schedules with large purse NBL races and ESPN's Pro Spectacular events. For example after covering the ABA Winter Nationals in depth in its June 1983 issue, "BMX Plus!" magazine did not cover a major ABA race for the rest of 1983 except the Grand National in its March 1984 issue. ABA races only warranted brief comment and the listings of race results in its "Checkpoint" section. This was an addition but unrelated effect of the boycott initiated by "BMX Action", then the most respected BMX magazine. As noted "BMX Action's" boycott started over perceived slights by the ABA when it noticed what it perceived as bad press by the magazine. With a large drop of coverage by the magazines, it became more difficult to get companies to sponsor ABA nationals, since the companies would not have the benefits of indirect advertising in the magazines.
He was not the only one by any means, but Greg Hill was the most obvious of the Boycotters. He hadn’t raced ABA since the Winter Nationals in February 1983. If any thing was revealing of the Pro Boycott of the ABA during the 1983 season was the Pro Car Main of the 1983 ABA Grand Nationals. Several AA pros while respected were in the unusual position of contending for number one pro; and so were several "A" pros:
Clint Miller, Donny Atherton, Tinker Juarez, Dave Marietti, Brian Pascal, Joe Guerra, Brian Patterson and Brent Patterson.
Of that group only Brian and Brent Patterson and Clint Miller were considered first class "AA" pros or "Heavies". It was easy to note who was not in that pro line up:
Pete Loncarevich, Greg Hill, Harry Leary, Eric Rupe, Tommy Brackensto name a few. Stu Thomsen was in attendance but was ineligible for Car/Number one pro race. Almost certainly as part of the boycott, he did not race in the prerequisite number of nationals. He did win Pro Cruiser and gained a second in Pro Open. Mike Miranda was eligible and raced but did not make the Car/Plate Mains.
Indeed, Brian Patterson won far and away more ABA races than any pro. However, that was tainted by the lack of higher caliber competition due to other first class pros boycotting the ABA. The only reason Brian Patterson was there was he was under contract to the ABA to race a certain amount of ABA Nationals as condition to winning and keeping his Trans Am in 1983.
After a year of financial suffering and an eye of getting back into the Pros good graces for them to attend the ABA's up coming revival of the Pro Spectaculars, the ABA gave in and changed the way it would decide its top pro for the upcoming 1984 season. Brian had easily won the title for 1983 and the car, a 1984 Trans Am, legitimizing the process in which the ABA required for Number 1 pro in 1983 since he was even before the Grand National the top money earner. However, this system was not used again for 1984 and the ABA went back to the system of how well a pro does during a season had bearing on who wins ABA number one pro.
The Pros were given a points system just like the amateurs. A first in the Main will earn a AA pro 240 points second 200, 160 for third and so on until six place would be worth 40 points. As in the amateur divisions the pros would earn rider points. The top ten pros would be determined by this points ranking. Additionally the best ten finishes at the nationals plus the Grand Nationals (making it eleven races) would count toward the pros eligibility to contend for the Pro #1 plate. Purse money would be distributed not only through out the racers who made the main, but also those who got to the semis or even didn't make it that far, so practically every one got something for racing, even if it was just a one hundred percent payback on their entrance fee.
Greg Hill still refused to race ABA races because he allegedly hated the ABA's direct transfer system in which the winner of the first moto would then sit out and not race the second and third cycle of motos until the Main, or if the race is big enough, the semis, quarter semis, etc. He and many other racers preferred the NBL's Olympic or cumulative system in which the qualifying rounds would be run three times and the average place in each round would be added and the four lowest numbers would advance to the main. This system put a premium on consistency while the Transfer System was a little closer to luck, both good and bad for a racer. The ABA used a similar system during it controversial 1982 and 1983 Grand Nationals to choose it number one title to minimizes anyone lucking into or out of the title. Also, points are awarded in the motos in the Cumulative System as well as the main so the racer doesn't walk away with nothing if he doesn't advance. Hill's objections seem odd considering he would race in the future sanctioning body the
United States Bicycle Association(USBA) which used the transfer system. The USBA did offer larger, more consistent pro purses than the ABA generally.
Still by then Hill was in the minority and notable and lauded pros Like
Stu Thomsenand Harry Learyreturned to the ABA circuit., even with the change in the system, many times in future seasons the race that decided the number one pro for the year was decided during the Grand National. The difference it was not by design so everyone won, both the pros and the ABA.
With the return of the pros the BMX press followed and with them advertising revenue. Just in time for the Spectaculars. However, Mennenga had in the interim taken an ill advised course to go around the BMX press and attract advertisers.
The boycott of ABA events by "BMX Action" was very troublesome to Mennenga. It is very likely that he remembered "BMX Action's" (read Bob Osborn's) boycott of the by then defunct
National Bicycle Association(NBA) during the 1980 season and how the reduced coverage damaged its prestige, perhaps fatally in its previously weakened state. Mennenga probably realized the lack of exposure in a major magazine could cause trouble for it.
While "BMX Action's" deliberate boycott was damaging, it was not the only reason the ABA was receiving reduce coverage in the BMX press, including in "BMX Action's" biggest competitors "BMX Plus!" and "Super BMX". Many ABA nationals coincided with important NBL nationals ["Super BMX & Freestyle" September 1986 Vol.13 No.9 pg.17] and considering there was an informal pro boycott of ABA nationals with the most prominent pros competing in the NBL and second tier sanctioning bodies like the United Bicycle Racers (UBR) and with those races were often scheduled on the same weekend as ABA events, the press followed. This led to a further decrease in coverage with the ABA events only getting one page, half page or even just a blurb in the "Breaking News" section of a major BMX publication, for instance "BMX Plus!" 's "Check Point", which as previously mentioned due to lack of top pros at ABA events did not cover any ABA races in depth for eight months. The BMX industry noticed this of course. In consequence, there were fewer BMX and non-BMX companies willing to sponsor,
i.e.invest in, ABA events with the fewer direct and indirect advertising possibilities like a race team and/or particular racer they were sponsoring having a win reported in detail or even a company banner appearing in the background of a photograph by happenstance that would be printed in a major BMX magazine. Those companies could not only stop sponsoring and co-sponsoring ABA races, but also stop sending their expensive race teams to ABA Nationals. Also, the rank and file non-sponsored BMX racers-the vast majority-could stop attending ABA events if they perceive a lack of press coverage ["Super BMX & Freestyle" September 1986 Vol.13 No.9 pg.18] and a lack of big name pros and amateurs they wanted to see and race against stop participating. The in house "ABA Action" newspaper was not enough since it was restricted to ABA members and therefore it had a limited audience in comparison to a newsstand magazine. The obvious solution afforded to the ABA was to create its own magazine. In 1982 Mennenga created "Bicycles and Dirt" to circumvent the established press and attract advertisers. The first issue of "Bicycles and Dirt" or "BAD", premiered with the September 1982 issue. Contrary to Mennenga's expectations, advertisers did not flock to the new magazine, despite its built in audience. Like the newspaper "ABA Action" it was a subscription only magazine at the time. With this in mind the ABA put "BAD" on newsstands a year after its premier with Stu Thomsen on the cover of its September issue. It did not change the situation. The financial woes of "BAD" only grew worse and worse. However, instead of cutting one's losses after a few issues as most publishers would do, Mennenga continued to throw good money after bad and pump ABA funds into the ill conceived and ill executed venture. Eventually, it became clear to Mennenga that the ABA could not sustain the loss and there was no hope of a turnaround, and an agreement with "BMX Action" magazine cease publication as a condition to end its editorial boycott ["Super BMX & Freestyle" June 1985 Vol.12 No.6 pg.13] he folded "Bicycles and Dirt" with the September 1984 issue. ["Super BMX & Freestyle" September 1986 Vol.13 No.9 pg.18]
Unfortunately stopping the hemorrhaging that was "BAD" was too little, too late, the magazine had bled the ABA white and left it on the verge of bankruptcy. On top of the "BAD" affair came the rising cost of the insurance crises of the early 1980s with its sky rocketing rates. This affected every sanctioning body, but given the ABA's greatly weakened state it was life threatening to it. By 1984 the first indications of the plateauing of the popularity of BMX was the flattening growth in memberships and the falling off of attendance of nationals. ["Super BMX & Freestyle" September 1986 Vol.13 No.9 pg.18] Some of this was caused by the growing popularity of BMX Freestyle siphoning potential racers from BMX and the beginnings of the resurgence of skateboarding, both of which would explode in popularity by 1985.
The Pro Spectaculars
Another financial drain was the Pro Spectacular concept. The 1985 edition was a revival of a similar experiment abandoned in 1980 after bad financial losses. It was noted at the time that Professional BMX in particular and BMX as a whole was not a mature enough sport for the concept to be a success. In 1984 the ABA felt its time had come. As noted, by 1984 there was a perceptible drop in the popularity in BMX racing, at least on the local level. The slight dip in sales BMX bicycles built for racing was out stripped by the explosive growth in BMX freestyle bicycles. Track operators all so noticed a decline in new entrances in the beginner’s class at local tracks. The unsponsored beginner, novice and intermediate classes are the bread and butter of local races. Indeed, the unsponsored amateur, even in the expert classes are the vast majority in any sanctioning body. Any drop in the influx of new riders at the local level is a clear bell weather of trouble. A way must be had to generate and spread knowledge of BMX to the general public and draw more youngsters into the sport-and repair the very bad Pro-ABA relations.
The idea of the Pro Spectacular was inspired from Motorcycle Motocross Supercross. Professional only events held in indoor arenas with tracks that were built with greater difficulty to enthuse the spectators who were attracted by heavy television promotion. The intent, highly successful in the MX world was to turn MX from almost a strictly participatory sport into a sport that would have great appeal to spectators, who like in most team sports like baseball and football would pay entrance fees to watch. Like in Supercross the ABA restricted the event to pros eliminating the amateur and children classes and whenever possible held its Spectaculars indoors like in Supercross (this also reduced the politics inherent in deciding which track would hold a national in any given state ["Super BMX & Freestyle" September 1986 Vol.13 No.9 pg.19] ) and invested heavily in television advertisements. Races where to be held on Friday nights and held to two hours in length. That could both could fit a television schedule and the attention span of an attending audience. This was to give BMX greater public exposure, most of which never even heard of BMX much less knew how to get involved which in turn would spark an up surge of the beginner classes at the local level. At the same time greater revenue could be obtain from the entrance fees, making the ABA less dependent on participation on the local level.
The first Pro Spectacular was launched in
Reno, Nevadaon January 4 1985. While a critical success, the racing was exciting with the ABA put on its usual show of efficiency and the pros generally liked the concept (although the track itself was too tight and ungroomed for their taste) and more than enough pros participated to make it interesting (the ABA dropped its vaunted Direct Transfer System and ran the qualifying motos three times just like the National Bicycle League). To sweeten the pot US$10,000 purses for each race was offered. ["Super BMX & Freestyle" September 1986 Vol.13 No.9 pg.19] The winner of the Pro Spectacular series would win a Pontiac Trans Am, just like the winner of the ABA No. 1 pro plate for the year. The spectator attendance, which was the key, were lackluster. Despite the relatively low admission fee at US$5.00, which was about the same as the racer's sign up fee at a local race and the heavy promotion the venues were, if not empty was well below seating capacity. At the first event held at the Lawlor Events Center of the University of Nevada in Reno, Nevada, only about 2,000 spectators were on hand in a facility that could seat 10,000. ["BMX Plus!" May 1985 Vol.8 No.5 pg.38] Many in the crowd were probably there for the standard National that was to be held the next day (those who signed up to race in the National the next day got a discount on the spectator's fee in the Pro Spectacular). Perhaps it was a losing situation from the start. Not enough people knew about the existence of BMX to care and bicycle racing of any type hasn't been big in the United States since the 1920s indoor track racing fad. In Europe by comparison capacity crowds fill venues and racers are front page news in Europe, even previously unknown BMX racers. The same was true for South America. As a comparison the 1983 International Bicycle Motocross Federation (IBMXF) sanctioned World Championship held in Slagharen, Hollanddrew an incredible (by US standards) 15 to 20,000 paying spectators and was televised "live" in Europe. ["BMX Plus!" November 1983 Vol.6 No.10 pg.18] In the US you would be lucky to get a mention in sports section of an American newspaper for any form of cycling outside of yearly reporting of the Tour de France, never mind a BMX race. It seems ironic that BMX was invented in the United States in light of the lack luster attitude of the public at large toward cycling. However, when you look at the fact that BMX wasn't so much derived from cycling but from kids imitating motocross racing then it is much more understandable why BMX was invented here. Still, it was cycling even if it was aping Motocross. In that light, despite the expensive 68 30 second TV advertisements shown on then popular programs like Magnum P.I., Dynasty and Good Morning America, ["BMX Plus!" May 1985 Vol.8 No.5 pg.38] it was a steep uphill battle to win over the public. The light attendance most likely did not justify the reputed US$4000 in television advertising the ABA invested. The most successful of the Spectaculars in terms of non racer attendance was the fifth round held in Phoenix, Arizonaon February 8th. Albeit a far cry from the 15 to 20,000 that came to see the IBMXF World Championship in Holland, it did draw 2,600 paying spectators despite Phoenix's first snow fall in seven years. However, considering the cost of renting the arena with the deliberate lack of amateur involvement and hence their entrance fees it was a financial burden the ABA could ill afford. By the time of Land of Lincoln Pro Spectacular on April 28th, the last in the series, they had dropped the TV advertisement campaign, as a result only a few dozen of spectators were on hand for the event at the Coliseum Sate Fair Grounds in Springfield, Illinois. To help defray the cost, the ABA started to run a few selected Amateur open classes to collect entry fees to offset at least partially the losses.
By the time the Pro Spectacular series came to an end the day before the 1985 Grand Nationals in
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, the Pro Spectaculars were an after thought. While a financial failure it was a critical success in terms of the quality of races concerning both the courses and the top level pros attending. In that it was an immense success, but it would generate one more bit of controversy. The winner of the series was Ronnie Anderson. For his win the ABA awarded him a sports car. However, it was not the Trans Am that Ronnie Anderson was expecting, but a Ford Mustang. Ronnie Anderson refused to accept the car, stating that the ABA supposedly promised a Trans Am to the winner of the series, just like the winner of the Number one Pro title for the year. ABA President Clayton John challenged Mr. Anderson to find in print anywhere that the ABA promised the winner a Trans Am. For several months after consulting lawyers and searching futility for Mr. Anderson accepted the car. Ronnie would also go on to win the Grand National and the title of ABA Number one Pro for 1985. Unlike in past years since 1979, no Trans Am or any car of any sort was awarded to the top pro of the year.
With that the Pro Spectaculars went out in a blaze of controversy. 1985 was the last Pro Spectacular series ever.
If the above woes and tribulations were not enough, a new headache, one that he would feel as a personal betrayal, the defection of five former ABA officers to create the
United States Bicycle Motocross Association(USBA).
The USBA, resignation and bankruptcy
Those five former officers were Geoff Sims, Steve Schaefer, Dave Cook, Rich Mann, and Rod Keeling, the head of the new governing body that was the ABA company pilot who rose to the rank of Vice President of Marketing. ["Super BMX & Freestyle" September 1986 Vol.13 No.9 pg.18] Previous to the piloting position with the ABA, he had no experience with BMX racing. Mr. Keeling had departed the ABA on
March 2 1984and announced the creation of the new governing body on March 23 1984. Some thought the creation of the USBA was timed to take advantage of the ABA's financial dire straits and to cause a stampede of ABA tracks to change affiliation to the new organization. Mennenga saw it as a personal betrayal to the point that he called a press conference to denounce them. He charged at that press conference that it was they who had given him bad advice to take a hard, uncompromising line against the track owners, the racers, and the BMX press. His basic charge was that their collective advice was deliberate sabotage to undermine the ABA so they could make this move to set up their own governing body and destroy the ABA. ["Super BMX & Freestyle" September 1986 Vol.13 No.9 pgs.18-19] This was a tactic not unknown to Mennenga. During a 1981 dispute with the promoters of the large pursed (US$10,000) Knott's Berry Farmrace, the ABA bristled at being scheduled directly opposite, i.e. on the same Thanksgivingweekend as, their prestigious Grand National in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The fact that it was sanctioned by the NBL, being run under NBL rules and racers received national points at that race as they would at a national created directly by the NBL, exacerbated already raw feelings between the NBL and the ABA. The ABA felt it was a deliberate action to siphon off racers, particularly the pros from their season ending Grand National. The hiring by the Knott's Berry promoter Thomas Henn of former NBA founder and President Ernie Alexander to run the race (he also designed the temporary track at Knott's) didn't help matters. Mr. Alexander had a reputation of deliberately scheduling NBA events against the events of other sanctioning bodies when he ran the NBA. Mennenga sent out press releases and faxes to the BMX press, track operators and bicycle manufactures allegedly hinting that they should boycott of persons and organizations that participated in the Knott's Berry race. [ "BMX Action" April 1982 Vol.7 No.4 pgs.77-78] Ironic considering the boycotts by the pros and "BMX Action" the ABA was about to face. Indeed, the ABA allegedly had a boycott list that had many notables of the BMX industry on it including promoter Renny Roker, which the ABA ordered tracks to boycott his upcoming Pro seven race series that would later come to be known as the ESPN Pro Spectacular. Several ABA tracks left the ABA and joined Roker to participate in his Series which were to be NBL sanctioned. ["BMX Action" April 1982 Vol.7 No.4 pgs.77-78] With this siege mentalityin his background it was easiy for Mennenga to believe that USBA stole the valuable ABA membership records to propersition ABA racers to join the USBA. While the value of this list would be a motive to steal it, Mennenga provided no evidence. ["Super BMX & Freestyle" September 1986 Vol.13 No.9 pg.19]
As then, in the USBA controversy, whatever Mennenga's intention, it came off as a desire to shift blame for his actions as well as being unlikely that this conspiracy could keep its cohesion for over two years. The ABA even went as far as to launch a law suit against the five founders of the USBA, and while dismissed by the court, the lawsuit drained the resources of the new competitor and engendered the atmosphere that followed. It would the actions of the new USBA leadership that would lend credence to Mennenga's charges.
The two year war between the ABA and the USBA was perhaps the ugliest rivalry that BMX has ever saw. It seems the USBA was making most of the aggressive moves. The motivation for rivalries like this was the US$2million to US$4million in revenue yearly that BMX generated at the time. Compared to other older more established sports like Baseball, European Football (Soccer) American Football and Auto Racing this was a pittance but still enough to generate bad promoters and political infighting between and within sanctioning bodies. Track operators had quite thin profit margins to work with, which perhaps made the back biting even worse since there was so little to go around. There was a slump in the BMX racing market as mentioned with the growth of Freestyle, the resurgence of skateboarding siphoning off young people and the insurance crises to drain resources further. Pretty desperate times for the organizers of BMX racing, and desperate times generate desperate acts, including actions straight out of
Despite all the foul weather facing the ABA, Mennenga who was said to be an eternal optimist, hung on. Unfortunately, there was one instance that was probably responsible for him relinquishing his position and BMX the sport he had help nurture, all together. On
January 27 1985at the GT Supernationals in Pico Rivera, Californiaa disgruntled woman hurled a cup of coffee into the face of Mennenga. In all his years involved in BMX he had never been attacked physically, but that was only the beginning of his humiliation. After ABA security had to physically remove the spectator from the facility, she filed a false police report that Mennenga assaulted her. The Pico Rivera police came down to the track and arrested Mennenga during the event. The true story eventually came up and the charges dropped and Mennenga released, but very likely the experience forever soured him on the sport he once loved. ["Super BMX & Freestyle" September 1986 Vol.13 No.9 pg.20]
March 5 1985ABA Founder and President Merl Mennenga with the lost of membership and tracks (in part because of rising insurance cost of liability), the ABA on the verge of bankruptcy and personal burnout and exhaustion-and possibly with the Pico Rivera incident on his mind-announced he had sold the ABA to Bernie Anderson and Jamie Vargas, two wealthy ABA track operators for a reported sum of US$250,000 (paid out over several years) ["BMX Plus!" June 1985 Vol.8 No.6 pg.71] and resigned as owner and President of the ABA. Mr. Vargas was computer consultant from Louisiana who ran the first track in Louisiana. Mr. Anderson owned a magazine subscription sales service who founded Rebel Racing, a respected regional BMX bicycle firm he started in 1980 and sold in 1982. He at one time operated the first successful track in Texas. Both men had sons who raced at the time. The new owners installed Walt Ehnat who had just previously been a partner with Gary Ellis Sr. in running four tracks in the Seattle, Washingtonarea (including one in Tacoma, Washington) as the new President. They reversed some questionable programs like having three separate point seasons in a year (as opposed to having one continuous season for about a year) meaning a racer would race for the lowest number he could get not once but three times). However, they decided to hold the remaining Pro Spectaculars despite the immediate financial gain it would had by cancelling them; the damage it would cause with their relations with the pros far out weighed in their view any immediate financial benefit. ["Super BMX & Freestyle" October 1986 Vol.13 No.10 pg.22] They tried to stave off bankruptcy by paying off other debts, although declaring bankruptcy would had also helped the ABA immediately. Like with cancelling the remaining Pro Spectaculars would had been bad policy regarding the pros, the new management felt that declaring bankruptcy would had put out a false impression to track operators around the country that the USBA would expliot. ["Super BMX & Freestyle" October 1986 Vol.13 No.10 pg.22] Despite all efforts and the Internal Revenue Serviceat the door and a reported liability to twenty creditors of US$700,000 ["Super BMX & Freestyle" October 1986 Vol.13 No.10 pg.22] to US$750,000. ["BMX Plus!" June 1985 Vol.8 No.6 pg.71] Most of the financial hemorrhaging was inflicted by the losses over "Bicycles and Dirt" magazine. Anderson and Vargas filed for Chapter 11bankruptcy protection on November 25 1985. ["Super BMX & Freestyle" October 1986 Vol.13 No.10 pg.22] Bankruptcy protection was not the end as many think, it simply allows a company to keep functioning while a disinterested third party, in this case the Federal Courts to work out how it would pay it debts. As predicted, the USBA tried to take advantage of the situation, with some success by playing on the fears of track operators. Some tracks worried about the solvency of the ABA changed their affiliation to the USBA. The USBA tried to fan a stampede by calling individual track operators and citing the precarious position of the ABA with the publicly published court papers outlining the debts incurred by the ABA under Merl Mennenga. ["Super BMX & Freestyle" October 1986 Vol.13 No.10 pg.22] It attempted to generate among ABA track operators a sense of impending doom facing the ABA over its financial dire straights in order for them to change their affiliations to the point of harassment. The father of a respected pro racer Gary Ellis, Gary Ellis Sr. who ran the ABA affiliated River Valley BMX track in Sumner, Washingtonwas a prized target for conversion. Rod Keeling, the founder and President of the USBA went so far as to have a face to face meeting with Mr. Ellis to convince him to jump ship. Such a defection of a high profile track operator would had been a large propaganda feather in Mr. Keeling's cap. He was not successful, in large part according to Mr. Ellis was that Mr. Keeling stressed the problems of the ABA, without stating how joining the USBA would be advantages to Mr. Ellis and BMX as a whole. However, Gary Ellis Sr. was of the opinion that bankruptcy was good for the ABA since it removed most of the top management that got the ABA into dire straights in the first place:
"...We basically felt...well, I basically felt the person that started the USBA was part of the bad manangment of the ABA that put them towards bankruptcy in the first place. You can quote me on that." ["Super BMX & Freestyle" October 1986 Vol.13 No.10 pg.23]
Many ABA track operators where of the same opinion. Also, since most track operators were businessmen themselves, they understood that the ABA filing for Chapter 11 protection wasn't the disastrous thing most layman think it is. Many took it as a good thing since filing Chapter 11 would get rid of most of the executives who mismanaged the ABA in the first place, as was Gary Ellis Sr.'s opinion. They knew other companies in the industry that was in the same position as the ABA was but came out of it. The Van Doren Rubber Co., the maker of Vans tennis shoes that were then a favorite with BMX racers and freestylers and skateboarders alike filed for bankruptcy a couple of years before and eventually came out of it solvent. ["Super BMX & Freestyle" October 1986 Vol.13 No.10 pg.23] However, nearly 160 track operators did switch to the USBA, effectively splitting the world of BMX racing three ways.
By late 1985, Sims and Cook, both commercial pilots, had left the USBA for flying jobs. Keeling was forced out by USBA major investor,
Phoenix, Arizonabusinessman Ira Hall, and replaced with a new management team, including Walt Ehnat who was installed as President of the USBA after Keeling was removed. Ehnat was Keeling's Vice President at the USBA who had earlier replaced Merl Mennenga as President of the ABA. A few months later he was fired by the ABA's new management and had bitter feelings towards it. ["Super BMX & Freestyle" October 1986 Vol.13 No.10 pg.23] The USBA, which was in worse financial shape than the ABA by this time was growing desperate which may had inspired an unethical and illegal act.
Possible Corporate Espionage and Buyout
As noted, a few months after his appointment as ABA President Ehnat was fired by the ABA under bad circumstances and was replaced by the new ABA management by Clayton John, a former motorcycle racer and BMX track operator and who is still the current (2006) ABA President. Ehnat became Vice President of the USBA and became active in the campaign to shore up the image of the USBA which was beginning to take damaging hits in the BMX industry, including its dealings with disgraced BMX promoter Renny Roker. Bob Hadley*, team manager of the Huffy BMX team noticed at one time that Erhart was pretty
prescientin questions he had with him even before he mentioned them. At the time only Clayton John was privy to the specific concerns in a letter Mr. Hadley had that he had shared only with Mr. John at the time. The timing of Ehnat responses and the fact that the USBA seemed to always be one step ahead of the ABA in court actions was so uncanny Mr. Hadley joked that that someone must had bugged Mr. John's office. ["Super BMX & Freestyle" October 1986 Vol.13 No.10 pg.23] Clayton John took the whimsical joke seriously and had ABA headquarters swept for bugs by experts in counter surveillanceand corporate espionage. After the sweep, two experts, one a former Central Intelligence Agency(CIA) agent and the other a former Federal Bureau of Investigation(FBI) agent found evidence of tampering in one of the telephone trunk lines leading to Mr. John's office. The lines were stripped in a way that it was evidence that a telephone tap was in place at sometime. ["Super BMX & Freestyle" October 1986 Vol.13 No.10 pg.26 "Interview with Clayton John" sidebar.] No conclusive proof only circumstantial evidence has suggested that the USBA was responsible. Another suspect, the IRS could have done it given the pressure they put the ABA under, including showing up during ABA nationals but aside from it being illegal without a court order, the IRS had perfectly legal ways available to them to get once sensitive information about the ABA, including financial assets. Most of it was public record particularly court proceedings. The IRS had no real motive to go through the unnecessary risk of wire tapping the ABA offices. ["Super BMX & Freestyle" October 1986 Vol.13 No.10 pg.27 "Interview with Clayton John" sidebar.]
By early 1986 while the ABA was slowly getting back on its feet financially the USBA was starting to sink under the financial weight of poorly attended nationals and the loss of the core of their original management. Still, Mr. Hall approached the ABA with a plan to buy the ABA from the new owners Anderson and Vargas. This was quite strange since as mentioned the USBA was in worse shape financially than the ABA. On several occasions Mr. Hall approached Mr. Vargas and Mr. Anderson with buyout proposals. The talks came to naught. ["Super BMX & Freestyle" October 1986 Vol.13 No.10 pg.24]
There was a rumor of one final act to survive conducted by the USBA. The idea to turn Merl Mennenga, the founder of the ABA to some how force Mr. Anderson and Mr. Vargas to sell back the ABA and then to sell the ABA to the USBA which would then close down the ABA under the Chapter VII bankruptcy law with the USBA inheriting the tracks ABA's then current leadership. If true, perhaps they were thinking about the precedent of Walt Ehnart, the former President of the ABA and by then the Vice President of the USBA that they could have turned Mennenga. However unlikely it would had been, nothing came of it.. ["Super BMX & Freestyle" October 1986 Vol.13 No.10 pg.26 "Interview with Clayton John" sidebar.]
Instead it was the USBA that ended up being bought out by the ABA. A few months later Messrs. Vargas and Anderson brought a majority share of the USBA from Ira Hall, becoming its two principle stockholders in 1986. About 24 hours later Ehnat was fired and replaced by ABA President Clayton John, placing him at the head of two sanctioning bodies simultaneously. Until the end of 1986 the USBA remained a separate body. The final merger of it to the ABA was in early 1987. The result was the ABA re-reacquiring most of its old tracks and some brand new ones-160 in total-and the USBA's membership. Later Mr. Vargas would sell his interest leaving Mr. Anderson the largest share holder. ["Super BMX & Freestyle" September 1986 Vol.13 No.9 pg.5]
olvency and Re-expansion
After 22 months in bankruptcy protection On
September 24 1987, the United States Federal Bankruptcy Court approved the ABA's plan for financial reorganization and removed it from Chapter 11 ["Super BMX & Freestyle" January 1988 Vol.15 No.1 pg.4] as well it should had been since it promised exorbitant gifts to the various national number ones that year, including the amateurs. For instance, the eventual amateur No.1 Mike King received a $14,500 Glastron boat and a Honda Reflex motorcycle valued at US$1,600 for a total value of US$16,100. To reiterate, the top "amateur" received the boat, not the professional number one. That winner got the "standard" automobile. The Pro number one for that year, Charles Townsend, received US$1,600 in cash, a GMC Chevy S-10 pick up truck valued at US$10,500 and a Honda XR250R Honda motorcycle valued at US$3,500. Total value of US$15,600. You had the odd situation of the amateur winning prizes of greater value collectively than the professional by a US$500 margin. ["BMX Plus!" March 1988 Vol.11 No.3 pg.14] The amateur girls class champion Nikki Murray (unlike the NBL at this time, the ABA did not have a professional women's division) and the Pro Cruiser number one Eric Rupealso received Honda Reflex motorcycles.
If there was ever a sign of health of the ABA (and BMX in general) it was the 1988 Grand National in
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. It was then the largest BMX race in history at 470 motos. This was by 27 motos larger than the previous record holder, the 1982 ABA Grand National (the 1989 ABA Grand National would be 467 motos, knocking '82 back to third). ["BMX Plus!" March 1989 Vol.12 No.3 pg.35] This was in the teeth of a general two year sag in ridership on the racing side of the industry and in the face of the popularity of BMX Freestyle, skateboardingand the rise of Mountain Biking.
Though all this it still remained the largest of the two major bodies. The ABA has demonstrated over the years the desire to become even larger. In a plan to diversify and not rely on its BMX income totally for its survival, the ABA purchased the
National Off Road Bicycle Association(NORBA) in the summer of 1986 (The ABA later sold NORBA to the United States Cycling Federation(USCF) in 1989). It also acquired from Hutch Hi-Performance Products, a respected BMX bicycle manufacturer, the National Freestyle Association(NFA) a BMX Freestyle sanctioning body. Hutch had recently reacquired the body back from the USBA which it had sold it to a few months prior. Hutch, which had started the NFA in the first place, sold it to the USBA because competing manufactures were reluctant to send their freestyle teams to a sanctioning body run by a competitor, therefore helping him financially. The USBA suffering its own financial dire straights sold it back to Hutch who in turn sold it to the ABA.
The ABA's desire to acquire its competition has not been sated. As recently as 2002 the ABA attempted to purchase the NBL from USA Cycling after it was approached by officers of USA Cycling to sell the NBL [ [http://www.bmxtreme.com/news/aba_nbl.html Clayton John Letter about USA Cycling offer to sell NBL.] ] but was turned down by the USA Cycling board. [ [http://www.bmxtreme.com/news/ ABA rejected by USA Cycling. Scroll down to November 6, 2002 article.] ]
*Until the 1979 season when professionals were required to be licensed and earn separate points from the amateurs, ["Bicycle Motocross Action" March/April 1979 Vol.4 No.2 pg.44] the #1 plate holder was considered #1 over all amateur or professional. The ABA did have a pro class in 1977 & 1978 but the title of National Number One Professional was not created until the 1979 season when the pros and the 16 Experts were separated and the pros earning separate points (in the form of purse money won) from the amateurs. Prior to 1979 the pros, due to the comparatively small number of them, competed with the 16 Experts and were able to earn amateur titles.
'**'Title Did Not Exist. While the ABA did start its pro cruiser class in 1981 the title pro cruiser National Number One did not exist until 1987.
pecial Race Series past and current
Super Bowl Championships
Race of Champions (ROC)
Redline Cup Series
*The Redline Cup Series are regional championship events that is held mostly for the benefit of the amateur unsponsored racer. These events were created in 1981 and formerly called the United States Gold Cup Championships. Its purpose was to give non factory sponsored amateurs-then as today the great majority of BMX racers-a chance for a national title without having to go through the great expense of touring the country racing in nationals competing against sponsored national caliber racers. It originally was a one-off Jag like Championship race on
* [http://www.bmxtra.com/07news/07news010.htm The 2007 Redline Cup Series schedule.]
ABA World Championships.
* [http://www.ababmx.com/ The American Bicycle Association (ABA)]
*Much of the source material for this article, particularly with the ABA's troubles with its Pro Spectaculars and clash with the USBA, is from Mr. Hadley's September and October 1986 two part "Super BMX & Freestyle" article "Reflections on the ABA vs. USBA Battle".
* [http://www.ababmx.com/pdf/2006_aba_rulebook.pdf The 2006 ABA rule book] (PDF)
* [http://www.nbl.org/ The National Bicycle League (NBL) Website, the ABA's chief competitor]
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