Interviews

What the Hell is MERP? – Revitalizing Local Racing in Ohio

Jack Bierbower and the crew at Mid-East Racing Promotions are diving head first into the Ohio racing scene with a re-tooled format and a ton of enthusiasm. Jack details the schedule of their new series, and what they aim to accomplish in the process. This is D.I.Y. promoting in its truest form.

It’s no secret that traditional motocross racing at the local level has taken some hits over the years, evidenced by dwindling turnouts and subsequent general disinterest in a sport that, two decades ago, saw record numbers for events that today merely exist in memory. It’s a dilemma that has racers turning an apathetic shoulder to the institution that raised them, asking not “When’s the next race?” but, “What’s the point in going?” They spin laps at practice facilities far and wide, harking back on days when racing at any level seemed to mean something. In the face of cultural irrelevancy, we ask urgently and often the opinion of our peers: How do we fix it?

Defying the tired tune of sweet nothings, an inspired group from the haunts of Eastern Ohio were brought up on the idea that talk is cheap, and that if they wanted to reshape the formula for a new generation of racers, they’d just have to put the damn thing on themselves. Through the upstart MERP (Mid-East Racing Promotions), Uhrichsville native Jack Bierbower and his crew got together to do just that.

I spoke with Jack at length about the ambitions of MERP, and how they plan to get an eclectic mix of folks back to the local races. (It should also be noted that I liked the idea so much, I sponsored the series myself. And I will absolutely be throwing elbows in the back of the 25+ class.)

World of Echo: You guys were out at Beans MX today gearing up for round 1 of the series. How’s that shaping up?

Jack Bierbower: Pretty good, man! I think we’ve got a solid loop going. We’re nervous that it might be a bit short, so we’re going to have to ride it first to see how long the lap actually is. We don’t want the laps to be too short, but we don’t want them to be too long either. It’s important that everyone feels like they’re getting a sufficient riding experience, while at the same time making sure the course isn’t overwhelming. It’s a fine balance, like baby bear’s porridge.

Who was out there today?

Essentially everyone who is directly involved with MERP at the moment: Steve Leggett, Brandon Leggett, Steven Canfield, and myself. Canfield is Steve Leggett’s brother-in-law, and Brandon is Steve’s son, so it’s a tight-knit group of guys that are coming together to put this thing on.

How did you come into the fray?

Brandon and I actually went to high school together. He was three years my junior, but we linked up through running cross country. I never even knew he had anything to do with moto until a couple years after I graduated. We bumped into each other at a race one day and had that great epiphany. “Oh, you ride?! Yeah man, me too!” We’ve been close ever since.

Did you ride at all today, or are you still cutting the course?

We’re still cutting the course, yeah. It takes a concerted effort to get a wide enough lane going through the brush out here, but we’re up for the challenge. We’ve been hacking all weekend-long while BJ gets the moto portion of the course in shape. BJ always does it proper and we’re very fortunate to have Beans be the opening round of our series.

Could you highlight the crew at Beans keeping it tip-top?

It’s really just BJ and Dom! BJ (Brian Greco) is the track operator, and Dominic (his son) runs the front gate. In the early days of Beans it was nothing more than a play track on some extra property that BJ owned. The Sellards family lived just up the road about a mile away, and once Brock started to excel at the professional level, Brock’s father looked for land nearby to help with training. They settled at Beans, and Mr. Sellards promptly brought some heavy-machinery out to build the course up. It’s been maintained ever since, in no small part because of BJ.

Factory KTM used to post up at Beans in the early 2000’s when the Pro Motocross tour came through the mid-east. It wasn’t uncommon to see Brock and Grant Langston shaking down their 125’s out there on a given summer day. Just a small part of the subtly rich Ohio moto scene!

Factory KTM at Beans. P: John Kreps.

What would you say the unified goal is for MERP? What do you hope to achieve with this new series and format?

I’m a born and bred motocross rider, and I love moto. However, the current competition format at the amateur level has become woefully outdated. As a kid, I can remember spending all day at the track and being so stoked just to be out of the house and getting to ride. Once I got older though, I began to loathe the fact that I had to spend an entire Sunday for minimal on-track return. Simply put, I don’t want to be subjected to my morning practice and two 4-lap motos, where I spend 20 minutes riding and 12 hours waiting. 

We have a two-pronged goal for our series: improve that ratio of ride-to-wait time in an economically-friendly way, while simultaneously bridging the gap between the motocross and off-road communities.

Speaking of the format, could you explain the event and class structure?

We’ve read plenty of complaints over the years about the abundance of classes offered at the local level, a grievance that is not unfounded, which made our first move easy: cut the class list in half, or more. With less individual races to run, we are able to place the remaining classes into designated time slots, allowing riders to pick and choose not only what they want to compete in, but when they want to compete as well. You only need to show up an hour before your race to get signed up, receive a transponder, and line up for the race.

We start the day off at 9:00 AM with our Pee-Wee classes, followed by our 85’s and Supermini’s at 10:00 AM. 11:00 AM is our first adult big bike classes, your A’s, B’s, and C’s. At Noon, we will have an Open Pro Sport money moto, followed at 1:00 PM by our age classes like 25+, Collegeboy, 40+, 50+. The last race of the day is at 2:00 PM, designated for 125, 250, and 450 Open competition.

Our events will host a 1-moto format, with each race being 35 minutes + 1 lap. Going to a 1-moto format offers the utmost flexibility to riders and how they choose to spend their Sunday’s. You can enter 1 class, or spend the entire day with us and race 3 or 4! The choice is yours.

I want to note that the courses at each of our 4 rounds will offer a variety in off-road, motocross, and GP-themed features. Jumps, berms, turn-track, and an inviting woods loop. This is not the Erzberg Rodeo, y’all.

How much is it to sign up?

We are offering a tiered-pricing formula that we hope incentivizes folks to race additional classes throughout the day. Your first class is $35, but your second class is $20, eventually bottoming-out at $15 for any additional classes.

With transponder scoring, you’re able to run multiple classes at a time in your allocated time slots?

That’s correct. The classes listed in each time slot will run simultaneously, but will be scored separately. For our first event, we will incorporate a GNCC-style, dead-engine start by lining up each class in rows and dropping a flag. You will only be on-track with the classes in your designated time slot.

We aren’t ruling out motocross-style gated starts in the future, but for now we’re going to ease into it with the dead-engine method.

Will riders need an AMA membership or accompanying District 12 membership to compete?

No. While we understand why other events opt-in to the membership route, since we’re new to the schedule we wanted to keep our series as inviting as possible. I don’t want there to be an additional barrier of entry for riders looking to try out our event for the first time. I got love for the AMA and the District, but we decided that traditional sanctioning was not the route to go right now. That’s not to say we don’t have rules and proper safety measures in place! We will have all the usual safeguards to make sure we have a sound event.

We’re working with a lot of well-respected, well-established tracks in the area with history and experience in event hosting. That was imperative to the MERP team when building this series, to partner up with great people who saw our vision and would help us bring that vision to life in a safe and effective way. We can’t thank the crews at Beans, Crow Canyon, Grear’s, and Malvern enough for stepping up and running with us in our first year.

Additionally, and I don’t mean to go into podium-speak, but I have to thank Reed’s Auto Detailing, World of Echo, Harding’s Park Cycle, WPS, Fly Racing, Speed Farm, Vert Graphics, Bird Dog Forestry Consulting, Smooth Speed MX Wheels, Seat Bounce Media, and Straightline Mobile Welding & Fabrication. I feel like I’ve exhausted every favor from every person I know in motocross, and I thank them with earnest for coming on board with us.

With the way things seem to be trending culturally, on top of the global instability of the last two years, I have to ask: why now? Why jumpstart a new racing series in 2022?

First and foremost, we are not claiming we’ve cracked the code with MERP, nor could we claim sole ownership of the idea of hosting a GP-style event. Other promoters before us have tried with sufficient success, but they hosted other events that eventually overtook what we’re trying to bring back.

Personally, I’ve been vocal for years about revitalizing this genre of racing in our area, and it became evident that sitting idle and complaining about it wasn’t going to achieve that. If I truly believed in this system, then I should be able to confidently put my money where my mouth is and make it work. I can grab a chainsaw and go cut some trails. I can put banners up. I can organize a race schedule that works. Truth be told, it wouldn’t be feasible to do it alone, and I’ve been lucky to find the team that I did to help execute this idea.

At the end of the day, we’re doing this because we love racing, and we believe that racing is an integral part of the motocross experience that simply needs to be re-tooled to more effectively fit the routine of the average rider.

Are you nervous at all, putting on a series for the first time?

100%. And I don’t think the nerves will let up until I see people pulling into the pits on race day! I believe strongly in this formula though, as does our whole team, so we’re hoping to come out swinging and offer up a fresh experience for our fellow riders.

Last questionWill there be oxygen on-site for the freshly minted vet riders such as myself? I’m a little winded just typing these questions.

If you’re a vet rider and you don’t think you can compete for 35 minutes, just turn the throttle on your Factory Edition KTM 450 20% less. I promise you’ll make it.

Shout out to Jack for taking the time to chat, and shouts to he and his crew for putting on their own show. Peep the details at @mideastgps and check them out this season! Cover photo by Abbey Johnson.

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