History of the NATC
HISTORY OF THE NORTH AMERICAN TRIALS COUNCIL
1974 - 1984
As part of the commemoration of the tenth anniversary of the North American Trials Council, three essays were published. The first recounted the problems of getting the Council started. The second outlined the structure of the Council and the third focused on the philosophy of operation. Since some aspects of the Council seemed shrouded in mystery. And currently, four decades later, they still do. The reasons for the Council keeping a quiet, low profile will become apparent. These reports, however, are not intended to be encyclopedic or even to be entirely accurate; rather they are recollections and opinions. What is impressive, these 40 years later, is that the Council is intact, has continued to operate efficiently, and that the original system was well enough designed that there are few recognizable changes.
The movement to form a national governing body for observed trials started in earnest in 1972. Four reasons made that a unique time for trials in the U.S. First, we were about to host our first international event scheduled, appropriately it seemed, to be held in southern California. The European Trials Championship became the World Trials Championship with the addition of that U.S. Round.
The second unique aspect of trials in the early 1970s was that there were a number of powerful and effective people running most of the key associations around the country. Some remain on the Council to this day. Many of those original organizers who have left the sport have never been adequately replaced. Why this abundance of competent leaders arose simultaneously and in isolation from each other will forever remain baffling.
Third, trials was on the upswing in the early 70s. Japanese manufacturers had entered the enduro market by producing reliable, well-promoted, inexpensive machines. The new equipment was immediately popular and had as a spin-off an unprecedented boosting effect on trials. Those who took pleasure in something other than rooster tails were drawn into trials. Brand new, purpose-built trials bikes could be purchased for under $900.
Fourth and most important, in 1972 and 1973 Dick Debolt and the Michigan-Ontario Trials Association had courageously hosted two-day events billed as the North American Trials Championship. They were unqualified successes and demonstrated that there were talented riders throughout the country. Also, they caused a few people to believe that the stage might be set for forming a national governing body to organize and sanction a championship.
The key to getting started was simply to assemble a list of the trials clubs and their members around the country. This seems easy enough today, but at that time no one had any idea where the clubs were located. There were no trials publications, no connections with the AMA, no regional events, not even FAX machines. Only stamps and rotary telephones. There were intriguing rumors of legendary riders here and there: Bledsoe, Boocock, Brokaw, Darrow, Decubellis, Delaney, Eggar, Guglielmelli, Heath, Hopkins, Kessler, Leavitt, McCabe, Nickelsen, Ranger, Ryhti, Schreiber, Smith, Sweet, Tyson, Walker, Whaley, Young. Magic names, but few had ever seen more than one or two ride. It is hard to believe now, but in the 1960s and early 1970s, no one ever traveled to ride away from home.
Fortunately, most of the associations that were contacted were glad to help put together a national address list, an endeavor that took much of 1973. In the formative stages the national list was the key to the whole thing. There were several groups that had consuming ambitions to run the national show and refused to send their membership lists. But opposition underground inevitably formed and copies of the lists were smuggled to Denver. It was good fun. Once the master list was complete, the next problem was to arrange a meeting.
Fred Belair used his considerable influence in southern California to seek financial support for the meeting. Ultimately, he was able to interest Yamaha in sponsoring the meeting.
The major associations were approached with the following proposition: a single representative from each of the dozen-and-a-half biggest clubs could have his expenses paid either to watch or to ride in the world round in Saddleback Park, would be put up at a motel near the event, and then would attend a round table meeting on Monday and Tuesday following the Sunday trial. It was an irresistible deal; no one turned it down.
The event itself was a cause of high anxiety for those who planned to make their debut in world competition. And their concerns turned out to be entirely justified. The event was inundated by rain and near freezing temperatures. The riders were forced to drag their adobe-encrusted, 400 pound trials machines through one of the most difficult events in history. Additionally, completely inexperienced observers were used. Problems with the time limit reduced the number of finishers to ten. Protests abounded. It was a preposterous and terrifying setting for a rider's virgin performance as a world rider.
The bitter difficulty of the Sunday event did little to diminish the possibility of the meeting itself being a highly explosive situation. No one could tell how things would go with a group of dictators thrown together for the first time. It was a room full of strangers. Most did not know what regions of the country had trials activities, much less who represented what area. The potential chaos made it a perfect occasion for ambitious promoters to make a grab for power.
It was also not clear whether there would be hopeless regional differences. By this time there had been some high level inter-regional competition, both at the Michigan events and at El Trial de España.
These factors made the outcome of the meeting far from certain. On the positive side though, Mick Andrews, the highly popular, reigning European champion, agreed to be our advisor. His presence added much credibility. And, at last, the leading organizers of trials in the U.S. were together. Although the risks were high, the potential benefits seemed limitless. It was a time of raw nerves and high excitement when we sat down at the round table for the first time early in January of 1974.
Happily, virtually all of the worries about whether there would be a successful outcome turned out to be unfounded. The interactions were straightforward and honest. There was much goodwill towards creating a national championship. Also, there was agreement in principle on the necessity for having a single set of rules.
Another concern was to develop a system for ranking trials competitors in the U.S. The newly installed administration at the AMA, led by Ed Youngblood, was determined to avoid issuing FIM competition licenses to unqualified drivers who became a laughing stock when they rode abroad.
The first meeting was an unqualified success. Mick Andrews said it was obvious to him that although the Europeans came to America to teach trials riding, it would not be long before Europeans would come to America to learn about organization.
From our current vantage point nearly all aspects of our initial hopes have been fulfilled. But a moment's reflection shows there were an almost overwhelming number of ways that the whole thing could have collapsed; we made it by the skin of our teeth.
A second meeting was scheduled for March of 1974 to be held in Westerville, Ohio at AMA headquarters. That meeting was completely sponsored by the AMA. Such generosity on their part has been typical of our relationship since the outset. In all cases, dealings between the Council and the AMA have been positive and helpful. Our first liaison was with Al Eames who provided wise and gentle guidance that came from years of enduro and ISDT organizational experience. After Al retired, Hugh Fleming became our contact. He has always been cordial and immensely helpful. Roger Ansel was next. Hugh got to know Roger from the NATC meetings. Roger was hired and then one of our own was our AMA boss. Considering how hostile the relationship between riders and national governing bodies can be in other countries, we are extraordinarily lucky to have had such representatives from the AMA. They have been pro-trials and benevolent guides — a sure blessing, since autocratic personalities could have easily destroyed our fragile early efforts to generate a national trials movement. Further up the administrative ladder at the AMA, Ed Youngblood has been our mentor and friend and, when he was at the helm, trials riders have fared very well indeed.
The second meeting produced a set of rules and a championship scheduled to begin in three months. The most interesting debate at the early meetings was whether to have a series of events or a single event to determine a champion. These two approaches were called the Olympic model (the system in which everything is decided in a single event) and the Grand Prix model (a series of events in which points are accumulated to determine a winner). It seemed that the Grand Prix model generally predominated when mechanical things such as racecars or motorcycles were involved. The idea was to give repeated chances to cover mechanical problems. When individuals alone were involved in events such as track and field, then the Olympic model dominated. The Council decided to use the Grand Prix model both to allow for mechanical mishap and also to avoid forcing people into riding every event; the best five of nine events were to be counted. The general format of the first series has remained serviceable ever since, although there have been many unsuccessful attempts to reinvent the wheel.
The opening round of the first NATC series, in 1974, was held in Southern California, in homage to their accomplishment of consistently producing a cadre of excellent riders. The series succeeded brilliantly. Lane Leavitt won. He was followed by Marland Whaley who then established an awesome record of championships. Then Curt Comer became a popular champion. And finally Bernie Schreiber who, after carrying our banner with such distinction abroad, returned home to dazzle and demolish us all.
On the organizational side, in 1975 David Russell and the New England Trials Association hosted the first World Round under the AMA/NATC partnership and made up for prestige lost by the disastrous world event in Saddleback Park; the New England event was hailed as the best in the world that year. Ed Youngblood was beside himself. The AMA and the USA were redeemed.
The national series and the world rounds held in the U.S. have consistently excelled. The national series particularly has been praised by foreign riders and the foreign press alike as the best anywhere. Remarkably, the whole system runs along so quietly and problem-free, year in and year out, that it attracts little attention — all the more impressive for it pays its own way (just), and has accomplished with astonishing accuracy exactly what it set out to do.
When these competitions began there was fierce and often bitter rivalry between regions of the country. There was blind loyalty to certain riders only because they came from certain places. As the national trials series matured, something unexpected and interesting has happened. It became much less important to identify individuals as being from specific places. A particular rider was considered more or less appreciated for his skill, determination, or other admirable qualities; or he might be thought of as more or less personable to be around, and so on. The riders became individuals and not representatives of specific areas. This friendliness came mainly from the large number of times riders were thrown together, now many times a hundred. What has emerged is an honest individual striving, generally free of unattractive baggage. The disappearance of regional chauvinism was a triumph of substantial proportions.
Part of what has kept everything on track is the organizational consistency of the Council. Of the twenty riders mentioned as being famous at the start of the series, only a few, now in the senior classes are still intermittently active as national riders. In contrast, of the original Council members, many remained active on the Council for decades. Why did so many Councilmen stick it out? Certainly, not for the power, prestige, glory, money, or even thanks — there are none of these. After a dozen meetings, most things that come up at Council are pretty routine to the veterans. The Councilmen are not there for any obvious reason except that it is personally important to each of them to see that the national series works. The Council is an extremely rare example of a group that operates a bona-fide, full-blown, widely-recognized, national championship of any kind completely unpaid volunteers. Many are either active riders or organizers or have had a long history of these activities.
The whole endeavor has fulfilled its early promise: it has honed our competitors, built fast friendships, and exposed so many of us (sometimes head-first) to the diversity and beauty of America that few others will ever know.
MEMBERS OF THE NORTH AMERICAN TRIALS COUNCIL
In the first decade there had been an annual series of events to determine an official ranking of trials riders in the U.S. A unified set of rules had been developed. Our riders gained considerable experience on various kinds of terrain. Despite hard periodic economic times (everyone was upset when gas reached 50 cents a gallon), the series has remained remarkably well attended. An indirect marker of the success of the series is that several of our countrymen have become celebrated world-level competitors.
Summarized this way, it sounds simple and straightforward. But due to the huge geographical size of America, the problems of organizing this whole venture have been substantial. Much credit for making the series successful goes directly to the North American Trials Council.
There are combinations of features about the NATC that seem to be unique. They may exist elsewhere, but typical of the fiercely independent nature of trials riders, the NATC has evolved spontaneously without anyone else telling it what to do. Certainly the Council has reinvented the wheel many times, but wheels, after all, are only wheels and the lumpy ones quickly disappear.
This second essay will focus first on how members of the NATC obtain a seat on the Council and then discuss briefly the different kinds of Council members.
Most governing bodies specify very rigidly how their members are to be chosen. Additionally the parent organization frequently influences the selection process. But in the case of the NATC, there is absolutely no control over these matters. Nor is there any influence over which regions attend. Clubs come and go as they please. In fact there are not even any instructions available to a new club about how to get a sanction to host a national. If a new club cannot figure out how to get in touch with the NATC and cannot afford to send their representative to his first meeting, it is unlikely they can pull off a successful national. A final strange feature of this selection process is that of the regions which form the backbone of U.S. trials, no two seem to use the same method for choosing their Councilmen.
This process sounds pretty loose, but it has the important effect of compelling the Council to evolve. Because the Council does not control representative selection, there is a continual infusion of new blood. Each club has the freedom to choose effective representatives or inadequate representatives. They may even choose ones who have new ideas.
Of course, not all new ideas are good ones. If the new ideas are poor, they will be discarded either through debate at Council or by actual test during the series. The presenter had best be ready to argue his point clearly, logically, and flexibly. If it is a brand new idea or one that is difficult to grasp, then it may take awhile, even more than one meeting for everyone to get comfortable with the concept. Presenters who become impatient, hurt, or angry if their pet idea is not accepted immediately have a tough time.
Most Council members are conservative because they do not wish to take chances with the success of the series. But if a proponent can argue effectively, then thier idea is usually tried. The important thing is that the NATC has the courage to take chances with new ideas each year. This leads to some things that do not work. But such mistakes are acceptable as long as they are corrected promptly.
An early example of an interesting evolutionary change was the ability that riders developed to hop the front wheel laterally without letting the bike move forward. This caused changes in both the rules and the style of the sections. But in order to develop the ability to hop, an enormous number of variations in technique had to be tried and discarded.
Split lines in sections is an example of an idea that succeeded by actual test during the series. When it was first proposed at the Council, the split section notion was greeted with considerable skepticism, especially from some of the more venerable members of the Council. The arguments that followed, however, could not resolve whether it would work or not. To settle the issue, an experiment was conducted in 1983 in which three national events were selected to try a limited number of split sections. They worked well. By 1984, split sections were in wide use and have permitted organizers to fine tune their sections in a way never before possible. There has been a jump in attendance in the lower classes, no doubt due in part to the split lines causing the events to be less intimidating.
In contrast, bicycle trials were tried at the nationals and did not catch on. These events were dropped for the time being in the hope that they would develop at the grass roots level and then return to the nationals. In these ways, trials had evolved by trying new ideas and keeping the ones that worked to be incorporated into the organizational framework of the sport.
Now for the question of who makes up the Council. Of the several kinds of Council members, without any doubt, the most important ones, as well as the most numerous ones, are the club representatives, for they see that the national events are set. The effective club rep is the kind of person who can produce a national, by himself if necessary. Often, the rep is the sparkplug of his club. Only one representative is permitted from each club. This rule has been followed from the beginning to prevent any region from dominating the organization
So far in the history of the Council, every time a new club has attended its first meeting, it has received a sanction to put on a national. The veteran clubs always seem willing to step aside to give the new club a chance. This is typical of the altruism of the Council members and contributes in no small way to the success of the national program.
The second largest group of Councilmen, after the club reps, are the NATC Diplomats. This prestigious group is composed of the individuals who have organized one of the U.S. world rounds. The prime function of the diplomats is to maintain continuity on the Council through their experience and to be certain that the meetings are conducted in an acceptable manner.
Third are industry representatives, usually importers of trials bikes. They have a valued point of view. Through their travels and business experience, they are able to provide a wealth of practical and sophisticated advice.
At least one rider representative is present. His job is to assure that the cause of the top riders is championed.
The AMA has a representative. They have given encouragement and leeway for the Council to seek its own path. It would have been easy for contentious personalities to have wreaked havoc with the Council's efforts to spearhead a national trials movement. We have been fortunate indeed to have had of succession these gentlemen acting as our liaisons and mentors.
Finally, there are occasional visitors. Sometimes an FIM representative or the President of the Canadian Motorcyclist Association have been present. Such renowned visitors are a welcome addition. Their knowledge comes from a much different base of experience than most Council members. It is fascinating to hear their perspective.
The Council is a more heterogeneous group than most governing bodies. There is an immense range of backgrounds, ages, and goals. Perhaps it is this variety that gives the Council its flexibility. But there is one thing shared by all, and that is the desire to foster the sport: to nurse it through the hard times and to help it prosper during the good times, to assure that the nationals are there to give focus and anticipation, and to keep the weekend crucible available to burn away our stresses and leave us more whole and re-created.
PHILOSOPHY OF THE NORTH AMERICAN TRIALS COUNCIL
Since the inception of the North American Trials Council, members of the trials community have wanted to know how the group works and what goes on at the meetings. These requests have been fair enough, but they have never really been answered. The reasons for the secrecy are not sinister; the questions are simply yet very hard to answer. Those who have sat on the Council, even from the beginning, are hard pressed to explain the process by which decisions are reached. This last of the three essays, which will concentrate on the philosophy of operation of the Council, will make it easier to understand what goes on at the meetings, how the system is organized, and why the meetings are closed. These matters are the most difficult aspect of the Council to understand, but in many ways they are the most outstanding part of the organization.
The main job of each Council is to arrange the next year's series and then to work on problems. Council gathers information for discussion at its meeting in a number of ways, some of which are fairly unique. There are three main sources for input on problems. The first comes from Council members and consists of problems they have spotted or complaints they have received. Virtually any problem or suggestion can be brought to the attention of any of the NATC representatives and if it requires the Council's attention, it will find its way onto the agenda. Thereby everyone in trials has a pipeline directly to the Council.
The second source is the rider poll in which the national competitors themselves grade each event in the series in a number of categories. Most riders take this chore seriously. A high proportion of them complete and return the poll each year, often with comments added. We are told by foreign riders and press alike that such a survey does not exist elsewhere.
Input from the rider poll is invaluable, because each organizer knows exactly how his event stacks up. As a group, the Council gets important feedback on the level of difficulty and the style of sections that suit the riders. This crucial information helps keep the whole system, including the rules, flexible, balanced, and in tune with current trends. The riders have a powerful influence on the choice of sites for national and international events and on the kind of trials that work well.
The final major source of input comes from the rider representatives. Usually two competitors who are ranked in the top ten of the national championship class come as members-at-large to provide information on how to keep the series appropriate for the best of our competitors. In recent years, a substantial portion of the top ten national riders have been on the Council as club representatives. Another large group of Council members are participants in national events. In fact virtually every Council member during the first decade is or has been a national trials rider. It is rare in other sports to have so many from the trenches actually guiding their sport.
Reports are heard from Councilmen who are in charge of awards, bibs, course marking material, scorecards, raffles to support a European effort, the world round program, and protest appeals. These are large and very thankless jobs. Yet they are accomplished quietly and efficiently. The intense dedication of so many is amazing.
This listing of business items is the scantiest of outlines of what actually takes place at an NATC meeting. There in one room are most of the finest trials minds in the western hemisphere. The big names who pull off the big events. It is an impressive experience to sit on the Council, especially for the newcomer. Actually, very few new members do more than sit, often in utter confusion, for the first meeting or two. Part of their bewilderment arises from the unusual structure of the proceedings.
There is no voting. Robert's Rules of Order are not followed; further such rules are not even allowed. This is heresy of the first order. Such disrespect for venerated order keeping systems is not part of the American Way or Democracy, the righteousness of which has been pounded into of us by all sorts of media ranging from Saturday morning cartoons to high school civics class propaganda.
One result of the absence of rigid controls is that the meetings seem to the newcomer to be unfocused and undirected. Inevitably, though, everything gets done.
To appreciate the Council's workings, it is essential not to think of it as a traditional governing body but rather, as has been observed, as a think-tank. It functions, more or less, the same way a brain works. When presented with a problem the brain tries to look at it from different angles. If no workable solution is immediately apparent it will look for any kind of solution simply to generate movement. Bad ideas can lead to good ideas. A brain gets tired of thinking about a single subject. It has trouble concentrating and wanders off. Sometimes confusion sets in. Eventually it reaches some kind of resolution, but if you ask a person exactly how he arrived at a certain solution, he cannot really tell. He discarded so many potential answers and followed such a complicated, zigzag pathway to reach his ultimate decision that he cannot for the life of him reconstruct precisely how he got there.
Exactly these natural patterns are followed during Council meetings. The discussions are non-stop. They are loose and meander about, rather like a trials rider during practice: intense concentrated work here, dashing off over there to go round-and-round, then on to something new, or, perhaps, back to the first place.
When an issue has been discussed unsuccessfully for awhile and frustration mounts, someone cracks a joke. The group relaxes. When things get tougher, individuals within the Council tend to break off into side conversations. All progress in the room appears to stop. After a few minutes, however, the group brain spontaneously settles back down again. Usually, the result of such a respite is that someone will see how to make a compromise, or will have a creative idea. The most effective one at this has always been Hall of Famer (AMA and NATC) is Bill Brokaw. After tough debates that seem hopelessly deadlocked, Bill will often speak up. The veterans around the room smile when he starts. They know he has got it. It seems to come from his powerful ability to see and understand the other fellow's point of view.
The advantage of providing a free ranging atmosphere for problem solving is provided by Gordon Siu with the following marvelous experiment: “If you place in a bottle half a dozen bees and the same number of flies, and lay the bottle down horizontally, with its base to the window, you will find that the bees will persist, till they die of exhaustion or hunger, in their endeavor to discover a way through the glass; while the flies, in less than two minutes, will all have sallied forth through the neck on the opposite side... It is clear with the bees it is their very intelligence that is their undoing in this experiment. They evidently imagine that the way out of every prison must be where the light shines clearest; and they act in accordance, and persist in this too logical action. To them glass is a supernatural mystery they have never met in nature; they have no experience of this suddenly impenetrable atmosphere; and the greater their intelligence, the more inadmissible, more incomprehensible, will the strange obstacle appear. Whereas the feather-brained flies, careless of logic as of the enigma of crystal, disregarding the call of the light, flutter wildly hither and thither, and meeting here the good fortune that often waits on the simple, who find salvation there where the wiser will perish, necessarily end by discovering the friendly opening that restores their liberty to them."
The Council has learned to concentrate intensely for extremely long intervals through its annual meeting — at least 10 hours on Saturday and 6 hours on Sunday (the record for a single problem is 14 hours, nonstop). Individuals within the Council will have their own rest periods (and sometimes become flies and find a simple solution), while the group brain doggedly and relentlessly pursues an issue (like the bees). It's a sort of crazy and powerful combination.
In addition to its perseverance, the Council passes F. Scott Fitzgerald's definition of a first rate intelligence, "The ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function."
Ideas are wrestled with from many points of view. Most end up as blind alleys, but some are effective pathways. By the end of deliberation on a given topic, Council has shown a remarkable ability to choose workable solutions.
Voting and Robert's Rules of Order are not compatible with these processes. During conventionally structured meetings, if someone becomes impatient with a debate or sees the sentiment drifting away from his vested interests, he can call for a vote and force the issue. Such ploys coerce premature decisions. They also lead to polarization. Groups begin to form based on similar voting patterns. Cliques and rivaling factions spring up. Power mongering emerges. Voting debts are incurred that must be repaid. In short, politicians appear.
At NATC meetings, matters are discussed until there is unanimous agreement. This kind of perfect agreement can only be reached after everyone is satisfied that issues have been fairly and completely debated.
At each meeting an enormous amount gets done in a day and a half. The time is uncluttered by anything peripheral — it is all concentrated on trials business.
NATC meetings are closed for two reasons. First, these group thinking processes are delicate and require a critical mass of people. With too few there would not be enough sources of ideas and the system would not work. But it also would not work if there were 100 people or 1,000 people all wishing or demanding to jump into a debate. Council would run out of time during its weekend to settle even one issue, let alone the two dozen that must be hammered out every year.
The other reason that the meeting is closed is that everyone must feel free to pursue any line of discussion. They cannot function well under the constraint that they might be quoted. They must be uninhibited in order to suggest an idea that might be shown ultimately to be foolish if taken by itself or out of context. But any idea may trigger a productive line of thought in someone else. It is only in an atmosphere of confidentiality and trust that the group brain can function as it needs to.
The result of this no-vote, no-clique, no-politics structure is that there are not any officers in the Council. Everyone is equal. There is no hierarchy for there is no structure requiring power (voting and order keeping systems). The most essential factor in the Council meetings is that not run. It is a complex and unconventional process, but one that has repeatedly proven itself to be very effective. It operates with sufficient smoothness that its uniqueness is hardly apparent even to those who have attended the Council meetings for years. Most Council members believe that it is the best meeting they have ever attended, but they are again hard pressed to explain why. Ultimately, it is not important that anyone understands analytically why it is a good meeting. Probably analysis would ruin it anyway. It is important only to know that the system works and that it is a fascinating, addicting, and deeply satisfying experience to be submerged in an elegant group thinking process devoted exclusively to a sport we all love.