Trying to ID a MotoGP rider? Check their butt

From American football to the football that the rest of the world plays, and practically every sport in between, fans have learned that the best way to identify their favorite players is to look for the giant numbers on their backs and the names printed above them. In MotoGP, though, if you're trying to tell which rider is which, your best bet is to check their butt.

Butt patches have a history in motorcycle racing dating back to the 1970s, but through evolutions in technology, the emergence of a few larger-than-life personalities and racing's inherently all-consuming sponsorship model, they have become the de facto means of rider self expression in 2023. Nowhere else on a set of leathers will you find a rider's name than the seat of their pants.

"[Away from the racetrack], I'm a guy that in my outfits, I'm a little bit different from all the other racers," Monster Energy Yamaha rider and 2021 MotoGP world champion Fabio Quartararo told ESPN from last week's Grand Prix of Italy. "I have my own style and many people love it, and I think because of my personality, I don't need to always be dressing the same [as everyone else], and I think [expressing myself through my butt patch] is something really, really fun."

The story of the butt patch begins in motocross. As the sport grew more popular in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it became a business, with manufacturers like Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha beginning to field teams. Their riders wore identical gear, and often bibs covered up any names and numbers on the backs of jerseys, so suppliers like Fox Racing -- a brand that's been synonymous with motocross for more than 40 years -- started printing riders' names across their butts.

For much of the next decade, it was pretty simple: big block letters spelling out a rider's last name were cut out of leather and sewn onto the back of their pants. Then Jeremy McGrath came along.

"In '87 Loretta Lynn's Amateur Race, I was novice class, I was a nobody at the time, and I had 'Showtime' on my pants," McGrath told ESPN. "It was something that my dad put on there because I used to just show off a lot for my parents, because where my house was situated, my track was in the backyard and the house sat above it. So I would just be out there showing off the whole time, so my dad put 'Showtime' on my pants and, lo and behold, the results and then the image started to take [hold]."

The image that the Southern California native refers to is one of an icon, of an innovator, and of someone who "liked to smart off every now and again," as he put it.

His 72 wins in the 250cc/450cc Supercross class are most all time -- his closest challenger is 21 victories behind -- earning him the nickname of the "King of Supercross." He won two junior-class Supercross championships (1991 and 1992), seven 250cc/450cc Supercross titles between 1993 and 2000, and one 250cc/450cc outdoor motocross crown (1995).

Such was McGrath's dominance that he could allow himself to devote some of his attention to helping birth the sport of freestyle motocross, which rose to mainstream consciousness at the X Games in the 2000s. He was often so far in front of the Supercross field that he could afford to show off the tricks he'd honed producing groundbreaking freestyle films like "Steel Roots" and "Terrafirma 2."

"I had the competition mentally demoralized, and I walked the line of being confident and arrogant," McGrath said. "That's just part of the strategy of racing: you want to get your competitors thinking about you and thinking like, 'Oh man, I have no chance.' And the butt patch really was another form of expression."

In the extreme-sports-crazed 1990s, few expressed themselves like "Showtime."

"Everyone's so scared to be expressive, and [1997 Supercross champion Jeff Emig] and McGrath, those dudes were just like, f--- it. We're dope, and we're going to just do whatever we want to do," Memo Sandoval, Fox design director, graphics, told ESPN from the company's Irvine, California, headquarters, surrounded by generations of motocross pants and butt-patch stencils dating back decades.

Ahead of the 1995 season, McGrath signed with Fox, and the evolution of the butt patch began. The simplicity of block letters was no longer enough; Fox began hand tracing and hand cutting bespoke graphics out of leather to convey McGrath's period-defining personality.

"The amount of time to do these was crazy," Sandoval said. "And we used to give [riders] two to three gear sets a weekend, and we would make these for 12 guys. So for six hours you'd be just cutting out names just for that little individuality. No one cares about these, but the detail and the amount of time just to show their individuality, this is special. This is couture."

It was ahead of the 1997 season when the game truly changed. No longer were butt patches stenciled and cut out by hand. Suppliers like Fox could now digitally create designs that would be printed and pressed onto EVA foam, allowing for infinitely more intricate designs, without requiring painstaking hours of handmade care.

"That's when that really became a real artistic thing," McGrath said, "because it was no longer those block letters cut out and kind of made to look like something, they were actually like art."

Six-thousand miles away in Italy, Valentino Rossi was doing for MotoGP what McGrath was doing for Supercross. That same year, in 1997, Rossi would adopt the comic, multicolor bold letters that would spell out his nicknames across his bum. Eventually, he settled on one that stuck: "The Doctor."

Rossi wasn't the first rider in MotoGP to plaster his nickname across his backside. Of his contemporaries, though, he was unique in that the placement never left. While some riders wanted their names stitched across their shoulders like Michael Jordan, Rossi was steadfast in his belief in the butt patch.

"It's funny because I'm friends with Valentino, and he was a huge fan of mine, so I'm not going to say that I take a little credit for that, but I'm kind of going to say I take a little credit for that," McGrath joked. "Valentino is one of my heroes, and he was crushing everyone with just his image, let alone his riding."

Rossi's rise in the sport (two junior-category world championships in 1997 and 1999 and seven MotoGP championships between 2001 and 2009) coincided with a revolution in broadcast technology. In 2003, the series began experimenting with a new onboard camera. The front-facing footage that had been captured for years failed to illustrate the physicality of what riders experienced, so hardware was installed on the tail of the bikes, allowing viewers at home to see how their heroes wrestled with their machines.

The cameras were pointed directly at the riders' butts. No one had a well-established butt-patch design like Rossi, and "The Doctor" branding became legend.

"Most of the riders, they put their surname [there], and I think it was pretty nice to see someone with a totally different thing with his nickname," Quartararo said. "So it was a pretty nice move, I would say."

It wasn't an overnight change, but by the end of the 2000s, hardly anyone in MotoGP had their name printed anywhere but their bottom. Rossi's unprecedented influence and the advent of the tail-mounted camera weren't the only reasons for that, though.

With the entirety of riders' backs being broadcast into living rooms around the world, the space across the shoulders literally became top billing. Repsol, a Spanish energy and petrochemical company, has been title sponsor for Honda's MotoGP team since 1995, and for the entirety of that 28-year relationship its logo has been found splashed across the shoulders of its riders.

This year, 10 of the 11 teams on the grid have a sponsor's name or logo positioned at the top of their riders' backs. While the health of racing series around the globe depends on interest from sponsors, the insistence on plastering corporate logos on every square inch of a rider's equipment has hampered the athletes' ability to express themselves.

There is no more visible example than riders' helmets. Once the place to broadcast to the world who a racer was as a person, they're now dominated by logos of energy drinks brands like Red Bull and Monster, who can even dictate which colors their athletes' helmets can be.

The butt patch, then, is the last bit of real estate riders have to express themselves.

"For the image of the riders, [the butt patch] is important, but not really for the sponsor," Quartararo said. "I think this is pretty nice from every team to leave this space to the rider and show off a little bit of their personality."

"I think the butt patch will always be around, unless Monster is like, 'Nope, we want that,'" Sandoval said. "I hope that we never give that part up, because that's the only part that we still can control [riders'] individuality with."