The death of bike racing in the US?

by Mat Oxley on 26th February 2014

I’m at Sepang, where the pitlane reverberates to the sound of two dozen MotoGP bikes warming up for the second pre-season test of the year.

Despite criticism and the slings and arrows of the global economic crisis (which has now been going on longer than the Second World War), MotoGP isn’t in bad shape. There are more bikes on the grid than at any time since the glory days of the 990s, when the free-spending tobacco industry paid most of the bills. And there are more rounds than ever before; at least there were until the Brasilia race dropped off the calendar.

Contrast this to the fortunes of America’s AMA Superbike championship, which is in deep, deep crisis.

A few weeks ago I was in the States to interview Udo Gietl – the genius engineer behind the BMW twins that won the first US Superbike championship in 1976 – and our conversation ended with a few words on the current state of racing in his country.

“The sport is dying in America, no question about that,” said Gietl, who like all good engineers likes to get straight to the point.

Where the US greats came from

The state of US racing is quite something for a championship that over the past four decades has given us so many premier-class GP winners: King Kenny Roberts, Pat Hennen, Eddie Lawson, Freddie Spencer, Randy Mamola, Wayne Rainey, Kevin Schwantz, John Kocinksi, Kenny Roberts Jr, Nicky Hayden and most recently Ben Spies.

In recent years the US Superbike series has withered from its usual 10 or 11 rounds to seven last year and just five this season, with not a single race on the west coast, the spiritual home of US motorcycling. American fans – especially Californians who’d rather not have to cross the country to see a round of their national championship – have reacted angrily to the new calendar, calling the series organisers “morons” and the five-round series “a sham”.

The fans aren’t the only ones who’ve had enough. Many factories, teams and sponsors have already left the series or are on their way, like rats leaving a sinking ship. TV coverage has long been a struggle for the championship and this season no US channel will televise the series; it will merely be streamed over the internet so that the few remaining diehard fans can watch on their laptops.

So, how did the richest country in the world end up with a third-world bike racing series?

Mismanagement

Like most national federations, and like the FIM itself, the AMA sold off its road racing championship to a commercial organisation, in this case to the Daytona Motorsport Group in early 2008.

In theory, DMG should have done a good job running US Superbikes; after all it was Daytona which gave birth to the class in March 1976.

“Back then, Daytona wanted to get some of the people off the beach,” recalls Gietl. “That was the idea of Superbikes – they wanted the sound of four-strokes, because the other races were all Yamaha two-strokes, which a lot of fans didn’t care for.”

During the late 1970s, ‘80s, ‘90s and the first decade of the 21st century, US Superbike served up some brilliant racing – legendary riders on legendary bikes. Now, just seven years after DMG took the controls, it seems in terminal decline.

Angry competitors talk of too many officials, many of them apparently drunk on power, spending too much time chasing finicky little technicalities while the entire series collapses around them.

There have been some monumental cock-ups including several terrifying race direction errors that might well have cost lives if luck hadn’t been on DMG’s side. Most memorably, during the Superbike support race at the 2009 Laguna Seca GP the pace car was parked (yes, parked) at the scary and blind 150mph Turn One following an incident at Turn Two.

The pace car then attempted to rejoin the track while the race was still going on, very nearly taking out several riders. Hard to understand how anyone with even the faintest knowledge of racing could do something like that.

Since then bad business decision after bad business decision has threatened the financial stability of the series. Factories, sponsors, teams and riders are fed up with the championship’s capricious and vindictive officiating that makes it impossible for them to predict how rules might be enforced.

Thus the paddock is slowly turning into a ghost town while riders wonder how they are going to improve their riding and perhaps progress onto the world stage if they only get to race five times a year. In short, US Superbikes is a car crash of a motorcycle racing series.

No wonder that many American riders are now looking across the Atlantic, jealously eyeing the much healthier British Superbike series. Twenty years ago, that would’ve seemed impossible. Ironically, it may take a Briton to save US Superbike. Rumour has it that Jonathan Palmer’s Motorsport Vision – which has made a success of BSB in recent years – has expressed interest in acquiring the championship. Someone, anyone needs to take it out of DMG’s hands before it really does die.

More from Mat Oxley
Open season on the factory teams
Silly season or stupid season?
Inside the mind of Casey Stoner

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