Competition: Where The Action Is
Motorcycle racing tries to gain ground with American fans, riders.
CIRCUIT OF THE AMERICAS
I arrive at the Circuit of the Americas on a warm weekend in March. It is my first time at the Austin, Texas track, but I have long imagined stepping through the gates, peering into the team garages, walking through tunnel 1 to the paddocks and climbing the 25-story observation tower for a bird’s-eye view of the excitement.
And the excitement is there. Only, I wouldn’t be watching Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg fight for a first-place finish: I was about seven months too early for the Formula 1 Grand Prix. I came to witness a different breed of racer chase the checkered flag on two wheels in the F1 equivalent of motorcycle racing: MotoGP.
Event to those with al all-encompassing love of motorsports and speed, and a passing interest in motorcycles, MotoGP can be foreign territory, a whole new world of talent and technology to grapple with.
The glorious symphony of engines draws you in. These bikes sound wonderful rounding the track during interval testing, emitting notes far more feral than a modern race car.
Get a little closer—approach the fence adjacent to turn 20, as I did, and watch as the riders make their way through the corner. They’re flying from apex to apex, but it all seems to happen in slow motion. They set their bikes on their sides, low to the ground, so low that if their knees and elbows are not physically scraping along the tarmac as they go, they’re not doing it right.
America may be a country built by and for the car, but we should still be paying attention to racing on two wheels—it might just be the most intense form of competition out there. But don’t take my word for it. “Racing bikes are very interesting to watch because you can see how the rider struggles with his bike,” F1 legend Niki Lauda has said. “In F1, the opposite happens—the cars are very easy to drive; they don’t even slide.”
The Formula 1 comparison is apt—and telling. Lauda isn’t the first to point out that the allure of four-wheeled racing’s top series has dwindled. Competitiveness has been replaced by the same routine each race, with the same drivers on the podium and the same teams dominating. A two-hour jaunt of what should be the most exhilarating sport on television turns into naptime.
You cannot afford to blink during a 45-minute MotoGP race. The series is not shy of overtaking maneuvers, with riders locked in a constant battle to pass, sticking close together in and out of corners. Fighting for position continues into the very last seconds of the race. All the while, there is constant, hypnotizing movement. In car racing, you see the car and small blip of the driver’s helmet, maybe, going around the track. In two-wheel racing, the rider is always in motion, shifting his body form side to side. The “struggle with the bike” is readily apparent. With the bikes weighing about 346 pounds, and outputs exceeding 240 hp, it takes incredible skill to wrestle them around a track like COTA. Two-time world champion Marc Marquez took his Honda Repsol RC-213V to victory at the Red Bull Grand Prix of the Americas, just ahead of Jorge Lorenzo’s Yamaha.
Though few have the skill to tame them, the racers’ machines are another part of the series’ allure, tying spectators to the action. Sooner or later, you come to realize you can purchase a bike from Ducati, Honda, or Yamaha that comes pretty damn close, in technology and design, to the MotoGP machines. You cannot say the same thing about an F1 car.
There is, in any form of motorsport, the gripping, horrifying element of danger. Only—as with seemly every aspect of the series—motorcycle racing sit further out on the edge than anything else. Forget safety halos: MotoGP riders race exposed on two wheels. There is little room between a mistake and the pavement. As with other motorsports, protective gear has come a long way. Alpinestars introduced a self-contained airbag device for the 2009 MotoGP season; it was the first full-body, completely wirless system designed to fit inside riders’ leathers. Such devices are not yet mandatory, however.
With about six crashes per race, it’s oddly normal to see a rider separate from his bike on the track. It does not offset the fear factor.
And airbags or no, imagine crashing your car at over 150 mph without its frame surrounding you, and you’ll realize how deadly serious this sport can be.
CIRCUIT OF THE AMERICAS
Despite the action and crowds throughout the weekend, it’s hard not to wonder where the rest of the fans are. In Austin, F1 draws up to 230,000 people in a race weekend, while NASCAR alone bring in upwards of 125,000 at any given race. Officials said attendance at COTA tooped 130K over the three-day weekend, but that’s peanuts compared to the 200,000 who regularly attend its race weekends outside the U.S.
It doesn’t make sense, at first. Over the past four decades, the U.S. has produced some of the greatest riders in the sport’s history: Kenny Roberts, Eddie Lawson, Wayne Rainey, Randy Mamola, Nicky Hayden and Ben Spies have taken home various Grand Prix wins and world championships. Over the past five years, however, motorcycling racing’s domestic fan base seems to have hit an all-time low—despite genuinely exciting on-track action.
A sport where Americans once reigned as champions is now dominated by European riders. Hayden’s 2006 world championship made him the only American in the past decade to win the title. Last year, Hayden switched from MotoGP to the Superbike World Championship, trading the former series’ purpose-built racing machines for the latter’s tuned production bikes. Not one American rider has risen to take his place.
This isn’t coincidental—the collapse didn’t happen overnight. In 2008, control of the AMA Superbike series—America’s top-level two wheel series and a pipeline for homegrown MotoGP talen—passed from the American Motorcyclist Association to the Daytona Motorsports Group. DMG’s oversight is widely regarded as disastrous; in short, poor management and lackluster marketing, plus rule changes that took top-level American racing far out of alignment with MotoGP, frustrated riders and manufacturers.
With a pitiful six races on the calendar for the 2014 season, and zero television coverage of the series, factory teams, including Honda, bailed. Sponsorship dollars dwindled. The fan base shriveled.
Mamola, a former MotoGP rider who came u through AMA racing, is far from the only one to pin blame on DMG. “The championship…got run tino the ground,” he says. “Things were not supported properly, and now manufacturers are standoffish.”
There may yet be a cause for hope. Over the past two years, under the leadership of three-time world champion, Rainey, along with partners Chuck Aksland, Terry Karges and Richard Varner, MotoAmerica—the new organizer of the AMA Superbike Championship—has risen to the task of supporting high-level motorcycle racing in the United States. With the help of American MotoGP veterans, MotoAmerica plans to rebuild the image of racing, fostering the next wave of American racers and team and now reintroducing the public to how exciting the sport can be.
By bringing rules and regulations close to those of MotoGP, the series has already begun restoring the ladder Americans once climbed to the world’s top series. But it will tae time for momentum to build. “I’d hope to see the manufacturers coming (back) in,” says Mamola. “We understand the politics, the industry, marketing, expense of the series—we need to show the manufacturers that it’s well worth it to get involved. We know what racing costs. We’re trying to start it at a level where we can keep building it and we can find that sponsorship again and be able to put this thing together.”
If getting the U.S. back onto the MotoGP grid is one of MotoAmerica’s priorities, then the weekend at COTA was a baby step in that direction. During MotoGp’s sole stopover in the U.S. (the Indianapolis race was canceled after 2015), the Austin circuit also played host to MotoAmerica Supersport and Superbike races. It was the perfect chance for fans to see how good motorcycle racing on the American stage already is—and how good racing on the world stage can be.
Could AMA Superbike contenders like Cameron Beaubier and Josh Herrin someday do battles with the MotoGP maestros? Anything is possible, even if it takes awhile for the next Nicky Hayden to emerge. For now, know the drama, excitement and adrenaline you’ve been missing in top-level racing is here—it just so happens to ride on two wheels rather than four. All that’s missing is your butt in the seat on raceday.
This story was originally published in the July 25, 2016 issue of Autoweek.