This Memorial Day weekend international racing paid a visit to the Miller Motorsports Park for Round 7 of the 2010 World Superbike championship. This is the third consecutive year the Utah circuit has hosted SBK and the governor himself rolled out the red carpet at the State Capitol. At a press conference Utah Governor Gary Herbert welcomed riders, fans and track officials to the Beehive State, noting that World Superbike is the largest international sporting event for Utah since the 2002 Winter Olympics.
Government and track officials made it clear they want the Memorial Day SBK round to be an annual Utah tradition, as the state actively courts motorsport tourism. Infront Motor Sports President Pablo Flammini expressed his belief that the World Superbike Championship would return to Miller for the foreseeable future, citing the track’s safety as well as top-notch facilities.
Utah Governor Gary Herbert at the press conference opening the Memorial Day SBK weekend at MMMP: ‘We want the world to know they are welcome in Utah.’
The festivities at the capitol finished, it was time for an outdoor rider autograph session and concert at the Gateway Mall, located nearby in Downtown Salt Lake City. Fans who braved the brief showers and menacing clouds were treated to easy access to the top riders in the Superbike paddock including Max Baiggi and championship contenders like Leon Haslam and Jonathan Rea. James Toseland was also a fan favorite, the English rider and two-time champ jumping on stage to show off his chops on the keyboard.
Out at Miller the schedule was a day delayed from the usual, with the races taking place on Monday. The action on the track proved an exciting mix of triumph and failure, with records broken and plenty of carnage as riders jockeyed for position in qualifying and on race day. Jakub Smrz was the standout in Saturday qualifying, but Carlos Checa stole the show in Superpole, breaking his standing record at the track – actually bettering it three times on the day. During Monday’s superbike doubleheader Checa was the man to beat, but his Althea Ducati failed in both races while the Spaniard enjoyed a comfortable lead. Instead Max Biaggi played hero, taking the double at Miller, as well as the championship points lead.
Daring it to rain, the umbrella girls are a highlight in any paddock and Miller SBK was no exception.
Off the track fans enjoyed plenty of activities, including a kart track, located within easy walk of the main grandstands. There were also stunt riding exhibitions by BMW’s stunter extraordinaire Chris Pfeiffer, always an entertaining showman. Fans could also get in line for a free turn on the Dodge Thrill Ride, the folks from Dodge featuring a drifting course.
The overall atmosphere was laid back and relaxed, with the low-key feel transferred to the paddock in general. Riders were able to stroll around without a lot of hoopla and fanfare. One particular moment caught our attention when strolling through the pits when we saw a fellow sporting an Aprilia jacket talking on the phone, his leg’s kicked up as he sat on a golf cart. People wandered by, but no one paid much attention as one of the Aprilia team member chatted away. It was Max Biaggi.
Carlos Checa, after a fantastic showing in Superpole breaking his own record the Spaniard was forced to retire from both races thanks to Ducati gremlins.
We doubt the Roman would be able to relax in such a way during the Monza round! Compared to, say, the USGP at Laguna, the riders at Miller were more accessible. While the major Superbike teams were screened off from the casual fan, open only during special pit walks, the World Supersport garages opened right out to the public and riders like Leon Camier, Troy Corser and Michel Fabrizio were often hanging around in the general pits, signing the occasional autograph and posing for pictures.
The average Utahn, like the average American in general, doesn’t exactly follow World Superbikes. Roadracing is still a niche sport in the U.S., though our impression of the casual onlookers’ response at the Miller SBK promotional events was curiosity followed by genuine interest. The racing got a lot of coverage in the local television media and press, with most of it explanatory, introducing the sport to the locals.
For example, the press conference announcing the event spent a lot of time explaining exactly what SBK was – how big a deal it is internationally. Even some of the stats presented at the press conference and media guide had us surprised – take for instance Infront’s 2009 television audience claims of “two billion television viewers enjoying more than 3500 broadcast hours ont 87 TV networks in 175 countries.”
The only American stop on the World Superbike schedule, for now, Miller Motorsports Park was praised by WSB boss Pablo Flammini for its safety and top-notch facilities.
Track and government officials seem to have realistic expectations of how the event will grow at Miller, with modest claimed of a 10% increase in ticket sales from the previous year. Infront Motor Sports, the owners and promoters of World Superbike, claim an attendance of 55,000 for the three-day Memorial Day weekend – the highest-ever for an MMP event since its 2006 inception. We spoke to riders who made the trek from Texas and Colorado and other locales throughout the Intermountain West. There were still plenty of empty seats in the grandstands, and spectator areas, but every year the numbers continue to grow and marketing the US round with Memorial Day weekend is a clear strategy.
While Utah may not seem like an intuitive location to place a major international road racing event, the state does have some serious motorsport heritage. Down the road 100 miles to the west of Miller, on I-80, are the Bonneville Salt Flats – the Mecca of Land Speed Racing. About 250 miles to the Southeast is Moab, a destination for off-road recreation for decades. Salt Lake City also lobbied hard for the return of Supercross to the city, with SX returning the past two seasons.
Former Governor Jon Huntsman, himself a long-time off-road rider, was in office when Miller first opened and actively promoted the policy of Utah as a motorsport destination, a policy carried over by Governor Herbert when Huntsman was tapped out by the Obama Administration as the U.S. Ambassador to China.
World Superbike will return to Miller through the 2013 season, so expect the event to continue to grow as the SBK racing weekend takes root in Utah.