The Future of AMA Road Racing: Is There One?

May 3, 2011
Steve Atlas
Steve Atlas
Contributing Editor |Articles |Articles RSS

Professional-grade speed and an attitude to match, Steve Atlas is the new blood at MotoUSA. Atlas has AMA racing creds that are even more extensive than his driving record.

Cresting the hill over Turn 6  this was one of the areas that gave me trouble early in the weekend as the bikes immense power would spin the tire excessively coming down the hill.
MotoUSA editor Steve Atlas understands first-hand what it’s like to compete in the new AMA Superbike series having tackled the ’10 Laguna Seca round of the AMA Pro National Guard American SuperBike class on board a Yoshimura-prepped Suzuki GSX-R1000.

What’s to come for AMA Pro Road Racing under the DMG regime now that we are entering its junior year? This is the question on many people’s mind as the boys from NASCAR begin their third year at the helm. With the series’ schedule shrinking year by year and fan attendance dwindling at every round, is there a future? Sure there is, as long as we can get a little help from our friends.

With a significant piece of its current business model based on making money by charging riders and teams as much as humanly possible for credentials, it will be difficult to continue with the perpetually shrinking grids we are seeing these days. Not to mention, last I checked it was the riders who make the show happen, so how the DMG thinks charging them and their teams an arm and a leg to just get into the paddock is questionable.

Secondly, when was the last time you rolled into a city hosting an upcoming AMA race and heard a single radio plug, saw a billboard or watched a TV commercial promoting the event? And they wonder why no one comes out to the races; they don’t even know they exist. This was where the all-mighty power that is DMG and its NASCAR-building genius were supposed to help us put road racing back on the map in the United States. We need the power of promotion and we understand these are trying times but World Superbike, British Superbike and MotoGP haven’t let off the gas, so let’s put the pedal to the metal and get some exposure for our series. This is a concept that I feel needs to be addressed sooner rather than later.

2011 Daytona 200 podium  from left to right : Jake Zemke  Jason DiSalvo and Cory West.
A unique set of events unfolded at the 2011 Daytona 200 leaving Ducati rider Jason DiSalvo to win the prestigious race. This result has been met with its share of controversy.

All I’ve seen so far are some almost embarrassing “work and play” TV commercials (you know the ones I’m talking about), run solely during Speed TV’s broadcasts of the actual races, which are so amateur that they make the short films produced in my high school film class look like Oscar-worthy material. Really guys? You can make NASCAR commercials that have us salivating at the thought of watching cars go round and round in circles and this is all you got when it comes to motorcycle road racing? I could go on until I’m blue in the face here, but I think you get my point. Bring on the media blitz already guys!

They also need to bring back some of the visually trick parts to the Superbikes. This is the nation’s premiere class and it might be a cheap way to improve the look of the bikes if we open-up rules regarding the fork and swingarm. A few pieces of hand-crafted aluminum and quick-release axles would give bikes a more-trick appearance, maybe toss in an Ohlins fork here and there too. Nothing more, nothing less. This would keep costs down, as they are a drop in the bucket compared to what a team spends on traction control systems, etc, and would give the outward appearance to fans that the bikes are on par with their World Superbike counterparts. The racing would remain just as close, but at least fans could swoon over the look of these machines once again. In fact, most of the top bikes currently run gas-charged internals in the stock outer fork legs, a set-up that costs nearly the same as a full Ohlins or WP front end anyhow. The additional cost would be far less than bringing a data guy to the track for a single weekend to control the advanced electronics.

Jake Zemke - 2011 Daytona 200
With race-winners like Steve Rapp, Bobby Fong and Jamie Hacking sitting on the sidelines or riding obscure machines in strange classes you have to wonder what is going on here.

That brings up another good point. I think an outside-sourced ECU would be a great way to eliminate some of the tire-spin-robbing gizmos and dramatically reduce costs. Who doesn’t miss the days of smoking rear Dunlop slicks and riders required to learn tire management skills? Someone like Formula 1 constructor McLaren would be perfect, as they could make a unit that allowed several data and tuning parameters while also eliminating traction control, and could easily do this for all the bikes on the grid. I know this has been discussed on the MotoGP level as they go back to 1000cc machines and it’s an idea I support 100%. Maybe it’s time for the AMA to be a leader rather than a follower and give this idea a try first? What’s the worst that could happen, it might actually work?

An almost complete lack of outside the industry sponsorship with the exception of Jordan and the national Guard team, as well as dwindling money from within our own industry, there are just far too many talented riders left without a viable way to make a decent living riding a motorcycle. With race-winning guys like Steve Rapp and, for that matter, Jamie Hacking are either sitting on the sidelines or riding obscure machines in strange classes just to stay active. There’s so few factory and factory-supported rides that are paying any money that it’s turning into a buy-your-ride environment. We need some help…

DMG has shown signs of life this past year though. If not for the current Speed TV deal that DMG reputedly strong-armed their way into by threatening to pull NASCAR broadcasting, AMA Pro Racing would officially be nothing more than glorified club racing and no one would be making a penny. That shows us DMG has the moxy when they want to use it. Hmm, using NASCAR as a bargaining chip to promote road racing? What a concept! Maybe now it’s time to flex those guns and get some real money and new people involved in the series. Those funky commercials hint at cross-promotion but we need to dive in head first and really push this thing over the top. No one can deny the sheer awesomeness that is top-level road racing, they just need to get the right people out to see it and the money will follow. Maybe increase the cross-promotions at NASCAR events? I’m willing to bet a few of those fans ride motorcycles too.

Yoshimura Suzuki rider Mat Mladin claimed his 64th career victory in the AMA Superbike final at Daytona.
Yoshimura Suzuki rider Mat Mladin claimed his 64th career victory in the AMA Superbike final at Daytona 2008.

Maybe we need some more personality in the mix? There have been several rumors floating around that 7-time series champion Mat Mladin is seriously thinking about making a return for 2012 – Henny Ray Abrams commented on this in detail in the latest online issue of Cycle News. Whether true or not, if you are reading this Mat, please come back. The sport needs a character like you, a personality that isn’t afraid to speak their mind and ruffle a few feathers. Blake Young has taken up the mantra somewhat, but there is still no one commanding the same level of respect that Mladin does. Taking three years off hasn’t proved well for Michael Schumacher in Formula 1, not yet at least, but then again he didn’t leave the sport while standing a top the podium with a No. 1 plate in his hand. C’mon back Mat, the sport could use you!
Despite all that is wrong with the series right now, it does have a few important things going for it. After implementing rules that very few agreed with during its early days, like a spec-tire and multi-bike configurations in DSB the end result has been some of the best racing the series has seen in the past decade. That is especially true in the Daytona Sportbike ranks. Add to that a feeder class for youngsters in the Supersport Series and now there actually seems to be a viable route into AMA Pro Racing for new riders. If only this existed when I was spending all my family’s money to race against the likes of reigning Superbike champion Josh Hayes back in the days of 750cc Superstock. Back then they then called it a “feeder” class despite the top 10-15 guys on the grid receiving healthy paychecks. What a concept, right? And with a growing group of hungry youngsters giving it their all to attract the attention of the few big teams left these days, the racing tends to be action-packed from start to finish.

Also, from a rider’s standpoint the trackside staff DMG has put in place are doing a great job at turning the internal working of race direction around – in fact, it’s a complete 180 from what it was only a few years go. Everything runs relatively smooth and they actually listen to what the riders have to say. Staggering concept, right? Despite the questionable decision to allow a team to run two engines in a single race (i.e. this year’s Daytona 200) still remains up for debate, the mood from riders has been almost entirely positive and that is a step in the right direction.

Start of the second SuperSport contest at Daytona
Who doesn’t miss the days of smoking rear Dunlop slicks and riders required to learn tire management skills?

The bottom line is this: It’s time for DMG to start making good on those big promises made when initially purchasing AMA Pro Racing. They need to figure out how to get people to come to the track and seriously boost the TV viewing audience. This hinges 100% around their ability to promote the sport. We sked for competitive racing and they gave it to us. They have the solid base for a good show these days, we just need to get it in front of the racing enthusiasts. DMG has turned NASCAR into the single biggest racing series in the United States, so what’s holding them back from doing even a fraction of that for road racing? I honestly have no idea, but let’s hope they figure it out sooner rather than later. We have to expect that the powers that be at NASCAR are in the game of racing to make money. If that doesn’t happen rather quickly here in AMA Pro Racing they will surely cut their losses, at which time our beloved series may be in a world of hurt…