VIR Cancellation: What it Means for AMA Racing

July 19, 2011
By Ed Kuhlenkamp

Yamahas Josh Hayes took the best time in Fridays qualifying for American SuperBike. - Barber 2011
With the VIR round canceled riders are left with a gap in the schedule and one less race to make a move in the standings.

While some in the industry might be quick to point to greedy/lazy track owners as the cause of the recent road race cancellation, in my estimation, that assumption and accusation would be shortsighted and a disservice to motorcycle racing fans who deserve a better analysis of the problems currently facing American motorcycle road racing.

Unfortunately for American motorcycle road racing, the VIR round cancellation points towards a core issue, that the sport (in its current form) does not generate enough return/profit for the various parties (sponsors, tracks, teams, and riders) to warrant the effort or capital outlay. That is the bottom-line, hard, cold truth.

While track owners clearly have an interest in making a profit for the significant risk they assume in promoting a motorcycle race event, they are far from lazy or totally greedy. Unlike Wall Street bankers, track owners actually work pretty hard for their money and clearly have a passion for the motor sports their facilities support. Despite what some people might think, there are far easier and less expensive ways to make money other than running a race track.

Currently, the root problem for American motorcycle road racing is that despite sizeable marketing and promotion spent by tracks, fans are just not coming out to the races in enough numbers to underwrite the sport. Some might say it is the economy but other motorcycle racing sports like Supercross, Arenacross, GNCC and even Dirt Track have not been experiencing the same attendance problems within the same timeframe.

Kyle Wyman  #33   Chirs Fillmore  #55  and Joe Kopp  #3  were separated by just 0.088 seconds across the finish line.
Despite the success of the XR1200 class which features some great races, the support from the fans is minimal at best.

In what could be considered bizarre, American motorcycle road racing attendance has been in decline since 2008 despite the fact that the quality of the racing product has improved significantly. Essentially, we have a racing product that is possibly the best ever and yet the fans are not coming out to support it. Why?

Here is where it gets a little complicated. Clearly some of the trouble started with the media bashing aimed at the Daytona Sport Group (DMG) back in 2008, along with the industry infighting. During a time of serious upheaval in the motorcycle road race community, some in the motorcycle media took an inflammatory approach and went on an attack that hurt American road racing. To make matters worse DMG made a serious mistake in not countering the attacks and defending themselves with an aggressive public relations effort.

Much of the media coverage and accusations during the DMG takeover of AMA Pro Racing were highly passionate, opinionated, apocalyptic, and insulting to AMA racers. The venom flew and the readers were privy to a one-sided story that had some merits but failed to see the forest for the trees or any of the positive changes that were also taking place.

Fast forward to 2011 and we find that creating a race class that leveled the playing field and let riders truly compete created a race series that is considered by some to be more exciting than most of the top world motorcycle racing series. Today the Daytona SportBike class offers some of the best motorcycle road racing anywhere in the world. In addition, the Vance & Hines XR1200 racing has also proven to be very affordable and entertaining.

Turns out the lone holdout for whiz-bang technology, AMA SuperBike, has not really delivered the same level of great racing. However, AMA SuperBike does have the potential to deliver great racing if they also level the playing field and lower the costs to participate in the class. If these steps are taken AMA SuperBike racing may become the best motorcycle racing in the world.

Blake Young  #79  and Josh Hayes  #1  traded the lead multiple times with Young ultimately claiming victory.
AMA Superbike hasn’t quite delivered the goods compared to Daytona SportBike in particular. Sure the racing is closer but there are only 2-3 riders in serious contention to win.

So, is the AMA SuperBike class the reason why fans aren’t packing in to see the races? This is where things become more complicated, because creating great racing is only one piece of the overall puzzle required to develop a successful racing series. Much more goes into creating the buzz, energy and loyalty within the fan base to guarantee huge crowds. Listed below are some of the other challenges that American road racing faces as it looks to establish itself as a top motorsport in the minds of fans and secure a solid race calendar.

Lack of budget – AMA Pro Racing is not flush with cash and not able to spend tons of money to fix some of their problems quickly. While more money is not always the answer, it sure makes things easier when you have the funds to improve the marketing and hire outside help.

Weak Branding – AMA Pro Racing does not have the branding presence or branding knowledge to attract new fans. This is a big deal when you need huge sponsorships to make the series successful. It appears that more work is needed to properly describe and position the sport nationally in a way that might be appealing to fans that do not ride motorcycles.

Cost – Motorcycle road racing is not for the feint-of-heart, and unless more drastic changes are made to the format, it is too expensive without much reward for the rider and teams. Please note that these same issues are currently also being faced by other motorsports including both NASCAR and MotoGP.

Teams are not considered to be businesses – In other sports, teams are businesses that hopefully produce revenue, profit and increase in value over time. They have full-time employees, branding, fans and merchandising. Although a few AMA teams might be making some money, most AMA teams are big money losers.

Jake Zemke - 2011 Daytona 200
To the casual fan the AMA Pro Racing motorcycles don’t really stand out visually as state of the art racing machines.

The show – The AMA Pro Racing show for fans is slow, drawn out and spread out over large distances. With the exception of the XR1200 bikes, most of the sportbikes look very similar physically to the average spectator (the XR1200’s look different physically from the sport bikes, but they need some different paint jobs within the class). All the talk of timing differentials for qualifying and practice (which takes up a significant portion of the day) is boring and irrelevant to the average person. Let’s be honest, only engineers get excited about timing differences in the fractions of a second.

No real national strategic marketing partners – The tracks are spending money to promote the races on their own (perhaps there should be a collective pool?). In addition they are paying AMA Pro Racing a sliding-scale sanctioning fee based on attendance which should cover some national marketing. But the fact is that tracks alone can’t afford to, nor should they be required to, do the heavy lifting/national marketing for the series that a strategic marketing partner could do.

Lack of public relations – For as long as I can remember AMA Pro Racing has not taken advantage of the power of public relations. They are not effectively promoting the series using public relations or looking for creative ways to do it. These days our society listens to public relations more than advertising campaigns. With the power of NASCAR and the associated sponsors at their disposal, DMG might have access to some of the resources needed to spread the message that AMA Pro Road Racing is getting better. 

Not enough real selling being driven by the sport – The racing is not driving enough sales for the entities involved. In order for racing to succeed there has to be more selling going on and way more than just sportbikes or tires.

Ducatis Emerson Connor  #50  overcame his crash in Race 1 at Daytona to finish just off the podium in fourth on Saturday.
Almost all the pieces are in line for AMA Pro Road Racing to be a success. We just need it to get more exposure, have some more fans come out to watch and maybe a little positive press now and then wouldn’t hurt either.

So, to blame a cancelled road race on a greedy track owner or series director is missing the overall point and all the other factors that are contributing to the current weakness in American motorcycle road racing. While it might please some to have a bad guy (or lady) to hate, it really does nothing to solve the very real issues facing the sport.

On a positive note, all of the issues facing AMA Road Racing can be solved. We can find solutions if we accurately identify what is going wrong instead of finger pointing. The parties with the most at stake (AMA Pro Racing, tracks, teams, riders, sponsors) need to work together to formulate a plan to resolve the issues and communicate the plan effectively to the fans.

About the Author
Ed Kuhlenkamp is the founder and owner a number of companies in the motorcycle industry, including Pit Pass Radio, Adrenaline Konnections and Build-Momentum. He is an advisor to corporations on motorcycle and action sports sponsorship programs and offers strategic marketing consulting to companies looking to grow or preparing themselves for sale.

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