Backmarker: Resolution for AMA Pro Racing

January 2, 2014
Mark Gardiner
Mark Gardiner
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In 2001, Mark Gardiner gave up his career in advertising, and moved to the Isle of Man to live out his childhood dream of racing in the TT. After returning to the U.S., he wrote a memoir of that experience, Riding Man, which is now in development as a feature film. His column, Backmarker, looks at everything from the motorcycle industry as a whole to intensely personal 'inside stories.'

A New Year’s Resolution for AMA Pro Racing

AMA Pro National Guard SuperBike racing heads to Laguna Seca this weekend for the season finale.
Does AMA Pro Racing need to be ‘saved’ at all?

A couple of days ago, millions of Americans made New Year’s resolutions. Yesterday, most of those resolutions were broken, which goes to show you that peoples’ resolve is pretty flimsy.

Over the course of this column, I’ll suggest a New Year’s Resolution for AMA Pro Racing, though I frankly doubt they’ll have the resolve or strategic insight to carry it out. I’m sure that, down in Daytona, they’ll roll their eyes. But I honestly think that my suggestion is the only thing that will really save AMA Pro Racing.

What am I getting at? Why do I think AMA Pro Racing needs to be ‘saved’ at all?

First, let me say that I’m excepting Supercross from the whole ‘needs saving’ discussion. I don’t know enough about SX (or MX) to criticize it, but as an outsider looking in, I think Feld Motorsports does a good job promoting the series.

That said, Supercross was created to be an exception; it intentionally blended ‘show’ with ‘sport’ in a way that has, if anything, become even more culturally relevant since Mike Goodwin bombastically laid claim to the first “Superbowl of Motocross”, which he staged in the L.A. Coliseum in 1972.

Since then, Supercross and its athletes have shoved their way onto the sidelines of American sports fans’ awareness. So, from Backmarker’s perspective, they’re doing OK.

This column’s about Road Racing and Flat Track. In those disciplines, we’ve seen better racing (on asphalt) and a more diverse mix of brands (on Half-Mile and Mile dirt tracks).

That’s good news. And the Flat Track championship’s again got a solid presence in the vital California market, too.


Now  the Europeans train like Americans  and Americans train like Europeans.
Bubba Shobert was the last rider to win the AMAs #1 plate by scoring points on asphalt and dirt.
(Above) Now, the European racers train like Americans, and Americans train like Europeans. (Below) Bubba Shobert was the last rider to win the AMA’s #1 plate by scoring points on asphalt and dirt.

The current version of the Grand National Championship operates more like a glorious, historic amateur championship than a truly professional one. Brad Baker, the reigning champ, will ride a KTM 450 on short track and TT courses; his sponsor’s not KTM, it’s a dealer.

Let that sink in for a moment: the #1 plate holder in America’s most storied motorcycle championship is sponsored by a dealer. Not a manufacturer.

On the Road Racing side, just before Christmas AMA Pro Racing sent out information about logos and graphics that seemed to imply that GEICO has reneged on its supposedly multi-year sponsorship deal. As of right now, there are only a handful of races with confirmed dates. Both AMA Pro Road Racing and Flat Track need a shot in the arm.

Long ago, the AMA championship was the breeding ground of World Champions like Wayne Rainey, Kevin Schwantz and Nicky Hayden, or Roberts, Spencer and Lawson before them.

Today however, “Where’s the next American champion?” is a frequent topic of conversation amongst American MotoGP fans. People are frustrated that Spain’s produced not just Marc Marquez but Pol Espargaro and Maverick Viñales, too. After a while, complaining about a pro-Spanish bias at Dorna starts to sound like sour grapes.

Ironically one reason those Spaniards are so dominant is that now they train like Americans, on flat tracks. But since the AMA split the road racing and flat track series in 1985, young American road racers have grown up on asphalt. It seems to me that when I read about American road racers training on dirt these days, it’s usually in the context of someone breaking a collarbone or dislocating a shoulder on their motocross bike.

It wasn’t always so. For decades, the AMA Grand National Championship included road courses, as well as Mile, Half-Mile, short track and TT-style dirt tracks. To win the AMA’s #1 plate, you didn’t just cross-train on dirt, you raced on it—and to have a realistic chance at the championship, you had to win on it.

When Kenny Roberts arrived in Europe in the late ‘70s to compete in the World Championship, it was at a moment when 500cc two-stroke GP motors were too powerful for the available tires, suspension, and chassis technology—or for most European riders.

Roberts brought his American, dirt track-influenced sliding style along with a hard-nosed, sharp-elbowed short-tracker’s instincts. He became the first American to win the World Championship, and more importantly ushered in an era of American domination that—you can be sure—made the Europeans grumble about Americans the way we now grumble about Marquez, Espargaro and Viñales.

Not only that, when Roberts, Spencer and Lawson dominated the World Championship, they reflected glory back on the AMA’s domestic championship too.

After a waiting six weeks to race the riders are anxious to race the Lima Half-Mile.
The AMA Pro Sacramento Mile is to feature the premium access live streaming video.
Kawasaki rider Bryan Smith rode to a dominant victory in the Indy Mile in front of a big crowd for the 2013 AMA Pro Flat Track event provided by J P Cycles.
Josh Herrin  2  and his teammate Josh Hayes  1  go head-to-head in SuperBike Race 1 at Miller.

Until 1985, to have a decent chance at winning the Grand National Championship, a rider had to score points on all types of tracks, riding several different machines. I think that after 30 years, it’s time to reunify the GNC.

All of which leads me to A New Year’s Resolution for AMA Pro Racing: Reunify the Grand National Championship. Merge the Superbike series with an edited GNC Flat Track schedule. Make the AMA’s number one plate mean what it used to mean: this guy is the best all-round racer in the country; probably the world.

I realize that it will take a couple or three years to sort out schedules and rules. But get on it. I think that by 2016, we could again award a unified Grand National Championship to the rider who accumulated the most points on road courses and flat tracks.

This could sound like an old man’s pie-in-the-sky fantasy, but hear me out.

Like it or not, we are seeing increasingly restrictive rules and a continued simplification of the machines in the Superbike class. It’s going to be a lot easier to field a competitive machine. And, there’s a far more diverse mix of machines running at the front in flat track. It’s not an all-Harley preserve any more.

A reunified Grand National Championship with 12-16 Nationals, roughly evenly divided between road courses and flat tracks would consolidate promoters’ efforts and fan interest at the best tracks in the strongest markets. It would also give AMA Pro Racing a marketing hook again.

The Olympics are coming up again. Once every few years, Americans pay attention to international sports—especially if an American can be counted on to win—but America’s dominant sport, football, is played here and only here. In fact, the word ‘football’ means something totally different in the rest of the world. My point is that Americans prefer distinctly American sports, and the most distinctly American motorcycle championship was killed when the AMA split the road racing and flat track championships. It’s time to bring it back to life; it’s time to reunify the Grand National Championship.

A lot of the people reading this, especially down at Daytona Motorsports Group, are going to have all kinds of reasons why a reunified GNC can’t work in the present day. Most of their objections will probably hinge on potential sponsor conflicts as riders would need to find competitive bikes for each type of track.

I disagree: there are hardly any real ‘factory’ teams left in either series, so I don’t care whether factories would resent riders using different brands on different types of tracks. (As it is right now, if Brad Baker repeats as Flat Track champion in 2014, both Harley and KTM will celebrate. What difference would it make if he also raced, say, a Suzuki on road courses?)

And, my final rebuttal to skeptics is simply this: What AMA Pro Racing is doing right now doesn’t work in terms of promotion, PR, media exposure, fan interest, or return on sponsorship investment. And it doesn’t seem to be grooming Americans for the world stage.

When something’s already broken, there’s no risk in attempting a radical fix.

Happy New Year!


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