A few days ago, I started seeing posts online that claimed John Ulrich’s ‘Triple Crown’ was a done deal. Ulrich is the publisher of Roadracing World magazine, and owns the most established privateer team in the national SuperBike series. He’s thus well-connected in American road racing, and tenacious as hell so I wasn’t surprised to read that he’d succeeded in pulling together a race series on short notice.
Strangely however, there was no immediate confirmation of the new series on Ulrich’s own RoadracingWorld.com web site. Rather than speculate on rumors—I’ll do some of that later—I thought I should talk with Ulrich himself. Here’s what I learned…
Monster Energy Graves Yamaha has indicated it will participate in John Ulrich’s yet-to-be-named west coast three-race series in 2014 with former SuperBike champ Josh Hayes
First off, it’s not going to be called ‘Triple Crown’. Ulrich made the mistake of using that name in an early post on his website, back in January when he first proposed the idea of fitting three high-profile western-U.S. races into the three-month gap in the existing AMA Pro Racing schedule.
Within a day or two someone, perhaps in a misguided attempt to help Ulrich out, registered the URL for ‘SuperbikeTripleCrown.com’ and set up a Facebook page of the same name. That looked like squatting to John, so he went back and elided references to ‘Triple Crown’ in his initial editorial, while pre-emptively registering several alternative series names.
“A rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet.” — Shakespeare
“So does combusted race fuel, and a very hot Dunlop tire.”— Gardiner
So the series won’t be called ‘Triple Crown’. The name will be finalized when there’s a title sponsor; hopefully soon. But it is, according to John, essentially a done deal.
The backstory here is that after a commercially underwhelming 2013 season, AMA Pro Racing announced only five races for 2014. A sixth is possibly TBA, but as it stands there will be no national championship events west of the Mississippi. Nor is there a television deal of any kind.
“I told them, that was not enough,” Ulrich said. I could hear his frustration over the phone. “I mean, if Michael Jordan can’t make that work, who can?”
The long gap in the schedule, the lack of races in the key California market, the absence of a TV contract; over the winter John could’ve just bitched like everyone else, but instead he set about creating a three-race series that filled the schedule gap, attracted top AMA teams to races in California and Utah, and even had a television package.
Miller Motorsports Park is one of three circuits expected to host the west-coast series races in 2014 organized by Ulrich.
As it stands, his series will piggyback a de-facto AMA SuperBike* class and a de-facto AMA Daytona SportBike* class onto three well-organized club races: An AFM race at Sonoma (aka Infineon), a Utah Sport Bike race at Miller, and a WERA race at California Speedway. Those are all tracks that have recently hosted AMA nationals; the Sonoma and Miller races are even on the ‘AMA weekends’. On Tuesday the contracts had been signed for Sonoma and Miller, and Ulrich was confident that the final race deal, and a TV deal, would be concluded in the coming days.
You might say that he seems to have pulled off, in a few months, something that AMA Pro Racing has failed to do. But he doesn’t think it’s that simple.
The races that make up this championship-to-be-named-later will run under current AMA Pro Racing rules, including some new-for-2014 rules (like the ‘one bike’ rule) that team owners don’t like. The rationale for this is, Ulrich wants teams that field a machine at Daytona to be able to take their bike, exactly as it is, and run it out west.
“There are some fast guys [out west] who don’t race with the AMA,” he told me. “You want Josh Hayes, Martin Cardenas, and Roger Hayden, guys like that, to be running at the sharp end.”
What he meant was, he wanted a level playing field so that AMA teams coming to his events wouldn’t be handicapped, compared to fast west coast riders who would not, otherwise, be limited in their tire selection. So, another critical part of the equation was getting Dunlop to agree to supply AMA-spec tires for everyone in those classes.
As of now, Monster Graves Yamaha and Yoshimura Suzuki have told him they’ll be at his races. I guess all the serious AMA teams will show up. That will also give some of those fast west coast guys who don’t race the national series a great opportunity to expose themselves, and see how they measure up. (Sorry, I didn’t mean for that to sound quite so phallic!)
“This is actually more like the British Superbike model,” Ulrich told me, as he described piggybacking a few high-profile races onto a weekend with many other classes; essentially making a pro-am weekend of it. That way, the small number of pro teams don’t have to underwrite the entire cost of the track, timing and scoring, corner workers, medical staff, etc.
Ulrich sounded really excited talking about it, although he admitted it was like taking on a third full-time job, in addition to his roles as a publisher and race team owner. He recalled that he got his first race license at an AFM new-rider school back in 1973, so co-promoting a race with the AFM was something of a homecoming for him.
A big club event, like an AFM race, already has a packed schedule, and it can’t have been easy for them to suddenly accommodate two new classes, not to mention finding paddock space for several additional semi-trucks. But apparently the clubs were enthusiastic about it from the start.
“Those guys are racers,” he said, about the AFM. “They know that we, as motorcycle racers, have to do something to rebuild our sport.”
John Ulrich has certainly embarked on just such a project. I couldn’t help but wonder what AMA Pro Racing feels about it. On the one hand, their series can’t really exist without professional teams, and if pro teams can’t exist without more races, more exposure in key markets, and TV, they should thank him. As a long-time AMA Pro Racing competitor, he’s careful not to position his series as a rival to AMA Pro’s own product.
In the coming days and weeks, we’ll learn more about this new complement to AMA Pro Racing’s national championship, including what it will be called and, hopefully, which company will step up as a title sponsor.
Speaking of BSB…
Mat Oxley, a well-known British ex-racer and motorcycle journalist, recently let drop a rumor that Jonathan Palmer, whose company, Motorsport Vision, operates BSB, along with tracks such as Brands Hatch, Oulton Park, Snetterton, and Cadwell Park was interested in acquiring the AMA Superbike series.
Oxley’s work frequently appears in Roadracing World, but John Ulrich was quick to distance himself from that story. Others, including many, many people posting comments online, basically wished the rumor was true.
I don’t know if AMA Pro Racing’s road racing series is up for sale. I do know this: While our actual racing has been entertaining lately, BSB is a vastly healthier series than AMA Superbikes.
I am not certain that British management would automatically ‘work’ here in the U.S.. That said, John Ulrich seems to have assembled—in less than three months—a three-race series that will probably be better than what the AMA offers (to teams and sponsors, especially.) That suggests that the AMA’s problems can’t all be put down to ‘the economy’ or ‘Americans just don’t get bike racing’, which are the excuses the AMA’s apologists usually trot out.
Jonathan Palmer won’t ask for my advice. That’s because I’m not really a motorcycle racing expert; I’m just an opinionated guy who somehow lucked into columns on Motorcycle-USA.com and in Classic Bike magazine. But I am an expert when it comes to marketing. So if he did ask me about buying up the U.S. Superbike championship, I’d say it isn’t worth much.
Why not just build an alternative championship? You’d start fresh, without baggage. (To be fair, DMG inherited a ton of frustration and pent up anger when they took over the AMA Pro Racing properties.)
It’s true: Formula USA once tried to usurp the AMA’s status as the national championship for professional racers and teams, and it failed. I believe that in the darkest days of the DMG takeover, in 2009-’10, other sanctioning bodies including the AFM** discussed promoting a rival national championship, but they thought the better of it.
So, taking on AMA Pro Racing is not something you’d do lightly. That said, John Ulrich has just proven that the top teams will race in non-AMA Pro Racing events. The privatized AMA Pro Racing operation has no real leverage over the top teams, racers, or sponsors. It’s not AMA Pro Racing that gets to decide what the real U.S. championship is. The real championship is whatever championship the teams, racers, fans and sponsors collectively decide is the most prestigious.
Someone, whether it’s John Ulrich, Jonathan Palmer or another entrepreneur, could use the model Ulrich just used to put together a 10-race series with a good TV package. “If you build it, they will come” is a cliche, but like most cliches it has a kernel of truth to it.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Some time soon, Ulrich’s series will be officially announced. It will get a name, and will stop being “the series formerly known as ‘the Triple Crown’”. The racing community will look very, very favorably on any major sponsor that steps up to help out, because we all sense that the fate of professional road racing is at stake here.
It will, in the short term, fill a gap for AMA Pro Racing racers & teams, sponsors & fans. Those stakeholders may or may not say, “John, this is great, put on more races.”
There will or won’t be truth to Oxley’s “the British are coming!” rumor. I’d say probably not.
AMA Pro Racing might even look at John Ulrich’s model, and realize that right now, the Superbike championship can’t get out of its own way. They might try operating John’s way, and get better results.
*That’s my interpretation, not Ulrich’s description.
**Few remember it now, but at one time the AFM, not the AMA, was the official FIM-recognized sanctioning body in the U.S.