Backmarker: Kenny Noyes

June 19, 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.'

Three races into a ten-race championship  its still too early to say that Kennys got it made in the shade. Still  its always nice to be winning.
Three races into a ten-race championship, it’s still too early to say that Kenny’s got it made in the shade. Still, it’s always nice to be winning.

An American in Barcelona: Kenny Noyes goes for an elusive CEV championship

The American motorcycle racing community spends a lot of time bemoaning the state of our domestic national championship, the lackluster performance of Americans in the World Championship, and the dearth of Americans who can reasonably expect to find Grand Prix rides in the foreseeable future.

By contrast, there have been numerous Grands Prix weekends lately in which the MotoGP, Moto2, and Moto3 winners were all Spaniard. I haven’t gone through the records in detail, but I think I’ve noticed weekends in which every step of every podium is occupied by a Spaniard. The organizers need to buy Spanish flags in bulk, and make sure to have a spare recording of the Spanish anthem.

It would be easy to decry that as evidence of Dorna’s favoritism. After all, the road racing World Championship’s commercial rights holder is a Spanish company, as are several of the biggest sponsors (i.e., Repsol). But the reign of Spain probably has more to do with the comparatively robust state of the Spanish CEV domestic championship—in spite of the fact that the Spanish economy is in far, far worse shape than our own.

‘CEV’ stands for ‘Campeonato Espagñol de Velocidad’. The series is actually increasingly international, with 2014 rounds in Portugal and France (at least for the Moto3 class). The CEV’s seen as ‘the’ feeder for MotoGP right now, and it’s getting more and more attention from international press, even as foreign writers pay less and less attention to AMA Pro Racing.

That’s why I found it ironic when, last weekend, an American won the Superbike class at the CEV’s MotorLand Aragón round. Not only that, the rider in second place was Robertino Pietro—who, though he’s a Venezuelan, has done most of his racing in the U.S.

Admittedly, Kenny’s lived much of his life in Spain. He’s married to Spanish woman (they own a cafe in Barcelona). Still, as far as racing goes, his roots are definitely here in the U.S. In fact, he never wanted to be a road racer at all. As the child of an ex-pat American racer and journalist based in Spain, he grew up not quite American, not quite Spanish. Then, his dad found a Little League baseball team at a U.S. Air Force base outside Madrid.

Kenny started playing baseball, and enjoyed the sense of American identity it gave him. Although he rode motorbikes in Spain from a young age, he didn’t aspire to race until he saw dirt track for the first time.

Kenny got a late start. He was still racing XR100s at Lodi Cycle Bowl at 18. (Sort of the opposite of growing up as a Red Bull Rookie.)

For a while, his family moved back to the U.S., and Kenny raced an XR100 in the hotly contested ‘Barn Burner’ series, and later at the Lodi Cycle Bowl—another crucible of U.S. flat track talent. This was in the mid-‘90s; he was a lanky 17 year old, racing against fast-as-$#!+ tweens like Toby Jorgensen with far more actual race experience.

Despite his late start, he got up to speed pretty quickly. He graduated straight from XR100s to a 600cc ‘framer’ in the F-USA dirt track championship (a short lived rival to the AMA’s series).

When he won the Pro Singles championship in his first year, he hoped to get a Twins ride, but the best offer came from Spain. He attracted the attention of BQR, a team racing in the CEV. (The team’s still around, and as Avintia BQR, has riders in both the CEV and World Championship.)

BQR had a two-year plan for Kenny, to develop his road racing skills on a 600. “At that point,” he told me, “the only road racing I’d ever done was, I had borrowed a bike and taken it to track day.”

He was old, at 22, to be in a junior development team, and it was another case of jumping into the deep end, amongst riders with far more experience. He never even dragged a knee until a pre-season test. “There was a lot of crashing,” he recalled. “It was a steep learning curve.”

In that first year he managed to finish in the middle, amongst about 40 riders in the class. It wasn’t bad, but he longed to return to American dirt tracks. He had a little breakthrough in the off season, when he tried supermoto. That was a kind of stepping stone between a style of racing where he was comfortable, and road racing, where he was still searching for his groove.

There were some highlights in his Moto2 World Championship career  including qualifying on pole at Le Mans in 2010.  The kid on the right is Nicolas Terol; Im not sure who the guy in the middle is.  Overall though  Kennys often had bad luck. Sponsorship and team downs have often followed on-track ups.
This air view of MotorLand Aragon shows the tell-tale short track of Kennys Noyes Camp. Its basically American Supercamp for Europeans; hes done a lot to popularize dirt track over there.
(Above) There were some highlights in his Moto2 World Championship career, including qualifying on pole at Le Mans in 2010. (The kid on the right is Nicolas Terol; I’m not sure who the guy in the middle is.) Overall though, Kenny’s often had bad luck. Sponsorship and team ‘downs’ have often followed on-track ‘ups’. (Below) This air view of MotorLand Aragon shows the tell-tale short track of Kenny’s “Noyes Camp”. It’s basically ‘American Supercamp’ for Europeans; he’s done a lot to popularize dirt track over there.

Another little break came when he switched to a 1000cc superstock for his next season of road racing. That class rewarded his squaring-it-off, point-and-shoot dirt track riding style. He also did some endurance racing, which helped two ways; it gave him extra seat time, and allowed him to ride bikes that other, more experienced, riders had set up.

In his third year, he dropped down to a feeder series, sponsored by Bancaja, where he found his feet. In that series, they used a control tire, and that helped him too. That allowed him to return to the CEV (and the Spanish endurance championship) for a couple of years on Yamaha R1s.

Fast-forward a little to 2007-’08 when he scored his first CEV win on a GSX-R1000. Things were finally starting to come good, and that attracted the attention of Kawasaki and Michelin, who put him on official ‘factory’ status in 2009. “That was my first really professional contract,” he told me, and he returned their faith with a win and several more podium finishes.

Kenny was right back on team owners’ radar then, and in 2010 he moved to the nascent Moto2 class in a team owned by Antonio Banderas. For a while, all the bikes were brand new. Before anyone had really figured out how to make them handle, they were loose and squirrelly, which favored Kenny’s flat track style. He finished 7th early in the season at Jerez, and put Banderas’ Harris-framed bike on pole at LeMans, although he crashed out of the race.

Then, his confidence was shaken when he went from pole to starting 22nd at Mugello.

So far, you can tell that Kenny’s career is a story of starting late, catching up, chasing guys with more experience (even if they’re younger). It’s a recipe for crash damage, and in the off season between 2010 and ’11, he needed shoulder surgery to alleviate a problem of recurring dislocations. (Ouch! Another reminder of what I like about writing, as opposed to riding, for a living)

“I was looking forward to the 2011 season; we were going to switch to Suter chassis. But I was in the hospital, and just woke up from surgery, when the team owner walked in and told me that sponsors had dropped out, and I didn’t have a program,” he recalled. That was, literally, a rude awakening.

All seemed lost until, out of the blue, Angus Borland (Fogi Racing) agreed to buy an FTR Moto2 bike. That put him back in the BQR team, at least nominally, but they were focused on Yonny Hernandez; Kenny and his bike were afterthoughts, and there were problems no one should have at the World Championship level.

Nevertheless, he put in a good showing when it mattered most, at the year-end tilt at Valencia. It looked as if he had a ride lined up for 2012 until—again!—sponsors vanished at the last minute. The team told him he could still ride, if he could bring 200,000 Euros in sponsorship and cover his travel.

Instead, he dropped back the CEV’s Moto2 series. He was teamed with George Vukmanovich, a very experienced crew chief, and they nearly won it all. But again it was up-and-down; in 2013 he never really gelled with a team that was also running Moto3 star Maverick Viñales.

“After three races,” he told me, “we just agreed to part ways.”

For the first time in years, he sat out a few race weekends, and it felt crappy.

Luckily, Suzuki’s official CEV Superbike team was having trouble, and they drafted him in. Although he’d put up some good results on Moto2 machinery, he realized as soon as he got back on a Superbike that that was where his real talent lay. He scored podium finishes in the last two races of the season.

With two wins in three races so far, Kenny Noyes leads the Superbike class in Spain’s CEV championship.

That got the attention of Kawasaki and Michelin, who remembered how fast he’d been back in 2009. Kawasaki hired him to race this season, and Michelin’s using him to test slicks, which is nice work when you can get it!

After getting knocked off in the first CEV race of the season, he won both races of last weekend’s double-header at MotorLand Aragon. So he’s currently leading the Superbike class by five points.

Phew, eh?

I first met Kenny a few years ago, at a Kawasaki launch in Qatar. He struck me as too nice a guy to be that fast, if you know what I mean. After that, I kept an eye on his results, and every time I thought he was going to finally come good, he had some setback—often sponsorship troubles that had nothing to do with riding. I’m hoping this is his season.

Despite a devastated Spanish economy, the CEV paddock is still bigger and more professional-looking than the AMA Pro Racing paddock right now. Many of the teams racing in the CEV also race in the World Championship, and even the top CEV-only teams arrive with ex-GP trucks and hospitality. Unlike other national championships, ‘Superbike’ isn’t the premiere series in the CEV. “It’s an upside down world,” Kenny laughed, “The top class is Moto3, because that’s where all the future MotoGP guys are coming up.”

Still, for the ten or so guys who are really competitive in the Superbike class, it’s a professional gig. The tire companies have money for riders, too, because it’s an open tire class and they want bragging rights in the bike-mad Spanish market.

“The money’s not as good as it used to be, in the AMA, back in the days of Mladin and the Bostroms,” he told me. “But I think it’s better over here, right now, than it is in the AMA.”

I can tell, talking to him, that he doesn’t really relish the thought of re-entering the Moto2 fray. He’s a Superbike guy at heart. He told me that he would go to the Superbike World Championship if he believed it was with a winning team. Failing that, though, he’d be happy to stay in Spain, race Superbikes for a living, and run his popular dirt track camp at MotorLand Aragon.

“I guess I could probably make more money doing something else,” he told me. “But to be a professional motorcycle racer… who wouldn’t want to do that?”

Right now, it seems there’s more opportunity to do that in Spain than here.