Backmarker: North American Novice Cup

August 21, 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.'

At Indy  Carmelo Ezpeleta told Bob Varsha  We are talking with relevant people here in the U.S.  and we have a plan to develop-this is something that must start at the beginning. Half an hour ago  we have some meetings to create several ideas-to develop American riders from the very beginning... We will work with many people in America  especially Wayne Rainey to try to develop new talents in America.
At Indy, Carmelo Ezpeleta told Bob Varsha, “We are talking with relevant people here in the U.S., and we have a plan to develop—this is something that must start at the beginning. Half an hour ago, we have some meetings to create several ideas—to develop American riders from the very beginning… We will work with many people in America, especially Wayne Rainey to try to develop new talents in America.”

Why we need a North American Novices’ Cup championship

When the MotoGP circus was at Indy, Carmelo Ezpeleta (the CEO of Dorna, which owns the World Championship’s commercial rights) was interviewed by Bob Varsha, on Fox Sports. Varsha mentioned that in 2015, there will be few Americans in MotoGP. In response, Ezpeleta said that Dorna’s working with people here, notably Wayne Rainey, on programs to bring more US riders into MotoGP. Ezpeleta admitted the obvious, which is that at the moment there’s a preponderance of Spaniards at the top level.

Hmm… A program to bring up more Americans. Some people heard that and linked Ezpeleta’s statement to rumors that Dorna would like to see an FIM-sanctioned regional or continental championship in North America, along the lines of the Spanish CEV championship or the FIM Asia Road Racing Championship.

I think I first read this rumor in Mat Oxley’s blog, months back. Whether it’s true or not, it got traction here in the US, where plenty of people feel that AMA Pro Racing’s road racing series is dying on the vine.

I’ve spent the last week or so mulling over MotoGP’s ‘American problem’. Over the next couple of Backmarker columns, I’ll suggest some solutions. I’ve given quite a bit of thought to a radically revised championship, whether it’s a new-look AMA Pro Racing series or an all-new FIM North American series. Before I suggest a new World-Championship-feeder structure in the next Backmarker, I want to address a make-or-break prerequisite in this column.

Before we need a system to move talented young riders into the World Championship, we need a system to identify talent. Such systems are in place in every mass-participation sport and, I’d argue, Spain’s got a de facto system in place right now, which is why Spanish riders are ascendant in the World Championship.

A little context: Now that Colin Edwards II has hung up his leathers, there’s exactly two Americans in the World Championship. An aging and injured (though personally admired) Nicky Hayden; and Josh Herrin, who arrived in Moto2 as the AMA Superbike champ but is having a truly dismal freshman year. Although I understand they’re both under contract for 2015, I would not be surprised if neither man was on the grid, come Qatar.

The absence of Americans generally – and the total absence of Americans on the podium – in the World Championship is a commercial problem for Dorna, which would like US MotoGP rounds to be more profitable and would love to attract more sponsorship from American companies.

The absence of American stars is shocking to US fans who came of age in the 1980s. There was a decade there, when promoters made sure they had three stars-n-stripes flags on hand, in case the whole podium was American, and they cued up Star Spangled Banner on the P.A. system while 500 GP races were gridding. It wasn’t a question of whether an American rider would win, just which American.

In the late ‘70s, 500cc Grand Prix motorcycles had become tire-spinning monsters. Team managers looked to Americans like Kenny Roberts, who’d grown up sliding flat track bikes, to tame the 500s. Americans deserved World Championship rides in the 1980s, but they don’t now. You can get mad at me for saying that, or you can read my next couple of columns and learn what needs to be done to put the U.S. back on top.

So it’s easy for American fans to have a sense of manifest destiny, when it comes to American champions, which is what Varsha was getting at when he asked Ezpeleta about the dearth of Americans at the top level now. But the truth is, that period of US dominance was the result of a unique set of circumstances.

In the late ’70s, 500cc two-stroke power outputs had radically outstripped chassis and tire developments. Traction control had yet to be invented. European riders who had come up through the ranks emulating smooth, economical, wheels-in-line riders like Agostini and Hailwood were ill-equipped to control the 500s, which wanted to spin the rear wheel everywhere.

American riders, meanwhile, developed in the Grand National Championship, which included dirt track races. They were comfortable spinning and sliding, and- it turned out – quite capable of steering a 500cc two-stroke with the throttle. Kenny Roberts was a revelation, winning in his first full season. Team managers were quick to look for more riders like him. Americans won the Championship in 13 of the next 15 seasons.

All things must pass.

After he retired as a rider, Roberts stayed in the World Championship as a team manager, and taught his dirt-track techniques to Europeans. (He even built a version of the famous Roberts Ranch training facility in Spain.) And, by the time four-stroke MotoGP bikes had replaced the 500s, electronic traction control had once again put a premium on classic, wheels-in-line style. Kenny Roberts Jr. won the title in 2000, and Hayden won in 2006, but the American era was over.

It’s easy to think, “Americans have won the championship way more often than Spaniards; there’s 315 million of us and 47 million of them, what gives?” There’s a tendency to chalk it up to Dorna, a Spanish company, favoring Spanish riders.

At the risk of becoming even less popular than I am now, however, I’ll tell you there is not a single American racer that really should be in the World Championship. I think there are some young guys racing here in the DSB and Superbike class who could move to Moto2 and develop, but no deserving Americans are being ignored in favor of Spanish locals.

Those numbers are deceiving. Sure there are six times as many Americans as Spaniards, but for starters, we actually need to compare the number of guys between 15 and 20 who weigh less than about 140 pounds. On that scale, 90% of Spaniards are eligible, vs. maybe half or a third of all Americans.

Right away, you’re looking at a ratio that’s dropped from 6:1 to more like 2:1. Now, you have to factor in the probability that a kid will be exposed to road racing, and think it would be a cool thing to try. When I went to Barcelona last January for the Superprestigio, I was impressed by the huge number of motorbikes and scooters on the road, and the mainstream media coverage of motorcycle racing. The net result is, there are way more potential racers in Spain than there are here.

Affordable, grassroots racing doesn’t mean “slow” or “uncompetitive”. Chris Page won the OMRRA Clubman championship on points scored on this slick-shod Ninja 250.

My guess is that Ezpeleta and Wayne Rainey are going to cook up something like the Red Bull Rookies Cup here in the US (again). They’ll try to find riders who have already shown lots of talent, and accelerate their development.

That’s misguided. They need to think of motorcycle racing as a pyramid, with the World Championship at the top, and the MotoGP class as the very top rock. The way to get more Americans up to the top is by broadening and strengthening the American base.

I’m philosophically opposed to the ‘Rookies Cup’ model for two reasons. The first reason is that it puts kids who are too young on bikes that are too fast. No 13 year-old can understand the risks involved. And the second is that I’ve interviewed lots of Rookies Cup parents and most of them invested well into six figures into their kids’ racing ‘careers’ just to get them to the tryouts.

Motorcycle racing is always going to be an expensive sport, but if the participation base is limited to kids from families rich enough to spend $100k+ (or who have parents stupid enough to refinance the family house) then the top of the pyramid won’t get high enough.

Here’s the secret of ensuring a future in which Americans again feature at the top level in international motorcycle racing: We need a Novices’ Cup now.

We need an affordable, entry-level road racing class with a consistent, enforceable set of rules at both the local club level, and at a national or regional championship. Such a class will let young riders show talent and develop racecraft. It’s not about who has the fastest bike; it doesn’t even matter what the bikes are, as long as they’re all the same.

My friend Chris Page is an engineer who works in R&D at Nike; he’s a smart guy who lives and breathes sports. He’s also a racer and executive with OMRRA (the Oregon Motorcycle Road Racing Association) in Portland. A few years ago, he set out to create a class that gave participants the most fun and challenging racing opportunity at the lowest cost. The result was the Ninja 250 Cup class, and while that’s probably not the right bike for my Novices’ Cup class, it’s the right model.

Before worrying about how to develop American road racing talent, we need a plan to identify it. I propose an interlocking program of local and national or regional ‘Novices’ Cup’ races. Here’s a shot from one of OMRRA’s Ninja 250 Cup races last year. You could build all of these bikes—and likely run them all season—for what it would cost to field one competitive DSB bike in AMA Pro Racing.

In my world, there would be a national- (or continental-level) Novices’ Cup championship consisting of 5-8 race meetings. It would be a spec class, for stock production bikes. In the FIM Asia championship, the bikes are Honda CBR250s. That would be fine, Kawasaki Ninja 300s would be good too. I don’t care what the bike is, as long as you can buy one brand-new for, like, six grand.

For it to work, though, we need all the major clubs; WMRRA, OMRRA, and the AFM on the west coast, the CMRA, WERA, LRRS… all of them, ideally, to run a matching class locally.

My goal is to create a situation where some kid can come out of schoolboy motocross, or some kid who’s short tracking an XR100 locally, or even just doing BMX; a kid like that can convince his dad to spend a few grand, and see if he’s got a talent for road racing.

That kid could race in his local Novices’ Cup class for a year; maybe do one or two nearby national Cup races. If he shows promise he can try the national series the next year, while using his local club races to stay sharp between big meetings.

The Novices’ Cup should not be age-limited. Kids will learn more if there are a few wily veterans in the class. (Although, at the national or regional level, I’d force the top three finishers to move up each season.)

The three traits of my talent-identification system are:
Affordability – it can’t cost more than, say, playing travel-league baseball or having a kid training as an elite gymnast.
A level playing field – the rules of this class have to ensure that it’s about the rider, not the machine.
Accessibility – Every major club-level series should have a local Novices’ Cup series with identical rules.

Two weeks from now, I’ll follow up with a column that focuses on making sure that the talent we uncover with the Novices’ Cup has a chance of being nurtured here in North America, and making a smooth transition into the World Championship.

In the next Backmarker I’ll look at the current structure of the successful CEV program, and of the FIM’s Asia regional championship, with the idea of pulling the best elements from those series and the existing American racing scene. But nothing we do to do develop talent will work until we have a system in place to identify talent… Hence, my Novices’ Cup proposal.