Backmarker: Rainey’s MotoAmerica

September 4, 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.'

Wayne Rainey visits the Yamaha Motor Racing Headquarters near Misano Italy
An all-new racing series called MotoAmerica marks the end of the DMG/AMA Road Racing era. Now the course of professional road racing in the U.S. will be charted by the KRAVE Group – the most prominent member of which is former AMA and GP champion Wayne Rainey.

At the Indy MotoGP round, Dorna chief Carmelo Ezpeleta announced plans to develop American MotoGP riders, suggesting that the program would be managed by ex-500GP star Wayne Rainey. Although few additional details have emerged about the specific Americans-to-Europe plan that Ezpeleta mentioned, just yesterday the AMA made the announcement of the decade: the DMG/AMA Pro Road Racing era is over – as of the final race, in New Jersey, next weekend.

So the FIM did make the end-run around AMA Pro Racing that has been rumored for the last few months. The press release cryptically states that the AMA has “re-acquired” the road racing rights that had been transferred to DMG. It’s not clear whether the AMA bought them back, or whether there was some performance provision in the original contract that allowed the AMA to simply take them back.

In any case, according to the AMA, an all-new pro championship called MotoAmerica will be promoted by a new company called KRAVE Group. The company’s name is made of the initials of the principals.
• Terry Karges, ex-Roush Performance, Petersen Museum
• Wayne Rainey, no introduction needed.
• Chuck Aksland, ex-manager of Team Roberts, ex-VP of Circuit of the Americas
• Richard Varner, a businessman and investor with a passion for bikes

Two weeks ago, I suggested a talent identification program that had, as a goal, encouraging participation in a national (or continental) Novice’s Cup. The second part of my program is developing the talent we identify. That’s the topic of this edition of Backmarker. Until the last minute, I thought I had to offer an either/or scenario, with suggestions for a new series, and suggestions for a radical restructuring of AMA Pro Racing.

Now that AMA Pro Road Racing’s kaput, the situation’s a little clearer. But a close reading of the one press release issued so far makes it clear that KRAVE’s first goal is to, essentially, rescue the American championship – even though it’s going to be rebranded as an FIM regional series.

KRAVE is a commercial operation, and its primary goal is to create a commercially viable American road racing series. It’s not in business to export the top American riders to the World Championship. Nonetheless, Wayne Rainey apparently has said, “The structure of our agreement with the AMA serves the goal of developing riders to be successful on the world stage. It allows a framework that supports advancement from youth competition to novice, from novice to Pro-Am, from Pro-Am to National Championship contention and, for the best of the best, an opportunity to race for a world title.”

So, what should KRAVE do, if it plans to develop riders who can succeed on the world stage?

The CEV Moto3 class appeared at one race in France this year. All CEV classes also race over seven weekends in Spain and Portugal. Most of those weekends are doubleheaders for most classes.

These days, MotoGP team managers are convinced that riders developed in Moto3 and Moto2 make the best candidates for MotoGP. I’m not a Moto3-2-GP snob; I think riders like Leon Camier have shown that Superbike racing’s still a viable stepping stone. But premier-class grids are small, and will stay small for the foreseeable future, so the powers-that-be don’t need to beat the bushes in the search for riders. The handful of MotoGP rides available each year can easily be filled by the top Moto2 riders.

Right now – and again, I’m not describing what I think’s best, I’m describing the situation we’re in – the Spanish CEV championship has become the de facto feeder series into the World Championship. The CEV has Moto3, Moto2 and Superbike (nominal) classes, but the ‘premiere’ class is really Moto3 – the smallest bikes – because riders who prove themselves in CEV Moto3 move on to the World Championship.

In Spain, Moto3 is the class where riders develop into World Championship riders. Moto2 is the class where teams and technicians hone their game. Spanish ‘Superbikes’ are actually more like Superstocks; it’s a class for manufacturers to “win on Sunday, sell on Monday”.

Let’s learn from that arrangement, and make it work in an American context.

Finding and developing talented U.S. riders who have the right background of skill and experience is a key. For that, we need a domestic Moto3 class that can feed our most talented riders into the CEV or directly into the World Championship. But over the long haul it will be easier for U.S. riders to get good World Championship rides if there are American teams sponsored by American companies, too. So a strategic program will develop riders, teams & techs and sponsors.

Here’s the class structure we need in MotoAmerica:
Novice’s Cup

By ‘Superbike’, I mean a class with the current displacement limits, but much tighter rules. As far as I’m concerned, it could almost be a production class. (Anyone who doesn’t think a bone-stock literbike isn’t ‘super’ hasn’t ridden one lately.)

There are hurdles, of course. For starters, someone’s gotta make dozens of Moto3 and Moto2 machines that, today, don’t exist. And here in the U.S., manufacturers have long been expected to foot a lot of racing bills. All the Moto2 engines are supplied by one company (Honda) and I have no way of knowing whether Honda can (or wants) to supply a hundred more.

Marc Marquez has made flat trackin’ cool again, in Europe. A comprehensive American MotoGP strategy should leverage U.S. strength in its traditional racing discipline.

I think we could get around that by allowing other manufacturers to supply motors (sealed units, built to strictly defined power and weight specs, with spec ECU.) Allowing other motors but running to otherwise-standardized Moto2 rules might even keep the major manufacturers involved as sponsors.

Neither the CEV nor the FIM’s Asia series have very many race weekends per year. Seven or eight races across North America would be enough to let the best riders show their potential, while keeping things reasonably affordable for teams.

If what we’re talking about is an all-new class structure, we can just translate the CEV rule book, as far as I’m concerned. If we’re talking about revising the current AMA Pro Racing teams and class structure, then we can drop Supersport and insert Moto3, and tell teams that they can race their Daytona Sport Bikes in a new Moto2 class for a couple of transitional years.

As soon as the level justifies it, I’d like to see the top two American Moto3 riders, and the top two American Moto2 teams as automatic wild cards in U.S. MotoGP rounds. The rest of the riders and teams in the regional series have to know what they’re up against.

The net effect of either arrangement will be a MotoAmerica Novice’s Cup-to-Moto3-to-Europe development path for the most promising young riders. Meanwhile, there will be a development path for U.S.-based Moto2 teams, too. As I’ve noted previously, it’s not enough to produce fast young American kids, in what amounts to a buyer’s market for talent. We need American teams and sponsors at the World Championship level; teams that will naturally prefer American riders, in the way sponsors like Repsol or Movistar will – all else being equal – naturally prefer European riders.

Two weeks ago, OMRRA’s Chris Page told me that the perfect bike for a regional feeder class would be the KTM RC390. It’s already the basis of a spec class in the IDM series, which is a German-based regional series in Northern Europe. As if on cue, we got word a few days ago that KTM would be bringing the street version to the U.S. in 2015.

All of the last column and this one so far, has been a preamble to this final piece of advice for KRAVE: The absence of U.S. riders at the sharp end in MotoGP is not a technical problem, it’s an organizational problem. If your “plan to get more American riders into MotoGP” is really just a plan to channel a handful of promising Americans – kids who are already fast – into existing European teams, it probably won’t work particularly well, at least not for long.

2015 KTM RC390 First Ride
The KTM RC390 as a platform for a Novice Cup? There is a European precedent, and KTM has confirmed the 390 will make it to U.S. shore’s as a 2015 model. MotoUSA was impressed with its first take on the 390 too. Read more in the 2015 KTM RC390 First Ride.

The last time there was a serious influx of American talent into the World Championship, it came out of flat track, which was a special case. But, it came out of the U.S. flat track racing scene in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. Back then, the Camel Pro series was vibrant, well-sponsored, drew from a really strong participation base. Back then, national novices raced 250s, and even amateurs could afford to build a bike fast enough to show off talent (if they had it!)

In the 1980s, the 500GP class was a seller’s market for talent. There was a lot of money in the sport (much of it coming from U.S.-owned tobacco companies.) Winning was valuable to sponsors, but the friggin’ bikes were almost unrideable.

That’s not the case now; it’s a buyer’s market for talent. That’s why we need a system to develop American teams and technicians. American teams will help cultivate American sponsors. Get a few big U.S. companies involved, and I guarantee you that you’ll see a few more U.S. riders at the top level.