Backmarker: MotoAmerica & Flat Track

October 9, 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.'

What does the big MotoAmerica announcement mean for flat track?

When Wayne Rainey and KRAVE announced they’d taken over professional road racing in the U.S., and that beginning in 2015 they’d be promoting ‘MotoAmerica’ – an FIM North American regional championship – I told my friends that even though we were only in the decade’s fourth year, we’d already had ‘the announcement of the decade’.

When I learned that DMG – aka AMA Pro Racing – was keeping the flat track championship, I was initially disappointed. Mainly, because I thought that if road racing and flat track were controlled by two different sanctioning bodies, my dream of a reunified Grand National Championship was truly dead.

But the more I think about it, the more I think there’s a chance that the split will be good for flat track, too.

When DMG took over AMA Pro Racing in 2008, the Superbike series was at its height; factory-backed road racing teams paid six figure salaries to good handful of riders. Meanwhile, pro flat track racing had been in a long slide since the ‘Camel Pro’ days in the ‘80s.

AMA Pro Racing has lost the road racing series. For better or for worse, that’s a great chance to reboot flat track.

As Flat Track team owner David Lloyd told me, “It was kind of a perfect storm for road racing, between Roger Edmonson [alienating road racing stakeholders] and the economy [going into recession]. But flat track was already at the bottom, it had nowhere to go but up.”

There were a few bumps and ruts along the way, but virtually everyone I talk to in the paddock feels that nowadays, the series is back at some great venues in good markets; on any given day there are several brands that might win; the racing’s tight and the show’s thrilling. It’s not on TV, but the coverage on Fan’s Choice is not bad. There’s room for improvement, which I’ll get to, but compared to a road racing championship with half a dozen rounds and no factory involvement at all from some of the once-dominant brands… there’s a real sense that while road racing tanked, flat track’s been headed in the right direction since DMG took over.

David Lloyd wasn’t sugar coating it when he told me, “We’re the cockroaches of motorcycle racing; we can survive anything. But Calistoga was a great event; there was incredible energy, and anyone who was there realized it. One of our challenges now is that the manufacturers have stopped paying attention to us; they’ve been told flat track is a dog for so long they’re not able to see it for what it is today.”

Lloyd’s cautiously optimistic about the implications of AMA Pro losing the road racing series. “Flat track was not the priority,” he said. “Now it is. The question is, ‘Are we going to have more manpower? Is that sustainable?’ If AMA Pro keeps the right people, and prioritizes flat track, I think it’s a positive.”

Mike (white t-shirt) and David Lloyd (on bike) made history in 2010 – They put Joe Kopp on this Ducati, and became the first non-Harley team to win a GNC Twins race in decades.

That’s about the same take that current series points leader Jared Mees has. He told me: “Flat track’s been down for my whole career. When road racing was at its peak, it was nice to say that we were part of the same organization. But in the last few years, road racing’s come down so far that we didn’t benefit from associating with them. And flat track’s been coming up. So [being AMA Pro’s priority] can’t hurt anything. If they take a couple of the people who’d been marketing road racing and move them to flat track, maybe it will help.”

Bryan Smith, the only guy with a real chance at unseating Mees in the championship, said: “My first thought, when I heard about Wayne taking over road racing, was Wayne’s an old flat tracker, why didn’t he do something for us? But maybe now, AMA Pro will really focus on flat track. Jim France was a flat tracker, and he loves flat track. Maybe [without the distraction of the road racing series] they’ll finally try to use some of their NASCAR connections. We’ve been making do with so little, for so long, that even a little push would have a big impact on us.”

The best hope for the Grand National Championship, right now, is that AMA Pro – freed from the massive distraction of the struggling Superbike series – will realize that what it has left is, in fact, the closest thing to NASCAR on two wheels. NASCAR itself has had a difficult time since 2008, but it’s still a big business with a huge base of fans and sponsorship that could be leveraged.

Even if DMG won’t/can’t leverage the NASCAR connection, France and his cronies created NASCAR from nothing; they know how to do it.

There’s another big factor that could come into play now: ego.

Spot the racer. Bryan Smith is both a rider and team owner/manager, so he sees the sport from a broad perspective. Like most of the people I talked to about this, he’s grateful for the sponsorship there is, but he knows that even a little more support will go a long way.

During the recession, while teams and sponsors were abandoning AMA Pro’s premiere property – the Superbike series – it was easy for the guys in Daytona to blame all their problems on “the economy”. But if Wayne Rainey and KRAVE manage to turn road racing around, DMG will look like a bunch of chumps.

The only way for them to redeem themselves, if Wayne succeeds, will be to make some big improvements to the GNC.

In fact, the best way to revitalize and market the GNC brand might not be with road racing, but in contradistinction to it. As an ad guy, the position I’d stake out for flat track is wrapped in the flag. Sure, road racing is huge in the rest of the world; so is soccer. But what would you rather watch, soccer or the NFL? Flat track is how Americans go motorcycle racing.

Will AMA Pro Racing actually get smart and adopt that strategy? I doubt it, but now that they aren’t trying to market road racing as well, at least that brand position is open them.

There seemed to be a few more blue AMA Pro Racing shirts milling around in Calistoga, and I think there were a few guys who normally work on the road racing side who had their eyes opened a little. There are rumors of an announcement at Pomona. But what kind of announcement?

Once he was a punk that got under the old guard’s skin, now he’s an elder statesman. Chris Carr’s often said that a good first step towards brand revitalization would be changing the official name of the sport from ‘flat track’ to ‘dirt track’. “‘Flat,’” he once told me, “is not a good word. Tires go flat, that’s bad; The economy’s flat, that’s bad. Why do we call our sport ‘flat’?” Backmarker’s take on it is that, a.) some of the tracks aren’t flat at all, and b.) we use ‘flat track’ and ‘dirt track’ interchangeably. It wouldn’t hurt to settle on ‘dirt track’.

When I talked to flat track insiders about the potential impact of big changes at AMA Pro, I asked them all to tell me one or two things that the series could announce, that would make them think, ‘OK, now we’re really moving in the right direction.’

Jared Mees, even though he’s a Harley rider, told me that he wanted to see more manufacturers really supporting flat track.

Bryan Smith thought that would be more likely if the brands competing on the track were direct competitors in the marketplace. Right now, Harley (obviously) still dominates flat track, but Kawasaki, Ducati, and Triumph have higher and higher profiles. The problem may be those brands aren’t really fighting over the same customers.

“Yamaha’s got a new motor that looks promising,” Smith said. “I think if Kawasaki and Yamaha were fighting it out neck-and-neck on the track, both brands might be more inclined to support the sport.”

Smith also wants to see one or two big series sponsors, who could help defray the costs for racers. The reality of flat track is that almost everyone’s a privateer, and they’re almost all racing more for love than money. But it’s called AMA Pro Racing; if it’s really to be professional, more money is needed – whether it’s travel money or a big points-fund carrot at the end of the season.

Dave Zanotti agreed. “I’m going to be there no matter what, because it’s just what I do. But the riders might not be there if they can’t make any money.” He’d also like to see AMA Pro Racing help the promoters market the races.

One of the keys to really raising flat track’s profile is going to be marketing the athletes as personalities, and telling their stories. That has to be AMA Pro’s job; it can’t be up to 16 different promoters.

That segues nicely into David Lloyd’s vision for the future of flat track. He’s been vocal all season, telling anyone who’ll listen that AMA Pro’s current business model – which is essentially selling sanctions to individual promoters – isn’t working. While the Grand National Championship is back and strong in several key markets, it’s still sanctioning some weak events, in minor markets, just because there happens to be a promoter somewhere who’ll pay sanctioning fees.

Lloyd would like to see a whole different model, more like the business model the Coombs family applies to the outdoor motocross series. One organization either promotes the races, or at least acts as a co-promoter at every event. The sanctioning body markets, promotes, and advertises the series. There’s a consistent promotion across all events.

“We’ve still got a collection of 16 independent promoters,” Lloyd told me. “There are people working hard at DMG to make things better, but we need somebody at the top with vision.”

If Wayne Rainey and KRAVE take road racing off in a successful new direction, DMG has two choices. It can keep stumbling along with flat track and look stupid, or – freed of that road racing distraction – it can bring a revitalized flat track sport back to the prominence it had in ‘80s, and save face.

The series finale, at Pomona, happens this weekend. Everything’s changed at AMA Pro Racing in the last month or two. If there was ever going to be a new vision for the future of flat track, this is the time to act on it.

No pressure, Daytona.