STM: Storm Clouds on the Horizon

November 7, 2014
Frank Melling
Frank Melling
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Our Memorable Motorcycles expert, Frank Melling also is the organizer of the British vintage motorcycle extravaganza known as Thundersprint. Melling began riding five decades ago and remains as much in love with motorcycles as when he drove his first bike into a cow shed wall aged ten. In the last 50 years, Melling has competed in every form of motorcycle sport and now declares himself to be too old to grow up and be sensible.

The Seeley had virtually not turned a wheel during the five years we had the G.50 but it still had one heck of a racing pedigree with a lot of success to its credit. Better still  we had owned the bike from new and so in every way it was our bike.
Our man Melling has motorcycles and motorcycle racing in his blood and can’t stop worrying about the future of the sport, which faces numerous problems in his estimation.

I want to begin this column with a statement of fact. Although I am so old that I kept a dinosaur for a pet in my bedroom – it was only a small, and largely omnivorous, one because I didn’t want to upset my Mum – I still remain a hardcore, motorcycle racing fan. In fact, at a time when my college friends are all pottering round garden centers and going on world cruises for the over 60s, I am on the phone harassing an equally ancient engine tuner to squeeze another couple of horsepower out of our 45-year-old Suzuki so that I can finish 12th rather than 14th. Clearly I am in need of sympathetic psychiatric treatment but this very fact qualifies me to make the following observation: I am worried about the future of motorcycle racing.

The problem is multi-faceted and no single concern is greater than any other. However, let’s begin at ground zero with the stark fact that there is a dearth of motorcycle riders.

At one time, if Carol and I went for a ride in the mountains on a nice Sunday, scarcely a mile would pass without seeing a bike coming in the opposite direction. Now, we can ride for half an hour and not see another motorcycle.

The root of this problem is the horrendous complexity, not to say difficulty, of getting a full motorcycle license in Europe. In all seriousness, it is far easier to earn a pilot’s license and fly a light aircraft. I have just obtained an international sailboat “driver’s” license in far less time, and at hugely less cost, than it would have taken me to obtain the same qualification for a bike.

The all-pervading view is that motorcycles are inherently dangerous and therefore everything possible should be done to discourage their use. Claes Tingvall, a Swedish road safety obsessive who is currently flavor of the month with European bureaucrats, devised the concept of Vision Zero – where no-one will ever get injured on European roads.

Tingvall said: “There is no room for motorcycles in Vision Zero. We must prevent the recruiting of new motorcyclists. In long-term thinking, I regret to say that motorcycles must go.”

You can stuff yourself stupid on high-fat food until you get diabetes, or ski off the side of a Swedish mountain and kill yourself because this is a rich person’s adrenaline thrill, but Tingvall won’t allow you to ride motorcycles because he thinks that they are the malevolent spawn of the devil and ridden by bad people, or at least mentally deranged sociopaths like me.

So, the number of motorcyclists available to watch motorcycle racing is falling daily.

With that fall comes a shift in the demographics. Stop at any bikers’ meeting place and it’s becoming increasingly like an away day trip for Senior Citizens. This is fine for today. All the wrinklies can afford Alpinestars leathers, Arai helmets and an expensive bike kitted out with every toy in the catalog. So, the sales figures look fine for today. It is five years from now which worries me.

A further factor is that what constitutes a motorcyclist has changed – and quite dramatically so. In the days of pre-history, when I was an ab initio rider, everyone was knowledgeable about motorcycle sport – and not just road racing.

An international race at Oulton Park, my local track, would attract 25,000 spectators and the Isle of Man almost sunk under the weight of fans on the Island.

You could argue that this might be expected in the golden days of six-cylinder Hondas, four-cylinder two-stroke Yamahas and Suzukis and the mighty MV Triples, but the interesting thing is that GP Motocross also had tens of thousands of fans and a major trial, in the middle of winter, would have 5000 spectators. In short, motorcyclists had competition, in all its manifest forms, running through their blood.

It was custom, touring and cruiser bikes which were absent from the motorcycling scene with only Harley, and its association with “Hells Angels” – not that anyone knew what they were – reaching out to the nascent custom market. European specials aped race bikes with their Café Racers and you went long distance touring on whatever road bike worked best.

Now, the market is much more fragmented, almost to micro proportions, and so a universal marketing message to a single, unified motorcycling audience is almost impossible. Ironically, this fact ought to work in favor of making motorcycle racing, and MotoGP in particular, much more popular. I would like to illustrate why.

The Seeley Suzuki posed a problem for fans who couldn’t find the engine…

At a recent race meeting, three lovely young riders came to look at our Seeley. They were fairly new to motorcycling and had really caught the disease badly. Hurrah all round! They were in awe of the Seeley and photographed each other with it and listened enthusiastically to my tales of Barry Sheene riding a sister bike to our machine.

Then one of the boys – there were two lads and a girl – politely asked where the engine was. On the Seeley, this is fairly obvious – if you happen to know what an engine looks like. As we got chatting, it became apparent that none of the three had any, as in zero, idea of their bikes’ mechanicals. All their own machines had engines hidden behind fairings and anything which needs doing, including really basic things like adjusting the chain or an oil change, they take into the dealer’s workshop.

Why is this good for motorcycle racing? Now we can sell bike racing to a general audience rather than simply just to race junkies.

Last year, I saw Paul McCartney and “Wings” and I didn’t have a clue what the output of the speakers was or how thick were the strings on Paul’s guitar. Why should I? McCartney put on a great show and we enjoyed it. The technical aspects of how he delivered that show were irrelevant to us.

In 2014, it looks like this is the way which GP racing should go.

This brings us neatly to the next problem. Currently, professional motorcycle racers are obsessed with racing to the exclusion of everything else. This attitude is unacceptable given current spectator attendances – although I do empathize with and understand their attitude.

I recently got a first place, albeit in a very poorly supported classic race, and I was beside myself with excitement and pleasure. This is the key mental fault with racers: results are everything. It’s the same mentality which makes Lorenzo race the day after he smashed his collarbone to pieces and it’s what allows the Moto Gods to bang fairings at 150 mph and think of this as a normal day at the office. Racers are utterly addicted to winning.

Dorna tolerate, and in fact encourage, this attitude because attendance at MotoGP is very much an addendum to their business model. This is how it works. The vast majority of GP rounds – both MotoGP and WSBK – are run at tracks with local government subsidies. Again, an explanation is helpful. The track owners/promoters sit down with government officials who don’t know the difference between a 50cc Kymco scooter and Marc Marquez’s Repsol Honda.

The pitch is made to them that if they subsidize the track then a WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP event will come to their area. This WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP event has WORLDWIDE TV coverage. Give us half a million dollars and this cornucopia will pour forth economic benefits to your region which will be great and manifold.

As far as the officials are concerned, this is simply a box ticking exercise. After all, it’s not their money which they are spending and if a WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP comes to their region what could be better than this?

If the government apparatchiks come to the event at all, and this is very far from certain, then the last thing on their minds will be the racing. In fact, you will be lucky if you see them outside the VIP hospitality. But who cares? The money is in the promoters’ bank account, Dorna get fully paid for its franchise fee and the TV rolls ahead.

From Dorna’s point of view, the two key things are a track on which to run MotoGP and the TV coverage which results. Spectators are an irrelevance. In fact, the whole show could probably run better with a team of professional, walk-on actors who could be shipped from GP to GP to fill one grandstand and provide some good images for TV. Imagine just what a great show trained, paid fans, with a director, could put on in terms of excitement and flag waving. It would be so much better than Carol and I ever manage.

If the situation is bad for MotoGP you ought to see it in a World Superbike weekend. Here, the idea of a whole grandstand full of actors would be welcomed with open arms because it would probably double the attendance at some rounds!

So, all this is bad news but the situation is incredibly easy to fix – and for a few tens of thousands of dollars. Or, as it is known in the bike business, a single VIP lunch at a MotoGP round.

First, World Championship motorcycle racing should be seen as entertainment first, last and middle.

Racing Geeks like me are a statistical irrelevance, and particularly so, because we would still loyally turn up if Iraq held a GP round and ISIL were strafing the track during Moto 3. We’re just racing junkies and therefore will tolerate anything.

Dorna needs to reach out far beyond us to the whole motorcycling audience – and then out into the wider community. Here’s how to do it. Dorna controls riders’ contracts very tightly. Critically, this control ranges from which cap you will wear at a news conference to what events the rider can, and cannot, attend. So, first and most importantly, PR commitments must be formally written into riders’ contracts – not with the manufacturers but with Dorna. In the bluntest possible terms, if you want to ride MotoGP or World Superbike you will do the PR work necessary to market these events – or find somewhere else to ride.

At the British round of MotoGP, Dorna had Marc Marquez ride across a minor bridge in London to an audience of zero – if it was this high. The only surprise was that a civically-minded citizen didn’t arrest Boy Wonder for riding a non-road legal motorcycle in a public place.

Instead of central London, where the interest in MotoGP is non-existent, young Marc should have been helicoptered around to five bikers’ meeting places on the Wednesday before the GP – all of which would have been given lots of pre-event publicity, so that these venues were jammed. Remember, that a big British bike meet in a café parking lot will attract 5000 riders, so get these potential spectators into contact with the stars and convert them into MotoGP customers.

Just how good this could be may be judged with Alpinestars having Jorge Lorenzo on the road at their key dealers. The response has been incredible and by all accounts Jorge has done a brilliant job. But doing this work shouldn’t be down to Alpinestars – it ought to be driven by Dorna.

Get these GP riders out to dealers and motorcycle meets at every round in the world, and those hands which are personally shaken will be at the GP to watch the stars race.

Jorge Lorenzo makes a stop at Rocket Motorcycle Center.

Again at every round, the stars ought to be on TV and radio. Probably the dullest activity in the world is cycle racing but Britain’s pedaling superstars are on TV so often that the general public now believe that cycle racing is interesting.

Five million, I want to stress that number 5,000,000 people turned out to watch the Tour de France in England – an event so brain destroyingly dull that tapes ought to be made of the event and sold as insomnia cures. Why the vast attendance? Because the cycle stars hustle on TV like the showbiz pros that they are.

By comparison, a good GP round gets 50,000 customers and many World Superbike events have an attendance under 10,000.

At every GP round, Dorna should contractually bind every rider to spend at least an hour each day – Friday, Saturday and Sunday – in close contact with public. The riders won’t like this because all that they want to do is race and the teams will whinge and whine about losing valuable development time because their man is signing autographs but so what? A rider can have all the time he wants to go racing without any disturbance simply by quitting the World Championship series and going club racing. No one bothers us – but we pay for everything ourselves. If you are a show, then start behaving like professional performers.

Finally, Dorna should bind riders to 30 days of PR work outside the season.

Again I want to quote the success of Jorge Lorenzo in this respect. When he showed up at the Birmingham Motorcycle Show two years ago he brought the event to a halt there were so many fans wanting to meet him.

Last year, it was as if motorcycle sport didn’t exist. Get those star riders on to the manufacturers’ stands meeting fans and making sure that they show up at GPs having paid for their ticket.

Marc Marquez at Alpinestars’ new flagship store in Bangkok, Thailand. Whipping fans to a frenzy, no thanks to Dorna.

If doing PR interrupts a rider’s training or rest time then let’s not shed too many tears. How many young men would give anything to be paid to race motorcycles – and as a full time job? If you don’t like being a professional motorcycle racer then there is plenty of alternative employment available driving vans and stacking shelves in supermarkets.

Currently, motorcycle sport has some ace cards to play. Marc Marquez is 100% solid gold – probably with diamonds in too. Rossi is still a huge attraction and is known outside the bike world. We already know the quality of Jorge Lorenzo. Scott Redding is very, very switched on in terms of PR and is a genuinely nice person who likes the fans. Nicky Hayden would make a brilliant MotoGP ambassador. Aleix Espargaró is utterly adorable, multi-lingual and super safe with the non-motorcycling media. What a lineup of potential marketing superstars. Together, they could bring in tens of thousands of fans to a MotoGP round.

Added to this is that MotoGP really is an incredible show. The noise, the colour, the intensity all make a unique experience which anyone, motorcyclist or not, loves – or would love if they came into contact with it.

How much effort would it take for Dorna to change riders’ contracts ever so slightly and hire a professional PR company to take MotoGP and World Superbike to a mass audience?