Backmarker: New Year’s Resolutions

January 8, 2015
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.'

Apparently, there’s a Chinese curse to the effect of, “May you live in interesting times…” Well, last year was ‘interesting’, when it comes to the American motorcycle industry and motorcycle sport. Come 2015, I suppose we’ll see whether the changes foreshadowed in 2014 are destined to be seen as curses or, hopefully, blessings.

To set the year off in the right direction, here are a few suggested New Year’s Resolutions.

Late in 2014, MotoAmerica and the AMA convened a meeting with all the big amateur racing organizations, presumably with an eye towards rationalizing rules and creating a coherent talent ladder. That was promising; as I noted right after the MotoAmerica announcement, the challenge of bringing more U.S. road racing talent to the fore begins at the club level, not the national level, because before you can develop talent you have to find it.

I wrote about OMRRA’s successful Ninja 250 class, so a first resolution would be for every club to adopt some variation on that (perhaps allowing bikes up to 300cc.) That would create a situation where a talented kid could race almost every weekend without traveling too far, learning to handle different tracks and facing diverse competitors.

Many people who administer clubs will read this and think, “We do have a class for those bikes already,” and they’re right. It’s not just a case of defining it in technical rules; it’s mainly about putting creative energy behind it. While such a class is great for up-and-coming youngsters, it should not be age-restricted. Racing against wily old veterans is good for those kids.

I’m not sure the deal’s been finalized, but it seems to be a foregone conclusion that the national development class in MotoAmerica events will be a KTM RC390 Cup. I’m in love with that platform; it appears they’ll age-restrict it to 14 to 22 year-olds, but they shouldn’t. The only people who shouldn’t be allowed to race in that class are people who are racing in larger-displacement classes in MotoAmerica. One of DMG’s good ideas was when they made the national Supersport class a class for young riders but allowed veteran local racers to participate when the series came to their tracks.

In 2014, I wrote that MotoAmerica should have ripped off the Band-Aid quickly, and immediately instituted Moto3 and Moto2 classes, grandfathering in Daytona SportBike machinery. I suggested they mirror the CEV technical rules. I got harangued in private over that, when some well-informed insiders told me that those classes are prohibitively expensive and that, basically, Dorna is running the CEV as a loss-leader. So, that resolution’s on hold.

But, I do have a resolution for MotoAmerica.

The news that MotoAmerica races will be broadcast on TV was greeted with enthusiasm by quite a few old-timers in the motorcycle industry. The races will show up on the CBS Sports cable network, which, we’re told, is available in 80 million-plus homes.

That’s great, but those old timers are members of generations who grew up when, “being on TV” basically meant, “millions of people will see it.”

AMA Pro Racing has lost the road racing series. For better or for worse  thats a great chance to reboot flat track.
Although Ill go to my grave arguing that the best thing for U.S. motorcycle racing would be to reunite the road racing and flat track championship  I also know that splitting the ownership of the national road racing and flat track championships gives flat track the opportunity to position itself as the real U.S. racing discipline. And I hope that the arrival of the Yamaha MT-07 increases manufacturer interest again.
Although I’ll go to my grave arguing that the best thing for U.S. motorcycle racing would be to reunite the road racing and flat track championship, I also know that splitting the ownership of the national road racing and flat track championships gives flat track the opportunity to position itself as the real U.S. racing discipline. And I hope that the arrival of the Yamaha MT-07 increases manufacturer interest again.

Those days are gone. More households have access to C-SPAN than CBS Sports, and C-SPAN’s audience is miniscule. MotoAmerica’s television deal means that millions of people can watch American motorcycle racing, not that they will watch it. And while there’s a core of die-hard fans who are on email lists or who check websites like this one daily, and who’ll see MotoAmerica’s press releases about broadcast times and tune in or set their TiVo to record races, that hardcore audience has eroded plenty in the last decade or so, since we had significant TV coverage.

Meanwhile, the standard for what constitutes compelling coverage has risen, as marked by dramatically improved TT coverage or the I-can’t-tear-my-eyes-away quality of Red Bull’s “space jump” event. North One TV, which produces the TT broadcasts, and Red Bull with the Baumgartner stunt, have proven once again that the way to hook the casual audience is with characters and storylines.

That’s what MotoAmerica has to do in 2015: Make us care about the people on (and behind) the machines again. Find great stories and tell them. And, spend the money it takes to promote the series to casual fans, many of whom have never watched that channel and who will need a compelling reason to find it.

This is not something AMA Pro Racing (either before or during DMG control) has a history of doing. This is not something you’re going to succeed at if you just hire one of the usual suspects as your show runner. It’s not something you’ll achieve in the first season, so think of this as a resolution for two or three years.

Speaking of AMA Pro Racing, which retained control of the Flat Track Grand National Championship even as it ceded road racing, it now has a golden opportunity to come out and market Flat Track as what it is – the way America has always raced motorcycles. And Flat Track remains one of the racing disciplines, like Supercross, in which the USA is Number 1.

Speaking as an advertising guy (which I am, in my other life) the GNC faces lower marketing hurdles than MotoAmerica does. I don’t care whether or not Flat Track has a TV deal; it’s more about putting butts in the seats anyway, because Flat Track’s better live than televised. (I admit that I’m biased but I’ve sat in the stands, as a fan, at everything from MotoGP to Supercross, and Flat Track’s the best show.)

I think this is going to be a good year for Flat Track. I’ve got a feeling that the presence of a new Yamaha powerplant will spur more active manufacturer involvement. I’m curious about claims that the Harley-Davidson Street 750 motor could be competitive. But, first things first. The resolution for the Grand National Championship is, AMA Pro Racing has to take over the marketing of events, which right now are being marketed piecemeal by each event promoter.

And, speaking (however obliquely) about Daytona… I was privately dismissive, when I heard that Daytona International Speedway was going to put on the Daytona 200 as a race sanctioned by ASRA. But, they announced a fairly impressive purse structure. Actually, an insanely impressive purse for an ASRA race. And judging from comments on Facebook, the race will attract an interesting field of Known Fast Guys, whether or not the official ‘factory’ teams involved in MotoAmerica bother with it.

I initially saw that Daytona 200 announcement as the final step in a long decline from the heady days of the 1970s when the field was studded with World Champions. But I guess I’ll give it a chance; every new start has some kind of potential. And the Speedway’s wounded pride at the loss of its ‘National’ may just give it an extra incentive to make the race rise again as a non-championship event like the TT or Macau Grand Prix. So, my resolution for DIS is, put up some travel money to five or six interesting foreign teams.

Of course, it’s just tough talk to make resolutions for other people. I suppose I should come up with one for myself, too. The big news here is that my wife and I just closed on a 90-year-old fixer upper in the Kansas City neighborhood of Hyde Park.

As it came time to move, I came down with a massive cold which (this is my Achilles’ heel) turned into bronchitis. For three days, every time I carried a load of stuff down out of the loft into the U-Haul, I hacked out a musky, bitter loogie the size and color of an olive. Every truckload got more and more disordered; the first one was neat rows of boxes matched for size, but the last one was two derelict motorcycles leaning against the side of the truck, with the bicycles and house plants thrown in, creating the impression of vehicles abandoned in a field. Suffice to say, I now have a pretty good idea what it was like when Napoleon’s army retreated from Moscow.

If this basement starts to resemble a workshop in 2015, as I’ve resolved, expect to read a few Backmarkers about resurrecting and improving some cool old and not-so-old bikes.

And at least the weather cooperated. It rained one of the move days, but it was warm. I rode two of the motorcycles from a garage I was borrowing in my old neighborhood, to the new place on Christmas Day.

Finally, we’re in. At least a few rooms are starting to look like a home. I’ve got all the bikes in the drive-in basement. It has natural stone walls, like a dungeon, and is as yet still home to tens of thousands of spiders. Though, strangely, I already like it down there. Nothing a few days with a broom and Shop-Vac won’t improve… along with the addition of many, many lumens of light.

So, I have a shop area again. I could resolve to solve my beleaguered Hinckley Bonneville’s many problems (tires, brakes, shocks and pair of flat slides would transform it.) But every time my wife, Mary, sees our 1963 Honda Dream 150, she reminds me, “This one’s my size.” And, now that it’s parked directly beneath our bedroom, she’ll be seeing it a lot more often. So I suppose if I’m to have a happy life in the new home my resolution should be to set up a work area down there, and resurrect the Dream. If you’ve got advice on either project, or want to help, don’t hesitate to contact me.

One of the Kansas Citians I most admire (but have never met) is the New Yorker cartoonist Charles Barsotti. I remember one of his line drawings, depicting a devil pushing a two-wheeled cart. In the cart, sat a businessman. A thought bubble rose from his head which read, “Who am I, and what am I doing in this handcart?”

Although I continue to be sure that the world’s going to hell in a handcart, I remain inexplicably optimistic about my own prospects. I hope you do too. Happy New Year!