Although not an official factory team, the Corona Honda squad will benefit from American Honda support and top-tier talent in the form of former WSB champ Neil Hodgson.
The country that invented Superbike racing in the 70's is re-inventing it. Road racing in America takes on a new look in 2009, with new owners, a new name, new procedures, new classes, and new rules which promise to provide the closest racing in years.
AMA Pro Racing was sold last year to the Daytona Motorsports Group, which includes among its five principals NASCAR scion Jim France. The new AMA Pro Racing is incorporating a number of features that have made NASCAR the second most popular televised sport in America, while retaining the uniqueness of two-wheeled racing. The season-opener at Daytona International Speedway will provide a glimpse into the future.
The AMA Pro Road Racing Series, formerly the AMA Superbike Championship, will feature American Superbike as the premier class. Daytona SportBike, a mixture of the former Supersport and Formula Xtreme classes, where the Honda CBR600RR will compete, will be featured in the Daytona 200 before reverting to a supporting role. The other classes are SuperSport, for up and coming riders, and Moto-GT, an endurance series. The rules for American Superbike skew towards Superstock, where Honda had its greatest success in 2008: The satellite Corona Extra Honda team won two races and finished third in the Superstock championship.
For 2009, Corona Extra Honda will build on their earlier successes by joining forces with Neil Hodgson and American Honda for an assault on the first ever American Superbike crown. Though not officially a factory squad, the team will have the best of American Honda's resources. Hodgson is contracted to American Honda, as are the team's technicians, who will work out of the American Honda race shop where the Corona Extra Honda team hauler will be based. Ron Heben will continue as the team manager. With the marketing savvy of the Corona Extra Honda team, which has the best promotions program in the paddock, and the technical prowess of American Honda, winner of numerous championships, Hodgson believes he has the best of both worlds.
Riding for the brand... Hodgson will be riding for his regular bar order in 2009. Corona gets one of the most colorful riders in the AMA paddock.
"Hopefully it's going to be just a great match-up with us all," Hodgson said. "I'm excited, because when I go to a bar it's a Corona anyway. It genuinely is the beer I drink as well, so it's a win-win situation."
Added Corona Extra Honda team principal Tim Saunders, "We're extremely excited to be working with the factory. We're very pleased our program has been able to move to the next level. Obviously we have very high hopes of good performance on Neil's behalf. He's very excited to be running with us and I think the bike's going to be very good and hopefully we'll be very competitive.
"As far as our sponsor Corona Extra, it obviously will raise their exposure in our industry, the motorcycle industry. They have already taken the news of Neil's joining us to issue some releases in their industry, the beverage business, so that's added exposure for us. And I think they recognize this will be beneficial to all parties concerned."
Also beneficial to the team are the more restrictive American Superbike rules. Hodgson believes they will benefit the Honda CBR1000RR, which he thinks is the perfect platform. The 2003 World Superbike Champion will be one of five Honda CBR1000RR riders at Daytona.
"I think it's the whole package," he said. "The Honda street bike's so good when you get on a track with it. I can ride a stock CBR1000RR street bike around a race circuit and be about four seconds slower than I would be on my absolute all singing, all dancing American Honda Superbike. It's ridiculous. You can't believe you can get that close to this. And that's obviously on treaded tires with no quick shifter or anything."
The proof is in the results. Of the two semi-official off-season tests, first at Daytona International Speedway and later at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, Hodgson emerged with the best American Superbike time. Asked when the last time that had happened, the always cheerful Englishman replied, "That's a very, very good question. I'll tell you when it was, way too long ago, way too long ago. It'd be 2003," the year he won the World Superbike Championship.
The next stop is the heavily banked Daytona International Speedway, where Hodgson will put to use everything he learned during pre-season testing. Not only do the riders have the longest sustained full throttle runs of the season, but, to handle the enormous stresses of the banking, they also have to use dual compound tires that are extremely hard on the right. The first test will come in Superpole, which makes its debut at Daytona in both American Superbike and Daytona SportBike.
"We had a good test there and maybe some of the little things we learned here will show there," he said after setting fast time at Fontana. "The problem is you get on the bike at Daytona and everything feels so different again, because it's Daytona. Yeah, it's good to be in this position."