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Backmarker: Resolution for AMA Pro Racing

Thursday, January 2, 2014
A New Year’s Resolution for AMA Pro Racing

AMA Pro National Guard SuperBike racing heads to Laguna Seca this weekend for the season finale.
Does AMA Pro Racing need to be 'saved' at all?
A couple of days ago, millions of Americans made New Year’s resolutions. Yesterday, most of those resolutions were broken, which goes to show you that peoples’ resolve is pretty flimsy.

Over the course of this column, I’ll suggest a New Year’s Resolution for AMA Pro Racing, though I frankly doubt they’ll have the resolve or strategic insight to carry it out. I’m sure that, down in Daytona, they’ll roll their eyes. But I honestly think that my suggestion is the only thing that will really save AMA Pro Racing.

What am I getting at? Why do I think AMA Pro Racing needs to be ‘saved’ at all?

First, let me say that I’m excepting Supercross from the whole ‘needs saving’ discussion. I don’t know enough about SX (or MX) to criticize it, but as an outsider looking in, I think Feld Motorsports does a good job promoting the series.

That said, Supercross was created to be an exception; it intentionally blended ‘show’ with ‘sport’ in a way that has, if anything, become even more culturally relevant since Mike Goodwin bombastically laid claim to the first “Superbowl of Motocross”, which he staged in the L.A. Coliseum in 1972.

Since then, Supercross and its athletes have shoved their way onto the sidelines of American sports fans’ awareness. So, from Backmarker’s perspective, they’re doing OK.

This column’s about Road Racing and Flat Track. In those disciplines, we’ve seen better racing (on asphalt) and a more diverse mix of brands (on Half-Mile and Mile dirt tracks).

That’s good news. And the Flat Track championship’s again got a solid presence in the vital California market, too.

But.

Now  the Europeans train like Americans  and Americans train like Europeans.
Bubba Shobert was the last rider to win the AMAs #1 plate by scoring points on asphalt and dirt.
(Above) Now, the European racers train like Americans, and Americans train like Europeans. (Below) Bubba Shobert was the last rider to win the AMA’s #1 plate by scoring points on asphalt and dirt.
The current version of the Grand National Championship operates more like a glorious, historic amateur championship than a truly professional one. Brad Baker, the reigning champ, will ride a KTM 450 on short track and TT courses; his sponsor’s not KTM, it’s a dealer.

Let that sink in for a moment: the #1 plate holder in America’s most storied motorcycle championship is sponsored by a dealer. Not a manufacturer.

On the Road Racing side, just before Christmas AMA Pro Racing sent out information about logos and graphics that seemed to imply that GEICO has reneged on its supposedly multi-year sponsorship deal. As of right now, there are only a handful of races with confirmed dates. Both AMA Pro Road Racing and Flat Track need a shot in the arm.

Long ago, the AMA championship was the breeding ground of World Champions like Wayne Rainey, Kevin Schwantz and Nicky Hayden, or Roberts, Spencer and Lawson before them.

Today however, “Where’s the next American champion?” is a frequent topic of conversation amongst American MotoGP fans. People are frustrated that Spain’s produced not just Marc Marquez but Pol Espargaro and Maverick Viñales, too. After a while, complaining about a pro-Spanish bias at Dorna starts to sound like sour grapes.

Ironically one reason those Spaniards are so dominant is that now they train like Americans, on flat tracks. But since the AMA split the road racing and flat track series in 1985, young American road racers have grown up on asphalt. It seems to me that when I read about American road racers training on dirt these days, it’s usually in the context of someone breaking a collarbone or dislocating a shoulder on their motocross bike.

It wasn’t always so. For decades, the AMA Grand National Championship included road courses, as well as Mile, Half-Mile, short track and TT-style dirt tracks. To win the AMA’s #1 plate, you didn’t just cross-train on dirt, you raced on it—and to have a realistic chance at the championship, you had to win on it.

When Kenny Roberts arrived in Europe in the late ‘70s to compete in the World Championship, it was at a moment when 500cc two-stroke GP motors were too powerful for the available tires, suspension, and chassis technology—or for most European riders.

Roberts brought his American, dirt track-influenced sliding style along with a hard-nosed, sharp-elbowed short-tracker’s instincts. He became the first American to win the World Championship, and more importantly ushered in an era of American domination that—you can be sure—made the Europeans grumble about Americans the way we now grumble about Marquez, Espargaro and Viñales.

Not only that, when Roberts, Spencer and Lawson dominated the World Championship, they reflected glory back on the AMA’s domestic championship too.

After a waiting six weeks to race the riders are anxious to race the Lima Half-Mile.
The AMA Pro Sacramento Mile is to feature the premium access live streaming video.
Kawasaki rider Bryan Smith rode to a dominant victory in the Indy Mile in front of a big crowd for the 2013 AMA Pro Flat Track event provided by J P Cycles.
Josh Herrin  2  and his teammate Josh Hayes  1  go head-to-head in SuperBike Race 1 at Miller.

Until 1985, to have a decent chance at winning the Grand National Championship, a rider had to score points on all types of tracks, riding several different machines. I think that after 30 years, it’s time to reunify the GNC.

All of which leads me to A New Year’s Resolution for AMA Pro Racing: Reunify the Grand National Championship. Merge the Superbike series with an edited GNC Flat Track schedule. Make the AMA’s number one plate mean what it used to mean: this guy is the best all-round racer in the country; probably the world.

I realize that it will take a couple or three years to sort out schedules and rules. But get on it. I think that by 2016, we could again award a unified Grand National Championship to the rider who accumulated the most points on road courses and flat tracks.

This could sound like an old man’s pie-in-the-sky fantasy, but hear me out.

Like it or not, we are seeing increasingly restrictive rules and a continued simplification of the machines in the Superbike class. It’s going to be a lot easier to field a competitive machine. And, there’s a far more diverse mix of machines running at the front in flat track. It’s not an all-Harley preserve any more.

A reunified Grand National Championship with 12-16 Nationals, roughly evenly divided between road courses and flat tracks would consolidate promoters’ efforts and fan interest at the best tracks in the strongest markets. It would also give AMA Pro Racing a marketing hook again.

The Olympics are coming up again. Once every few years, Americans pay attention to international sports—especially if an American can be counted on to win—but America’s dominant sport, football, is played here and only here. In fact, the word ‘football’ means something totally different in the rest of the world. My point is that Americans prefer distinctly American sports, and the most distinctly American motorcycle championship was killed when the AMA split the road racing and flat track championships. It’s time to bring it back to life; it’s time to reunify the Grand National Championship.

A lot of the people reading this, especially down at Daytona Motorsports Group, are going to have all kinds of reasons why a reunified GNC can’t work in the present day. Most of their objections will probably hinge on potential sponsor conflicts as riders would need to find competitive bikes for each type of track.

I disagree: there are hardly any real ‘factory’ teams left in either series, so I don’t care whether factories would resent riders using different brands on different types of tracks. (As it is right now, if Brad Baker repeats as Flat Track champion in 2014, both Harley and KTM will celebrate. What difference would it make if he also raced, say, a Suzuki on road courses?)

And, my final rebuttal to skeptics is simply this: What AMA Pro Racing is doing right now doesn’t work in terms of promotion, PR, media exposure, fan interest, or return on sponsorship investment. And it doesn’t seem to be grooming Americans for the world stage.

When something’s already broken, there’s no risk in attempting a radical fix.

Happy New Year!
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Comments
disreputablebastard   January 10, 2014 03:50 PM
@m1lookalike, the man's got a point, just maybe a bit too hyper over it. Though I'm not sure if he has a solution to the problems faced. In the larger sense I think that the focus shouldn't be on AMA, it should be on racing in general. If you look at all the racing organizations in the US, how does AMA rate? I am not sure that it matters at all if AMA is not doing well as long as racing is doing well overall. Of course then you have to decide how to rate how well it's doing.
m1lookalike   January 6, 2014 10:38 PM
Holy crap customaudiodesign, I am not even going to attempt to read any of your comment. Too much, get a blog.
customaudiodesign   January 6, 2014 02:17 PM
Mark, you are not an old man, nor are your views pie-in-the-sky. After years of DMG keeping their heads in the Daytona beach sand, they finally pulled their collective heads out their bum and decided this year they should "look" at aligning the American series with the other successful national racing series regarding rules, structure and also important: the class names! Daytona Sportbike? WTF is that? What's the displacement? Ever since I knew that a bunch of nascar cronies were taking over, I knew what was in store. I've been writing and commenting on it from the start. Look at other countries series; British, German, Spanish, Australian, Italy, etc. What format and class names do they use? A similar and accepted format, that's what. DMG wanted motorcycle racing to be like nascar; it's so successful, so we'll do that. No one wants a bunch of clone bikes going around in a circle in a 150mph parking lot. The same brain-trusts that thought a pace car at Daytona was a great implementation. Change the rules, use ridiculous class names and "we don't need the manufacturers..." outlook. My friends in other countries (that have successful series, full grids, full stands and good sponsorship/promotion/media participation) ask me regularly about when things are going to change. It's pretty much a laughing stock to the rest of the motorcycle road racing world. You align/emulate what's working and fashion your series after that. DMG keeps blaming the economy, but that is a worn-out scapegoat, since other nations economies are not any better, some worse...just like here. Ball sports rule here because it's rammed down your throat from the day you're born and touted as the pinnacle of athletic abilities. I cannot count the times I bring up the tremendous physical and mental athletic talent required to get a race bike around a track lap after lap, only to be denigrated and dismissed because (and I'm quoting here) "they don't need strength or any athletic abilities because they just sit on the bike and twist the throttle..." That level of ignorance stuns me, but it is so prevalent in this ball-sports-are-everything country. Motorcycles and those that ride them in America are perceived by JQ Public as a negative, where all the different disciplines and folks that enjoy them are seen as one. No difference between ADV, touring, sport, off-road, cruiser/Harley in their eyes/mind. I grew up in a motorcycling family and our history dates back to the board tracks where my mom/grandpa's family rode the boards for Indian, Excelsior and Harley. I had my own personal challenges so I could ride a motorcycle again after an insidious condition destroyed all the cartilage in every joint by the time I was 14. I got my first street bike in 1983 after numerous joint-replacement surgeries and tortuous muscle therapy so my legs would work again. I accumulated over 300,000 miles on my various bikes, so I know thing or two about riders and how non-riders perceive us. We can move forward a little when the general public sees us as more than a bunch of poseurs with butt-jewelry and the fake bad-assery that goes with it. My European friends don't see it that way, nor do the non-riders. America needs to get back it's motorcycle racing respect, especially getting the focus and spotlight away from the bad-assery/DILLIGAF mentality that permeates the media's perception and portrayal of motorcyclists and motorcycle racers. DMG did that aspect no favors, and until we can emulate what the rest of the world is doing with 2-wheeled road racing, we'll continue to be marginalized and laughed at. Only recently has DMG realized they need to do just that, but the damage has been done and will take years to mend. I mean, only 6 race events? Even that was up in the air as late as December. Then they realized that Mid-Ohio and Laguna had conflicting dates? That shows the incompetence we are still dealing with! While every other series, national and world, had confirmed dates before the end of the year, our series didn't even have a confirmed full schedule so the teams/riders that HAVE stayed weren't able to plan their year and schedule until the last minute. Look at how many riders and teams have bailed...not just for the world stage, but other national series so they can get the experience needed to transfer to the top classes. If money is so tight, why do other countries enjoy successful series? Getting to watch BSB this year, thanks to Velocity, showed anyone who watched how a series should be run. I see full grids, a variety of manufacturers, good sponsorship, full stands and media promotion. Don't blame the lack of money/bad economy; it doesn't fly any more when I look at the other series that are enjoying excellent TV coverage in their respective countries. There are lots of racers and people in the stands watching and cheering along with folks at home watching.
PriestofWishfulThinking   January 5, 2014 12:26 PM
"This could sound like an old man’s pie-in-the-sky fantasy, but hear me out. " naw we would never say that, old man. Seriously AMA pro isn't working because of the format or the fact that the dirt and road races have been split. The management is just fundamentally incompetent and like any incompetently-run organization it needs to be allowed to fail. Your idea is a nice idea and you should start a new organization with that as its bedrock philosophy: that its best rider should win on both dirt and track. Heck you can even tie MX into it if you want or any other form of 2-wheel racing. When you get to the same place financially that AMA is now, then you can come up with the bright idea of merging 2 and 4-wheel racing. It's not about making the biggest, brightest star and letting them shinie benevolently on the money-bearing fools who come to worship them. It's about making the best organization for the people who have the money to support it. Your competitiors will continue to do well for the Average Joes out there who want to either race or be fans. AMA is probably doing the best that it can with what it has to work with. There just isn't much to work wtih. Money is tight, man. Spain, with all its great riders, is in one hell of an economic predicament. Which would you rather have?
fivespeed302   January 5, 2014 06:57 AM
Why not get rid of the superbikes altogether and use one bike for all surfaces? Just swap out tires and make suspension adjustments to the dirt bikes. There's already plenty of Superbike style racing in my opinion.
RaptorFA   January 2, 2014 08:49 AM
Mr. Gardiner, when I first read this article I thought you were mad. The more I think about this however, the more I realize that it would be mad NOT to at least give it a try. DMG has done a pretty fine job of killing a once prestigeous series, and something radical needs to be done to keep it alive. So why not go back to grass roots and give us a National series that would produce a champion who can prove himself on different kinds of surfaces? I realize that Road racing got pretty specialized and exclusive there for a while, but as you have mentioned, this is changing. The cost of these machines has gone through the roof and things are getting a bit more simplified in an effort to bring those costs down. So why not merge the two, bring some interest if not morbid curiosity back into the mix, the guys would love it I think, and so would the fans. And I think I agree that a guy bthat takes this kind of championship will have a more diverse skill set and would most likely fare much better on the world stage. It sure couldn't hurt. I'd go! Bottom line, I like the idea and I think it should be given serious consideration. If tried and it doesn't work, we are no worse off than we are now.