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VIR Cancellation: What it Means for AMA Racing

Tuesday, July 19, 2011
Yamahas Josh Hayes took the best time in Fridays qualifying for American SuperBike. - Barber 2011
With the VIR round canceled riders are left with a gap in the schedule and one less race to make a move in the standings.
While some in the industry might be quick to point to greedy/lazy track owners as the cause of the recent road race cancellation, in my estimation, that assumption and accusation would be shortsighted and a disservice to motorcycle racing fans who deserve a better analysis of the problems currently facing American motorcycle road racing.

Unfortunately for American motorcycle road racing, the VIR round cancellation points towards a core issue, that the sport (in its current form) does not generate enough return/profit for the various parties (sponsors, tracks, teams, and riders) to warrant the effort or capital outlay. That is the bottom-line, hard, cold truth.

While track owners clearly have an interest in making a profit for the significant risk they assume in promoting a motorcycle race event, they are far from lazy or totally greedy. Unlike Wall Street bankers, track owners actually work pretty hard for their money and clearly have a passion for the motor sports their facilities support. Despite what some people might think, there are far easier and less expensive ways to make money other than running a race track.

Currently, the root problem for American motorcycle road racing is that despite sizeable marketing and promotion spent by tracks, fans are just not coming out to the races in enough numbers to underwrite the sport. Some might say it is the economy but other motorcycle racing sports like Supercross, Arenacross, GNCC and even Dirt Track have not been experiencing the same attendance problems within the same timeframe.

Kyle Wyman  #33   Chirs Fillmore  #55  and Joe Kopp  #3  were separated by just 0.088 seconds across the finish line.
Despite the success of the XR1200 class which features some great races, the support from the fans is minimal at best.
In what could be considered bizarre, American motorcycle road racing attendance has been in decline since 2008 despite the fact that the quality of the racing product has improved significantly. Essentially, we have a racing product that is possibly the best ever and yet the fans are not coming out to support it. Why?

Here is where it gets a little complicated. Clearly some of the trouble started with the media bashing aimed at the Daytona Sport Group (DMG) back in 2008, along with the industry infighting. During a time of serious upheaval in the motorcycle road race community, some in the motorcycle media took an inflammatory approach and went on an attack that hurt American road racing. To make matters worse DMG made a serious mistake in not countering the attacks and defending themselves with an aggressive public relations effort.

Much of the media coverage and accusations during the DMG takeover of AMA Pro Racing were highly passionate, opinionated, apocalyptic, and insulting to AMA racers. The venom flew and the readers were privy to a one-sided story that had some merits but failed to see the forest for the trees or any of the positive changes that were also taking place.

Fast forward to 2011 and we find that creating a race class that leveled the playing field and let riders truly compete created a race series that is considered by some to be more exciting than most of the top world motorcycle racing series. Today the Daytona SportBike class offers some of the best motorcycle road racing anywhere in the world. In addition, the Vance & Hines XR1200 racing has also proven to be very affordable and entertaining.

Turns out the lone holdout for whiz-bang technology, AMA SuperBike, has not really delivered the same level of great racing. However, AMA SuperBike does have the potential to deliver great racing if they also level the playing field and lower the costs to participate in the class. If these steps are taken AMA SuperBike racing may become the best motorcycle racing in the world.
Blake Young  #79  and Josh Hayes  #1  traded the lead multiple times with Young ultimately claiming victory.
AMA Superbike hasn't quite delivered the goods compared to Daytona SportBike in particular. Sure the racing is closer but there are only 2-3 riders in serious contention to win.

So, is the AMA SuperBike class the reason why fans aren’t packing in to see the races? This is where things become more complicated, because creating great racing is only one piece of the overall puzzle required to develop a successful racing series. Much more goes into creating the buzz, energy and loyalty within the fan base to guarantee huge crowds. Listed below are some of the other challenges that American road racing faces as it looks to establish itself as a top motorsport in the minds of fans and secure a solid race calendar.

Lack of budget – AMA Pro Racing is not flush with cash and not able to spend tons of money to fix some of their problems quickly. While more money is not always the answer, it sure makes things easier when you have the funds to improve the marketing and hire outside help.

Weak Branding – AMA Pro Racing does not have the branding presence or branding knowledge to attract new fans. This is a big deal when you need huge sponsorships to make the series successful. It appears that more work is needed to properly describe and position the sport nationally in a way that might be appealing to fans that do not ride motorcycles.

Cost – Motorcycle road racing is not for the feint-of-heart, and unless more drastic changes are made to the format, it is too expensive without much reward for the rider and teams. Please note that these same issues are currently also being faced by other motorsports including both NASCAR and MotoGP.

Teams are not considered to be businesses – In other sports, teams are businesses that hopefully produce revenue, profit and increase in value over time. They have full-time employees, branding, fans and merchandising. Although a few AMA teams might be making some money, most AMA teams are big money losers.
Jake Zemke - 2011 Daytona 200
To the casual fan the AMA Pro Racing motorcycles don't really stand out visually as state of the art racing machines.

The show – The AMA Pro Racing show for fans is slow, drawn out and spread out over large distances. With the exception of the XR1200 bikes, most of the sportbikes look very similar physically to the average spectator (the XR1200’s look different physically from the sport bikes, but they need some different paint jobs within the class). All the talk of timing differentials for qualifying and practice (which takes up a significant portion of the day) is boring and irrelevant to the average person. Let’s be honest, only engineers get excited about timing differences in the fractions of a second.

No real national strategic marketing partners – The tracks are spending money to promote the races on their own (perhaps there should be a collective pool?). In addition they are paying AMA Pro Racing a sliding-scale sanctioning fee based on attendance which should cover some national marketing. But the fact is that tracks alone can’t afford to, nor should they be required to, do the heavy lifting/national marketing for the series that a strategic marketing partner could do.

Lack of public relations – For as long as I can remember AMA Pro Racing has not taken advantage of the power of public relations. They are not effectively promoting the series using public relations or looking for creative ways to do it. These days our society listens to public relations more than advertising campaigns. With the power of NASCAR and the associated sponsors at their disposal, DMG might have access to some of the resources needed to spread the message that AMA Pro Road Racing is getting better. 

Not enough real selling being driven by the sport – The racing is not driving enough sales for the entities involved. In order for racing to succeed there has to be more selling going on and way more than just sportbikes or tires.

Ducatis Emerson Connor  #50  overcame his crash in Race 1 at Daytona to finish just off the podium in fourth on Saturday.
Almost all the pieces are in line for AMA Pro Road Racing to be a success. We just need it to get more exposure, have some more fans come out to watch and maybe a little positive press now and then wouldn't hurt either.
So, to blame a cancelled road race on a greedy track owner or series director is missing the overall point and all the other factors that are contributing to the current weakness in American motorcycle road racing. While it might please some to have a bad guy (or lady) to hate, it really does nothing to solve the very real issues facing the sport.

On a positive note, all of the issues facing AMA Road Racing can be solved. We can find solutions if we accurately identify what is going wrong instead of finger pointing. The parties with the most at stake (AMA Pro Racing, tracks, teams, riders, sponsors) need to work together to formulate a plan to resolve the issues and communicate the plan effectively to the fans.

About the Author
Ed Kuhlenkamp is the founder and owner a number of companies in the motorcycle industry, including Pit Pass Radio, Adrenaline Konnections and Build-Momentum. He is an advisor to corporations on motorcycle and action sports sponsorship programs and offers strategic marketing consulting to companies looking to grow or preparing themselves for sale.
2011 AMA Pro Road Racing Gallery
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View Slideshow
AMA Road Racing Championship Points
AMA Superbike
Daytona Sportbike
AMA Superbike Rider Bios
Ben Bostrom
Ben Bostrom has truly rode his way to international stardom. After winning the hearts of American race fans, Ben took his show overseas.
Larry Pegram Bio
Larry Pegram was born in Columbus Ohio and has been racing as a professional since 1988.
Jake Zemke Bio
All the hard work paid off in 2008 when Jake won his first AMA Superbike series championship by claiming the Formula Xtreme title that has eluded him for all these years.
Mat Mladin Bio
During the past decade, Mat Mladin was the most dominant rider in the modern era of AMA Superbike racing.
Jamie Hacking Bio
Jamie Hacking is known for his aggressive on the edge riding and that gives him an edge when the opposition has to think twice about trying to pass him.
Neil Hodgson Bio
Neil Hodgson worked his way through the ranks of the European club racing series before winning the British Superbike Championship in 2000 and 2003 World Superbike Championships.

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hawk25252   July 23, 2011 10:15 AM
I would love to see Watkins Glen International added to the schedule. It is a world class facility in a beautiful area. The past year the IRL pulled out and I think AMA PRO Racing would be an excellent addition. This would give many fans in the Northeast a chance to attend a AMA PRO race.
chuck_b24   July 21, 2011 07:23 AM
the "NEW" NASCAR Has just about killed auto racing & totaly screwed up speed . & now are screwing up ama do you see the common problem!!! I WILL NOT PAY PRIEMIUM MONEY TO WATCH I.R.O.C. STYLE RACING!!!! GENERIC CARS ....GENERIC MOTORCYCLES CLASSES to favor an american ( HARLEY) company whos fans are for the most part NOT roadrace fans!!! The 1200XR class is a JOKE!!! you MUST BUY THE "RACE KIT" from Vance & hines over priced poor quality!!!
McHack   July 21, 2011 05:50 AM
All viable points, & I'm not gonna bother getting into the analysis aspect. I'd rather watch WSBK & MotoGP. Heck, even the Moto2 & 125's are interesting to catch on SpeedTV, thank you DVR!
CerkMX   July 20, 2011 07:01 PM
I disagree a bit with the premise that further leveling the Superbike field, lowering (even further) the limit to which a team can modify a stock motorcycle will benefit the series. In the lower classes I think it's completely fair to do so. Developmental classes are all about the riders, the bikes themselves take a back seat...that's why they're "lower classes". To do the same in the premier class, however, does a few things in my mind. It chases factory support away, which in our sport is EXTREMELY important. It dumbs down the show and takes the exotic nature of the experience away...and it limits the ability of our riders to compare themselves on level terms to other series, or participate in those series when they come stateside for that matter. I go to the races every year religiously, I volunteer with the AMA...I attend roadraces, hill climbs, flat track events and Hare Scrambles. To be frank, the racing really has been good this year BUT...it really does have a club racing feel to it. For me, at least in the premier class, it's the opposite. They need to open it up and allow development. They need to get on terms with WSBK and BSB. Superbikes are not meant to be legislated in to close racing. That should happen incidentally, when a few great riders on great machines battle it out.
Bret   July 20, 2011 02:31 PM
I blame DMG. Motorcycle Racing Enthusiasts are usually not the type that watch Nascar. They clearly don't understand the sport and the coverage sucks to be blatantly honest. I was not happy when they took over and have not watched an AMA race since. Even before DMG took over, the announcers were boring. they would blab on and on about stuff I couldn't care less about. Meanwhile a major pass would take place and the announcers wouldn't even acknowledge it. They needed lessons from WSBK in a bad way. I can't comment on the current races as I have not gone to one since the DMG take over either. Though none of this surprises me. If the only american motorcycle racing for me to watch is only available through a DMG event or FOX (speedtv) You can easily count out a lot of fans. Here is an idea, put the races online (like Motogp does). I would pay not to have to watch speed tv, in fact I do pay when it comes to motogp. Either way, I really feel the AMA need a complete rebuild from the ground up. No DMG, no speed tv.
bikergeek   July 20, 2011 12:12 PM
This article and the similar article posted today on roadracingworld.com are both dead wrong. Both commentaries are written by industry insiders that like DMG just don't get it. From a fan perspective, the AMA racing is NOT better than ever. I attended my first live AMA race at Road America in 2001. I excitedly watched the factory Honda team duke it out with factory Suzuki, factory Yamaha, factory Kawasaki, and factory Harley (with some Ducati's there as well). The paddock was a spectacle of sponsorship and fun. Over the years, I have also attended CCS and WERA and MotoGP events. With apologies to the latest crop of racers (who are good and fast), the current AMA roadracing events feel like club racing. The DMG formula of emphasizing the rider and downplaying the hardware doesn't work with diehard sportbike fans. I go to the races to cheer on my favorite bikes and bike manufacturer. The current AMA paddock is not a comprehensive representation of the best manufacturers and bike hardware. This is the issue that has diminished fan interest and attendance.
SteadyEddie   July 20, 2011 11:30 AM
The next Ben Spies will come from America. Look around, there are plenty of riders in the Daytona and Supersport class that already have raced in the world arena (Red Bull Rookies Cup) and demonstrated they are competitive. The talent pool in American road racing right now is deep,but we have abandoned our riders because some people are mad at the AMA. Americans just have to support their riders, we have the talent. Taking away engineering advantages makes the racing better. Ben Spies and Matt Mladin were on the best equipment, who knows if there were other riders who deserved a shot. Look at the Superbike class top ten, 50% of the bikes are Suzuki GSXR1000's. Personally I think we need to set a crazy goal to focus on making America the place that road racers want to come to prove themselves. All you have to do is look at Supercross and Motocross, MX racers around the world come to America to prove themselves. Years ago the bikes were made to be more even and the racing improved. We have some of the best road racers in America we just have to support them. AMA Pro/DMG has made marketing errors but to their credit they have solidified their relations with the paddock and improved the overall quality of the racing product. Whiz-bang Superbike racing is nice in theory, but the racing is boring, has little to do with the rider, and somebody has to pay for it - which nobody wants to do.
SteadyEddie   July 20, 2011 11:10 AM
WSB is definitely a model worth looking at, they have the tight racing figured out but their costs are also a problem. In Europe and other parts of the world two wheels are the primary form of transportation and people are groomed from early ages to ride scooters ie Valentino Rossi riding with friends at a young age. Road Racing has to take lower displacement bikes, scooters and dirt bikes more seriously because they represent the fun/safe way to bring more riders into the motorcycling lifestyle. Everyone should try either American Supercamp or a similar type of riding school if they want to see how much fun you can have on a 125cc dirt bike. Rider education is another key missing piece to the puzzle. If we do a better job of offering opportunities to learn to ride and rent bikes we will attract more people. More family friendly riding events and facilities will go a long way to getting and keeping people on bikes. We have to make it easier for people to get into the lifestyle. While higher gas prices hurt they are also going to help get people on two wheels. In other places in the world fuel is more expensive and two wheels are the primary form of transportation.
screamer69   July 20, 2011 10:22 AM
remember when everyone thought the old AMA sucked?...well, Hayden ,Mladin, Spies, Major manufacturers support...we never knew we had it so good...
charlie toast   July 20, 2011 09:47 AM
I lost all interest in watching AMA Pro racing when DMG took over. Instead of keeping the Superbike class as the main attraction, they dumbed everything down, and changed the rules to suit domestic manufacturers. Instead of racing being used to develop the breed, the rules were changed to allow anachronistic machinery to compete. I can't imagine where the next Ben Spies will come from - AMA racing no longer offers a logical progression to WSB and MotoGP. By contrast, series such as BSB prove that you can have a whole weekend of close racing in several classes, with strong attendances at the tracks, along with good TV coverage, although that's probably easier in a smaller, more densely populated country such as the UK.
AnthonyD   July 19, 2011 06:56 PM
One major problem with motorcycle racing as a spectator sport is that most people cannot identify with motorcycling or the motorcycle lifestyle. This thought popped into my mind while reading the article. Most kids in this country will get a chance in their youth to play baseball, football, soccer, skate board or other action sport. This was the same for their parents. Compare the number of people who get a chance to participate in these sports during their younger years and the amount of fans at the corresponding professional events. Motorcycle racing and motorsport in general, in the USA, is a niche market and not supported by the masses. I know this doesn't explain the phenomenon that happens with GP and F1 in Europe but in the USA, people aren't crazy over those events either/anyway. Thoughts?
SteadyEddie   July 19, 2011 04:24 PM
TV Coverage is important but let's face it, the new TV is YouTube and if you want new fans there are tons out there, you just have to be creative and offer them something they want - think viral marketing. As far as racing, fans want to see riders race and tight packs of riders with multiple lead changes and smart passing. When engineering allows a couple riders to run off and have their own little race few people care. Most people care about top speeds, miles per hour, corner speeds not fractions of a second. Heat races are more exciting than qualifying. Supercross has it figured out for the most part, no need to reinvent the wheel. Attracting new fans is going to take way more than a TV package in this cluttered media market. These ideas were only meant to be a starting point, not a final list on what has to change. The AMA road race event schedule has been designed for die-hard enthusiasts not more casual fans.
DaveMinella   July 19, 2011 02:17 PM
Ed, I'm going to agree with you on most of your points, but vehemently disagree with other point. My major gripe about the sport is, as you said, lack of public relations. As a PR professional, it blows my mind that an organization so successful in marketing from a grass roots level is completely missing the boat in this arena. Same with overall branding. Is some simple market research needed, perhaps. But it may be more than that. Somewhere there's a disconnect in reaching new fans. Something I'm surprised you didn't bring up it TV coverage. Maybe the best way to expose new fans to motorcycle racing isn't by burying it between reruns of Pinks All Out and American Trucker on the Speed Channel. The two points I'm going to completely disagree with you on are #1: Dumbing down the Superbike class. DMG's efforts to make Sportbike the premier class failed; not because of rider talent, but because fans - whether casual or fanatical - want the premier class of any sport to be bigger, badder and faster. Cutting costs and slowing down the machines isn't the way to do that. #2: I think you're really missing the point here - The "boring and irrelevant" show. Fist off, qualifying is exciting. It allows new fans to see bikes on track before the chaos of the race kicks in. What better time to explain to your newbie, non-rider friend things like shifting, lean angles, contact patches, drafting. Practice time is the perfect time for education. And, the "slow, drawn out and spread out" schedule of the race weekends is the perfect time to walk the paddock, chase down riders for autographs and get up close and personal to the race machines. In my opinion, the loose fan restrictions and time and access to the riders and team is the greatest thing about the weekend. It's the one aspect of our sport that sets it apart from EVERY other sport at the pro level. P.S. I know a lot of people who aren't engineers who get excited about fractions of a second.