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Old 01-14-2016, 06:40 PM   #1
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MotoAmerica: Roadracing Redemption

Brian J. Nelson

One of the big surprises of the 2015 season was the competitiveness of the Superstock 1000 bikes, with Jake Gagne (shown here) and other Superstock 1000 racers often running toward the front of the Superbike class, though scored separately. Rainey says that hopefully in the future there are enough bikes in each class to run the races independent of each other.

Twelve months ago American roadracing was on the verge of extinction. There were only five races on the AMA Pro Racing schedule, no TV coverage, the SuperBike grid lacked riders, and the general feeling in the pits was that of despair. Today, at New Jersey Motorsports Park during the final round of the inaugural MotoAmerica season, the newly formed MotoAmerica organization is dotting the “i” on a longer, nine-race schedule, TV crews are walking about the paddock filming content for the series’ show, there are 25-plus Superbike/Superstock 1000 bikes on the grid, and, more importantly, there is a general feeling of content within the paddock.

That does not mean American roadracing has a complete bill of health. In fact, nearly everyone in the paddock will admit that the recovery process has only just begun and that the road ahead will be filled with hurdles and hardships, if not only engulfed in negative comments spewing from any number of social media sites: “We expected more from you.” “You guys suck.” “One-week TV delay, are you kidding? What do you want me to do, sleep for a week?” That’s just a few of the comments you’ll find from disgruntled race fans within minutes of scrolling through some of MotoAmerica’s social media accounts. Most people are upset by the series’ lack of live TV but perhaps unaware of the position MotoAmerica staff was put in roughly 12 months ago when it took control of the professional race series.

“We get it, and we understand where they’re coming from,” says MotoAmerica President Wayne Rainey at New Jersey Motorsports Park during the final race of the season. “You know, the thing is that when all of this got started last September, we had no staff and no rules. We had no racetracks, and we had no marketing team. We had nothing, and our first race was in six months. We had to jump right away, so we said, ‘Okay, guys, what’s the goal here?’

“At the end of the day we knew that the most important thing was to calm the system and stabilize our sport,” Rainey continues. “In order to do that we had to make an investment and hire the right marketing people, the right communications people, and the right operations people, and that was a multi-million-dollar thing. As soon as we had people in place, we were able to change the rules. We went in and added classes then updated the schedule and went from five races to nine. We realized though that we weren’t going to get it all done in the first year. So we put a cap on our budget and said, ‘Let’s just do the best we can with this.’ A lot of the fans are mad because there’s no live race coverage, but when you look at the live TV thing, to do it properly was more than we were willing to spend on the whole program this year.

Brian J. Nelson

MotoAmerica President Wayne Rainey (right) and MotoAmerica Partner Chuck Aksland (left) have both spent a good part of their lives in the race paddock but will admit that running a race series is an entirely different challenge. Both say that they are having fun but are continually striving to make it better. “I think it’ll be good when we get the manufacturers back and get live TV,” Rainey says.

“For the first year, we were okay with a week delay,” Rainey adds, in reference to the MotoAmerica show that airs on CBS Sports Network days after the race. “Well, we weren’t okay with it, but where we were as a company in the first few months and where the series was when we started, we didn’t even know if we could make a live show work. If you’ve got a live broadcast and are paying all that money, it’s absolutely got to work. You cannot have any delays. Last year DMG had the live stream option. Now we have that plus a TV package, so I’m still happy with that.”

MotoAmerica partner Chuck Aksland adds to the conversation: “It was very important for us to create a base, and that base was the show. We wanted to create confidence that we could actually run races, have a good program, call races well, and keep them running. That’s the foundation of the whole MotoAmerica series—running a race properly and efficiently. If we were going to check any one box this year, that was the one we wanted to check. If we had live TV and couldn’t run a race, well, that just would have been the wrong way to do it.”
What we want and need to do is just create interest and have a structure where we can find new riders and have racing that is competitive.

While they probably didn’t realize it at the time, the MotoAmerica staff’s foresight and budget-influenced decision regarding live TV would be a blessing, as weather would ultimately play havoc on the series and challenge the newly formed group quite literally from beginning to end. “We had so much rain in the first three races that our spec-tire supplier, Dunlop, had burned through its entire allotment of rain tires and was having to ask teams to bring their own rain tires to get through practice and stuff,” Rainey remembers. “Just nobody anticipated us going through this many rain tires in this short amount of time. I think it’s rained at just about every race [all accept one, actually]. Luckily, one of the first decisions we made as a group for the series was to make sure we were able to race in the rain. With the schedule [DMG] had been racing on, that wasn’t always possible, at least in a safe manner. So we pushed that all the tracks we went to this year were safe. I think making sure it was safe, though, paid off because we’ve been able to race. Racers have to be able to go out there and not worry about being safe, which is important to us. We had to forfeit some great circuits. We’d love to be at Mid-Ohio as an example. There’s a lot of fans there, and riders love that place. And MotoAmerica would love to be there. We just couldn’t see us racing there in the wet.

“Still, where the rain really hurt us this year was attendance,” he continues. “A lot of racing fans make their mind up about going to an event the day of the race. They’ll wake up on Sunday morning, and if the sun is out, they’re here. But if it’s raining, they’re not. A classic example this year is Road Atlanta, where there was four straight days of rain. To sit out in the rain for four straight days is not realistic. So I think the rain really hurt attendance this year, and I’d expect to see more people at events like [Road Atlanta] next year.”

Brian J. Nelson

The entire 2015 MotoAmerica season was mired by bad weather, with rain all four days at Road Atlanta, the second event on the calendar. “To sit out in the rain for four straight days is not realistic. So I think the rain really hurt attendance this year, and I’d expect to see more people at events like that next year,” Rainey says.

The other goal is, of course, to get more manufacturers involved, as right now the main participants are just Yamaha and Suzuki (with Triumph and Aprilia each supporting a team of their own and KTM making obvious contributions for the RC 390 Cup class). The move to more teams will not happen overnight, though Rainey and crew have a plan for at least making the series more appeasing for the manufacturers that vacated the paddock years back.

“Having Suzuki and Yamaha stay involved in the series and keep it at the level that it was, there’s a big debt owed to these two manufacturers, but they also need competition,” Rainey suggests. “They want other factories to come back in just as badly as we do, so we’re working on that. Immediately, one of the things we wanted to do was change the tech rules because we thought that would create more interest with the OEMs that had gone away. In the past, each manufacturer had to develop a bike [specifically] for the AMA Superbike championship, and now the way our championship is aligned with the FIM in regards to the rules, it’s easier for them to build a bike. As an example, the factory Suzuki team can now work with the team out of Japan, or BSB, or even World Superbike on developments because they’re building a bike based off similar rules, which drives the costs of bike development down. And that helps because the budgets don’t have to be what they once were when you raced in AMA Superbike. And that’s part of the strategy for getting Honda and Kawasaki and Ducati back in the paddock; with the rules the way they are, the manufacturer doesn’t have to spend the money developing a special bike just for our class.

“Also, I think people just took a wait-and-see approach with us this year,” Rainey says. “I mean, they knew who we were, but we hadn’t done this before. We hadn’t run a racing series, and I think there were a lot of skeptics. Now, what I feel is everyone recognizes we aren’t making any drastic changes to try to turn the sport upside down. We just basically want to make it more in line with other racing series around the world and work to stabilize things. I think a lot of people see that was the right way to go, and I think the approach will bring more interest to the series.

Brian J. Nelson

On any given race weekend, Wayne Rainey can be seen rolling through the pits talking to racers, racers’ parents, or fans. The sense is that he’s working with them to better the sport, rather than just managing a series.

“Even now, Honda is back in on a commercial side, as a partner,” Rainey continues. “They don’t have a team yet—I think because they don’t have a new bike like they would like to have—but they’ve told their fans and their customers to come support MotoAmerica. They’ve got a toe in the water here. Kawasaki is the same way—they have no presence in the USA, on the racing side of it, and they were never going to have that in the past with the way the rules were, but now we’re in discussions, and they like the way our rules are written. It’s starting to make more sense for them as a company, so I think they’re thinking about it. In fact, I know they’re thinking about it.”

More manufacturer involvement means more seats for up-and-coming racers and thus a greater chance of American riders having the chance to develop as racers and eventually move on to a World Championship series, an idea which very clearly motivates Rainey.

“Racing is not broke, and the riders are as competitive now as they have ever been,” Rainey says. “They just don’t have the opportunity they once did. Over here the OEMs had gone away, so there were less seats available, less money being spent in the paddock, and less room for progression. There’s nothing wrong with the riders though, honestly. All of the top guys here could go race in any national championship and I believe could race for wins.”

Brian J. Nelson

While the Superbike/Superstock 1000 grid grew in 2015, it was still dominated by Monster Energy Graves Yamaha riders Josh Hayes and Cameron Beaubier, who went on to win every race of the season on the new Yamaha R1.

For Rainey and Aksland, having a rider move through the MotoAmerica ranks and go on to win a World Championship would be the mark of a job well done. “You know, a few years ago we had somebody at a very high level tell us that there wouldn’t be another American World Champion—that the Americans had been passed up and left behind,” Rainey says.

“That’s throwing down a gauntlet for us,” Aksland adds. “And really, I think it will be a while until we’re satisfied with where everything is at. It probably won’t end until there’s another American World Champion. Then we’ll sit back and say, ‘Look at what we did.’”

That racer-like urge to win mixed with the entire MotoAmerica staff’s commitment to the continued progression of the sport has already led to a series that teams and riders appear to take greater pride in being a part of. The series might still be a work in progress and have just one year under its belt, but the general sense is that the progress will continue. Don’t doubt these guys or the MotoAmerica series. And don’t doubt American roadracing—it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

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