Gordon Ritchie WorldSBK Blog: Outdoor Pursuits

Gordon Ritchie has covered World Superbikes for over a quarter of a century, and is widely regarded as the world's leading journalist on the series. MotoMatters.com is delighted to be hosting a monthly blog by Ritchie. The full blog will be available each month for MotoMatters.com subscribers. You can find out more about subscribing to MotoMatters.com here.

I am not one who thrives on the negatives, or for whom the only good news story is a bad news story. I want every race to be a classic, every new rider a potential champion, every team a proven winner looking to expand. An impossible dream of course but it’s not naivety on my part - it's positivity. No business or sport was ever built, expanded or maintained without overarching optimism and sheer ambition at its core.

Whatever your particular field you have to aim for the moon to even have a hope of getting into the upper reaches of the earth’s atmosphere. WorldSBK was launched on ambition and optimism, survived on it for a long time, especially after some shaky early moments.

But sure enough, it was grown into the premier production-derived race series on planet earth; often by both those driving factors mentioned earlier – ambition and optimism. With MotoGP always the biggest class and firmly in existence long before WorldSBK came along, Superbike has nonetheless aimed above the GP glass ceiling just to get anywhere close to it. Or at least WorldSBK told itself to raise its own bar, and see how high it could jump.

That particular ambition to match GPs may have finally backfired, as reality and jealous rivalry often bites into our hopes, of course. But in these indolent days for real-time track life, optimism and (over) ambition are needed just as much as ever in WorldSBK. And, why not? It is already a strong product in many ways and holds the interest of almost every major factory. That said, bringing back the crowds has proved to be difficult in too many places, and for too long too.

Fans, fans, fans

If I could do one thing for WorldSBK it would be to encourage more spectators to visit a WorldSBK weekend in person. There are lots of good things going on and you can see many of them unfolding. It’s relatively immersive. It is at worst still all set up to provide a welcoming experience - right up to the Paddock Show, the back door of the garages and down pitlane at certain times.

Hold on now, why am I talking about the overall fan experience when nobody can go and physically see any racing at all right now?

Because whatever else has happened in the lockdown we have all had the chance to take a step back and think. Think what-if and why? With some glorious and happy exceptions, fans from countries that used to be enthusiastic WorldSBK watchers now too often pass up the annual chance of watching the fastest roadbikes and Superbike riders on the planet letting loose round their local circuits.

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Note the past tense.
I did love WSBK. And I didn't stop loving it over night, but now that enough time has past I can narrow down my reasoning better.
There are 2 disctinct factors one of which builds into the other. My perspective is from USA.
First switching to the single tire supplier was the first blow.
Now before everyone get's the underthings in a twist let me explain.
One of the best things about WSBK were the wild card entries.  Watching the local guy give it to the world regulars was one of my favorite things.
Here in the US it was one of things that brought me to a world event.
I got to go to Laguan Seca, and watch the Bostrom's, Hayden etc  go against the worlds best. I then followed those guys as they moved into World SBK, and more so when Nicky moved up to MotoGP.
I didn't give a rats ass about GP racing two-strokes until MotoGP went 4-stroke, and some of my WSBK favs moved over.
But when the single tire supplier came around the wild cards went away at least in the US where Dunlop is the main motorcycle racing tire supplier, and Japan where Bridgstone is the main supplier.
Without the wild cards WSBK got less interesting at the same time MotoGP got more interesting which leads to my second point.
Without wildcards to show off their talent US based riders weren't getting an opportunity to move into WSBK
I know Ben Spies is the exception, and at the same time racing in the US was suffering as well so it's not a single thread, but a factor.
With no one to chear for, motivating to go to a WSBK race was hard. Once MotoGP took WSBK spot at Laguna Seca, and with US riders in MotoGP it was an easy choice.
That's my mean reason for not watching WSBK anymore. No one to chear for.
A tertiary factor is the racing got boring.
Most of the factories left, and Kawasaki not having a MotoGP team has dominated.
It's been really dull. Sorry if that offends you.
This season looked to change that. I paid for the subscription to WSBK because everything I read, and pre season testing looked promissing. The first race of the year totally delivered.
Stupid virus.
But I still woulnd't go to race. I'm not interested in going to a MotoGP race either. Honestly outside of the sound of the bikes, and the sweet smell of race gas it's a much better viewing experience on TV, or my computer.
Going to the track, fighting the crowds, paying too much for everything so I can watch something the size of a bug go past me every now and then isn't appealling. I used to pay for granstand seats so I could do what ...
Whatch the race on the big screen when the bikes weren't flashing past me.
Now I'm just watching TV with the sound, and smell.
However being in those stands and yelling at Colin Edwards on the pregird, and having him look up and wave at me, letting him know he's got supporters there.
That's totally worth it.
You see my point?

But perhaps a couple of suggestions (assuming you miss loving going to the track) as I'm also in the states and I can concur on a couple of the points that seemingly are important to you. 

As much of motorsports fanatic as I am, I still can't truly enjoy any racing without someone to root for. So here's the first suggestion... there's no law that says you have to root only for racers that were born in the USA. :)

Second I'm someone who abhors crowds. In my world, the only exceptions to the "three's a crowd" cliche are racetracks, rock concerts and waiting on line to ride roller coasters (that last one is starting to wear thin in my advancing age though). To that end over the last 40 years of going to racetracks, a good 85% of the time it's been only on Fridays and/or Saturdays. Not only are you dealing with far less people, you can better take pictures around the paddock (if that's your thing) of course the ticket prices are far cheaper and you still get all the wonderful smells and sounds! And if you're the type that likes to grab the ear of a racer or are an autograph hound, there are better opportunities for that as well.

Then of course, just as you, I can happily watch the races at home on Sunday where you can get a much better grip on the actual race at hand. This of course only really applies when tracks are local and you can go for the day as opposed to making it a whole vacation trip to attend. My 2 cents anyway.  

I so look forward to travelling to big races, though now more just MotoGP than the others. I live in the UK so totally accept I'm closer to many of the classic races and tracks. I've been doing this since 1985, the race the being the motivating reason to travel to new places and see new things. I have to say that the atmosphere and fan effect at most races I've attended is excellent. We're all different but being part of the crowd at some iconic races means something to me. I might be a bit sad but I've framed the programmes, tickets, press cuttings of the best ones and when I look up at them I remember a great weekend, the race being only one part of it. I do happen to believe-Marquez' domination notwithstanding-that Dorna have got the shows to a very good level for the spectators. Forget the MotoGP paddock, I have connections that can get me in many of them but honestly, smoked glass and sliding doors, you see nothing and nobody, only loads of people looking at themselves in reflections and posting the their endless pictures on social media to show their V.I.P-ness, or not. To be fair, the WSBK paddock has kept the open vibe, as much as is possible. The only growing frustration I now have-and I still can't see a good reason for it-are tracks where you are pinned into certain grandstands or areas. I have always wandered around the whole place on Saturday, in a seat on Sunday. I'm hoping to go to Aragón later in the year, they're hopeful of getting a crowd in by then, but who knows? We bought grandstand seats AND standing area tickets so we can have some variety but shouldn't have to really, luckily they weren't expensive when purchased; you can wander around it all Fridays but we don't do three days, other unrelated stuff to see!

World Superbikes? I still want it to do well but the factories' inputs has undeniably waned over the years, crikey look at the depth field streaming towards Tosa at Imola at the turn of the century, tons of factory bikes and high class riders. We were all still young enough to think we could give these bikes a hard time, most of us are now old enough to know better and to choose something more suitable to our advancing years. I work in the bike trade and Gordon was spot on; we know if we take a long enough look over our shoulders, we're not seeing the young 'uns coming through. I've been doing runs for the Volunteer Riders delivering PPE around the area and have got a few soakings but it's brought back fond memories of being a younger motorcyclist before driving cars, however my 17 year old son simply doesn't get me coming home cold and wet, doesn't compute, why would you do that?!! I think WSBK has got the weekend format about right now, with some more changes imminent, but whatever mounting excitement develops through the first part of the season can easily be snuffed out by the almost two month break-that's never made any sense to me and I hope after this madness, they address it. 

I too rarely go to races, mostly because the viewing experience is so much better on tv, especially now everything's HD, but also because of cost. I go to BSB at Brands each year as that's only 30 or 40 miles away and the prices are still very reasonable. I operate a very crude rule of thumb for run-of-the-mill entertainment, which is, try not to spend more per hour than I earn. Unfortunately for quite a while WSBK has been very run-of-the-mill. This year I was going to the other extreme, Mugello, as a bucket list thing. Not to be.

However, WSBK is starting to look promising again. PI was absolutely riveting and, if it continues in that vein I'd be more willing to also look at it as an excuse to visit one or two places in Europe that I haven't been to.

Your dead right about the lack of a young audience. I hardly ever see gangs of youngsters ripping up the tarmac at night on scooters or small bikes, whereas that was where it started in my day. All I see is groups of dads like me, out for a cruise on showroom condition beauties, not an oil leak in sight. Sad, isn't it. As an aside, the same kids mostly have no idea or interest in a Fender Stratocaster, Rickenbacker Bass, or Hammond organ. Things move on. I guess we should count ourselves lucky that, not only have we lived through an era where we do have racing, it's an era where, in my view anyway, it's never been better and the tv coverage is so good.

Agreed. And, perked up around music - do you play?! Sound studio here w a mix of vintage and new. Marshall/Ampeg stack for a Ibanez bass, Line 6 stack for Gretsch semi hollow body or Fender Mustang, a drum kit, mics. Lots of harmony singing and a looper. Etc, even an elecyric ukulele. You have that bug too mate? Piss off the neighbors like me? Some young folks here are way into it too, but more are "I am a DJ, follow me on social media."

WSBK is on an uptick. I like it. Love it like GP's? No way. But, a couple of guys are coming for Rea. The Duc is gaining steam. Yamaha moving fwd. BMW has a SBK spec engine now on that gem of a chassis. And Honda has a real bike again. Redding is my pick.

MotoGP, despite The Marc, is in a great era. Appreciative. Music? Loving it older and older, there is SO much to explore. But for racing, nearly single mindedly on MotoGP happening now and then the horizon.

Why no one buys sportbike now? And they are glued to phone screens? Sad. Gross. Orwellian.

As an "elder millennial" I think I can speak to the sense of frustration the typical Motomatters reader feels with the under 40 crowd. Yes, folks, the oldest millennials are closing on forty now. We really don't deserve your ire, and neither does GenZ that follows us. I grew up on dirt bikes, shifted to street bikes, got sick of nearly getting killed and went back to all dirt a few years ago. It's a crazy expensive hobby. I have a college degree and have been in the workforce for more than a decade after graduating and the only reason I remain a motorcyclist is the generosity of my (most excellent) baby boomer father. I simply couldn't afford it on my own, especially not with a child of my own now! Luckily granddad is committed to all of us riding together. But make no mistake - money is the limiter for my generation and likely will be for GenZ too. So many of my friends have gazed at my bikes with envy over the years, knowing it's out of reach for their budgets.

I play a lot of video games and still watch racing. It isn't a binary choice. I also have been to 4 SBK races (2009-2012 Miller Motorsports Park) and 6 GPs (Indy x2 and Austin x4) - when I have the means to go, I do! I also have a smartphone I'm sometimes buried in - and so do you!! The trope of "young people on devices" is a tired one. I see the whole world ignoring what's happening around them while glued to a screen, old and young alike. Screens and video games and VR and all the other distractions may chip away at the potential young motorcyclist market, but we like adrenaline too. They are not mutually exclusive. We're just too broke to buy new bikes and gear and attend races the way folks older than us have been able to.

Good points and well said, all of them.

And, I bet I have less disposable income than you, but get crafty to always have a track worthy bike and a track day here and there. Plus, it looks like younger folks are spending money they do have on plenty, just not sport bikes. I appreciate your points, and still hold mine. Adding big appreciation for all the races you've attended, good for you! I wish I enjoyed dirt riding more and was good enough at it to finish a ride in one piece. Much harder than it looks.
Cheers and welcome to middle age, come on in - the water is a tad chilly and stagnant.