The classic conundrum asks:"If a tree falls in the forest and there's no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?" Without settling too deeply into the mire of philosophical speculation, this axiom relates to the idea of objects ceasing to exist when there's nobody around to perceive them. That's the situation that the AMA found themselves in at the running of the Daytona 200 on Friday night. A poor economy, fan indifference and the coldest weather that this reporter has ever seen in northern Florida during bike week conspired to make this year's race the most sparsely attended in, well, maybe ever.
The audience wasn't the only group missing in action. The field was, by some estimates, one of the smallest to take the grid. Eventual winner Josh Herrin said that he didn't have much trouble overtaking backmarkers because the the field was about half of what it was in 2009, the first night running of the 200. Some non-American readers are probably wondering just who the heck Josh Herrin is. This points to another group that was conspicuous by it's absence -- the top riders in America. The greatest rider in the history of the series, Mat Mladin, retired at the end of last season to his Australian home, emerging only to toss barbed tweets into the Twittersphere and the other "name" riders are confining themselves to the Superbike series.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Always something of an oddball race, even by American standards, the 200 is the sole endurance type race on the AMA calendar and requires special tactics and equipment not used during the rest of the schedule. In bygone days, that wouldn't stop the best of the best from appearing at the spring kick-off. The 200 was one of the premiere spectacles in motorcycle racing and world champions would make special pains to appear. People who knew nothing about motorcycle road-racing knew that the Daytona 200 was something special.
In recent times, however, the bloom has been off the rose. In the nineties, Superbike technology had progressed beyond the point of the tires ability to cope with the extreme demands that the unique track configuration and race length imposed. Attempts to ameliorate this safety issue began with different track layouts and descended to the point where the machinery was downgraded from Superbikes to 600cc Supersport machines. The last indignity on this ignominious fall from grace was the imposition of the Daytona Sportbike class, which, detractors claim, are merely tarted-up middleweight streetbikes.
The creator of the Daytona Sportbike, The Daytona Motorsports Group, is an entity owned by the France family of NASCAR (in)fame that purchased the rights to the AMA series in 2008. The series ran mostly in a business as usual fashion until 2009, when the new owners of the series started changing things. DMG quickly gained the reputation as a contentious, ill-managed entity which managed to alienate and anger all of the major players in the series -- riders, manufacturers and fans -- in one fell swoop. Never mind that the actual racing on the track often times rose above the squabbling and turf tussling to approach greatness, given the confines of the machinery specification.
The road to hell is said to be paved with good intentions, and some of the DMG's aims were admirable. The idea that the sport should be accessable by a broader spectrum of fan, advertiser and competitor were lofty goals, doubtlessly worth attaining. It was the manner that these systemic changes were to be implemented and enforced that rankled the affected parties. The DMG upper management style was hard-headed, heavy-handed and, at times, arbitrary and capricious. Combined with the world-wide economic downturn, this nearly killed pro-level motorcycle roadracing in America. Major manufacturers abandoned the series and fan interest was at a low not seen for 20 years or more. Top riders found themselves unemployed or attempting to cast their bread onto foreign waters.
Who Are These Guys?
If someone hadn't been to an AMA race in a few years, the grid for the 200 may have looked to be populated by strangers. While the likes of pole-sitter Danny Eslick, last year's Daytona Superbike champion, series runner-up Martin Cardenas and the defacto factory Yamaha duo of Josh Herrin and Tommy Aquino have been around for a couple of years, most of the top ten qualifiers were virtual unknowns, save for the elderly (by this group's standards) Steve Rapp, who won the 200 in 2007 and long-time privateer Michael "Barney" Barnes. None of the top superbike riders were entered for the 200, unlike past years where one was likely to see a Bostrom or DuHamel or whomever on the grid.
The Art of War
8 pm Friday evening saw the field lined up in ~40 degree temps. Thankfully, the AMA has gone back to a conventional starting grid, disposing of the much reviled flying "safety car" starts. When the flag dropped, the field surged forward only to see 4 riders crash in the first turn, suffering from the effects of too much speed on cold tires on a cold track. Second-place qualifier Martin Cardenas, on the Monster Energy/Roadracing World GSXR 600, quickly followed suit in turn three and the race was red-flagged less than a half-lap in.
A repeat of last year's multiple red-flag, safety car jumbled debacle was avoided however and the field re-gridded barely 15 minutes later, minus Cardenas, whose crew had been unable to repair his Suzuki in time to make the start. Roadracing World Suzuki's Danny Eslick jumped the start before the gun, but was able to stop his Suzuki, and thereby took advantage of the new "kinder, gentler" start rule that gives race management the freedom to forgive such a transgression if the offender doesn't gain a competitive advantage.
Seven riders, including Herrin, Tommy Aquino, Eslick, Rapp, Project 1 Yamaha's Dane Westby, Pascal Picotte Racing's Brett McCormick and Aussie Dave's Kev Coghlan were all within a second in a take-no-prisoners battle with 3,4 and 5 riders wide on the banking that prompted track announcer Chris Carter to exclaim that the race was "all out war!" The Yamaha backed efforts of Herrin, Aquino and Westby with their hordes of technicians and spares were in marked contrast to the McCormick, Rapp and Spanish and European Supersport champion Coghlan's decidedly privateer efforts, a situation that diminished the three's drive not one little bit.
Aquino's Yamaha was jetted overly rich which caused it to belch fire out of the exhaust like a flame thrower and forced him in to the pits, nearly out of gas, 2 laps earlier than the rest of the lead pack. The release valve on Aquino's quick-fill refueling can stuck open, flooding the Graves R6 and the pit box with gallon after gallon of hi-test race gas, which ended his night. After all the initial pit stops were done, Herrin and Westby came out ahead of Eslick and Rapp by a gap of 6-8 seconds.
Herrin, showing no ill effects from a collision he had in the pits with a fire/safety vehicle before practice that saw him clutching his left shoulder in obvious pain, and Westby continued their bare-knuckles brawl until Westby lost 2 seconds on the last pit, which, despite his concerted efforts, he was unable to make up on Herrin, who was running 1:50 second laps and sliding his rear Dunlop well into the latter stages of the race. Herrin, resplendent in his new stars and stripe leathers, took the checkers, the winner of the 2010 Daytona 200.
As stated earlier, very few fans were in attendance to see the race. Which is all, to put it mildly, too bad, really. If you managed to be at the track on Friday you were witness to some of the best racing the 200 has seen (at least in the first two-thirds of the race) in a long while. Combine that with the recent efforts of the AMA to make amends to it's competitors and major players for it's heavy-handed managerial tactics, including a purge of the ruling junta, professional roadracing in America appears to have a much brighter future than it did mere months ago. The climate has changed so much that there's even talk making the 200 a Superbike race again. One can only hope.