The MotoAmerica project is in its third year but what is the current state of Road Racing in the United States? At the opening round of the 2017 season we sought out the opinion of some of the biggest names in the paddock
The third year of the MotoAmerica championship has seen it continue to grow but how close is the series to prospering?
Within the paddock there is plenty of optimism that the series is on the verge of a true breakthrough as it seeks a return to the golden era of road racing in the United States. Three years ago, Wayne Rainey talked about looking to provide a stable platform for the championship and one that could offer growth potential. With a strong TV deal in place and manufacturer interest returning to the series - Suzuki and Honda have increased their involvement for 2017 - Rainey has now set his sights on a higher goal: making the US a destination for top riders around the world. Last year saw former Moto2 world champion Toni Elias move to America in search of another challenge and an opportunity to win races.
“Of course with me being here and having been a part of the family of MotoGP it helps us,” said Rainey. “The MotoGP paddock knows Toni and he grew up in that paddock but for whatever reason he left. I don’t know too much about the situation towards the end of his career. What I do know however is that he came to me at Indianapolis in 2014 and said 'I need to find some stability because I'm riding for different teams every weekend. Do you think there’s a chance to find a seat in MotoAmerica?'
“At the time there wasn't but I said, you never know what will happen, though. As it was, last year Jake Lewis got injured, and Toni was lying on the couch and his phone’s not ringing from other championships. Suddenly his phone rang and it happened to be with an offer of a full factory US manufacturer Superbike team, Yoshimura Suzuki. So I think Toni probably thought this was an opportunity that he wasn't going to let slide. I think that he’s probably never ridden better because of this opportunity.
“I don’t think he gets recognized for what he did, especially in the Grand Prix paddock, but I understand that. I had some success over there and I probably thought the same way, but there’s all these other championships throughout the world that new talent’s going to come from somewhere. So if Toni’s strong in our championship and we’ve got some riders putting it on Toni, it makes people take a look at those riders in our series.”
As the Elias story illustrates one of the biggest attractions of MotoAmerica is still undoubtedly Rainey but that's only part of the story. Within the paddock the work that has been done is truly being appreciated because for the first time in years Road Racing in the United States is back on the map.
Back to life
“This series was on life support and they were pulling the plug” was one of the most popular statements within the paddock when asked about how the series has grown under Rainey's stewardship. The triple world champion felt a debt of honor in taking on the running of the championship but he's far from a figurehead. He's as motivated to make MotoAmerica relevant and popular again as he was when he was racing.
“This job kind of found me because it wasn't something I was looking to do,” admitted Rainey. “Honestly, if somebody would have said, we’ll give you a billion dollars, will you go fix it? I would have said no. I just wasn’t interested. But because of circumstances I was working on the spec motorcycle with my partners and it got me back in to the industry.
“It got me thinking about as I started to investigate to see that there was the US championship was hurting. There was less interest in US riders. I thought, wow, everything that I’ve got came from my upbringing through the US championship and now I see nobody’s talking about it, nobody’s going through it. Somebody pretty high up in another organization said the Americans are too far behind now. They’ll never catch up. That’s probably what motivated me the most.”
Tough challenges make for great motivation
That motivation has been combined with Rainey's famous work ethic but even so the challenge facing the MotoAmerica team was immense. Paul Carruthers, communications manager for the series, offered an insight into what it has taken to get racing back on its feet in the US.
“Honestly, I don’t know that this series would have worked with anybody else,” said Carruthers when asked about Rainey's involvement on a day to day basis. “Not only does Wayne bring the credibility to the series but he’s got an incredible work ethic. Once he decides he wants something, he sets out to do it. To him, this series is just like trying to win another world championship.
“He wants this to be successful and he works as hard as he possibly can to make that happen. Sometimes we all get a little impatient about our progress but when you think about we’re only starting our third year. The changes that I can remember from when I last covered Road Racing [as editor of Cycle News] until now are just night and day.
“When MotoAmerica started the paddock wasn’t a very fun place to work any more. Everybody was kind of dour and down. In the last year there were only five races and the television package wasn't good. When MotoAmerica came in, Wayne knew that to do that we had to start building the series back up to the point where people wanted to race in it and factories wanted to take part in it again. I think initially we did a good job of stabilizing the series and getting everybody in the paddock happy again, working on the rules.”
Stable rules make for happy racers
Those rules are now a mirror of the WorldSBK specification and that is something that will also help the series going forward. Last year Cameron Beaubier raced on the world stage at Donington Park in place of Sylvain Guintoli. On face value the Yamaha R1 should have been similar to his MotoAmerica machine, but the regulations were so different that he had to learn the bike from the ground up. With the regulations now matching WorldSBK it should mean that if a rider gets an opportunity such as that they wouldn't be fighting as much of an uphill battle.
“I’m part of the manufacturers’ group, and we always discussed for many years different rules,” explained Pat Alexander of Suzuki North America. “But really the group didn’t do much. A lot of times the decision was the rule the organizers wanted, and unless it was really a problem for the manufacturer there would be no change. Now, they talk to us. They gave us their idea of what they wanted as a plan to go forward with this series and we endorsed it.
“I think that Yamaha and Suzuki are looking for what’s best for the industry and the rules are part of that. Going to the WorldSBK rules is another part of MotoAmerica’s scheme. In the past with the regulations being for lesser specification people would see our guys getting trounced by the WorldSBK. With that being the case, why would you watch it? If we can be closer to them, then I think that also adds to the flavor of our series.”
Getting it right
Drafting the regulations, in conjunction with the FIM's Technical Director Scott Smart, was a big challenge. The cost of running the higher specification was one that had to be weighed against the potential it would offer in the future. With STK1000 bikes lining up alongside the Superbikes it seems that a good balance has been found.
“The way the rules are, being on the same level as WorldSBK helps drive development of the bikes,” said Rainey. “There’s some things manufacturers can now do to really open up the performance of that bike. Yamaha has had their bike for a few years now but suddenly there's new areas to start working on. Competition breeds excellence and that’s what racing is all about. With Suzuki they are at the start of their new bike and will be looking at a championship that's competitive. They’ve got a good target to work on with Yamaha and it's a similar story for Honda. We’ll see what happens from here going forward.”
Moving forward and moving upwards is one of the themes for numerous riders in the paddock. Roger Lee Hayden brings with him a famous name but also a lot of talent. Thanks to the factory support Suzuki are now receiving the Kentucky native is finally on a full works Superbike. While his aims have changed as a result of having a brand new 2017 Suzuki GSXR1000 at his disposal most of his good feeling comes from the feeling of being in the championship at the right time to see it explode once again.
“MotoAmerica and racing in America is back on people’s map,” commented Hayden. “I think that having Toni here helped with that, but we've also had Claudio Corti, a former MotoGP rider here, and now Sylvain Barrier wanting to find a ride in MotoAmerica. I think three years ago there was no chance of riders such as them looking to come here. I think it just shows where the championship is at.
“Also from a manufacturer perspective having Suzuki bring a brand new bike, a full works bike here when they could showcase it in WorldSBK if they wanted to or in BSB. It's very positive that they chose MotoAmerica to showcase their new bike. I think that says a lot about the series and where we are at.
“Of course I wish that we could race at Laguna against the WorldSBK guys but we run Dunlop tires and they run Pirelli so that makes it impossible. It would be cool though to race against them and show what our level is here. Last year, when I read the rumor about the TransAm races I was getting all excited. I think it would be cool because all the British people could talk about how the Americans were going to get their ass kicked and we could show what we could do.
“I'm a big sports fan and having that element in racing would be cool. I want to go and see where we stack up, see where our series is at. Cameron went over to Europe and did a great job last year at Donington considering it was tires and a bike he'd never ridden before.”
America loves racing again
There's an appetite for road racing once again in the United States. Whereas in 2014 it seemed the series was engulfed by an appetite for self-destruction, now the series is growing again. The competitive fire that burns in a racer doesn't take long to come to surface once there's positive steps being made. MotoAmerica has made those initial steps and now they need to use that momentum to move onto the next stage of a revival.
“One of my main focuses was just building the brand initially,” explained Carruthers. “Now our focus this year is getting more spectators at the races. A lot of that falls on me, obviously, to build the brand, to get to the point where people are aware of it and aware that we’re coming to their town or whatever. I think we’re going to see some big progress in that area this year as well.
“The motorcycle publishing business here is kind of gone down a little bit anyway so not a lot of people have the budget to send people to the races again. We’re starting to see that come back again now though and that’s a good thing. Already this year for example the teams have some PR guys where last year they didn’t. So we’ll start to get that ball rolling again who knows? You start getting those people back and the coverage grows from it.”
Racing is a business
Getting the media back on site and covering the series is a necessary step, and while many of the same faces in the paddock are the same as ten years ago there are opportunities that will open in the coming years. One of the biggest reasons for optimism according to Rainey is that MotoAmerica has been able to build important bridges with the likes of WorldSBK and MotoGP series promoter Dorna Sports to offer additional credibility to potential partners and sponsors.
Working on the business side of the series is obviously a key part of Rainey's responsibilities but the racer in him is still as obsessed with speed as ever. It's to that end that incorporating the WorldSBK regulations was important so that lap times can be as close as possible to the world championship.
“There was nothing we could do about the situation as it was when we started,” explained Rainey. “The series wasn’t happy and it wasn’t healthy. So with our relationship with Dorna we’ve been able to get some credibility back right away. We were in a hurry to do that but really we’re going this path similar to WorldSBK and I’m going to judge where we’re at when WorldSBK comes to Laguna Seca.
“That’s where I’ll see where we’re at. Last year we were down a little bit but we were on a completely different spec. This year we’re much, much closer. I’m pushing Dunlop to make sure our tires are good. So they’re developing a great product for us. I think we’ll get the respect I think that we deserve when if we can go and plug a guy in a WorldSBK race and he’s competitive.”
You have to crawl before you can walk, but MotoAmerica now seems to be in full blossom and the return to relevance of Road Racing in the United States is firmly underway.
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