When you take a quick glance at the AMA Superbike series, you have to smile and think that all is good with the featured attraction. On the surface, you’d be correct. You have a stacked plate of talent for display. Everything from the up and coming young guns such as Nick Hayden and Eric Bostrom to the establish talent with World Championship credentials (Mladin, Chandler, Slight and Russell) to name a few. There is also a solid core of talent in the mid level that has a chance to win every weekend as well, Yates, Rapp and Hacking immediately come to mind. But as you dig down into it, there’s not a lot below the surface. AMA Superbike is nothing but a house of cards waiting for one tsunami to come through and destroy ten years worth of work to make this series one worthy of world class talent.
The biggest problem the Superbike series has is that it’s propped up completely by the factories. There have been several attempts for outside teams to put together top quality efforts, but the bikes and support are not made available to these teams. The closest thing that has come to a top level private team is the Competition Accessories effort. While they didn’t have the same level of equipment as the Vance & Hines team, Ducati has at least made the effort to support a non factory team, and for that they should be applauded. The Japanese factories would never do that. They demand complete and total control. If the series is to grow and flourish one of the things that will be necessary is legitiment competition for non factory teams. In every other form of motorsports, even motocross of late, there have been non factory teams and riders/drivers who can and do run up front. If your whole series is based on the factory teams, what happens when there is a downturn in the economy and the factories need to cut back? One of the first places they will go to is the race budget. Racing is something that they like to do and want to do, but don’t ‘need’ to do.
There has been a recession going on in Japan for the last seven or eight years. In fact the latest data released by the Japanese government shows that their economy shrunk by six tenths of a percent in the last quarter alone. That means companies are losing money and laying off people, who then have no money to by luxury goods like motorcycles. Lest you think this is just a Japanese problem, pick up the newspaper or turn on Fox News Channel and you’ll see that there are tremors in the force here in the US. DaimlerChrysler is laying off or giving early retirement packages to 26,000 people, WorldCom is laying off 10,000 people, Lucent 10,000 people, Motorola 4,000 people. You get where I’m going here. The economy worldwide, while not in the tank, certainly is on the edge, and depending on which way the wind blows over the next six to twelve months, we could either be OK or in the crapper. Merlin The Sorcerer (also know as Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan), European Central Bank monetary policy, OPEC and general public confidence will determine that. Now I know you didn’t come here to discuss macro economic, and if you did you are a sick individual, we need to talk. Care to discuss Friedrich Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom”? The point I want to make here is this. Given this somewhat shaky backdrop, what happens if things do go south and the factories pull back their efforts? Who is left to pick up the pieces? In CART or NASCAR or Formula 1 if the factories pull back their direct involvement there are other teams and suppliers to pick up the slack. When Honda pulled out of F1 they still had a presence via the Judd motors, Renault still supplied engines when they pulled out. If Ford were to pull out of NASCAR do you think that Robert Yates or Roger Penske are going to feel much of an impact?
So what happens when Kawasaki, whose revenue comes from shipping, robotics and heavy industry mostly, decides to pull out of the AMA series because they can’t afford it? Who is positioned to take up the Team Green flag? Well back when Rob Muzzy ran the team he still had a parts business to help fund the effort. Vance and Hines or Ferracci Ducati also had business that could help to fund the team if the factory couldn’t flip the whole bill any more. A note here, part of the reason that HMC and Comp Acc do have the US Ducati efforts is that they were willing to pick up more of the bill than Terry Vance. Ducati is a small company, and they could not continue to fund both their efforts in World Superbikes and the US series, even though the US is their largest market. You will notice that they pulled their effort from the British series as well. They are focusing on the world stage where they hope to get a better return on their dollar. Ducati are also one of the few Superbike teams to actively seek outside sponsorship to fund their efforts. Hold that thought because I want to come back to it
Another issue of no outside teams is the lack of development. Again with other motorsports you have some mad genius off in his shop coming up with new motor parts, suspension, aero packages, etc. Where I ask you are the modern day Pops Yoshimura, Rob Muzzy, Eraldo Ferracci or Smokey Yunicks? Men who could be given a machine and almost magically improve it. With the motorcycle industry all you have are the factory supplied parts. If they don’t work, oh well too bad deal with it. In the GP world people like ROC and Harris were able to improve on the Yamaha chassis to the point that the factory team, Kenny Sr.’s, ran it in several races. TSR has improved on the Honda RS chassis. In Superbikes you can’t do that, however, there are other areas of the bike that can be improved. Erion Racing is a good example. Being a satellite team they can do some of their own thing. A big area for them is suspension. Erion runs Ohlins components, while the factory team are required to run Showa. Well what if Showa can’t make a set of forks or a rear shock as good as Ohlins? You did notice that Nicky Hayden didn’t run real well in 600’s last year after being the man on the Erion bike the year before. Well if you’re Erion you can try different things, like checking out the Showa stuff. If you’re factory Honda, who own Showa, you’re stuck with what you have and hope that you can work around it.
OK lets go back now and talk about outside sponsorship. One of the biggest things holding back AMA teams from gaining big outside sponsors is the lack of a good TV contract. It is only in the last few months that Speedvision is in enough homes nationwide that they qualify for Nielson ratings. It’s these ratings that corporate America cares about. If you are on TV, but cannot get TV ratings, why would I want to give you money? It certainly wouldn’t be for the two or three hundred thousand people who come to the races. They can do direct mailing for the same exposure for much less money. Besides, if you have a television contract with a broadcaster who can’t even qualify for ratings, well then you must be some backwater series and I don’t want to associate with that. Trust me on this, I used to work for American Express, I know how these people think. One of the questions now will be how many people watch motorcycle racing? If last year’s indications of the Pocono FUSA race on CBS are any indication, they could be good. That event drew a 1.4 Nielson rating, which means about 1.3 million people watched the race. Now you do have to factor in that it had a lead in of some other major sporting event, I don’t remember what it was, sorry, and some of that may have been the mind set of “lets see what these crazy idiots are doing and see of anyone gets killed.” Sad but true.
To add to this the factories, at least in the AMA series, don’t want outside advertisers. Honda had Camel/R.J. Reynolds tobacco as a main sponsor for a number of years. However, when the contract came up they didn’t work real hard to keep it. And once they were gone they didn’t exactly knock the door down to get someone to replace them. There was a big announcement this year about how Universal Studios was coming on board for the next couple years with the Honda team. Well if you saw how much space they have on the bike you’d laugh! You have to look hard to see the stickers. It takes up all of about four square inches on the bike. And then it’s only a Woody Woodpecker sticker. No name of the company, no tag line. If you didn’t know any better you would assume that the rider put it on there because he liked the cartoon. OK, hands up how many of you knew that the Woody Woodpecker cartoon and image are owned by Universal? Me neither. Now that is strategy worthy of someone with an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern. What I believe is that Universal signed up for the Supercross Team and Honda threw in the road race team as a bonus. There are twice as many races with three times the attendance per race and better merchandising as well. Even Jeremy McGrath is doing prime time commercials for Mazda trucks and 1-800-COLLECT.
None of the four Japanese teams have outside sponsorship, save Honda and that’s just barely. Even the Ducati teams in the US don’t. Both the HMC and Comp Accessories teams are funded by the business running the team. While Castrol doesn’t pay Honda enough money to cover Colin Edwards salary for the year for the naming rites to the World Superbike and Supersport efforts, at least it has the appearance. Ducati has aggressively gone after outside sponsors for their World Superbike efforts. They have now signed a unit of Philip Morris to go along with InfoStrada, who do sports marketing, to help defer the high costs of racing. It takes over $10 million a year to run a World Superbike team and about $2.5 million to run an AMA Superbike team. You would think that teams would want to put the cost of racing on someone elseÕs checkbook, but their desire to control the image of what their bikes look like might just force them out of the series.
If that is the mind set that will continue to prevail, then you will never see the series become more than what it is today. The thinking is too small minded, too limited pie mentality (there is only a limited amount to slice up) versus big picture mentality . The big picture says that there are 275 million people in this country and maybe one million of them know about motorcycle racing. That means there are 274 million people I can go after. The limited pie theory says that of that one million I have to fight for my five or ten percent because it will never be any larger than that.
In 1978 there was this regional sporting series that most people in the world had no idea about. It had a fan base of maybe one million people. Funny thing is, they had a few people with some vision and some determination. Twenty two years later they sold the TV rights for $1 Billion, yes that’s billion with a capital B, dollars and now out draw the National Football League on attendance. Yes that little series of former moonshine runners from the backwaters of the American Southeast, NASCAR. Who would have ever thought that watching cars drive around in circles for three and four hours would be such a big deal. Today though, the who’s who of corporate America adorn these machines. Everything from DuPont paint and Miller Beer, to Kellogg’s cereal and Viagra.
What the series is in dire need of is a good flushing. A serious revolution to overthrow the current regimes. The current system is too entrenched for any meaningful change to occur. There are too many people who have much to lose if things change. The mindset of most people in the industry is that they are happy to have what they do, don’t complain, don’t rock the boat. This was illustrated in an IMAX like quality to me during the ’99 Mid Ohio race. Larry Meiers was up in the media area talking about how things used to be. What he said, and this is burned into my memory, though maybe not the exact quote, was this: We should be happy with what we have. (Talking about TV coverage) Fifteen years ago there was no motorcycle racing on TV and now there is, what are you complaining about? Well Larry, and everyone else out there, what I, and many others complain about is that it’s “THIS” mentality that will hold us back. It’s not just TV, it’s everything. People in the industry are so afraid to upset what they have for fear of losing it that they will lose it for lack of progress. A wise man once told me you are either going forward or you are moving backwards, there is no neutral gear in the universe. If you are not making progress then the world will pass you by.
While we many not need someone to lead this revolution with the charisma and iron will passion of a Che Guevara, someone like the Octagon group would be sufficient. It wouldn’t be that difficult. The AMA could still put their stamp on it to satisfy their ego, but there would be someone with the knowledge and skill to advance the series in the US. This wouldn’t be unprecedented, the Supercross series is an AMA series, but SFX (you know, the people who own PACE and the FUSA series) run and promote it. I’m not saying that it’s “THE” answer, but it would be better than what we have.
More than anything I want to see the US series grow and flourish. I want it to be the series by which all others are judged. To accomplish this though will not be easy. Wow now THAT is a major understatement. It might be easier to document cold fusion in the next ten years than turn the AMA series around. The one thing that will not help this happen is silence. Only by demanding more and better quality products and production for the series will it ever become something that the general public will know or care about. Otherwise, and mark my words here, five or six years down the road this series will be a shadow of itself and be about as relevant as a single grain of sand on the beaches of Daytona.