Monday, December 15, 2014

Did American flat track gain, or lose, prestige last weekend?

Last year, when Marc Marquez pretty much single-handedly resurrected the Superprestigio as a short track race, I pressured him to include Brad Baker, who was then the Grand National Championship #1 plate holder.

When the organizers relented and invited Baker, they at first wanted to create a siamesed event, where World Championship road racers competed in their own race, and outsiders never raced against them. Marquez himself insisted that at the end of the night, the best of the Grand Prix boys would face off against the best short trackers from Europe, along with Baker.

Baker won, to no one’s real surprise, although Marquez kept it close until he crashed (twice.)

In the spirit of complete accuracy, technically there were three Americans in the Superprestigio: Baker, who was sort of an official ambassador for the GNC; Kenny Noyes, who is an American but lives and races in Spain full time; and Merle Scherb who was a part-time GNC competitor and occasional instructor in Colin Edwards’ Texas Tornado motorcycle camp.

Fast forward to this year, and there were three official GNC racers representing the U.S. Baker, again; reigning GNC #1 plate-holder Jared Mees; and Shayna Texter, who rode for Latus Triumph last year.

Again, the structure of competition kept the GNC regulars away from the road racers until the last race. (Though Noyes, as the current CEV Superbike class champion, raced with the Dorna group.)

Trouble came early when Baker crashed hard and dislocated his shoulder in practice. Shayna Texter is not a short track ace; she’s better on the bigger, faster tracks; she didn’t make the final.

That set up the final, U.S. vs. Spain (and the rest of the world) race as a straight, winner take all fight between Mees and Marquez, who’d been untouchable in their respective divisions all day.

The problem, for U.S. flat track, is that Marquez won.

Well, maybe it’s a problem. I mean, no really informed observer believes that on balance, Marquez is already better at flat track than the best Americans. But still, that’s how it’s being reported in much of the world.

Motorcycle News in the UK, for example, simply wrote Marc Marquez has taken on the best of the American flat track world and won, beating three times AMA Grand National champion Jared Mees to win the overall class at the reintroduced Spanish dirt track event.”

Over at MO, editorial director Sean Alexander saw it as setting up a great rivalry for next year, but at least one informed flat track observer on by FB feed was, like, “What the hell? We didn’t win?!?”

The irony in all this is that last year, I had a bizarre Twitter exchange with the Andy Leisner, the boss at Cycle World, who told me that they didn’t want Baker to attend, because they were afraid he’d spank Marquez too bad, and wreck the event. No worries about that any more.

People will equivocate. They were running 17” wheels and GP rain tires; Marquez is used to that setup but Mees was not. Anything can happen in short track. Mees is not the best singles rider in the GNC; and, obviously, Marquez is a very special case. But while a lot of people in the U.S. flat track community are putting a positive spin on the event, I have to think that quite a few of them are also privately shocked. 

Last year—and this year until the final race—American flat track craved the global prestige it got from the Superprestigio. But suddenly it seems as if some Spanish johnny-come-lately has just shown up our #1 plate holder. 

Next year, AMA Pro Racing should send reinforcements. 

NOTE: For the record, before you attack me, personally, for voicing this opinion. Let me make this clear: Jared Mees is a better—much better—flat tracker than Marc Marquez is. 

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

If ASRA/CCS sanction a 200 mile race at Daytona, is it the "Daytona 200"?

I don't want to dump on ASRA/CCS, which is a great organization, but I'm shaking my head over the announcement that this year's Daytona 200 will be sanctioned by ASRA and run according to its Sportbike class rules.

Obviously, Daytona (the speedway, not the town) gets to decide who uses the "Daytona 200" name, because they (presumably) own the trademark. So technically, the race will be "the Daytona 200". But what the fuck?..

Imagine a world where the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has a falling out with all the unions that control feature film production. So all the big film studios say, "We're having nothing to do with the Academy." At that point, if the Academy decides it will still produce an Academy Awards show, and they're going to give out Oscars, but they're only going to invite ultra-indy films produced by amateurs using non-union talent--at that point, is it still really the Academy Awards? Would the winners really be able to say, "I won an Oscar"?

Anyone who's followed the long decline in the 200, since the days when it attracted a truly world class field would say, even the real Daytona 200 hasn't been a real Daytona 200 since the '80s. But who does DMG DIS think it's fooling by giving the race to an amateur series?

Admittedly, the claimed $175,000 purse sounds a lot bigger than the money in ASRA/CCS races. And if enough quality riders and machines show up, DMG DIS/ASRA/CCS can make me look like a churlish old bastard for writing this. But we've heard DMG make big purse claims before, which proved to be so much bluster and hot air. It remains to be seen how DIS delivers on this promise.

As far as I'm concerned, if they're going to legitimize this incarnation of the 200 by virtue of the size of the purse, $175,000 is about $325k short. Offer $150k/$100k/$75k for the podium, and pay enough through 15th to cover all of an international team's travel costs, and you might see (for example) a bunch of the teams who race in the TT come over. Guy Martin and Michael Dunlop won't give a shit that the track's not up to FIM safety standards.

For the record, every time I write something like this, a whole bunch of whingebags leap to the defense of the aggrieved club series. So in advance, fuck off. I think ASRA/CCS is great. I'd love to race in some of your races. But you can't just run your Sportbike field for a 200 mile race at Daytona, and call it the Daytona 200, and have that mean anything in a race with the 200's heritage. Hailwood and Agostini raced in the 200; Dick Mann and Cal Rayborn; Foggy, and Russell, and Duhamel even, recently.

This isn't that.

NOTE: After I put this up, Chris Carr commented via FB that DMG has nothing to do with the 200. I'm assuming he's right, since he's better informed on it than I am. So I'm saying DIS -- the speedway -- not DMG. I'm pretty sure they're owned and controlled by the same people, so I'm letting the rest of it stand.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Tour de Media: Bike Magazine's still got it, and Dirt Bike Test's new business model

After a few years away from the publication, I wrote a feature for the UK magazine Bike last summer. And as a result, I think they've put me on the comp list, because every now and then I get it in the mail. Besides getting it for free, the other benefit is, I get it long before it appears on U.S. newsstands.

Anyway, the issue that I just got had the final installment in a six-part story in which Bike returned a Suzuki V-Strom to Suzuki's factory in Japan. IE, a 16,000-mile test ride.

It was the sort of audacious story that made me love Bike, years ago, when I was working at Motorcyclist Magazine in L.A. Back then, it was the only magazine that we used to actually bring in to editorial meetings and pass around, to generate ideas. We were openly jealous of it, which was interesting considering that at the time, Motorcyclist had about triple Bike's circ. So it wasn't that they had a budget and we didn't, it was just that their Editor-in-Chief had balls.

Where was I? Oh, right… well anyway, in the intervening decade, I guess that the Internet hit the U.S. magazines a little harder than they British ones. And the UK magazines, like Bike, are doing an even worse job than Motorcyclist and Cycle World are, in terms of fighting a rearguard action against the continued encroachment of sites like Motorcycle-USA and MO. (Suffice to say that Bike's official web site is rudimentary; it exists only to promote newsstand sales of the print edition; the blog's only got two posts, since early 2013!)

But that great six-part feature—which was expensive in terms of travel and manpower—reminded me that Bike's editors are still greenlighting projects that no American web site or magazine would undertake.

Will that be enough to ensure the survival of the still-entirely-print Bike? I'd like to think so. As crocodiles would say, not all dinosaurs are destined for extinction.

Meanwhile, although I'm not really a dirt bike guy, I was interested to spot Jimmy Lewis' new project, Dirt Bike Test.

Lewis is a massively qualified tester, and the web site is interesting. So far, there's not much advertising on it, so it's not obvious how/if/when it might become a viable commercial venture. There's a link on the site called "Advertise with us" that explains that manufacturers can supply bikes or products for testing, for a fee. The amount's not listed. Paying the fee doesn't get them editorial control, in terms of the content, but they can decide whether they want the review to run or be killed.

Lewis says that does not mean people won't read negative reviews in Dirt Bike Test, because they'll also review bikes that the contributors or their friends own and lend them.

That made me wonder what would happen if a manufacturer paid them to test a bike, then didn't like the test and killed it, and then some friend of Jimmy's bought that model and offered to loan it to the site for a second test. Would they then run a negative review? Or would the manufacturer's initial payment give it a permanent veto?

When I was testing street bikes (for Motorcyclist, Road Racer X, and occasionally as a freelance contributor to MO) it was very rare to ride a bike that wasn't excellent. And when people asked—and they often did ask—whether manufacturers who flew me to tests in exotic locations, business class, and wined and dined me en route were essentially buying positive press, I protested that the baseline for all sport bikes was now so high that almost none warranted a truly negative review. The truth was, as testers, we agonized over reviews, searching for any negative points to offset the almost embarrassingly glowing tone.

That said, there were times at Motorcyclist when potentially negative notes were cut from my reports. I remember one Triumph Daytona launch at Barber (about 2004?) when several bikes pulled off the track making really ominous bottom-end noises. Like, main bearing or big end failures, of brand new motors in a few hours. I thought I had to note that in the launch report, but Boehm cut it.

Anyway, I'll be interested to see what happens with Lewis' project. The content's great, so far, though there's not much of it, yet. And I doubt major bike makers will actually pay him to test their bikes, so the business model may need some testing and development, too.

So far, for my money, the only really unbiased vehicle tests are Consumer Reports' car tests. They buy everything, at full retail and anonymously. Then they sell the cars after testing. That means they can't ever be 'first' or even tied for first, compared to car magazines who are being invited to launches long before dealers have stock. A motorcycle magazine—print or online—that used that model would add a few grand to the cost of every test, in the form of the difference between the full-bore retail purchase price, and the price the publication could get for the used bike. And it would dramatically increase the cost of crashes, which are currently absorbed by the manufacturers (when press bikes are crashed.)

Still, they'd be buying unimpeachable credibility.

Monday, November 17, 2014

This Christmas, if you buy any of my other books, you'll get a free copy of my Bathroom Book of Motorcycle Trivia!

Just when you thought Christmas advertising had reached its nadir, you're here. Sorry about that.

But even though this ad is tasteless, signed and inscribed books make tasteful Christmas gifts. And this year, every time you buy a copy of Riding Man, On Motorcycles: The Best of Backmarker, One Man's Island (DVD), or BMW Racing Motorcycles: The Mastery of Speed, you'll get a free copy of my best-selling book—the Bathroom Book of Motorcycle Trivia.

To go to the order page, click the Crappy Santa photo just to the right!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

More photos from an American in Japan, 1959-'61

Mike Harper today. He runs Harper Moto Guzzi with his son. They're the world's largest Guzzi parts distributor. In the late '50s, he raced a BSA in the U.S. Midwest.
In 1959, Mike enlisted in the Navy. He was assigned to the Atsugi Naval Base, near Tokyo. He was supposed to provide mechanical support for HUK-1 heavy lift helicopters like this one, but soon after he arrived, the Navy transferred all the Huskies somewhere else. Mike got a cushy job as Shore Patrol, which left him a lot of time for motorcycles.
He bought this Honda 350 Dream single...
…and joined the Atsugi Road Brothers. The club's members were U.S. navy men and local bikers.
They hung out at Aoki Motors, the local Honda and Yamaha dealer.
The ditch at left is a 'benjo' ditch; an open sewer. "I guess you didn't want to crash in there," I said. "No," Mike replied. "But everyone did."
The Navy let the Road Brothers use Navy vehicles to take their bikes to races! Rider pictured: Mitsuo Aoki.
One of the biggest races in Japan at that time was a national scrambles at Fujinamiya.
 Mike raced at Fujinamiya on his BSA 650, but it was a handful on the rough course.
The next year, he was the official factory rider for the Lilac team. He's E31 here.
The Lilac was not up to the challenge; he never finished a race on it.
When they weren't racing, there were often field meets. Today, motorcycle accidents are a major 'readiness' issue for the armed forces, and they're trying to incorporate motorcycle safety training for soldiers, airmen, and sailors. Maybe they need to make skills development fun, as these guys did. This bike belonged to one of the Japanese members of the Road Brothers, who used it to deliver laundry
 Several road brothers prepare for a field meet event.
 There were lots of big American cars in Japan at that time, apparently.
 Mike on a 50cc Tohatsu. When they raced at Japanese air bases, they had to ride around bomb craters.
Another shot of 50cc bikes on an air base.
 Mike with his 350 single.
Another sailor, Roger Thomas, poses with a pair of then-new 305 Superhawks.
 A field meet at Shimoda air base.
 Atsugi club members' field meet.
 Field meet.
 Field meet.
 Riding a greased plank(!)
 This was a "lime run". Riders followed a series of white lime markings, along an unknown route.
 Another sailor from the Kansas City area, Dick Fletcher, on a road above a military housing area near Yokohama.
 Mike, on a Meguro 250, with Tomio Aosabi, one of the Japanese members of the Road Brothers. Mike "got orders" [to return to the U.S.] in 1961. Although he later became a Yamaha dealer, he never returned to Japan, or saw any of his Japanese pals again.

 Mike on his BSA Rocket Gold Star

 One of the places they rode out to visit was "the big Buddha" at Kamakura.
 Drag racing on an air base.
A group of Road Brothers on part of the Chiba-Atami road course.
Winning that race got Mike entry into the Tokyo Otokichi Club, and an invitation to test ride the Honda RC160 on Honda's test track. He met Soichiro Honda on that day. I asked him when it dawned on him that he was witnessing the most important moment in Japanese motorcycle history -- the time when Japanese manufacturers made the transition from copyists to innovators, and when the quality of Japanese bikes began to surpass their more established European and American competitors. He told me, "Oh, about twenty years after I left."

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Was a GoPro camera responsible for Michael Schumacher's brain injury?

There are stories circulating which suggest that Michael Schumacher's skiing injury may have been made far more serious because a GoPro camera mount on his helmet somehow weakened the helmet. Schumacher fell while skiing, and struck his head on a rock. Although the camera itself was undamaged (and has provided investigators with video of the fall) his helmet shattered.

I think this news has implications for the people who write racing rules.

As the story goes, a French technical institute examined the broken helmet and determined that the structural failure was not the result of manufacturing or material defect. They've speculated that the GoPro mount somehow caused the failure.

It's become incredibly common to see ordinary commuters or recreational riders with GoPros mounted to their helmets or bikes. God knows what they do with the hours of incredibly boring video they must record; presumably it's deleted without ever being watched. And, of course, every fucking stinter has a camera, or two or three, mounted. This new toy for narcissists incredibly tiring. (Although I do admit that some of the videos they record are entertaining…)

Even Marc Marquez was wearing a helmet mounted GoPro at the Superprestigio. I mean, WTF? There's not enough video of him? He has to record his own?
I can sort of see why club racers record their own races; races that aren't being recorded any other way. But when Marquez and Baker tangled in the Superprestigio, Marc's camera ended up on the track. Probably no big deal on a slow speed, dirt short track. But I don't like the idea of purposely adding non-essential components to road racing bikes—components that are just another thing to fall off and, possibly, cause a crash.

Now, with the suggestion that a helmet mount may have greatly exacerbated Schumacher's injury, it's time for racing organizations to ban helmet cameras, and give serious thought to banning bike-mounted cameras, at least until technical rules have been written that ensure they won't just become track debris.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Jay Leno can't stay retired

This past summer, I dropped by Jay Leno's garage, looking for material for my column in Classic Bike magazine. Leno dropped a little bombshell in the course of our chat. Here's the text I sent in for my September "Classic America" essay

“And of course there’s this: the most misunderstood bike of all time.”

Jay Leno and I had been meandering through his bike collection, and stopped by a Suzuki RE5. 

“At 70 miles an hour, this thing is so smooth; it’s like a turbine,” he said. Then, he reached down, turned a key, and punched the starter. It spun for a few seconds without catching. He punched it again; again with no joy. He shrugged.

“Is that a Water Buffalo?” 

That question came from Roland Sands, who walked up with another guy who was introduced to us only as Anthony. 

Sands—one of the most respected custom bike builders in the U.S.—had been over in an adjacent room, where he was installing one of his bikes near several tables laid for a formal lunch. As it happened, on the same day I came to interview Jay, a dozen motorcycle journalists had lunch in the garage, as part of a press junket organized by BMW. They were all riding the new R nine T. 

Sands was there because BMW hopes that the R nine T will become a favorite of the custom crowd. And, as I was told later, ‘Anthony’ was Anthony Kiedis, of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I’m pretty sure that Leno thought he was Roland’s assistant, as I did.

I worked on a couple of events with Jay, back in the days when he was the star of the Tonight Show and a fixture on American TV five nights a week. Every time I visited the garage, I marveled at his 150 cars and 100 motorcycles; his facility and tools; and a staff devoted to nothing but maintaining and restoring his bikes and building almost anything that he could imagine. 

He’s got an Ariel Atom open-wheel car that came, stock, with a 300-horsepower GM Ecotec motor. His guys built a bespoke V-8 out of two Hyabusa top ends, that makes about 500. That’s the kind of shit they can do in-house. 

A lot of people would be jealous, I guess, but I’ve spent enough time behind the scenes with him to realize the price of fame at that level. People literally grabbing him to adjust microphones, or wardrobe, or makeup, or whatever, right up to the second the cameras started taping. And more grabbing any time he was out in public, shaking hands over and over again. They’d wrap a show in mid afternoon and Jay’d hide out in the garage for a few hours. Even then, there always seemed to be someone from the network lurking nearby; a signature needed here, someone who wanted to meet him; a script revision. Long after dark, he’d go home—not to sleep but to work on the next day’s monologue.

Those nights I left thinking, if the devil offered me all Jay’s bikes and tools, with the caveat that they had to come with his life, I’d turn it down.

Leno was thinking about restoring this Brough, which has an Isle of Man history. But when they looked inside the fuel tank, they saw that there was a message engraved inside, which read, "Whip it like a mule"(!?) That tiny detail made him reconsider changing the bike at all. That's the kind of minutiae—and story—that makes him treasure a bike.
This summer, I went back to see if his life is any different, now that he’s turned over The Tonight Show to Jimmy Fallon. I guess I hoped—for his sake—that he’d tell me that he’d finally learned MIG welding in his free time, or show me some project that he’d been saving for years so he could tackle it himself, rather than have his staff work on it. 

I suppose he does have more time, but not that much more. And more privacy, although while we talked, a golf cart rolled through slowly; some private tour for NBC advertisers, or contest winners, or whatever; and there were the 20 or so people associated with the BMW thing; and one more pesky journalist—me. The only real change I noticed was that he said ‘fuck’ a lot more in conversation. I guess when he was on TV five nights a week, he had to rein that in. 

The television network still operates the web site, which gets six million hits a month and is the home of a web-TV series, which just earned its sixth Emmy nomination (the equivalent of the BAFTA Awards for U.S. television.)

In passing, Jay mentioned that there were plans afoot to produce a broadcast TV version of the web series. He was evasive when I tried to pin him down on details, but said it would be on the air soon. 

Actually, he said “probably by the time this comes out,” but Classic Bike takes forever to show up on U.S. newstands, so Jay may have thought an interview done in July would appear around Christmas. There’s an excellent chance that you’re reading a bit of a scoop, since—at least as I write this—the fact there’ll soon be a broadcast version of Jay Leno’s Garage is not common knowledge.

On the way out I ran into John Pera, who told me, “There’s a lot of people fighting for [the show]. NBC wanted to do a five-day a week show, but they wanted to control the scripting. Jay said, ‘No, no, no, there’s not going to be any scripted, Orange County Choppers fake bullshit.’”

That’s as it should be. They can make a great show just by tapping Jay’s enthusiasm and love of detail. He showed me a Brough-Superior from the estate of Cecil Clutton. It had been raced on the Isle of Man in the ‘Twenties. 

“I was going to restore this,” he told me. “But then I looked inside this tank with a flashlight, and I saw something written in there. It turned out that someone had scratched ‘Whip it like a mule’ on one of the pieces of metal before it was soldered together. I thought, this is history; I’m not touching it.”

Obviously ‘retirement’ isn’t really changing Jay. At least, not too fucking much.

Well, just today the Hollywood Reporter claims an exclusive on the news that Leno will soon have a prime time show on CNBC. Was he really trying to give me a scoop? Maybe I should've done more with the story...