Monday, March 25, 2013

No kidding. Mike Kidd gets the heave-ho from AMA Pro

I see on the Roadracing World web site that Mike Kidd's been fired from his job as head of sales at AMA Pro Racing. You can read RRW's post for yourself, but between the lines it seems that RRW feels, as I do, that Kidd was a competent guy in an untenable position.

I doubt that Kidd was surprised by the axe, given the absence of a TV package for AMA Pro's top 'summer' product, the Geico Motorcycle AMA Pro Road Racing Championship. (I hope I got that series name right.) Whether Kidd failed to put together TV coverage, or whether the failure was the fault of his employer, or can be blamed on the product itself probably depends on who you ask. Many would blame today's television industry per se.

Anyway, despite the sport's obsession with TV, the entire medium may be passé. I don't even own one.

People interested in learning more about Kidd can read this interview that I conducted with him after the 2010 flat track season. It was originally posted on the old Road Racer X web site, but that's long gone. Luckily, I was able to dig this out of my archive...

Originally posted in November, 2010

When the Daytona Motorsports Group took over AMA Pro Racing a couple of years ago, they drafted Mike Kidd to run the Grand National Championship. He was an obvious choice – an ex-GNC champion who had gone on to a successful promotion career, developing the sport of Arenacross. On the Superbike side, Roger Edmondson came in and, at the very least, ruffled a lot of feathers (some would say he weakened the series just before the economy tanked and delivered it a body blow.) 

The sport Kidd took over, flat track, was on far shakier ground, but he came into the paddock with credibility and vastly better interpersonal skills. The good news, if there was any, was that flat track had nowhere to go but up. The bad news was that while DMG wasn't necessarily planning to milk the cash cow completely dry, there was no indication that Bill France was planning on solving flat track's problems by throwing money at them, either. It would be up to Mike Kidd to pull his sport up by its own bootstraps.

As an outsider looking in, I think that he's gone a long way towards doing that in the 2010 season. New winners like Lloyd Brothers (with Ducati) and Werner-Springsteen Racing (with Kawasaki) have attracted fresh interest; the racing's been great; new promoters and venues have (re)introduced the GNC in markets where it had long been absent.

A week after the season's final race, I had a long chat with Mike about where the sport is right now, how it got here, and where it's headed. This is Part 1 of that interview. While I haven't tried to capture all of his Texas drawl, as a journalist it's always a pleasure to talk to a straight shooter.

Backmarker: I think that the last time we spoke was shortly after the DMG takeover. I don't think it would be much of an exaggeration to say that flat track was at a low ebb. I remember talking to Chris Carr, that first DMG season at Daytona, and he told me, “We've got nowhere to go but up.” Now, two seasons into it, how do you feel about it?

Mike Kidd: When this whole thing started, when DMG took over the road racing, and the flat track, and all that, I flew down and spoke with Roger Edmondson, who was in charge at that time and I had a five-year plan drawn out. We've kind of been following that plan. 

Of course, you get sidetracked as you go along, but after that meeting I spoke to the riders and teams. I told them, Changes are coming, those changes aren't going to please everyone, but those changes have to happen if we want to get our sport back to a point where manufacturers could take a look at it, and use it to market their products.

BM: You've done a lot of things that you said [in our last interview] you'd have to do; you've done a lot of things that other people in the paddock told me you'd have to do. For example, everyone agreed the series had to get back to California, and this year you had a new event in Calistoga that was really well received. How do you feel about the calendar, and how that's shaped up, and event attendance?

MK: We've been watching attendance over the last three years, and in general we and our promoters are pretty happy. In a tough economy, we're either holding our own or even increasing our gates. So that aspect is pretty good. As for going to the west coast, that's where the manufacturers are based, there's a strong motorcycle base out there, and of course there's a strong fan base out there. Bob Bellino, who's been a friend of mine since the Camel Pro days found Calistoga Raceway and it was a perfect fit. The west coast fans were eager to see us come back. Northern California was a hotbed, with the old Sacremento Mile, San Jose, Fresno... it was good. It was a great event. The only downside was, it was in the middle of the season and we had to go to the west coast for one event and then go right back to the east coast. That was stressful on the teams.

BM: Are there good new promoters coming out of the woodwork and saying, Hey I want to get a piece of this action? Or are there, maybe, good promoters who'd dropped flat track years ago, coming back into the fold? How much change is there from year to year in the group of promoters you work with?

MK: Getting new promoters up to speed is difficult. When I say 'promoters' I mean promoters that put on a variety of different kinds of events; monster trucks or concerts or auto racing. When they look at motorcycle racing they see it's a passionate sport. Putting on a Grand National race is expensive, and to make it work for them they need a deal.

So, as I heard that, we created a deal where a new promoter gets a 20% discount on sanction fees and purses in their first year, and a 10% discount in their second year. By the third year, they should be up to speed. And it's worked. That's probably a program we're going to have to stick with over the next couple of years, while the economy's down and we're trying to grow the sport and get new events.

BM: Are you basically working with a different promoter at every race?

MK: Springfield, the IMDA is our largest promoter because they do four events. But most of the other promoters do single events, and I have to be honest with you, that's a problem in that those promoters – although they're interested in the series – are concentrating on their single event. That's where AMA Pro Racing has got to step in, and make sure that we bring the same show to every event, that the spectators can see the same format at every race, because these promoters aren't familiar with what they can do.

New promoters are green, and we have to walk 'em through the first couple of events and that's what we've been doing. I would like to find a promoter that would take on four or five events around the country, and as we find new venues, I could pick up the phone and we could add an event – someone would already have their staff together; that would be the easiest way to add an event.

BM: When you look out at next season, or two years out, are there venues that you think, Man I'd really like to be there – either because the GNC used to go there and it's fallen off the calendar, or just because you've looked at big markets that aren't being served?

MK: We've been working since spring on expanding our presence in California.  We'd love to bring Pomona back; it was on the schedule in '09 and we lost it last year, but we're talking to a couple of promoters that would take that on in 2011. There's been several phone calls and promoters trying to touch base with Cal-Expo in Sacramento to get that back on the schedule. If we had those two, and Calistoga – and I kind of consider Yavapai Downs in Arizona to be a 'California' round – that would take care of that need. [A friend who drove out to Prescott from L.A. for the GNC finale told me that it was a shorter drive, for him, than going to Calistoga - MG]

We have had phone calls from Castle Rock to bring the short track and possibly the TT back on the schedule. That would give us four or five events on the west coast. Of course I'm from Texas, and I think we need to be here in Texas. We used to have a strong fan base down here, with myself, and Ronnie Jones, Terry Poovey, Bubba Shobert from Texas and Oklahoma... I think there are some strong pockets in the Northeast, we used to go to Syracuse, and there were several tracks in Pennsylvania and New York that we used to go to; that's an area we have to concentrate on. The Southeast – trying to get back around the Carolinas, Virginia.

We get emails and phone calls from motorcycle dealers and ordinary fans, asking us to find tracks in their areas, and bring the series to them.

BM: When you say 'Texas' I think of the Astrodome...

MK: You know, all of us that came from the old Camel Pro days; the Astrodome was such a magic event. Everyone had new leathers, new motorcycles... we were guaranteed an event because it was indoors. I'd like to bring that back, but I don't know where that facility would be. I do know that the Tacoma Dome, up in Washington... at certain times of year that's available. That's an area where TT and short track racing is hot. Maybe an indoor race in Tacoma would work...

BM: ...and Tacoma's the kind of town that might really get behind it. They don't have a lot of pro sports right there, and the Sea-Tac metro is a strong motorcycle market; you see a lot of bikes on the street up there.

MK: And Mickey Fay came from there, and Joe Kopp. There's a fan base there. If we could find a promoter, we'd sanction an event. That region has a lot of motorcycle dealers that are good marketers; when I was with Formula USA, we ran a Mile up there, and when I was with Arenacross, we ran a couple of events at the Tacoma Dome that went well. We know there's a fan base, but we have to find a promoter.

BM: The long term health of the sport hinges on money. Riders and teams have to at least hope to make money; promoters have to be pretty sure they'll turn a profit; and surely DMG – AMA Pro – must have a business plan for flat track that will eventually show a profit. So, what is the next step that will make things better for the teams, promoters, and AMA Pro.

MK: The next step is TV. Chet Burks is doing a great job for us this year [webcasting races] and I'd like to keep that going, but we'd also like to extend out and be on Speed and some other networks but that costs money, and you have to have a show worthy of being put on TV.

We started restructuring the 'show' portion of our races – running on time, determining how many laps a heat race should be; a Main... during downtimes, that we're entertaining the crowd. These are things we had to get in place before we could jump on TV. I think we've done that. We're starting on time now; the racing's excellent; the teams are starting to have a good presence. 

So, now's the time to improve out TV presence, but we're in a Catch-22... in today's environment, networks don't pay you to appear, we actually have to pay to be on there. Do you get the sponsor first, to afford the TV? Or do you buy the TV and then go find the sponsor? We're working on that balancing act. I've got several meetings planned over the next few weeks, to fly down to Florida, to meet with our senior members of DMG, to see where we'll try to go over the next couple of years.

BM: What would it cost to get on TV?

MK: It's a wide range; it's the time of day, if you're in prime or overnight, who produces it... I can tell you, because I bought my TV packages in Arenacross – we worked with Chet, and Dan Murphy, and we were the first motorcycle racing on Speed, in '96. I had a five-year deal, and I'd never heard that you had to pay to be on TV... but I took money out of the bank, and we bought the TV, and lo and behold, we made money on the TV show because we had enough sponsors to offset the cost.

Buying the TV, minimum, depending on where you are, is probably $40,000 a show; if you want to get a network, on Sunday in prime, you're probably talking $300,000. You fit your sport where it needs to be; the MadTV, Versus, Speed, those are perfect for us.

BM: Versus does a great job with the PBR [Professional Bull Riding]. The bull riders put on a great show, but Versus does a good job promoting it, too.

MK: They do, and that's another thing you want with your network. You want them to be a partner, promoting your show 24/7/365. You gotta' get a partner in to help build the sport.

BM: When we spoke at the beginning of your tenure, we talked about improving the schedule, and TV package, but I don't remember talking about diversity – getting more manufacturers interested and involved. That may have been just because I didn't ask you about it. But in the last year, wins by Ducati and Kawasaki have raised the profile of flat track in sectors of the motorcycle industry in general – and the motorcycle media in particular – that have not paid much attention to the sport in recent years. Now, I get the impression that increased diversity has become an important part of your strategy...

MK: You have to have the manufacturers involved for any motorcycle racing series to succeed. They pay the riders, they sponsor events, they help subsidize the series. Harley-Davidson has done a great job for flat track for decades, but when the economy's the way it is, everyone struggles. Harley-Davidson needs other manufacturers to be involved. Until now, the riders, the promoters... we all called Harley-Davidson for support. There's only so much money; [Harley's] gotta' sponsor a rider, and subsidize the Screamin' Eagle teams, and oh, by the way, they've gotta' sponsor the Springfields, and here comes AMA, and they need money... We need to be able to turn elsewhere – go to Ducati or Kawasaki – and that's not going to happen until they can play and win. 

I think we're there with the rules package now. People have told me, You'll never get those manufacturers involved, but I think that if they can compete and win, the dealers will get interested, and then they'll pressure the manufacturers, and say, This is something we should support. That happened last week at the Kawasaki dealer show. Henry Wiles was there, and Bill Werner was there with his twin, and they drew a huge crowd and those guys congratulated Kawasaki for being involved, and they won the 'Manufacturer of the Year' which surprised everyone. 

It's not something that, you snap your fingers, and the manufacturers come racing again. But when they come on board, they bring money to the teams and the series.

BM: I have the feeling, when I look at what's been happening on the road racing side, that on the part of DMG there's a long-term strategic goal of making all of the properties more production-based...

MK: You know, to be honest, although we're one company, road racing does their thing and we do our thing. There's a crossover with Al Luddington coming to both events, but there's never been a meeting in one room where we've all said, Let's go production racing. That's never happened. But we know production racing is what manufacturers can afford to do. When they start racing exotic machinery, costs go up. In America, we can't afford those costs. MotoGP can...

BM: I'm not so sure even they can...

MK: ...right. All that has to do with the economy, too. The manufacturers are tightening their belts. The one thing we have is, the manufacturers all love to go racing; that's bred into them. And they love beating each other. That helps us. But we have to have a means for them to promote their product and sell product.

To be honest, that's something that... flat track kinda' got left behind for the last two or three decades. The teams, all they felt they had to do was unload their Harley-Davidsons and go racing. And manufacturers were off racing motocross, supercross, superbikes; all those other things but not flat track. And there was no leadership in flat track saying, Hey we'd better make some changes if we want them to come back and look at us as a marketing tool. The teams weren't concerned about it; all they cared about was making more horsepower with their Harleys. 

They weren't looking around saying, Hey we need to get some support from other brands. They weren't going to the AMA and saying, Make some changes so we can bring other brands in. When I came on board, that was one thing I was desperate to do. 

And another thing brands do – this is the racer in me coming out – in the early part of my career, we had BSA, Yamaha, Triumph, Harley-Davidson, Norton... as a rider, at the end of the season I could get on the phone and start putting deals together. For the last two or three decades, riders didn't have anywhere to go. Jared Mees, last year, won the #1 twins plate but lost his ride with Harley. And I'm not slamming Harley – they had to do what they had to do – but he had nowhere to turn.

I know what I did with my #1 plate, I went to Honda. I won the championship riding Yamaha and Harley-Davidson motorcycles, and I went shopping!

BM: As I've been mulling this over, I think of your career and remember that you experienced the last great moment of brand rivalry in flat track, when Honda put the RS750 up against Harley's XR-750...

MK: And I'm not patting myself on the back, but even before I put together my Honda deal, I put together my U.S. Army deal. But at that time, we had CBS, ABC – that was before ESPN and all these cable channels and we had a good following; we had RJ Reynolds money... I went out and sold my program to the Army, and then I rode for Yamaha, and Honda, and then I went out and said, OK I'm done; I'm going to go and promote races now.

At AMA Pro Racing, we've got to teach our teams how to sell themselves and get sponsors. It's up to us to have the package for them to go and sell. We've got to say, Here's the 24-race series, here's the attendance, here's all the manufacturers involved, here's the win ads they ran, here's the aftermarket companies involved. Pretty soon, the teams have something to sell and they get funding, the promoters get funding, the AMA gets funding... then we start attracting the energy drinks. To me, that's our tobacco money. It used to be Camel and Winston; now it's Red Bull and Monster and Rockstar.

We're not getting much of that money yet. I've been preaching to our teams and promoters that we've got to reach another generation of fans. We've got to get the youth involved, and that's what our production 450 class is doing. I can tell you that I got beat up – by the old hard-core, 60, 70 year-old fans that hate those “motocross bikes on flat track”. But what I have to explain to them is, 15 or 20 year-old kids grew up looking at those bikes, reading about those bikes, and they go, Wow, I didn't know you could flat track those – and it stirred up their interest, and the manufacturers know that they're selling bikes for [and because] of flat track...

BM: And people thought they'd suck, but the racing has turned out to be great. That helps.

MK: The first time we tried racing production-based bikes [against the XRs, about 10 years ago, in the Supertrackers class] guys like Terry Poovey told me, “Dang, these bikes are hard to ride,” and I'd walk away thinking, that's not bad. Because what I was seeing with the framers was, the bikes were handling so good that the track would groove up real fast, and they guy that got to the front first would go to the groove and it would be a one-line race track. 

If you look at our singles class now, all 80 guys that show up at a big race are having to ride as hard, or harder than the guy at the front. They're up on the gas tank, they're moving around, and it's entertaining. I've never liked it where you just run to the bottom of the race track and you pole-putt around and accelerate out. The DT tires worked so good, and the chassis worked, the powerband worked, the front forks... I'm not going to say they're easy to ride, but it looked easy and that took away from the spectacle.

I think on the entertainment side, on the marketing side, the Singles class has a lot of room to grow. I think the manufacturers are going to realize this is another venue for them to go out and sell those 450 singles.

BM: Pursuing that a little – and I have to say I'm in favor of the hard control tires you're using now – but as an outsider looking in, I wonder if the hard tire is contributing to a real narrow groove on most tracks?

MK: There's some controversy there, and some people say that but I disagree. If you've got a soft tire that sticks, you can pinpoint it to a two-inch wide groove every lap. I remember that feeling; you could run in as fast as you wanted, put the brake on and hit your mark. To my way of thinking, a harder tire makes it harder to do that, and makes the groove a little bit wider. The tire does work better, on the hard compound, when it's stuck on the groove – but it's harder to find that groove for 25 laps in a row. And that makes the racing more interesting. We saw guys slip off the groove a few times in Arizona, and with a soft tire you might not say that.

BM: I talk to a lot of riders, and ask them, What kind of tracks do you like best? And a lot of them tell me, I like a gnarly, deep cushion. I sense some frustration that that doesn't happen very often. At Indy, for example, they seemed to have more option in terms of line choices. What are your feelings on that?

MK: You can't make a cushion track out of clay, and you can't make a groove track out of sand. So, when we get to a track, we have to create the best track we can for the surface we've got that day. Even Springfield changes from race to race. A year ago, at the last race at Springfield, it rained the day before – in fact we had to cancel the short track – and the next night on the Mile the track was so tacky that riders came back and told us it was scary. 

If we could make every track a cushion, would we? No. Because a lot of these riders aren't geared up for it. If we took half these guys and threw them into Ascot, where we used to race, it'd scare them to death. You talk to the Springers, and they guys from that era – you can talk to Chris Carr – the guys who raced at Ascot... you pretty much had to leave your brain in the pits! It was brutal. A lot of these guys say, We want a cushion. We could rip up our tracks and make a cushion but the spray hurts, it's extremely fast, and if you go down, you get hurt. 

We have to make the tracks safe and fast and put on a good show. And part of that is, at 7:00 p.m., we have to sing the national anthem and then go racing. We have to build the best track we can, at 7:00. I've had people say, This isn't rocket science, you guys should be able to build that track. Well, let me tell you, when you're looking at your watch, and the wind's blowing at 30 mph, and it's 104 degrees, and you put your mag[nesium chloride] down that afternoon... you have to become a chemist; when does that last load of water go down so you can start at 7:00. I can remember going to Grand National races after I retired, and sitting there watching the water truck on the track, all night long.

We've told these riders, Guys, we're in the entertainment business. Before the National, it'd be great to put another load of water down and rip it up. But it'd be midnight before we got on the track and you know what?.. We're not going to do that any more. The track can always be made better, and we may have to touch it up every now and then, but that's where the T-shirt cannon comes in, and we've got other things going on. But if you look at us now, once we're on track, the intermission's 15 or 20 minutes max. After that, we're goin' racin'.

BM: At Prescott, I spoke to Chris Carr about the current equilibrium between the XR-750s and the production bikes [with larger displacements]. Although he's a Harley man himself of course, while he was pleased that other brands were competitive he's worried that under the current rules it might be possible to build bikes that are too powerful.

MK: Almost all our tracks have walls and guardrails around them. Tracks like Indy, Springfield... they're the same tracks that I raced on with 75-80 hp. Tracks aren't any wider or safer, and yet guys want 100 hp. We don't have two riders in the pits that can ride 100 hp flat track motorcycles, and one of 'ems getting ready to retire and that's Joe Kopp. We've got a pack of guys who can ride bikes from 80-90 hp.

We're trying to create a sport that will attract dealers. We hope the dealers will eventually go to the manufacturers and say, We'd like to get some support. I don't think we're ever going to see the full factory efforts, like we saw with Yamaha and Kenny, or Honda with Bubba and I. I don't think we're going to see that again. But these satellite teams are popping up in supercross and road racing, and they're funded teams, but they're run through [private] race teams, like a Chris Carr team. That's what Chris has his work cut out for him. He's got seven brands to pick from, come 2012, because he wants to transition into being a team owner [only].

BM: Christmas is coming. Imagine Santa coming to you and saying, Mike, what would you like under the tree? And you'd immediately say, I want all my races broadcast on network TV, I want seven factory teams with salaried riders, major sponsors from outside the industry... and Santa would say, Whoa, whoa, whoa!.. Ask for something I can actually deliver. What's the best thing you can reasonably hope for, for the sport of flat track, in the next year or two?

MK: I'll give you a go. I would like to have one race on a network – CBS, NBC, ABC, or Fox – it would probably be Springfield, because it's a day race and it's always close. Let's say we have 20 races; I'd like another ten races on Speed or Versus, five or six on MadTV, and whatever else we have, if we don't have a TV package, have them live on the Internet. 

The whole key to this thing is exposure to the masses, and to new people. The Internet is a great way to do it, and great way to reach people, but they still depend on TV to watch sports, and that's where we've gotta' go. That's gonna' help the series, the teams, the riders, the promoters and sponsors,.. everyone.

BM: Last question... that was something you wished for. What is something you're sure you can do – something that's within your control – that will make the 2011 season even better than 2010?

MK: We're working on this now... we're taking the series to some new, big markets like Pomona. I think we'll get to the 'Red Mile' in Lexington, KY. If you take a 150-mile radius from there, there's a huge population of motorcyclists. It's getting into nice facilities in major markets.

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