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.