Earlier this month, in one of me regular "Backmarker" columns on Motorcycle-USA.com, I wrote—half seriously and half just out of frustration—that AMA Pro Racing should reunify the Grand National Championship. I.E., revert to some form of the pre-1985 rules, when a single #1 plate was awarded to the rider who scored the most points at Expert Nationals held on road courses, and on Mile, 1/2-mile, ST and TT courses.
That column almost set a record for 'likes' (600+) and triggered a debate on Facebook that was interesting both because of the obvious emotions it brought up (both positive and negative) and because of who got involved: Chris Carr's and Mike Hacker's pages lit up; I even got a phone call from Bill Werner. More on that in a few paragraphs...
My column was really written from a marketing-strategy point of view. I began by essentially exempting the Supercross series from my critique, on the grounds that as an outsider looking in on SX, I think Feld Motor Sports does a pretty solid job promoting that sport. This morning, I had that position ratified by the L.A. Times, which ran a headline about Anaheim I on its home page (tablet version) above the fold. I thought that, for a moment, the Times' website was feeding me stories they thought I'd like, so I also opened the site on Mary's iPad; AI results were shown in the same spot.
Anyway, back to the column and the debate it provoked.
In general, the reactions I saw came from people on the flat track side of the sport. Most were positive, perhaps because the consensus is that it would be easier for a flat tracker to transition to asphalt than for a road racer to go the other way. If readers were critical of my proposal, it was usually because they thought, "We can't find the budget we need to run twins on Miles and 1/2-miles as it is; you're telling us we need to build a road racer, too?"
But another way to look at my proposal was, we'd be rationalizing both AMA Pro Road Racing and Flat Track; we'd be consolidating the best (and best-attended) 6-8 road races and the best 6-8 flat track events. We'd also be consolidating all the sponsorship available at the National Championship level.
As an "ad guy" the thing I like about this is that it gives AMA Pro Racing a real marketing hook. For decades, the AMA's Grand National Championship was a search for the best all-round racer in the U.S. In the '70s, Kenny Roberts went to Europe and reinforced the idea that the Grand National Champion was in fact the best racer in the entire world. Spencer, Lawson, Rainey, etc., did nothing to discourage that hubris.
Americans are sports isolationists: The NFL, basketball, baseball... they're all sports that were invented here and are still mainly played here. "Football" means something totally different in the rest of the world. That's why I think reverting to a uniquely American motorcycle championship makes sense from a marketing-strategy perspective.
Bill Werner's not one who suffers fools gladly, so when I saw his name on my "missed call" display I held my breath, wondering if he'd bite my head off for suggesting a reunified championship. But when I called, I found that he thought the idea had merit. We talked for quite a while, and when Bill gets excited it's hard to make notes as fast as he's going. But suffice to say that he's incredibly frustrated by the current state of AMA Pro Racing. He ran the Harley-Davidson factory flat track team for years; from his perspective, for example, the idea of balancing the regulations every 30 days will drive factory teams out of the sport.
Honestly, AMA Pro Racing has—perhaps in spite of itself—achieved some things in the last few years. Most people feel the racing on display is good; there are more brands present on flat tracks. But from a marketing perspective, and looking at it as a business from a strategic perspective, it's a disaster. The problem is the lack of imagination and foresight in Daytona.
Last month, I got Brad Baker invited to Marc Marquez' Superprestigio race in Barcelona. I'm not saying that to brag, I'm saying that to point out that AMA Pro Racing didn't do it.
So, the most charismatic and exciting new Grand Prix racer in at least a decade decides he's going to put on a flat track race and it doesn't occur to AMA Pro Racing to try to capitalize on it? Or did no one at Daytona even know it was happening—despite the Superprestigio making the news in motorcycle media around the world?
In the last few years, flat track's seen the return of Triumph, Ducati, KTM and even BMW to the big tracks. All that's happened with little-to-no manufacturer support; and yet it didn't occur to anyone in Daytona that having the American champion making news in Europe might create some marketing synergy. To say nothing of the fact that flat track desperately needs a shot in the arm back home. Doesn't anyone at AMA Pro Racing realize that having the U.S. champ go and show the MotoGP boys the fast line on a short track is a golden story opportunity for all U.S. motorcycle media?
The failure of imagination at AMA Pro Racing is stunning, but U.S. distributors and manufacturers aren't doing much better. After getting Baker invited, I wrote AMA Pro Racing, KTM (who make the bike Baker races on short tracks) and Harley-Davidson (Baker is the factory's official rider and while he'll ride a KTM in Spain, U.S. flat track and H-D are inextricably linked.) I told them, "Look, I'm going to Spain anyway. If I go, and write a couple of Backmarker columns, they'll appear on Motorcycle-USA only. If I go and write press releases, the story will be picked up by every American web site and magazine. If I go and issue releases to European media, we can spin this into a great story about flat track in the 'States, too.
I got no responses. AMA Pro, zilch. KTM, nada. Well, I did get a reply from H-D, saying, "He's going to be racing a KTM, so we don't see how we can use it." That was after I'd suggested that we could seed stories in European media about Baker being Harley's factory rider, Baker could sign autographs in the Barcelona Harley dealership, ride up to the arena on a Harley street-tracker...
The AMA actually did put out a press release about Baker's trip to the Superprestigio. I guess it would have killed them to credit Motorcycle-USA.com and Backmarker for making it happen, eh?
Anyway, I don't suppose that I should be surprised by the lack of imagination from AMA Pro Racing (and KTM, and Harley.) But honestly when the motorcycle industry in general and the professional motorcycle racing industry in particular is still blaming "the economy" for their commercial woes... Suffice to say that doesn't ring true for me.
If they can't see their way clear to capitalize on things like Baker's trip to Spain, I guess there's no chance that the powers-that-be in Daytona are going to call me up and say, "Tell us more about this idea you have, to reunify the Grand National Championship."
There are only a handful of road races currently scheduled; the AMA Pro Racing superbike championship seems to be without a title sponsor. Don't be surprised if the series' already-sketchy TV deal falls apart next. And AMA Pro Racing will blame poor motorcycle industry revenues, "the recession", or for all I know, Obama.
The real problem is a lack of imagination.