Monday, March 31, 2014

Breaking News: Ural announces MotoGP entry beginning in 2016!

Ural Motorcycles recently announced plans to field a two-bike MotoGP team beginning in the 2016 season.

According to Ilya Khait, Ural President and CEO, the decision is based on two factors: the surprising competitiveness of Ducati’s current MotoGP team, running under the ‘Open’ rules, and the anticipation of a cooling trend in U.S.-Russian relations.

“The U.S. has been the single biggest export market for Ural,” notes Khait. “But thanks to Barack Obama’s inability to handle Vladimir Putin, it looks as if we’re in for a long-term cooling in U.S.-Russian relations. It’s just a question of time before the U.S. embargoes Russian motorcycles, and that means we need to shift our marketing effort to Asia, Europe, and South America.”

The positive response to Ural's cameo appearance in the Sochi Olympics Opening Ceremonies got Ural interested in using high-profile sports events to market the brand.
According to Ural’s spokesperson Madina Merzhoeva, Ural got so much buzz from its recent exposure during the Sochi Olympics Opening Ceremony that the company decided to reevaluate participation in major sporting events.

“We considered entering the Dakar Rally,” Merzhoeva told in an exclusive interview. “But in the end we thought, considering the off-road capabilities of our sidecar combinations, it was too expected. Of course, in brainstorming sessions in Irbit, the idea of competing in MotoGP came up, but we didn’t think it was feasible.”

All that changed when the bikes running under the new ‘Open’ rules, which allow for 24 liters of fuel and softer tires, proved far more competitive than expected. As Ural CEO Khait told us, “We thought, it might be the vodka talking, but seriously if that dog of a Ducati is suddenly competitive, we can do probably run mid-pack too.”

The surprising improvement of Ducati's MotoGP entry under Open rules convinced Ural's engineers that they too could be competitive.
The decision to enter MotoGP wasn’t a slam dunk until Russia invaded Crimea. At that point, fears of an upcoming embargo enacted in a fit of pique by frustrated U.S. lawmakers meant that Ural needed a marketing plan that de-emphasized the U.S. market while reaching Europe, Asia and South America.

“Let’s face it,” said Merzhoeva, “that dovetails perfectly with MotoGP’s audience, which is pathetic in the U.S., but huge around the world.”

Engineers at Ural’s Irbit plant have already begun prototyping a MotoGP test mule, based on input from itinerant MotoGP development rider Jeremy McWilliams.

“They’ve got a long ways to go yet,” said McWilliams, “But they’ve already taken 300 pounds off the stock bike, just by removing the sidecar.”

Although Ural’s MotoGP plans are in fact in anticipation of a cooling in U.S.-Soviet relations, rumors are that John Hopkins has already signed a letter of intent. Although people have already joked about Vladimir Putin himself riding the second bike -- the Russian leader rarely misses a chance to prove his machismo -- informed sources suggest that ride is being held open for Mikhail Prokhorov.

More on this story as it develops!

Friday, March 28, 2014 gets new owners. (Or rather, its owners get new owners.)

Last year, Motorcycle Superstore, which owns, was acquired by the Motorsport Aftermarket Group. Some time around then, the venerable title Cycle News (which had recently gone from a print to a digital-only format) became part of the MAG family, and as part of MAG's ownership of Motorcycle Superstore/, CN's respected editor Paul Carruthers became the editorial director of both CN, which is a true web publication, and Motorcycle-USA, which is a web site.

I was happy that, from my perspective as a columnist on the Motorcycle-USA web site, nothing changed. I feel that it has been, on balance, one of (if not the) strongest U.S. motorcycle sites (on a par with, which stumbled a couple of years ago, but seems to have regained its footing, adding staff and columnists.) I like working for a company that, through Motorcycle Superstore sponsorships is a major supporter of American motorcycle racers and racing.

In the time I've been writing for Motorcycle-USA, I've seen a lot of changes in the American motorcycle web sites. Cycle World's trying to make its web site more relevant and timely; Asphalt and Rubber seems to be elevating its status from a mere blog to a real site; it's been invited to a few launches, for example. Beeler's reposting great content from David Emmett, but it's mixed in with vapid photoshop design exercises that should have stayed in some student's portfolio. Meanwhile, Hell for Leather (which I used to think was the one site that'd emerge from the blogosphere and become a real moto-media player) has completely lost its way. It's just clickbait, and isn't being updated much more frequently than Bikewriter.

Bearing all that in mind, I paid attention when, a couple of days ago, Tucker Rocky announced it was acquiring MAG. 

So, I now work for Tucker Rocky. At least, I work for them a few days a month, while I'm writing my columns.

For those who care, here's a little background on the sale...

MAG was owned by Leonard Green & Partners, which is an L.A.-based private equity firm with $15B in holdings. Although the 70+ companies Leonard Green's invested in are very diverse, you're most likely familiar with some of their retail brands, such as Lucky Jeans, Del Taco, Petco, and Sports Authority.

Leonard Green sold a majority stake in MAG (it will remain a minority partner) to another, smaller, investment firm: LDI Ltd., which owns Tucker Rocky.

LDI is based in Indianapolis. It has been in business since 1912, and owned Tucker Rocky since 1989. Most Bikewriter readers will know what Tucker Rocky's business is, but for those who don't, it's a wholesale distributor of aftermarket parts, apparel and accessories for the powersports industry. You know when you go into a motorcycle shop looking for some obscure accessory, and they don't have it in stock, so the parts man flips open a huge catalog on the counter, and finds it, and tells you he can order it? He's often looking in a Tucker Rocky catalog. 

LDI owns one other business, an Oregon-based logistics company. According to its web site, it's in the market for additional acquisitions.

So, where does this leave me?

Basically, I'm seeing consolidation in the aftermarket parts business. I guess the B-school take on it might be that LDI/Tucker Rocky and Leonard Green/MAG are looking for synergies and economies of scale. MAG is moving from owners who probably don't really have a passionate interest in powersports to owners who probably are pretty passionate about powersports.

Neither company really seems to think of itself as a media player, although LDI now owns Cycle News and

On the face of it, that might give the two media outlets even better access to advertisers. (I always thought Motorcycle-USA's business model was a conspicuously good one; if ad space goes unsold, there's always Motorcycle Superstore!)

What would be ideal would be, for LDI and Tucker Rocky to use this opportunity to take advantage of the fact that, in buying MAG, it also acquired an impressive content-generating machine, including some really respected journalists. (They got me, too.) 

In my day-to-day life, I work in the ad business. It would be vainglorious to claim that I knew exactly how to optimize that content generating machine, to LDI's profit; the ad business, especially online components of the business, is evolving so fast that all you can do is remain adaptable and seize opportunities to connect your clients with their customers as those opportunities arise, while trying to avoid wasting clients' money on dead ends. 

However, one thing that everyone in the business does agree on, is that the content that your business uses to attract online customers is too important to outsource. The lesson from companies from Red Bull to GoPro is, content attracts customers; sales track with time spent on your site. Whether or not you equate Big Data with Big Brother, providing interesting content is how companies will acquire and bond with customers going forward.

So, as an ad guy, I'd say the future's bright. Of course, as a journalist who's watched as the value of expert content has been eroded by shitty clickbait, I'll be happy if things stay the same, too.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Qatar hero: Aleix Espargaro?

OK, after the first session in Qatar, I thought, maybe the softer-option tire available to the 'Open' teams was working better on a dirty surface, but the grid will look a lot more like it did last year after the riders have brushed off the racing line.

Then, I thought, so there are a bunch of Open-class riders in front of the Factory boys in the second practice session, but when they switch to tires that might last a race distance, things will revert to normal.

And yet, after three practice sessions, Aleix Espargaro is on top of the sheet, on rubber that might go the distance. It seems it's the Open-class fuel allowance that has suddenly put the Factory bikes and their millionaire riders on the back foot. Is it just me, or did no one really see that coming?

So, given the off season we've just endured--in which Dorna's tweaked and re-tweaked the rules, right up until the last minute--will the complaints of the factory riders result in further "leveling" of the playing field?

I hope not. Here's why...

1.) Fairness
The factory teams all knew the rules (such as they were) months ago. If they wanted to be able to burn more fuel, they could have opted for the spec ECU/software package. Ditto, if they wanted that super-soft tire.

2.) The Show
So what if a bunch of Open-class machinery that isn't really faster than the Factory stuff manages to use softer tires to get on the grid ahead of the factory bikes? That will mean that for the first time in years, top riders will have to deal with lapped traffic, as the Open-class soft tires go off in mid-race. At least we won't get the processional races we've seen in the last few years. The top guys always bitch about lapped traffic, but it makes things interesting for fans.

And, those color-coded tires suddenly got interesting, too...

In the off-season, when Bridgestone announced they'd be color coding the tires in MotoGP, it was basically derided. But suddenly, the question of who's on the softest, Open-class-only option is very interesting.

If you ran a team, and really thought that you could not win on harder tires, but might lead a few laps on the softest option, wouldn't you take that option? And give your sponsors great exposure at the beginning of the race?

For the fans it like, oh, he's on the softest tire... When will it go off? Can he possibly build up enough of a lead early on to finish well on trashed rubber? And if the tires get bad enough, will it get visually spectacular, traction control be damned?

Who knew that MotoGP would suddenly become interesting again?

Monday, March 17, 2014

MotoGP takes a cue from Harley-Davidson... and sponsorship money from Big Tobacco?

I doubt that I'm the only person who shudders at the thought of a MotoGP fashion line. But that's exactly what Dorna breathlessly announced last weekend.

It seems that the racing monopoly has teamed up with Classic MCS, which aspires to be, "the most exciting affordable luxury brand for Real Men (capitalization courtesy of Dorna)." The MotoGP line will sell for €40 (t-shirts) to €600 (leather jackets).

The photo associated with Dorna's press release (which I stole from's web site) shows a fashion model in faux-protective jeans and jacket. You can decide for yourself whether they've "captured the feeling of MotoGP" but don't count on this biker-look clothing for actual protection; the feeling you capture will be the intense pain of gravel rash, probably followed by a skin graft.

Hithertofore, I'd never heard of Classic MCS. It's the new name for a clothing store chain previously known as Marlboro Classics. Yes, that Marlboro. Is this just a case of the racing industry letting Big Tobacco back in, through the back door? To quote Kevin Spacey's 'Frank Underwood' character from House of Cards, "You might very well think that; I couldn't possibly comment."

Who am kidding? I can comment. Sure, that's exactly what it is.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Monday Morning Crew Chief: Media edition

I've dumped on AMA Pro Racing a bit, over the last few months. But I have to say that after they rushed to put together "Fans Choice TV" streaming video coverage of racing at Daytona, it wasn't that bad. In fact, the short track coverage was really quite good, as watched on my iPad from Calgary, Canada.

Other commenters have noted that it's not HDTV-quality, but since all the 'television' that I watch is actually streaming video, I only noticed a few spots where it sort of bitmapped for a moment, or the sound dropped out (and that was on my 88 year old mom's spotty internet connection.)

It's interesting to think that, really, a good streaming video service could deliver the racing to far more fans than some obscure cable channel that few viewers even have access to. And, while I suppose Fans Choice TV (a subsidiary of Nascar) may eventually try to monetize the stream by selling ad time, right now it provides an uninterrupted viewing experience.

The old television model (I'm thinking, like, 10 or 20 years ago) delivered viewers. That was why it was important to racing sponsors that races be televised. And, a lot of commenters, and AMA Pro Racing stakeholders, still hold that outdated idea; that's why there was general dismay that the 2014 superbike series was not going to be televised. It never really mattered; the potential reach of some niche, cable-only TV Sports channel is nowhere near the reach of Fans Choice TV. Few motorcycle racing fans could even find the 'broadcasts' last year; they can all stream video.

The only difference is that no one will just stumble upon AMA Pro Racing while aimlessly clicking through their cable channels. So what?

That old media-delivers-audience model is dead, and we all need to get used to the idea that in the 21st century, media is just that--a medium... that is to say, it's a way for (in this case) racers, teams, and sponsors to deliver content fans. It's no longer the medium's responsibility to deliver fans, it's just a pipeline to fans.

AMA Pro Racing has pretty much held up its end, as far as the Fans Choice TV 'broadcasts' go. If this is to work, and deliver meaningful and valuable sponsorship exposure, it is up to sponsors, teams, and racers to promote the stream, and encourage fans to connect that way.

There are some things that Nascar could do to improve its Fans Choice site, and make it more valuable to sponsors. For example, all the 2014 coverage should already be archived and available; that should happen even while the live stream's still on. But, it is already better than I expected. It's a new media world out there; they don't even need a TV deal if they make the streaming video service good, and keep it free. And, ironically, if they get a few hundred thousand people watching the live streams, I can guarantee that a TV deal will come out of the woodwork anyway.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Elvis has left the building, but his motorcycle's still here

I'm back in Calgary, visiting my mom (for her 88th birthday). What did I find in a local museum but...

Elvis' '56 Sportster. Really, it's a shame that Harley no longer makes a bike as spare and cool at this. My artist friend Bill Rodgers pointed out that, on the insurance form displayed with the bike, Elvis is described as "Vocalist, self-employed". That just about covers it.

There were a number of examples of heavily modified or decorated jackets, beginning with Rockers' jackets from the U.K., which were definitely sold as 'American style'...

Later on, in a case of what-goes-around-comes-around, the Brits exported punk music, and Seattle punk musicians and fans dressed to emulate British punk rockers, who were ironically referencing the Rockers, who were emulating Elvis.

(Sorry for the crap photos. All I had with me was my phone.)

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

'Factory' vs. 'Open'

From what I read, the other manufacturers in MotoGP are pissed that Ducati's factory team will not race under 'Factory' rules. Instead, they've opted to run in the 'Open' class. (For a detailed explanation of the difference in the two classes of machine--which will look and sound exactly the same, and which will just confuse the fans--I suggest you refer to MotoMatters.)

What I don't get is, the other manufacturers are all saying, "We race in MotoGP because it helps us to develop advanced technology that we'll apply to road bikes, later on."

That's a great story, as far as it goes, but it makes no sense. After all, the 'Factory' motors are sealed and motor development is frozen as of the first race. Teams running under Open class rules can tweak away to their hearts' content. It seems to me that that's the 'development' class.

When the organizers first proposed the two-class arrangement (they obviously learned nothing from the CRT debacle) I thought the Factory teams could run their own ECUs. It was depressing to think that we'd come to such a point; that teams forced to choose between a spec (read: frozen) ECU and free engine development on the one hand, and a free ECU and frozen engine development on the other hand, would choose the latter option. I.E., that the black box is now more important than all the reciprocating metal parts that it controls.

That was bad enough, but I only recently realized that the black box is, itself, a spec item. Everyone uses the same Magnetti Marelli ECU, but the factory teams get to write their own software. It's a sad state of affairs, if meaningful advancement over the course of the season is going to come in the form of code only.

Listen up, you punks: I'm not reminiscing about the old days just because I'm a bitter old bastard who can't get with the times*. But there was a time, not that long ago, when packages came air cargo from Japan, or when parts were even hand-carried, still dropping bits of swarf or smelling of freshly welded Ti; passengers flew directly from Saitama Prefecture, or Shizuoka, or wherever, and drove through the night in rental cars to the track, to meet mechanics in deserted pit lanes where one light burned in one garage. And when the riders arrived from the hotel in the morning, they didn't necessarily even know how many cylinders their bike would have that day. Those days are still within living memory, and lo, even though Marc Marquez leans over further today, Grands Prix are not as fabulous now as they were then.

The factories claim they're racing to develop and test new technology, but they're severely restricted in terms of test days, and their 'A' riders can't do other development work.

It's senseless, especially to fans--who won't be fussed to appreciate the nuances of such-and-such a Factory bike that's finishing behind an Open bike. The whole championship-within-a-championship has no external relevance, anyway. And the most frustrating part of it all is that Dorna's rationale is, We're trying to control costs; but no rule ever has that effect.

Gardiner's Seventh Law of Racing: Every team always spends all of its budget, in search of any possible advantage. Every team spends every cent, full stop.

When they restricted test days in Formula 1 car racing, development budgets went up, not down, because teams had to develop fantastically expensive new simulation technology.

But wait, it gets worse; now it seems, the Open class spec software is not really frozen, either. How much more will it develop over the course of the season? Will Dorna take input from the Open teams? The Factory class looks more and more like a simple handicapping system; win too much, and we'll cut your fuel load. And Dorna does seem to think that way, if what I read this morning is true; Open teams will be fuel-penalized if they actually win races.

Who the fuck is writing these last-minute rules for them? DMG?

*I am a bitter old bastard who can't get with the times, but that's not why I prefer the old days. I prefer the old days because they were better.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Parsing Superbike Rules

Back in the days before Mikhail Gorbachev summarily executed Communism, the U.S. had a huge strategic interest in Russia, but virtually no knowledge of what the country’s leaders were thinking. In the absence of any good spies for our side, all we could rely on was a type of intelligence specialist known as a Kremlinologist.

Kremlinologists looked at things like, the order of the limousines as they lined up to pick up Party members after meetings, or, how many cases of what quality of vodka were delivered to whose dacha; they used that kind of more-or-less-openly available information to try to determine who was in favor in the party, and from that, what the inscrutable Commies might’ve been up to.

I’m kind of a Kremlinologist of motorcycle racing. I don’t have many inside sources, and I’m certainly not privy to Dorna’s secret plans. But I wonder if the change to Superbike homologation rules means more than just, they want Bimota to field a team this year.

Over the last few years, it’s become a lot easier to meet the FIM’s minimum-production-quantity rules in the SBK class. In 2007, just before the global economic meltdown, these rules were published for the 2008 season:
  • ≥125 units on hand prior to homologation inspection (a month or so before the racing season starts). Motorcycles must be on sale to public at that time.
  • ≥500 units produced by the end of June, Year 1.
  • ≥1,000 units produced no later than end of December, Year 1.
At that time, the FIM said that beginning in 2010, the minimum production run in Year 1 would be raised to 3,000 units. This seemed to indicate a move to limit pseudo-manufacturers like Petronas. (I doubt they ever even made the first 125 machines!) Most recently, I think the rule called for 2,000 machines at the end of the second year.

Now, the FIM says...
  • ≥125 units on hand prior to homologation inspection (a month or so before the racing season starts). 
  • ≥250 units produced by the end of Year 1.
  • ≥1,000 units produced no later than end of Year 2.

This recent change clears the way for Bimota (which was unable to complete homologation requirements in time for Phillip Island) to compete in the remaining races. It also takes some pressure off Erik Buell, who (even with Hero’s financial help) may have been hard-pressed to produce 1,000 bikes this year.

When Dorna took over SBK, there were many who thought they’d basically kill off the series, to reduce competition for MotoGP. But now, I wonder: Does Dorna imagine a future in which the major manufacturers—Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki & Ducati, certainly; possibly Kawasaki, BMW—compete in MotoGP while SBK’s field is skewed towards smaller, niche manufacturers like Aprilia, Bimota and Buell?

Two series set up like that would segment the market of potential participants, and might not cannibalize each other quite so much.

That said, another outcome could be that the lower production requirements could actually encourage big manufacturers to produce more ‘homologation specials’. Sportbike riders who remember the heady days of the RC30, Yamaha OWO1, or later the ZX7RR wouldn't mind...