Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Marquez finally able to relax, go fast

Dani Pedrosa, Jorge Lorenzo, and Valentino Rossi may think that they can finally relax a little, having finished ahead of Marc Marquez for once this season. But can they?

Stories coming out of the wunderkind's garage have now confirmed that "the streak" was a much bigger distraction than anyone had admitted, prior to Marquez' first "loss" of the season. In fact, there was evidence that the kid was riding better than ever just one day after that defeat, when he pulled off a shoulder-dragging save that proves he's not just an alien, he's from another dimension altogether.

"We didn't want to admit it," crew chief Santi Hernandez told Backmarker, "but we could see how tense he was on our data; it was building and building every race."

Marquez' mom told us, "He wasn't eating, he wasn't sleeping."

It turns out the kid's been freaked out since Argentina. "It was cool when I won in Qatar, and I didn't think much of it after winning at Austin," Marc admitted to me over a Skype call, "but then in South America, one of my mechanics said, Keep the streak going' and it just got into my head. I felt right away tentative and not relaxed on the bike."

His girlfriend, Estrella Galicia, might have been the first to notice the change in him, after finishing off the podium in Germany. "I keep a diary, and he hadn't had sex since April," she said coyly. "But Sunday night in Germany, he was like, how do you say, the big thumper he rides in dirt track. I'm still sore, and he wants it every night, sometimes twice. Frankly, I hope he gets another win streak going soon."

Hmm... seems as if he's eager to get back in the saddle in every sense.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Final thoughts (for now) on getting more U.S. riders into MotoGP

Last week I put up two posts that… 
My proposed class structure was:
  • Novices' Cup (production/stock 250/300 class, to be determined)*
  • North American Moto3 Championship
  • North American Moto2 Championship (possibly with rules revised to allow other manufacturers’ motors)
  • Manufacturer’s Cup (stock literbikes, etc. aka ‘Superbike’)
Today, before putting this line of thought to bed for a while, I want to clarify an ideal set of rules for the Novices' Cup class. Although the discussion that prompted this series of posts was a discussion about getting American riders into MotoGP -- IE, it was about the very top of the pyramid -- the way to get a nice high top of the pyramid is by focusing on building a nice broad, stable base. That's why the single most important part of a successful plan is the Novices' Cup.

Here are the traits we want in this class:
  • It's gotta' be about the rider, not the machine
  • Affordable
  • Level playing field
That's why it really doesn't matter what machine is used in this road racing class, as long as the rules stipulate that there is essentially no tuning needed or available. This should be for bone stock motorcycles, on the tires they come with from the dealership. Ideally, tires should last several race weekends.

It can be a spec class for one particular bike. (Honda CBR250, Kawasaki Ninja 300, Honda CBR500 even.) You could make it a Production 250/300 class, and just let competitors figure out which bike is best suited to the class, which would quickly turn it into a spec class. I'd weigh and dyno every bike on the podium, every time; set up and actually encourage a set of claiming rules; maybe even have the series put up the bikes, and let riders arrive with their own bodywork (if they have sponsors they want to promote.) What I'm saying is, there are ways to make a class like this really be a level playing field.

Here's my wrinkle for the Novices' Cup though…

If you've read this whole series of posts, you know that America's original rise in the 500GP class was the result of American dirt track racers transitioning into Grands Prix at a time when their sliding skills were at a premium. 

While that's less true today, you could argue that Marc Marquez' style has again put a premium on sliding skills. Although he's a Spaniard, he's obsessed with flat track, and trains on his own short track all the time. And, there are lots of influential people (Valentino Rossi, for example) who are pushing the MotoGP rules-makers to reduce the effectiveness of the electronic traction control in the top class. If those rules come into effect, we'll see another opening for great dirt track racers to move from the U.S. to the World Championships.

So… while I'd welcome riders in the asphalt-only Novices' Cup, I'd award the #1 plate for combined points, earned  at a roughly equal number of short track races. Ideally, I'd like the short track races to run in conjunction with AMA Nationals. That way, up-and-coming Pro Singles riders would be encouraged to enter the Novices' Cup class, and we'd tap that impressive talent pool, some of whom would buy a CBR250 (or whatever) and road race it.

Novices' Cup short track races would also be for another bone-stock spec machine; something like a CRF150, fitted with an alternative to its stock knobby on the rear (which, otherwise, might damage racing surfaces.)

Winning the Novices' Cup should result in a 'scholarship/sponsorship' that covers a full ride in Moto3 the next year. The second and third overall should get sponsored in Moto3, too, and those top guys should be forced to move on to Moto3.

As I noted yesterday, for my system to work as well as possible, I need functionally identical rules at several big club racing championships around the country. IE, we'd want a local Novices' Cup class in the AFM in Northern California, and a Novices' Cup in the Loudon series. Novices' Cup racers need several more chances, every season, to get out and race. 

The goal here is to create a class that a promising kid can enter, race locally and attend 5-6 nationals a year, for a couple of years, at a total cost of under 20 grand. Developing talent at the grassroots level should not cost more than having a kid play baseball in 'travel league'; that's already expensive enough.

I'm focusing on this because I am pretty sure that whatever Dorna and Wayne Rainey end up doing, I think it will be an effort to move young American racers who are already pretty fast up to the top of the racing pyramid. That's great, but the long term success or failure of the get-some-Americans-into-MotoGP program hinges on having a broad, strong base. We need an affordable way to develop talent, and an effective way of identifying the racers who deserve help in order to further their careers.

Take care of the base of the pyramid, and the top will take care of itself.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Part 2: A strategy for North American MotoGP relevance

Yesterday, I explained why Americans have a false send of manifest destiny where MotoGP is concerned. The period of American dominance, from the late 1970s through the early 90s, was characterized by uniquely intractable 500GP bikes which only American riders—schooled in dirt track—could handle.

Americans stopped being dominant in Grands Prix for two primary reasons: First, European riders—ironically, at the urging of Kenny Roberts—adopted training methods that gave them the sort of advantages that were previously unique to Americans. And second, technological changes associated with the MotoGP era (traction control) reduced the need for those skills anyway. 

America’s dominance was further eroded when sponsorship by American brands, such as Marlboro, was replaced with sponsorship from companies like Repsol and Movistar.

Nicky Hayden was the last American to come out of the dirt track tradition and find a spot in MotoGP. He won the championship in 2006, of course, although it was hardly with a dominating performance. Since then, his great work ethic has kept him employed (and, really, he was as fast as Rossi at Ducati) but his results have underwhelmed. 

Josh Herrin is having such a dismal season in Moto2 that he’s probably hurt the chances of anyone coming out of the AMA Pro Racing series.
The Americans who followed Nicky into the premier class (I’m thinking of Edwards and John Hopkins at the moment) came from road racing backgrounds; they had flashes of brilliance but never threatened to be real winners at the top level. The bloom is truly off the American rose. 

At the risk of becoming even more unpopular than I already am, I can honestly say that I can’t think of a single U.S. rider who is really conspicuous by his absence in the MotoGP class. Not at the top level, right now. I don’t think there’s even any U.S. rider with more potential than the current cream of the Moto2 crop. There are some young Americans who could move into Moto2 and continue developing; Beaubier, Gagne,.. Johnny Rock Page, of course. But no one's a shoe-in for a factory ride in MotoGP.

So, barring another set of special circumstances*, it seems the U.S. “needs” an actual strategy to develop riders worthy of World Championship rides.

Right now, the obvious model’s probably the Spanish national series, the CEV, which has become the defacto feeder series in the World Championship. One of the things that’s unique to the CEV, right now, is that it runs the same Moto3 and Moto2 classes as the World Championship. That’s relevant because the days of recruiting riders from major national, or World Superbike series seem to be over. MotoGP team managers now seem to feel that they should recruit exclusively from the ranks of the Moto2 championship. I suppose that’s reasonable; after all, it was designed expressly to serve as a feeder series.

So, whether we’re imagining a major revision to the structure of AMA Pro Racing’s road racing classes, or a new FIM North American Championship, if the goal’s to send (North) American talent to the World Championship, the core classes should be Moto3 and Moto2.

A few years ago, at least, the U.S. could claim the fastest girl. But now Maria Herrera has claimed even that for Spain. Here she is winning a CEV Moto3 race, last year.
It’s worth noting that the CEV runs a ‘Superbike’ class—the bikes are actually closer to ‘Superstock’ according to the rules, but who cares?—anyway, it’s not the prestige class in the CEV. Moto2 isn’t even the prestige class; the top class in terms of rider talent and fan interest is Moto3, because riders who stand out in the CEV’s Moto3 class get rides in the World Championship’s Moto3 class.

In Spain, if you’re a rider, Moto3 is the ‘springboard’ class into the World Championship. Moto2 is the springboard class for teams seeking to move up to the World Championship.

That’s an important distinction; we want to see more American riders in the World Championship, and we can aspire to export U.S. riders to European teams. But an even better way to achieve the goal of more U.S. riders is to create some American teams

Homegrown teams will help to bring in U.S. sponsors, who will also—if they get their druthers—want American riders. You see where I’m going with this, right?

Yes, I realize that I’m laying out a difficult path here; look how hard it’s been for Erik Buell—who has more resources than any private American Moto2 team would have—to score a single fucking point in SBK... which is probably an easier assignment than entering the vicious dogfight that is the Moto2 World Championship right now.

But, that is the way. A Moto3 class that serves as a steppingstone for U.S. riders, and a Moto2 class that serves to develop American teams and technicians. The majority of Moto2 World Championship riders are stuck buying their rides; bringing mid-six-figure sponsorships to their teams. That’s another reason why the program needs to bring American teams and sponsors into the World Championship too; it’s awfully hard for an American rider to find that kind of support, when he’s taking it to a European team.

A North American Moto2 championship will face hurdles. For starters, all Moto2 engines are currently supplied by Honda. I think you could write a set of rules that allowed other manufacturers who had a 600-four or a 675 triple to supply motors that—as is currently the case—are sealed and produce a clearly defined power curve. Revised rules could encourage manufacturers to step in as sponsors of the regional championship.

I imagine that my hypothetical championship would, like the CEV, include a nominal Superbike class, which in my world would be a class for stock literbikes and stock unlimited displacement twins. That’s a sop to manufacturers, with a set of rules that minimize the cost to participants.

Although lots of you know that I’ve got issues with the Red Bull Rookies Cup, I want to point out that I don’t think the RBRC is the right feeder into Moto3, mainly because it’s a narrow funnel; rider candidates are limited to kids whose parents have already spent well into six figures just to get them there.

The long term health of U.S. motorcycle road racing depends on building a talent pyramid with a really broad base. That means that the feeder class into Moto3 needs to affordable and showcase rider talent. In the FIM’s Asian Championship, there are classes for stock Honda CBR250s, and 130cc ‘Underbone’ bikes, which are basically tuned scooters.

So, my championship class structure:
  • Novice’s Cup (production/stock 250/300 class, to be determined)*
  • North American Moto3 Championship
  • North American Moto2 Championship (possibly with rules revised to allow other manufacturers’ motors)
  • Manufacturer’s Cup (stock literbikes, etc. aka ‘Superbike’)

I’d like it if, within a few years, the top five Moto3 and Moto2 teams automatically got wild-card rides at U.S. GP rounds. 

Having remade the national (or continental) championship, I’m not done. For this to really work, we need the major club racing organizations to match the rules as much as possible. We need to create a situation where the natural way to try road racing; the natural way to try to build a race team, provides a natural step to the regional championship, and on the World Championship. The single most important piece of advice I have for Wayne Rainey is this: To succeed, your program has to integrate with the major club series.

The better it integrates with the clubs' programs, the fewer races you need to hold a meaningful regional championship. There are only six races in the Asian series, and that's enough for North America, too, as long as teams and riders can develop close to their home bases, in an affordable way.

Having set Wayne off on the right track, I’m still not done. Here’s a blast from the past: when Kenny Roberts arrived in Europe to race full time, a typical 500GP grid was 36 bikes. One reason that MotoGP team managers don’t look much further than Moto2 for their next riders is that today, there’s only a handful of MotoGP rides available; team managers don’t have to look further afield for talent. 

What that means is, being fast is not enough. American riders don't need to arrive in the World Championship with knowledge of the tracks that MotoGP visits. But, if they want to ride for European teams with European sponsors—which for the moment is all there is—it would help if they didn't arrive as semiliterate bumpkins. What a pleasure it would be to hear an American rider answer a reporter in Catalan, or German, Italian. 

Ayrton Senna learned quite a bit of Japanese, when Honda supplied motors for the McLaren F1 team; how much do you suppose that cemented his relationship with Honda, and how much extra leverage did he gain, when negotiating with Ron Dennis?
*OK, this post has gotten long enough. Check back tomorrow for a final installment—a unique rule I'd incorporate into the Novice's Cup class. I guarantee you're gonna' be all "Fuck yeah!" when you read it.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Dorna and Rainey will collaborate to bring more U.S. riders into MotoGP: Part 1

Wayne Rainey was an interested spectator as the Pro class gridded for their Sacramento Mile main event. Was he wondering which, if any, of those kids had a future in MotoGP?
Bob Varsha interviewed Carmelo Ezpeleta at Indy, and the subject of a paucity of American MotoGP riders came up. Varsha mentioned that "next year, there will be one American in MotoGP and one in Moto2." 

Presumably he was referring to Nicky Hayden and Josh Herrin. I doubt that either of those rides is 100% secure; as you know, Hayden's wrist may not hold up and unless Herrin improves dramatically in the remaining races… I bet Josh's team has an escape clause, if he goes pointless in Year 1. I'm just sayin'.

Anyway, I'm going to address this idea in two parts. Today, I'm going to write about whether there's an 'appropriate' number of Americans for MotoGP, and recap the reasons why Americans were briefly dominant in the sport. Tomorrow, I'll put up a post with some strategies for increasing the number of (North) Americans at the top level.

Here, for the record, is an as-verbatim-as-I-can-get-it transcript of Ezpeleta's comment to Varsha: 
We are talking with relevant people here in the U.S., and we have a plan to develop—this is something that must start at the beginning. Half an hour ago, we have some meetings to create several ideas—to develop American riders from the very beginning. 
Not discussing—a reflection of that—in the next year, between four manufacturers with two places each, will be five Spanish, three Italians. In 1991, there were also eight places for factory riders and there were six American and three Australians. That means, it depends on how you work it, you can obtain results. We think, we believe... we will work with many people in America, especially Wayne Rainey to try to develop new talents in America.
Some people have connected this thought to rumors (is that all they are?) that Dorna has plans for an FIM continental series here in North America, similar to the Asia Road Racing Championship; it would presumably draw from Canada and Mexico (and possibly the rest of Latin America) as well.

Some commenters have leapt to the conclusion that Dorna's finally decided DMG (dba AMA Pro Racing) and "the France family" are useless, and that if Dorna is to see U.S. riders flowing into the World Championship, they'll have to develop those U.S. riders themselves.

I don't think it's quite that simple. Leaving aside the fact that "the France family" wasn't a drag on American racing in the '60s and '70s, when races in the family's back yard, on the family's private track, drew the likes of Ago, Hailwood, and Saarinen. Yeah, Daytona used to be like that.

How many Americans 'should' there be in MotoGP? 

There are six or seven times as many Americans as there are Spaniards, so on the face of things, American fans' hurt feelings about not having anyone to cheer for at Indy seem reasonable. But motorcycles and motorcycle racing play an exponentially larger role in Spanish pop culture than they do here. I guarantee you that more total miles (or kilometers) are put on the Spanish motorcycle fleet overall, than are put on the U.S. fleet in any given year. Although soccer's the #1 sport there, motorcycle racing's in the tier right below soccer. 

America's population isn't just far bigger than Spain's in terms of numbers. Americans are also far bigger than Spaniards or Italians. By the time they're in their late teens, most American kids have already eaten their way out of a potential MotoGP ride. Let alone this kid's chances of ever being competitive in Moto3.
America's huge population has its attention distracted by football, basketball, and baseball; below that there's hockey, Nascar, and golf; MMA's in there somewhere now; tennis, gymnastics, swimming… and way, way down the list, below horse racing at around the level of bodybuilding (now that there's no Arnold to grin his way into the popular consciousness) there's motorcycle racing. By which I mean Supercross. Road racing is below that. 

So really, why would you expect there to be more than a smattering of American riders at the top level? Most of our good athletes are siphoned off into more popular sports—to say nothing of sports that cost parents less, and/or are potentially more lucrative if your kid's the 1 in 10,000 who deserves a pro career.

A better question to ask is, why was there ever an American heyday in Grands Prix?

The short answer is: dirt track. From the late '60s through the '80s, a relatively strong AMA Grand National Championship nurtured a pretty substantial pool of home grown racers who were primarily flat trackers, but who road raced, too, so they could score enough points to win the combined #1 plate.

At the same time in Grands Prix, 500cc two stroke power outputs, had leapt over the capacity of existing frames, tires, and engine management. Riders who had grown up in Europe, emulating Hailwood and Agostini—smooth, wheels-in-line classicism—couldn't handle bikes that wanted to spin the rear wheel and slide everywhere. But American flat track racers were used to exactly that.

Global sponsors like Marlboro wanted to win races, and were happy to look outside the usual talent pool to find riders who could handle the beastly 500s. Many of those sponsors (besides Marlboro, there was Lucky Strike, Pepsi…) were American. They certainly didn't mind it when Grand Prix team managers brought Kenny Roberts over. And, it was a time of strong motorcycle sales here in the U.S., so manufacturers didn't mind it when American riders displaced Europeans, either.

All of which conspired to create a very favorable environment for American riders in Grands Prix. From the first World Championship in 1949 through 1977, there was precisely one premier-class champion who was not from either the UK or Italy (Gary Hocking was a Rhodesian who came up riding in Britain.) Then from 1978 through '93, the championship was virtually American property; Roberts, Lawson, Spencer, Rainey, Schwantz… there were only three years in there when Americans didn't win.

But nothing lasts forever. Kenny Roberts figured that most of the benefits of a flat track career could be transferred to road racers by training them on tiny XR100 dirt bikes—and with far less risk. Pretty soon, Europeans picked up that training technique. American sponsors (notably the tobacco brands) played a smaller role after many countries placed restrictions on the marketing of carcinogens. The American motorcycle market stagnated. And then, with the advent of the MotoGP class and advanced traction control, we saw a period of several years when there was a premium—again—on smooth, wheels-in-line riding. Two or three years ago, I interviewed Nicky Hayden and he told me he was trying to stay off his flat track bikes, because he thought the habits he reinforced in the dirt were hurting him in MotoGP.

Between 1994 and now, there've been exactly two American champions Kenny Roberts Jr. (2000), and Nicky Hayden (2006). Neither was what you'd call dominant. Nicky won two races in  '06; Rossi won five.

What does that all mean? Here's an executive summary…

  • The Golden Era for Americans in the 500GP class came about because of a unique set of conditions that no longer apply
  • Just because there are 315 million Americans and 47 million Spaniards doesn't mean there should be six Americans for every Spaniard at the top level. You need to compare the number of guys between 15-25 who weigh less than 140 pounds. So right there, you've just about evened the size of the actual talent pool
  • Then, you have to multiply the remaining number by some factor based on the probability that those young men have been exposed to motorcycles and think that racing them is cool. Motorcycles are 10x as common on Spanish streets, and motorcycle racing has 50x the media exposure in Spain
  • Factor in: major sponsors naturally prefer athletes who speak the language, in the countries where those companies operate. Repsol and Movistar aren't doing much if any business in the U.S.
  • Factor in: factories naturally tend to want riders from countries where they sell lots of bikes

The upshot of all that is, there is no 'appropriate' number of Americans. Ezpeleta, I think, really does want more Americans because the U.S. is still a major motorcycle market—even as shitty as the bike business has been here for the last few years. More important to Dorna and its owners, the American economy is still huge, and there are scores of companies that could bring major sponsorship to the sport. Apple, Google, Coke, McDonalds… that's the prize for Dorna, not American riders, per se.

So, what should Rainey and Ezpeleta do, if they want to bring more American riders up? Check back tomorrow for thoughts on that topic...

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The difference between F1 and MotoGP? The size of the fines...

I guess Bernie Ecclestone figures that he got off light, after a German judge agreed to drop criminal bribery charges against him, in exchange for a $100,000,000 fine.

Yes, you read that right, the F1 car-racing boss -- living proof that at some point in the past, the relatives of Machiavelli interbred with the relatives of Rasputin -- just paid a fine of a hundred million bucks.

F1 may be on hard times. There are team principals who'd hoped that Bernie's several recent legal problems would force him to relinquish control of the sport, and hopefully free up some of the money the sport spins off, for the benefit of their teams. But obviously 'hard times' is a relative term and Bernie's masterful legal manouvering are proof that at age 83, he's far from a spent force.

I encountered him once, at the Canadian Grand Prix, in Montreal, in about '92 or '93. Those were glory years for F1. Senna and Prost were still active, tobacco sponsorship funneled billions into the sport. And yet, I was able to wrangle two press passes -- one a photo pass with pit access -- through my connections with a Calgary magazine.

I went to the races with a friend, and we traded off the photo pass. I'm sure that it's all handled electronically now, but back then, the pass was an octagonal piece of card that you wore around your neck. Various corners of it were perforated and torn off, if your pass didn't cover that particular area. So it was, like, Hospitality; Paddock; Press Room; Pit; Grid, or whatever.

At one point, my friend had the photo pass, but I had slipped past security into the pit area, and walked up to a scrum of people, one of whom was Bernie Ecclestone.  At that point in time, I'm sure he was already a billionaire. And yet, he was obviously scrutinizing passes, because he saw that I was in an area that wasn't authorized on my pass, and immediately brought that fact to the attention of a burly security man who'd been standing nearby in plain clothes. That dude hustled me back out of the pits.

I remember being amazed at two things. What a horrible looking little man Bernie was, and that as the boss of the whole show, he was that OCD that he actually looked at the passes of people around him.

There are many people who are bitterly critical of the way Dorna runs MotoGP (and World Superbike) and, in the years I've been 'covering' motorcycle racing, I've quite often heard people saying that they wish Ecclestone'd buy our sport, too.

That would mean we'd be at the whim of a despotic Hitler-apologist who, if he didn't really exist, would make an excellent villain in the next Austin Powers movie. Seriously. Google "Bernie Ecclestone's wife" to see to what degree he's a parody of himself. I'll keep the Spaniards, thanks.