Monday, December 15, 2014

Did American flat track gain, or lose, prestige last weekend?

Last year, when Marc Marquez pretty much single-handedly resurrected the Superprestigio as a short track race, I pressured him to include Brad Baker, who was then the Grand National Championship #1 plate holder.

When the organizers relented and invited Baker, they at first wanted to create a siamesed event, where World Championship road racers competed in their own race, and outsiders never raced against them. Marquez himself insisted that at the end of the night, the best of the Grand Prix boys would face off against the best short trackers from Europe, along with Baker.

Baker won, to no one’s real surprise, although Marquez kept it close until he crashed (twice.)

In the spirit of complete accuracy, technically there were three Americans in the Superprestigio: Baker, who was sort of an official ambassador for the GNC; Kenny Noyes, who is an American but lives and races in Spain full time; and Merle Scherb who was a part-time GNC competitor and occasional instructor in Colin Edwards’ Texas Tornado motorcycle camp.

Fast forward to this year, and there were three official GNC racers representing the U.S. Baker, again; reigning GNC #1 plate-holder Jared Mees; and Shayna Texter, who rode for Latus Triumph last year.

Again, the structure of competition kept the GNC regulars away from the road racers until the last race. (Though Noyes, as the current CEV Superbike class champion, raced with the Dorna group.)

Trouble came early when Baker crashed hard and dislocated his shoulder in practice. Shayna Texter is not a short track ace; she’s better on the bigger, faster tracks; she didn’t make the final.

That set up the final, U.S. vs. Spain (and the rest of the world) race as a straight, winner take all fight between Mees and Marquez, who’d been untouchable in their respective divisions all day.

The problem, for U.S. flat track, is that Marquez won.

Well, maybe it’s a problem. I mean, no really informed observer believes that on balance, Marquez is already better at flat track than the best Americans. But still, that’s how it’s being reported in much of the world.

Motorcycle News in the UK, for example, simply wrote Marc Marquez has taken on the best of the American flat track world and won, beating three times AMA Grand National champion Jared Mees to win the overall class at the reintroduced Spanish dirt track event.”

Over at MO, editorial director Sean Alexander saw it as setting up a great rivalry for next year, but at least one informed flat track observer on by FB feed was, like, “What the hell? We didn’t win?!?”

The irony in all this is that last year, I had a bizarre Twitter exchange with the Andy Leisner, the boss at Cycle World, who told me that they didn’t want Baker to attend, because they were afraid he’d spank Marquez too bad, and wreck the event. No worries about that any more.

People will equivocate. They were running 17” wheels and GP rain tires; Marquez is used to that setup but Mees was not. Anything can happen in short track. Mees is not the best singles rider in the GNC; and, obviously, Marquez is a very special case. But while a lot of people in the U.S. flat track community are putting a positive spin on the event, I have to think that quite a few of them are also privately shocked. 

Last year—and this year until the final race—American flat track craved the global prestige it got from the Superprestigio. But suddenly it seems as if some Spanish johnny-come-lately has just shown up our #1 plate holder. 

Next year, AMA Pro Racing should send reinforcements. 

NOTE: For the record, before you attack me, personally, for voicing this opinion. Let me make this clear: Jared Mees is a better—much better—flat tracker than Marc Marquez is. 

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

If ASRA/CCS sanction a 200 mile race at Daytona, is it the "Daytona 200"?

I don't want to dump on ASRA/CCS, which is a great organization, but I'm shaking my head over the announcement that this year's Daytona 200 will be sanctioned by ASRA and run according to its Sportbike class rules.

Obviously, Daytona (the speedway, not the town) gets to decide who uses the "Daytona 200" name, because they (presumably) own the trademark. So technically, the race will be "the Daytona 200". But what the fuck?..

Imagine a world where the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has a falling out with all the unions that control feature film production. So all the big film studios say, "We're having nothing to do with the Academy." At that point, if the Academy decides it will still produce an Academy Awards show, and they're going to give out Oscars, but they're only going to invite ultra-indy films produced by amateurs using non-union talent--at that point, is it still really the Academy Awards? Would the winners really be able to say, "I won an Oscar"?

Anyone who's followed the long decline in the 200, since the days when it attracted a truly world class field would say, even the real Daytona 200 hasn't been a real Daytona 200 since the '80s. But who does DMG DIS think it's fooling by giving the race to an amateur series?

Admittedly, the claimed $175,000 purse sounds a lot bigger than the money in ASRA/CCS races. And if enough quality riders and machines show up, DMG DIS/ASRA/CCS can make me look like a churlish old bastard for writing this. But we've heard DMG make big purse claims before, which proved to be so much bluster and hot air. It remains to be seen how DIS delivers on this promise.

As far as I'm concerned, if they're going to legitimize this incarnation of the 200 by virtue of the size of the purse, $175,000 is about $325k short. Offer $150k/$100k/$75k for the podium, and pay enough through 15th to cover all of an international team's travel costs, and you might see (for example) a bunch of the teams who race in the TT come over. Guy Martin and Michael Dunlop won't give a shit that the track's not up to FIM safety standards.

For the record, every time I write something like this, a whole bunch of whingebags leap to the defense of the aggrieved club series. So in advance, fuck off. I think ASRA/CCS is great. I'd love to race in some of your races. But you can't just run your Sportbike field for a 200 mile race at Daytona, and call it the Daytona 200, and have that mean anything in a race with the 200's heritage. Hailwood and Agostini raced in the 200; Dick Mann and Cal Rayborn; Foggy, and Russell, and Duhamel even, recently.

This isn't that.

NOTE: After I put this up, Chris Carr commented via FB that DMG has nothing to do with the 200. I'm assuming he's right, since he's better informed on it than I am. So I'm saying DIS -- the speedway -- not DMG. I'm pretty sure they're owned and controlled by the same people, so I'm letting the rest of it stand.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Tour de Media: Bike Magazine's still got it, and Dirt Bike Test's new business model

After a few years away from the publication, I wrote a feature for the UK magazine Bike last summer. And as a result, I think they've put me on the comp list, because every now and then I get it in the mail. Besides getting it for free, the other benefit is, I get it long before it appears on U.S. newsstands.

Anyway, the issue that I just got had the final installment in a six-part story in which Bike returned a Suzuki V-Strom to Suzuki's factory in Japan. IE, a 16,000-mile test ride.

It was the sort of audacious story that made me love Bike, years ago, when I was working at Motorcyclist Magazine in L.A. Back then, it was the only magazine that we used to actually bring in to editorial meetings and pass around, to generate ideas. We were openly jealous of it, which was interesting considering that at the time, Motorcyclist had about triple Bike's circ. So it wasn't that they had a budget and we didn't, it was just that their Editor-in-Chief had balls.

Where was I? Oh, right… well anyway, in the intervening decade, I guess that the Internet hit the U.S. magazines a little harder than they British ones. And the UK magazines, like Bike, are doing an even worse job than Motorcyclist and Cycle World are, in terms of fighting a rearguard action against the continued encroachment of sites like Motorcycle-USA and MO. (Suffice to say that Bike's official web site is rudimentary; it exists only to promote newsstand sales of the print edition; the blog's only got two posts, since early 2013!)

But that great six-part feature—which was expensive in terms of travel and manpower—reminded me that Bike's editors are still greenlighting projects that no American web site or magazine would undertake.

Will that be enough to ensure the survival of the still-entirely-print Bike? I'd like to think so. As crocodiles would say, not all dinosaurs are destined for extinction.

Meanwhile, although I'm not really a dirt bike guy, I was interested to spot Jimmy Lewis' new project, Dirt Bike Test.

Lewis is a massively qualified tester, and the web site is interesting. So far, there's not much advertising on it, so it's not obvious how/if/when it might become a viable commercial venture. There's a link on the site called "Advertise with us" that explains that manufacturers can supply bikes or products for testing, for a fee. The amount's not listed. Paying the fee doesn't get them editorial control, in terms of the content, but they can decide whether they want the review to run or be killed.

Lewis says that does not mean people won't read negative reviews in Dirt Bike Test, because they'll also review bikes that the contributors or their friends own and lend them.

That made me wonder what would happen if a manufacturer paid them to test a bike, then didn't like the test and killed it, and then some friend of Jimmy's bought that model and offered to loan it to the site for a second test. Would they then run a negative review? Or would the manufacturer's initial payment give it a permanent veto?

When I was testing street bikes (for Motorcyclist, Road Racer X, and occasionally as a freelance contributor to MO) it was very rare to ride a bike that wasn't excellent. And when people asked—and they often did ask—whether manufacturers who flew me to tests in exotic locations, business class, and wined and dined me en route were essentially buying positive press, I protested that the baseline for all sport bikes was now so high that almost none warranted a truly negative review. The truth was, as testers, we agonized over reviews, searching for any negative points to offset the almost embarrassingly glowing tone.

That said, there were times at Motorcyclist when potentially negative notes were cut from my reports. I remember one Triumph Daytona launch at Barber (about 2004?) when several bikes pulled off the track making really ominous bottom-end noises. Like, main bearing or big end failures, of brand new motors in a few hours. I thought I had to note that in the launch report, but Boehm cut it.

Anyway, I'll be interested to see what happens with Lewis' project. The content's great, so far, though there's not much of it, yet. And I doubt major bike makers will actually pay him to test their bikes, so the business model may need some testing and development, too.

So far, for my money, the only really unbiased vehicle tests are Consumer Reports' car tests. They buy everything, at full retail and anonymously. Then they sell the cars after testing. That means they can't ever be 'first' or even tied for first, compared to car magazines who are being invited to launches long before dealers have stock. A motorcycle magazine—print or online—that used that model would add a few grand to the cost of every test, in the form of the difference between the full-bore retail purchase price, and the price the publication could get for the used bike. And it would dramatically increase the cost of crashes, which are currently absorbed by the manufacturers (when press bikes are crashed.)

Still, they'd be buying unimpeachable credibility.