Replay? The Business of Motorcycle Racing—By Kevin Cameron

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Wayne Gardner

Photo by Gold & Goose

In the years immediately after World War II, aviation’s new international range made rapid overseas travel possible. But the need to operate in existing conditions led to a series of terrible crashes during landings in bad weather. The airlines had to operate in poor weather to maintain schedules, but the crashes were giving the enterprise a bad name.

In a parallel manner, in 1987, ’88 and ’89, 500cc Grand Prix racing was confronted by serious highside crashes occurring on corner exit. In the 1950s and ’60s, crashes and even fatalities were dismissed as “part of the cost of doing business,” but by the 1980s, public sentiment had changed. The FIM feared that government regulation might be imposed on them if they did not take action to make crashes and injuries less severe and less frequent. There was also the danger that news media might focus on such crashes, denouncing racing as “a commerce in human sacrifice” as had happened after Pierre Levegh’s famous 1955 auto-racing crash at Le Mans.

The aviation business defended itself by developing electronic automated landing systems. These were eventually able to safely and reliably land commercial aircraft in Category 3C conditions. This means that the pilot’s “decision height”—the altitude at which the runway first becomes visible through the overcast—is 50 feet or fewer. Surely, there was some back-and-forth between pilots and system developers as the bugs were worked out of such systems, but they were made reliable and are now routinely used.

The FIM defended itself by imposing a minimum weight of 130 kilograms (286 pounds) for 500cc machines, with an understanding that intake restrictions might come next if the crashes did not abate. This measure had two purposes. The obvious one was to improve rider safety. The other was to protect the newly profitable business of racing just as automatic landing systems protected the business of aviation.

The response of the makers of 500cc GP bikes was to develop the first electronic torque controls and anti-spin systems for the 1990 season. There were no claims at the time that this technology made racing a bore or somehow drained essential testosterone from the endeavor.

Today, because highside crashes are not currently at crisis levels, such systems do draw the above criticisms. Shall we then replay 1987?