Dirt Track Resurrection

Led by Marc Márquez, European roadracers take to the ovals.

Wayne Rainey race action shot

At the post-Superprestigio celebrations at the OMM restaurant and nightclub in downtown Barcelona, race promoter Jaime Alguersuari spoke from the stage, accompanied by the four fastest riders of the event: Marc Márquez, Jared Mees, and Kenny Noyes, the podium finishers in the Superprestigio Superfinal, and Brad “The Bullet” Baker, injured and unable to compete after a crash in qualifying.

“This is not over yet! In fact, it’s just starting,” Alguersuari said. “All four of these riders and more will be back, plus we will invite the AMA champion if it is not Jared or Brad. This time, it is the Americans who ask for the rematch, and we are proud to offer it at the Superprestigio III in December of 2015.”

Later, speaking to a Spanish journalist, Alguersuari said, “Spanish riders learned dirt track from the first Martian and now, Marc Márquez, at least on our short track, has proven he can battle with AMA Grand National Champions.

“Last year, Marc crashed and lost to ‘The Bullet’ and wanted a rematch. This year, Brad Baker crashed in practice and was unable to ride, and Marc just managed to beat Jared, while Kenny Noyes, our American who has a dirt-track school in Aragón, was third for the second time in a row, and there were two European dirt trackers in the Superfinal main.

“Our European roadracers are becoming better dirt trackers, and our European dirt trackers, exposed to the best from the AMA, are improving, as well. Something big is happening for dirt track in Europe.”

Jared Mees Superprestigio race action shot

It was the late Italian photographer, Franco Villani, who branded Roberts as “The Martian” in 1978. No one in Europe had ever seen a rider ride a 500cc Grand Prix bike quite the way Roberts did. I remember Villani telling me, “I called him a Martian because he was a small man, dressed all in yellow, who was obviously from another world.”

That world was AMA Grand National Flat Track.

When the first American dirt trackers, Steve Baker, Formula 750 World Champion in 1977 (and 500cc runner-up that same year) and Kenny Roberts, 500cc world champion in 1978, his rookie season, broke onto the roadracing world stage, the way premier-class motorcycles are ridden changed forever.

European racers coming up from the 125 and 250cc classes had traditionally ridden the 500s as if they were big 250s, carrying high corner speed through long arcs and easing the power on as they gradually picked up the bike on corner exit. American dirt trackers coming off the AMA ovals adapted dirt-track trajectories, sacrificing entry speed, picking up the bikes early and launching them out of the corner, spinning and often crossed up.

Famed Spanish engineer Antonio Cobas, originator of the twin-spar chassis that has been almost universally used in roadracing bikes since the late 1970s, observed Roberts firing the factory Yamaha out of the Bugatti Hairpin at Jarama circuit during the 1979 Spanish Grand Prix and remarked to me that day, "The 500 and the way 500s are ridden by Roberts are aberrations that defy logic."

Ferran Cardus Superprestigio race action shot

For over two decades, from Roberts’ first title in 1978 to Mick Doohan’s last in 1998, all 500cc world champions except Italians Marco Luchinelli (1981) and Franco Uncini (1982) came from dirt-track backgrounds. Wayne Gardner, champion in 1987 and Doohan, who won five titles in a row (1994-98) raced as youths in Australian short-track competition.

Kevin Schwantz was never an AMA Grand National rider like previous American champions Roberts, Eddie Lawson, Freddie Spencer, and Wayne Rainey, but as a young man, he rode amateur short-track and TT events in addition to trials and motocross. Although he was never a full-time AMA flat-track participant, Schwantz trained with his uncle, national number 34 Darryl Hurst, so he is not really an exception. Roberts, Lawson, Spencer, and Rainey, however, were AMA professional dirt trackers before specializing in roadracing.

Even though 1999 500cc World Champion Alex Crivillé came out of the European school (80, 125, and 250cc), he is not entirely an exception, either, because he rode dirt track extensively at the Kenny Roberts Training Ranch (Circuit of Catalunya) and not just on Honda XR100s but also 600cc Rotax "framers." Kenny Roberts Jr., the next 500 champion, never campaigned as a Grand National regular, but he was raised on dirt-track bikes and also rode frequently as an amateur at the Lodi Cycle Bowl.

Valentino Rossi, who began a five-year winning streak in 2001, came from the 125/250cc school, but was encouraged by his father, Graziano, a GP winner, to practice dirt track since childhood. Today Rossi has a dirt-track facility near his hometown of Tavullia and uses dirt track as his principal training method. Rossi was the last 500cc champion and the first MotoGP champion when the premier class went from 500cc two-strokes to 990cc four-strokes.

Marc Marquez Superprestigio race action shot

The man who broke Rossi’s string of titles in 2006, Nicky Hayden, is a talented dirt tracker who has, in addition to winning many AMA roadraces and the 2001 AMA Superbike title, won AMA Grand Nationals on short tracks, TT courses and half-mile ovals and only lacks a victory on a mile to become only the fifth rider in AMA history to complete the “Gland Slam,” winning at least one AMA championship race in all dirt-track specialties, plus a premier-class AMA national roadrace. (The others are Dick Mann, Kenny Roberts, Bubba Shobert, and Doug Chandler.)

After Hayden, the next MotoGP champion—and the first rider to win a title during the five-year 800cc period—was another Australian with extensive short-track experience, Casey Stoner. After two more titles went to Rossi, Spain’s Jorge Lorenzo, who has ridden dirt track only sporadically, won the crown in 2010. Then it was Stoner again, but now on a Honda, finally giving Honda a title in the 800cc period. Lorenzo came back to win again on 1000cc Yamaha in 2012 before Márquez came on the scene, winning as a rookie in 2013 and backing that up in 2014.

Although Rossi had been training for some time on dirt trackers (actually TT bikes) at his personal track, it was Márquez who drew major attention to dirt track by convincing RPM owner Alguersuari to promote a dirt-track race at the end of the 2013 season. The idea, as Alguersuari originally conceived it, was to bring together a big group of Spanish roadracers, most of whom rode dirt track or TT as training, and hope that Márquez’s name on the poster would bring enough of a crowd to pay the cost of renting Barcelona’s beautiful Palau Sant Jordi, bringing in 60 truckloads of dirt, building a track, and offering prize money.

Márquez frequently practiced at the Rufea short track near Lleida, and the Moto Club Segre organized a series of dirt-track races there. To fill out the grid, the event was opened to Spanish dirt trackers, as well. But Márquez said he wanted to race against the best, so the top five riders from the Noyes Camp European Dirt Track Festival were invited, too. Then an American journalist, Mark Gardiner, suggested on Twitter that if Márquez really wanted to race the best, he would invite AMA Pro Grand National Champion Brad Baker.

World Endurance racer Dani Ribalta Superprestigio race action shot

Alguersuari saw the potential of such a match up but was concerned that the AMA number one might blow Márquez and the Spanish contingent away. When they broached the subject with Márquez, however, he enthusiastically said, “Yes, of course. If he is the best in the world, invite him!”

The race took place on a bad date, early January, just after the Christmas season and, worst of all, on the same night as a major soccer game. Even so, the race drew nearly 5,000 fans, and the racing itself was exciting and concluded with a duel between Márquez and Baker that got a bit rough toward the end, with Márquez crashing out with two laps to go.

Márquez, far from being angry, arrived at his pit and told his crew chief, as if he were pleasantly surprised to have had the good fortune of finding such a worthy opponent, “That guy is really good!”

December’s race brought more than 100 journalists and almost half of them from outside Spain. RPM went to Dorna Sports to handle international TV rights and the three-and-a-half-hour program with 44 individual races was seen live in 12 countries and carried by three Spanish channels, two live (one in Spanish and one in Catalan), with a third highlights program recorded for delayed broadcast.

This time the stadium was nearly full with more than 9,000 very appreciative and loud fans. In the Superfinal, Márquez and Mees were slowed by a turn 1 tangle but eventually hunted down leader Noyes, with Márquez taking the win. Unable to find a way past Márquez, Mees was second, and Noyes, for the second time in a row, was third.

Among the 48 riders entered, 24 came through the Superprestigio division for roadracers and 24 through the Open-class division for dirt trackers and off-road specialists, with each class running its own unique series of points-scoring races to determine the top four who would go on to the Superfinal.

Superfinal podium with winner Marc Marquez, runner-up Jared Mees and third-place Kenny Noyes

The results of the Superfinal: 1. Marc Márquez (Spain/Honda) 2. Jared Mees (USA/Honda), 3. Kenny Noyes (USA/Kawasaki), 4. Gerard Bailó (Spain/Suzuki), 5. Dani Ribalta (Spain/Honda), 6. Oliver Brindley (GB/Kawasaki), 7. Bradley Smith (GB/Yamaha), 8. Thomas Charerye (France/TM).

Among the distinguished roadracers who took part in the event were six present or former world champions, all three current Grand Prix champions, Marc Márquez (MotoGP), Tito Rabat (Moto2), and Marc’s younger brother Alex Márquez (Moto3), plus the three-time World Superbike champion, Australian Troy Bayliss, former 125cc World Champion Julian Simón, and former Moto2 World Champion Toni Elias.

Britain’s Scott Redding, a factory MotoGP satellite rider with the Marc VDS team for 2015, was a last-minute entry. Aleix Espargaró, the top “Open Class” MotoGP rider for the last two seasons and now a factory Suzuki rider, was unable to take part due to an injury incurred while practicing for the Superprestigio a week earlier. Shayna Texter, changing from her GNC twin-cylinder Triumph back to a single-cylinder Honda, was a late invitee and struggled on a borrowed bike on a rough track, but she enjoyed the experience and is hoping to return in 2015. The injuries to Baker and Espargaró make it clear that, even though speeds are reduced on the small oval, the racing is serious and fierce.

Many journalists have expressed wonder that Honda and Repsol permitted their franchise rider to take part, but a message to Márquez on race morning from Honda’s racing department read, “We are waiting for your race. We are watching you!”

After the race, Márquez said, “I enjoyed very much! I had to push hard after the problem in the first corner. Jared was always close behind me, and it was very tough. I will be ready to try and win again in the Superprestigio next year, and I hope we make the final a little longer.”

The Palau Sant Jordi was rocking on Saturday night with Marc Marquez fans

Mees, second by half a bike length, agreed with that. “We are used to running 25 laps in a main, and that 12-lapper was a little short. I was just getting into a rhythm. It was a great race. I lost to the best MotoGP rider in the world, so I can’t be too unhappy.”

Third for the second time in a row, Noyes said, “That’s just the second dirt-track race I’ve ridden since 2000, so I can’t complain, but now I think we know what we have to do to the Kawasaki to have a shot at winning this thing the third time around.”

Former MotoGP factory rider and World Superbike Champion Carlos Checa was among those talking about next year. Checa, now retired, said, “This was wonderful. I have already started to train to take part next year. I may be a veteran, but I am younger than Troy, and he was fast out there.”

Where will Superprestigio go from here? There were lots of rumors percolating in the pits, but the only thing certain is that the Palau Sant Jordi has already been reserved for the second week of December, 2015, for the third running of the “Superprestigio Dirt Track de Barcelona.” Meanwhile, from all over the world, roadracers are turning back to dirt track as a prime training method, just like in the old days when “the Martian” first landed in Europe.

Before he won the AMA Superbike championship, before he won three FIM 500cc world titles, Wayne Rainey was a Harley-Davidson-riding AMA Grand National dirt-tracker.

AMA Pro Grand National Champion Jared Mees was the top American finisher in Barcelona.

Ferran Cardus qualified for the Superprestigio via the Noyes Camp Dirt Track Festival.

Unlike the American stars, Marc Marquez raced in full leathers.

World Endurance racer Dani Ribalta was fifth in the Superfinal.

The Palau Sant Jordi was rocking on Saturday night.

Superfinal podium with winner Marc Marquez, runner-up Jared Mees and third-place Kenny Noyes.