MotoAmerica Progress Report—Motorcycle Roadracing In America

What is that light shining brightly at the end of the tunnel?

Toni Elías
Captain (Moto)America: “What happens when people aspire to be part of our series?” CFO Richard Varner asked. MotoGP race winner and 2010 Moto2 world champion Toni Elías joined the championship in 2016, winning the Superbike title the following season on a Yoshimura Suzuki. Heading into the final round at Barber Motorsports Park, the 36-year-old Spaniard has a 16-point lead over three-time champ Cameron Beaubier.Brian J. Nelson

I recently met with MotoAmerica leadership—president and three-time 500cc world champion Wayne Rainey, CFO Richard Varner, former racer and MotoGP team manager Chuck Aksland, and museum director Terry Karges. I wanted to learn how the five-year-old US motorcycle roadracing series has progressed, what the partners' plans are, and how they are using new media to move forward.

MotoAmerica’s initial strategy was simplistic: American roadracing had been great from 1970 through 2005, and then, after ’09, it almost ceased to exist. That tempted many to believe all the sport needed was a jump: Hook up the money cables and hit the starter until she fires and runs. Then what Ducati Sporting Director Paolo Ciabatti once described as a second world championship would return to its natural state, thriving.

The Daytona Motorsports Group (DMG) took over AMA professional racing in 2009, adopting policies now seen to have been destructive. There was a deeper level as well: That was also the year of a profound US economic crisis that cut new bike sales by 60 percent, with further drops to come. As in the Great Depression of 1929–1935, as the economy gradually recovered, automobile and housing sales revived, but motorcycle sales have not.

The worst news was slowest to arrive: Young people had turned away from familiar activities—building model airplanes, playing sports, or riding minibikes—to retire into the new digital reality of social media. Unlike parents and grandparents for whom independence and freedom had been a car or bike, these people, smartphones always in hand, are expanding into a new dimension.

Despite this history, I found the MotoAmerica partners cheerful and optimistic. Varner described the gradual growth of the new series as “a five-year start-up.”

Andrew Lee
Andrew Lee (1) wrapped up his second Stock 1000 title at New Jersey Motorsports Park. “How many series have five classes where there’s an interesting point in each one of them?” Varner asked. “Every one of them has its own identity. It’s fertile for social media, for streaming, for network television, for reality.”Brian J. Nelson

MotoAmerica had announced early that its goal was to develop talent and feed it into the global racing system, namely MotoGP and World Superbike. American riders had won championships in both. It was assumed that once US racing was revived, they would do so again. That has not yet happened, and there is doubt anyone now in the MotoAmerica paddock is going to Europe. Re-establishing a rider/talent group big enough to educate each other to top level is taking longer than hoped for, but there is real progress.

The series began with nine events and 72 riders per round, and now has 10 two- or three-day race weekends with close to 140 entries. “We have five classes—Superbike, Supersport, Junior Cup, Stock 1000, Twins Cup—all generating real interest,” Varner said. “How do we scale this? By having our own TV production that we own. You have to keep your content from becoming a commodity you can get anywhere, like the news.”

This approach is surely modeled after MotoGP’s notable success in producing and controlling its own TV. “How do you get social media to work for you?” Varner asked. “People can afford phones; that’s how they decide what to watch. Sensational saves—people love ’em. You can get a million views.”

MotoAmerica’s classes now include one for 600–800cc middleweight twins, Twins Cup, criticized at the time of its creation as “club racing.” But the American situation is unique. A twins class, being based on the vast array of cheap used bikes, engines, tools, and parts now available over the internet, turns out to be the least expensive way to go racing. What US racing needs most is competitors—lots of them—enough to become the self-teaching kernel that produces talent. Spanish and British series produce strong riders because the talent in them is numerous and equal enough to bootstrap itself to excellence. It takes time to achieve that kind of depth. The closeness of MotoAmerica racing shows that depth is now being approached.

Alex Dumas
Twins Cup point leader Alex Dumas (right) speaks with MotoAmerica TV commentator and champion racer Jason Pridmore. “We have five classes with good rules and good competition,” Chuck Aksland said. “Dumas was Junior Cup champion last year. He moved into Twins, so he has a place to develop confidence, to progress through the ranks.”Brian J. Nelson

Spectators? Varner took the example of a populated area of 20 million, 8 percent of whom have motorcycles. “Our potential reach, if we get 1 percent of that 8 percent, that’s 15,000 page views,” he said. “We don’t need to have 20,000 [spectators]; we can do with half that.”

Aksland added, “This year, we took one race Saturday, one Sunday: 130,000 followers on Facebook became 160,000 viewers. This weekend [at Laguna Seca Raceway], we have a possibility of five million followers.”

Caution is required because the digital giants don’t want to share revenue. “Facebook gave us a lot at first,” Varner said. “Then they toned it down. But they like live content. Sponsors want broadcast TV, but digital is big now.”

The world may have gone digital, but there is real demand for the authentic: “This is real, exciting, competitive, dangerous—not a weird novelty,” Karges said. The racing has become really tight, able to make the nightly news.

The series has also grown. “We’ve almost tripled the staff this year,” Varner said. At Pittsburgh International Race Complex, Karges noted, MotoAmerica performed parking-lot license-plate checks. “They were from everywhere—Michigan, Texas, Florida, Canada,” he said. “Camping is a big deal for us.”

A limiting factor is the sheer size of the US and the cost of long-distance travel, suggesting the possibility of splitting the series into regions with annual runoffs. A major discovery has been that racing by itself isn’t enough for most people; there has to be more going on.

“How do you enhance the fan experience?” Karges asked. “Kids under 16 are free. Bringing in different things for kids.” To which Varner added, “All to motivate someone to get off the couch and come. We’re building data equity. The first year we made ’em aware; the second year you educate ’em.”

MotoAmerica partners
MotoAmerica partners Varner (right) and Aksland converse this past July at Laguna Seca Raceway. “The racers are here to race, not to do what we do, run the race,” series president Wayne Rainey said. “This is year five. We wish this would have happened sooner, but we’re feeling pretty good about it.”Nic Coury

The partners have learned patience, Rainey said. “We didn’t do 11 or 12 races because the base isn’t there yet.”

Another thread that appeared in conversation was cooperation with other organizations, racing and motorcycle clubs, corporate groups, and the idea of shared promotion with other series like American Flat Track. “We have five trailers here,” Varner said. “We can bring in the sponsors’ gear, and they can just fly in. A trailer with a lift gate? That’s 10 grand. And it’s something we can scale. Five trailers and two trucks; sometimes we make double trips.”

While new motorcycles aren’t selling in great numbers, people continue to ride what they can afford—older bikes. “The club [racing] scene is strong,” Rainey noted. “Their paddocks are full. We get a lot of local club racers [at our events].”

MotoAmerica prize money and manufacturer contingency total some $8 million. In 2018, MotoAmerica Stock 1000 rider Geoff May—a veteran of foreign and domestic championships—made $90,000 from just that, riding as a side deal on five bikes in four series. That recalls the 1990s and the “contingency gypsies” like two-time World Superbike champion Doug Polen, who drove from one regional race to the next, not just making a living but earning serious money while doing so.

PJ Jacobsen and Bobby Fong
Close finishes: World Supersport championship runner-up PJ Jacobsen (99) joined MotoAmerica’s middleweight class this year and is challenging point leader Bobby Fong (50) for the title. In 2020, MotoAmerica will hold new events at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Ridge Motorsports Park in Washington State.Brian J. Nelson

While Dorna’s classes—MotoGP, Moto2, and Moto3—are for prototypes only, MotoAmerica remains 100 percent production-based. Could that change? Rainey said, “Dorna came to us with a class but this costs a lot to do here in the States.” Varner added, “Maybe we should do some kind of winter series, maybe Moto3.”

The underlying goal of putting American riders back on the world stage calls for patience and the certainty that, if present MotoAmerica trends continue, the necessary talent will develop. It began to appear in AMA roadracing 1968–’71, then took a leap forward from 1972, creating conditions that soon sent the names we know so well to the top: Gary Nixon, Kenny Roberts, Eddie Lawson, Freddie Spencer, Kevin Schwantz, and Rainey, who pointed out in our meeting that, “I was 28 when I went over.”

For a time, observers of MotoAmerica feared its principals—the men in the conference trailer with me—were tiring of the constant effort and expense. That has given way to apparent optimism and confidence, carried forward by a willingness to drive progress until it can drive itself. Racing will be woven into a broader fabric of related activities.

As we all prepared to leave, Varner summed up by saying, “We can see the light now [at the end of the tunnel]. And it’s the sun. It’s not an oncoming train.”