The Rise and Fall of Sportbikes

The wag is all tail, no dog

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Contributing Editor Peter Jones shares his wealth of motorcycle knowledge, experiences, insights, history, and much more.Cycle World

Like any performance-motor­cycle fanatics, my riding buddies and I were nuts with excitement when the (motor­cycle) magazine reviews came out, announcing that yet another manufacturer had released a new sportbike that was essentially a "racebike for the street." I wanted one. We all wanted one. It was what we dreamed of riding. And we did. Kawasaki GPz900 Ninja, Honda VF750R Interceptor, Ducati Paso, Suzuki GSX-R750, Yamaha FZ750! Gimme, gimme, gimme.

That was the early 1980s. Times have changed.

Today, no one who I know wants a "racebike for the street." Neither do many who I don't know. In fact, there aren't very many who even want a racebike for the racetrack. On top of that, there aren't many more who want to watch an American series of people on racebikes on racetracks. This isn't my opinion; it's a fact borne out by motorcycle and ticket sales.

Last summer I attended a media intro­duction of a new naked bike that was based on an existing sport(race)bike. Same frame, same suspension, same lots of things. But it had a handlebar, broader torque curve, less peak (unusable) horsepower, and a comfortable seat. During the technical presentation, this brand showed us journos a graph of the plummeting sales of its sportbike, next to the rising sales of naked motorcycles in general. This may have been a cry for help.

Also last summer, I attended the Road Atlanta round of the MotoAmerica road­racing series. During that event I interviewed the managers of each of the factory teams, asking one if his brand were roadracing in America because it was a business decision or if they were doing it due to the romance of the sport. He said that they were racing for the romance. I like that, being that I'm a roman­tic guy. But emotional choices tend to have more cost than profit. Passion is great but only if you can afford to do it.

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Peter Jones Bike LifeCycle World

I love sportbikes. But years ago I tore the bodywork from my 2006 GSX-R1000 and installed a one-piece handlebar. So maybe I need to reword my enthusiasm: I love crazy horsepower, I dig technology, but I don’t much care for my passenger to sit on back with her arms wrapped around my head.

At that event at Road Atlanta I had an epiphany. I saw Wayne Rainey there, one of the owners of MotoAmerica, and I felt sad for the plight of this faded sport. Rainey has nearly given his life for roadracing, literally, and few today care about his commitment. It’s heartbreaking.

With all of the above in mind and Rainey in sight, my epiphany was: Get rid of the "racebikes for the street." Just like when Rainey won his first Superbike championship, riding a Kawasaki GPz750, MotoAmerica should make its superbike series for streetbikes that race. Race the types of bikes on Sunday that people actually want to buy on Monday.

Handlebars will do two things: Put racers on bikes that have greater relevance to enthusiasts and make the series look different than any other. Okay, this might not help, but it’s better to be newly wrong than the same old wrong.

Aprilia Tuono V4 1100, BMW S1000R, KTM 1290 Super Duke R, Yamaha FZ-10, Suzuki GSX-S1000—the list goes on. All naked. All sitting in showrooms and garages nationwide. Once again, the past might be our future.