Friday, April 8, 2011

Oops, was yesterday Thursday?

It's been one of those weeks. Actually, it's been one of those lives, but even by the standards of my life, it was one of those weeks, too. My apologies to the long-time readers who are used to checking in on Thursday and seeing new material. I really hope to get back on a regular schedule sometime soon. (Speaking of which, stay away from the babaganoush at 'Sahara,' the Libyan restaurant on 51st by UMKC in Kansas City, but I digress...)

What ever happened to Supermoto, eh?

I was at Indy a few months ago, and had dinner one night at a big table of guys who had all spent their lives racing motorcycles. Several of them had been early adopters in the Supermoto discipline, and the waxed on about the early days of the sport, when unknowns would bang bars with Nicky and Tommy Hayden, who were training in the off season, and of thrilling venues like Reno and Troy Lee's Long Beach event. Now, of course, there's not even a national championship.

I just filed that away until a few days ago, when I stumbled across this great YouTube clip of one of the ABC Television 'Superbikers' shows, from the 1980s. The race coverage is actually not that compelling, though that critique is made in light of what we're used to now, with more camera angles, on-board footage, etc. For all I know, this Superbikers event was shot on film. And the venue is not up to snuff.


It's a compelling show. It recalls days when motorcycle racing was deemed worthy of putting in front of a huge audience. Bear in mind that given the fragmentation of media now, I'd be willing to bet you that more people watched 'Superbikers' then, than watched the last Daytona 500.

ABC, of course, totally 'got' the fact that its huge TV audience were by and large ignorant of motorcycles and motorcycle racing, so the Superbikers format - separate heat races for dirt trackers, motocrossers, and road racers; personality profiles - and then a final pitting the best of the best was expertly structured to provide viewers with just enough context to get them emotionally involved. (The format actually owed a lot to 'Superstars' a general-athletics show/contest conceived by, of all people, Olympic figure skater Dick Button.)

So as I sat talking with my friends and we replayed, in our minds, the rise and fall of Supermoto, we inevitably got back to the Superbikers days and lamented that Supermoto never succeeded in grabbing that mass audience, despite the superficial similarities. The current Supermoto racers in the group suggested a number of reasons for Supermoto's underwhelming public reception, ranging from a rising cost structure that thinned grids, to the fact that the public can't really relate to motocross-based bikes on the street because so few OEMs have gotten behind the concept with any real enthusiasm.

It was only when I watched this clip that the obvious hit me: What's compelling in the Superbikers format isn't the fact that it combines dirt and asphalt; what's compelling is that it brought the stars of Superbikes, Motocross, and Flat Track together on a (bumpy but generally) level playing field. It was fascinating because none of those guys had ever really practiced that format and it offered us a chance to see which among them was 'the best of the best' or at least who among them had the most raw adaptable talent and the greatest will to win on the day. The bikes and tires they used were not particularly suited to the task and with limited setup time it was clear there was no advantage to be found there, either.

By making that format a discipline in itself, it was doomed to failure. As soon as it was something you could practice or specialize in; as soon as it became possible to find a mechanical advantage, it lost the very hook that made it work.

Superbikers worked because it presented itself as a one-race national bragging-rights championship. It occurs to me that Pikes Peak has some of the same charm; it's so unlike anything else that you can't practice for it. Right now, the course is so unique that the record will likely go down this year, to a bike - the Ducati Multistrada - that is not even raced anywhere else. By next year, if the rumors I hear are true, the entire course will be paved. If you could ever clean it properly, an all-asphalt course would be a race for sport bikes, but I can't see that happening: there will always be issues of dust and rocks kicked up on a course shared with four wheelers. Their racing line involves putting two wheels off the inside on many turns; and besides, it's all too common to start on a dry course and end on a wet (or even snowy) one. But once Pikes Peak is all asphalt, I think the Multistrada crew would have their hands full with rivals on like a Triumph Speed Triple (or even a nimbler Street Triple.)
Pikes Peak is the opposite of a level playing field, but I think that it could be promoted in a way that gave it some of that Superbikers cachet. The race's 100th birthday is coming up (in five and a bit years) and I'd love to see that event packaged as a compelling TV show pitting the stars of Superbikes, 'real roads' racing, and what the hell, even MotoGP against select flat trackers and all-comers against each other... on 'real' - i.e. naked, proper bikes.

Last but not least...

While I'm on the subject of unique ways to leverage motorcycle racing and reach a wider audience, I note that TT star and all-round great, uh, guy - Guy Martin - has become a surprise TV star in the U.K.

Although he's a lunatic on a motorcycle, Guy's a lovable 'everyman' off the bike. Good looking in a Hugh-Jackman-as-'Wolverine'-but-not-as-intimidating kind of way, he's funny and very down to earth. Until recently, he was a famous TT racer in the summer and spent winters working as a heavy-truck mechanic, earning an hourly wage.

But he sunk (oh, wrong word) his TT winnings and appearance dosh into an old English canal-boat. They call them 'narrowboats' over there, because 150 years ago they were long and narrow, used to move goods through a network of canals that covers a good part of England.

Guy decided that he wanted to restore his narrowboat, but with this catch: he wanted to use only tools, materials, and techniques that were available when the boat was made. That idea caught the attention of a 'reality TV' producer at the BBC, and 'The Boat that Guy Built' has become an incredibly popular television show in the U.K. Some episodes, more than a quarter of all the TVs that are turned on in the U.K. are tuned to his show.

There are quite a few motorcycle racing fans that are dismayed because the show barely refers to Guy Martin's other job, although it is mentioned in every opening sequence if only to emphasize the difference between ripping through Kirkmichael at 180, and putting along a leaf-strewn canal somewhere in the British Midlands at 1.8 miles an hour.

The tone of the show is in sharp contrast to the feuding Teutels. Here's the trailer. Until later, Cheerio...

Oh wait! Don't forget to bid on my autographed helmet! The auction ends Sunday...

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