Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Dorna and Rainey will collaborate to bring more U.S. riders into MotoGP: Part 1

Wayne Rainey was an interested spectator as the Pro class gridded for their Sacramento Mile main event. Was he wondering which, if any, of those kids had a future in MotoGP?
Bob Varsha interviewed Carmelo Ezpeleta at Indy, and the subject of a paucity of American MotoGP riders came up. Varsha mentioned that "next year, there will be one American in MotoGP and one in Moto2." 

Presumably he was referring to Nicky Hayden and Josh Herrin. I doubt that either of those rides is 100% secure; as you know, Hayden's wrist may not hold up and unless Herrin improves dramatically in the remaining races… I bet Josh's team has an escape clause, if he goes pointless in Year 1. I'm just sayin'.

Anyway, I'm going to address this idea in two parts. Today, I'm going to write about whether there's an 'appropriate' number of Americans for MotoGP, and recap the reasons why Americans were briefly dominant in the sport. Tomorrow, I'll put up a post with some strategies for increasing the number of (North) Americans at the top level.

Here, for the record, is an as-verbatim-as-I-can-get-it transcript of Ezpeleta's comment to Varsha: 
We are talking with relevant people here in the U.S., and we have a plan to develop—this is something that must start at the beginning. Half an hour ago, we have some meetings to create several ideas—to develop American riders from the very beginning. 
Not discussing—a reflection of that—in the next year, between four manufacturers with two places each, will be five Spanish, three Italians. In 1991, there were also eight places for factory riders and there were six American and three Australians. That means, it depends on how you work it, you can obtain results. We think, we believe... we will work with many people in America, especially Wayne Rainey to try to develop new talents in America.
Some people have connected this thought to rumors (is that all they are?) that Dorna has plans for an FIM continental series here in North America, similar to the Asia Road Racing Championship; it would presumably draw from Canada and Mexico (and possibly the rest of Latin America) as well.

Some commenters have leapt to the conclusion that Dorna's finally decided DMG (dba AMA Pro Racing) and "the France family" are useless, and that if Dorna is to see U.S. riders flowing into the World Championship, they'll have to develop those U.S. riders themselves.

I don't think it's quite that simple. Leaving aside the fact that "the France family" wasn't a drag on American racing in the '60s and '70s, when races in the family's back yard, on the family's private track, drew the likes of Ago, Hailwood, and Saarinen. Yeah, Daytona used to be like that.

How many Americans 'should' there be in MotoGP? 

There are six or seven times as many Americans as there are Spaniards, so on the face of things, American fans' hurt feelings about not having anyone to cheer for at Indy seem reasonable. But motorcycles and motorcycle racing play an exponentially larger role in Spanish pop culture than they do here. I guarantee you that more total miles (or kilometers) are put on the Spanish motorcycle fleet overall, than are put on the U.S. fleet in any given year. Although soccer's the #1 sport there, motorcycle racing's in the tier right below soccer. 

America's population isn't just far bigger than Spain's in terms of numbers. Americans are also far bigger than Spaniards or Italians. By the time they're in their late teens, most American kids have already eaten their way out of a potential MotoGP ride. Let alone this kid's chances of ever being competitive in Moto3.
America's huge population has its attention distracted by football, basketball, and baseball; below that there's hockey, Nascar, and golf; MMA's in there somewhere now; tennis, gymnastics, swimming… and way, way down the list, below horse racing at around the level of bodybuilding (now that there's no Arnold to grin his way into the popular consciousness) there's motorcycle racing. By which I mean Supercross. Road racing is below that. 

So really, why would you expect there to be more than a smattering of American riders at the top level? Most of our good athletes are siphoned off into more popular sports—to say nothing of sports that cost parents less, and/or are potentially more lucrative if your kid's the 1 in 10,000 who deserves a pro career.

A better question to ask is, why was there ever an American heyday in Grands Prix?

The short answer is: dirt track. From the late '60s through the '80s, a relatively strong AMA Grand National Championship nurtured a pretty substantial pool of home grown racers who were primarily flat trackers, but who road raced, too, so they could score enough points to win the combined #1 plate.

At the same time in Grands Prix, 500cc two stroke power outputs, had leapt over the capacity of existing frames, tires, and engine management. Riders who had grown up in Europe, emulating Hailwood and Agostini—smooth, wheels-in-line classicism—couldn't handle bikes that wanted to spin the rear wheel and slide everywhere. But American flat track racers were used to exactly that.

Global sponsors like Marlboro wanted to win races, and were happy to look outside the usual talent pool to find riders who could handle the beastly 500s. Many of those sponsors (besides Marlboro, there was Lucky Strike, Pepsi…) were American. They certainly didn't mind it when Grand Prix team managers brought Kenny Roberts over. And, it was a time of strong motorcycle sales here in the U.S., so manufacturers didn't mind it when American riders displaced Europeans, either.

All of which conspired to create a very favorable environment for American riders in Grands Prix. From the first World Championship in 1949 through 1977, there was precisely one premier-class champion who was not from either the UK or Italy (Gary Hocking was a Rhodesian who came up riding in Britain.) Then from 1978 through '93, the championship was virtually American property; Roberts, Lawson, Spencer, Rainey, Schwantz… there were only three years in there when Americans didn't win.

But nothing lasts forever. Kenny Roberts figured that most of the benefits of a flat track career could be transferred to road racers by training them on tiny XR100 dirt bikes—and with far less risk. Pretty soon, Europeans picked up that training technique. American sponsors (notably the tobacco brands) played a smaller role after many countries placed restrictions on the marketing of carcinogens. The American motorcycle market stagnated. And then, with the advent of the MotoGP class and advanced traction control, we saw a period of several years when there was a premium—again—on smooth, wheels-in-line riding. Two or three years ago, I interviewed Nicky Hayden and he told me he was trying to stay off his flat track bikes, because he thought the habits he reinforced in the dirt were hurting him in MotoGP.

Between 1994 and now, there've been exactly two American champions Kenny Roberts Jr. (2000), and Nicky Hayden (2006). Neither was what you'd call dominant. Nicky won two races in  '06; Rossi won five.

What does that all mean? Here's an executive summary…

  • The Golden Era for Americans in the 500GP class came about because of a unique set of conditions that no longer apply
  • Just because there are 315 million Americans and 47 million Spaniards doesn't mean there should be six Americans for every Spaniard at the top level. You need to compare the number of guys between 15-25 who weigh less than 140 pounds. So right there, you've just about evened the size of the actual talent pool
  • Then, you have to multiply the remaining number by some factor based on the probability that those young men have been exposed to motorcycles and think that racing them is cool. Motorcycles are 10x as common on Spanish streets, and motorcycle racing has 50x the media exposure in Spain
  • Factor in: major sponsors naturally prefer athletes who speak the language, in the countries where those companies operate. Repsol and Movistar aren't doing much if any business in the U.S.
  • Factor in: factories naturally tend to want riders from countries where they sell lots of bikes

The upshot of all that is, there is no 'appropriate' number of Americans. Ezpeleta, I think, really does want more Americans because the U.S. is still a major motorcycle market—even as shitty as the bike business has been here for the last few years. More important to Dorna and its owners, the American economy is still huge, and there are scores of companies that could bring major sponsorship to the sport. Apple, Google, Coke, McDonalds… that's the prize for Dorna, not American riders, per se.

So, what should Rainey and Ezpeleta do, if they want to bring more American riders up? Check back tomorrow for thoughts on that topic...

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