Thursday, August 14, 2014

Part 2: A strategy for North American MotoGP relevance

Yesterday, I explained why Americans have a false send of manifest destiny where MotoGP is concerned. The period of American dominance, from the late 1970s through the early 90s, was characterized by uniquely intractable 500GP bikes which only American riders—schooled in dirt track—could handle.

Americans stopped being dominant in Grands Prix for two primary reasons: First, European riders—ironically, at the urging of Kenny Roberts—adopted training methods that gave them the sort of advantages that were previously unique to Americans. And second, technological changes associated with the MotoGP era (traction control) reduced the need for those skills anyway. 

America’s dominance was further eroded when sponsorship by American brands, such as Marlboro, was replaced with sponsorship from companies like Repsol and Movistar.

Nicky Hayden was the last American to come out of the dirt track tradition and find a spot in MotoGP. He won the championship in 2006, of course, although it was hardly with a dominating performance. Since then, his great work ethic has kept him employed (and, really, he was as fast as Rossi at Ducati) but his results have underwhelmed. 

Josh Herrin is having such a dismal season in Moto2 that he’s probably hurt the chances of anyone coming out of the AMA Pro Racing series.
The Americans who followed Nicky into the premier class (I’m thinking of Edwards and John Hopkins at the moment) came from road racing backgrounds; they had flashes of brilliance but never threatened to be real winners at the top level. The bloom is truly off the American rose. 

At the risk of becoming even more unpopular than I already am, I can honestly say that I can’t think of a single U.S. rider who is really conspicuous by his absence in the MotoGP class. Not at the top level, right now. I don’t think there’s even any U.S. rider with more potential than the current cream of the Moto2 crop. There are some young Americans who could move into Moto2 and continue developing; Beaubier, Gagne,.. Johnny Rock Page, of course. But no one's a shoe-in for a factory ride in MotoGP.

So, barring another set of special circumstances*, it seems the U.S. “needs” an actual strategy to develop riders worthy of World Championship rides.

Right now, the obvious model’s probably the Spanish national series, the CEV, which has become the defacto feeder series in the World Championship. One of the things that’s unique to the CEV, right now, is that it runs the same Moto3 and Moto2 classes as the World Championship. That’s relevant because the days of recruiting riders from major national, or World Superbike series seem to be over. MotoGP team managers now seem to feel that they should recruit exclusively from the ranks of the Moto2 championship. I suppose that’s reasonable; after all, it was designed expressly to serve as a feeder series.

So, whether we’re imagining a major revision to the structure of AMA Pro Racing’s road racing classes, or a new FIM North American Championship, if the goal’s to send (North) American talent to the World Championship, the core classes should be Moto3 and Moto2.

A few years ago, at least, the U.S. could claim the fastest girl. But now Maria Herrera has claimed even that for Spain. Here she is winning a CEV Moto3 race, last year.
It’s worth noting that the CEV runs a ‘Superbike’ class—the bikes are actually closer to ‘Superstock’ according to the rules, but who cares?—anyway, it’s not the prestige class in the CEV. Moto2 isn’t even the prestige class; the top class in terms of rider talent and fan interest is Moto3, because riders who stand out in the CEV’s Moto3 class get rides in the World Championship’s Moto3 class.

In Spain, if you’re a rider, Moto3 is the ‘springboard’ class into the World Championship. Moto2 is the springboard class for teams seeking to move up to the World Championship.

That’s an important distinction; we want to see more American riders in the World Championship, and we can aspire to export U.S. riders to European teams. But an even better way to achieve the goal of more U.S. riders is to create some American teams

Homegrown teams will help to bring in U.S. sponsors, who will also—if they get their druthers—want American riders. You see where I’m going with this, right?

Yes, I realize that I’m laying out a difficult path here; look how hard it’s been for Erik Buell—who has more resources than any private American Moto2 team would have—to score a single fucking point in SBK... which is probably an easier assignment than entering the vicious dogfight that is the Moto2 World Championship right now.

But, that is the way. A Moto3 class that serves as a steppingstone for U.S. riders, and a Moto2 class that serves to develop American teams and technicians. The majority of Moto2 World Championship riders are stuck buying their rides; bringing mid-six-figure sponsorships to their teams. That’s another reason why the program needs to bring American teams and sponsors into the World Championship too; it’s awfully hard for an American rider to find that kind of support, when he’s taking it to a European team.

A North American Moto2 championship will face hurdles. For starters, all Moto2 engines are currently supplied by Honda. I think you could write a set of rules that allowed other manufacturers who had a 600-four or a 675 triple to supply motors that—as is currently the case—are sealed and produce a clearly defined power curve. Revised rules could encourage manufacturers to step in as sponsors of the regional championship.

I imagine that my hypothetical championship would, like the CEV, include a nominal Superbike class, which in my world would be a class for stock literbikes and stock unlimited displacement twins. That’s a sop to manufacturers, with a set of rules that minimize the cost to participants.

Although lots of you know that I’ve got issues with the Red Bull Rookies Cup, I want to point out that I don’t think the RBRC is the right feeder into Moto3, mainly because it’s a narrow funnel; rider candidates are limited to kids whose parents have already spent well into six figures just to get them there.

The long term health of U.S. motorcycle road racing depends on building a talent pyramid with a really broad base. That means that the feeder class into Moto3 needs to affordable and showcase rider talent. In the FIM’s Asian Championship, there are classes for stock Honda CBR250s, and 130cc ‘Underbone’ bikes, which are basically tuned scooters.

So, my championship class structure:
  • Novice’s Cup (production/stock 250/300 class, to be determined)*
  • North American Moto3 Championship
  • North American Moto2 Championship (possibly with rules revised to allow other manufacturers’ motors)
  • Manufacturer’s Cup (stock literbikes, etc. aka ‘Superbike’)

I’d like it if, within a few years, the top five Moto3 and Moto2 teams automatically got wild-card rides at U.S. GP rounds. 

Having remade the national (or continental) championship, I’m not done. For this to really work, we need the major club racing organizations to match the rules as much as possible. We need to create a situation where the natural way to try road racing; the natural way to try to build a race team, provides a natural step to the regional championship, and on the World Championship. The single most important piece of advice I have for Wayne Rainey is this: To succeed, your program has to integrate with the major club series.

The better it integrates with the clubs' programs, the fewer races you need to hold a meaningful regional championship. There are only six races in the Asian series, and that's enough for North America, too, as long as teams and riders can develop close to their home bases, in an affordable way.

Having set Wayne off on the right track, I’m still not done. Here’s a blast from the past: when Kenny Roberts arrived in Europe to race full time, a typical 500GP grid was 36 bikes. One reason that MotoGP team managers don’t look much further than Moto2 for their next riders is that today, there’s only a handful of MotoGP rides available; team managers don’t have to look further afield for talent. 

What that means is, being fast is not enough. American riders don't need to arrive in the World Championship with knowledge of the tracks that MotoGP visits. But, if they want to ride for European teams with European sponsors—which for the moment is all there is—it would help if they didn't arrive as semiliterate bumpkins. What a pleasure it would be to hear an American rider answer a reporter in Catalan, or German, Italian. 

Ayrton Senna learned quite a bit of Japanese, when Honda supplied motors for the McLaren F1 team; how much do you suppose that cemented his relationship with Honda, and how much extra leverage did he gain, when negotiating with Ron Dennis?
*OK, this post has gotten long enough. Check back tomorrow for a final installment—a unique rule I'd incorporate into the Novice's Cup class. I guarantee you're gonna' be all "Fuck yeah!" when you read it.

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