The series last raced in the USA at Laguna Seca in 2004, an event which was well loved by spectators and teams alike, after 10 straight years on the WSBK calendar. From 2005, Laguna Seca changed focus and instead hosted the U.S. MotoGP, leaving WSBK without an American venue to race at. Over the past 4 years, fans were teased with rumors of the series re-emerging at a variety of tracks - Road America in Wisconsin, Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama, and Miller in Utah. Finally, in 2007, WSBK organizers announced that they had reached a 3-year agreement with Miller to host the series, and World Superbike would finally be back in the USA.
The 4.5-mile track, located in Tooele, which is a half-hour drive from Salt Lake City, sits in an absolutely stunning setting 4550 feet above sea level, surrounded by snow-capped mountains. Many riders commented how the beautiful scenery reminded them of Europe, perhaps the Austrian Alps. Throughout the weekend, riders and team members posed before the dramatic backdrop, snapping photos like tourists.
They seemed generally surprised to find such a world-class racetrack in what many consider to be the middle of nowhere. U.S. racetracks typically do not compare well to those in Europe; the team and press facilities, the racing surface, and most importantly the safety of American tracks is generally not up to par. Miller is a notable exception, opened in 2006 at a cost of $85 million, all the modern thought of how to make a safe, challenging racetrack with all mod cons went into MMP's design. There's even a museum which hosts an unbelievable collection of priceless Shelby Cobras, Ford Mustangs, Le Mans-winning GT40s and (strangely) the entire current lineup of Bimota motorcycles.
The Hannspree/StriVectin-SD World Superbike Championship was held in conjunction with the Honda Summit of Speed, which meant that fans got to see both WSBK racing and the AMA Superbike Championship, with the usual support classes - Supersport, Formula Xtreme, and Superstock. There were two World Superbike races on Sunday, and AMA Superbike raced on both Saturday and Sunday.
Unfortunately, the AMA and WSBK used different track configurations, which meant there could be no direct comparison of lap times made by the two series. The reason given for this was that as each series has different sponsors, there would be different, appropriate advertising signage on each configuration of the track, for proper TV coverage.
...fans got to see both WSBK racing and the AMA Superbike Championship...'
But many pundits believe that the real reason was that as AMA Superbike factory teams use prototype tires, and WSBK teams use production-based Pirelli tires, the WSBK machines might actually be slower around the track, which would not be good publicity for Pirelli or WSBK. This is not to say that Pirellis are inherently inferior to the tires used in the AMA; in World Superbike, everyone has access to the same tires, which makes for very close racing. In AMA Superbike, only the top guys get the best prototype tires from Dunlop, and the racing is anything but close. For 2009, the AMA will move to a single tire rule, like WSBK, but which manufacturer will provide the rubber is not yet known.
The World Superbike races were exciting. Both were won by Hannspree Ten Kate rider Carlos Checa, riding a Honda CBR1000RR. Checa, a longtime MotoGP campaigner, had not won a motorcycle race in 10 years, but he broke his drought in style, winning convincingly over Yamaha Italia's Troy Corser in Race 1 and Alstare Suzuki pilot Max Neukirchner in Race 2. In doing so, Checa brought home Honda's 99th and 100th victories in World Superbike.
Series points leader Troy Bayliss did not finish either race, highsiding his Xerox Ducati 1098R in Race 1 and retiring with a shifter problem in Race 2. It wasn't all bad for Ducati, however, as junior rider Michel Fabrizio scored two 3rd-place finishes.
In AMA Superbike, the winner is usually either Suzuki's Ben Spies or Mat Mladin, but there were some surprises at Miller. Firstly, Mladin crashed out of Saturday's race while chasing Spies, his bike launching 10 feet into the air and tumbling thru the dirt. Spies took the win with Monster Kawasaki's Jamie Hacking in 2nd, and American Honda rider Neil Hodgson in 3rd. On Sunday, Mladin again had difficulty and finished 4th behind Spies, Hacking and Hodgson. Mladin came to Utah with an 8-point lead in the Championship; he left 39 points in the hole.
The weather for both days was perfect, sunny without a hint of rain, although it did get quite windy on Sunday. It was a good thing that there was so much racing to watch, because the ambiance at the circuit was a bit subdued. There were only a handful of vendors at the track, and although the major Japanese manufacturers and Ducati had tents, most did not bring their full lineup of bikes, which was disappointing, especially in comparison to Laguna Seca MotoGP.
There were some very lame bands playing in the paddock area (who almost no one watched), and some equally poor stunt riders showcasing their "skills" - including one genius who lost control of his bike and tossed it into the crowd, which caused several spectators to seek medical treatment. Attendance in general seemed to be fairly modest, although in fairness, as Miller is such a huge facility, it is hard to judge. With an announced weekend total of 51,000 spectators, Miller stated that it was their most successful professional racing event in terms of tickets sold.
The track at Miller is so large that at times it was difficult for fans to understand what was happening on track, which was compounded by the lack of a timing tower and the complete inability of the announcers to pronounce many of the names of the European riders. Noted motorcycle scribe Dennis Noyes helped announce the WSBK races, which was a welcome relief.
So for next year, Miller should add a timing tower, more jumbotrons, and announcers who have experience in motorcycle racing. Other than that, the weekend at Miller was superb. Fans had unprecedented access for a World Championship-level event, with paddock passes and multiple pitlane walks available, and famous racers readily available to sign autographs - quite different than MotoGP.
With both the Laguna Seca and the inaugural Indianapolis MotoGP events upcoming, American roadrace fans have a wealth of choices these days. MotoGP may have more glitz, but you can't get anywhere closer to your favorite riders than you do at a World Superbike race. So if you missed it this year, be sure to check out the 2009 WSBK races at Miller Motorsports Park. It will surely be even bigger and better!