Categories: Features
3 years ago | Updated 3 years ago

Tomfoolery – From Domination To Near Extinction

I hate being the nihilistic voice of MO, but when it comes to the state of American talent at world-level motorcycle road racing, we’re f*#ked. If the swirling rumors of Nicky Hayden’s departure from MotoGP come to pass, it’ll be the first time since 1977 America’s been absent from competing at the world’s highest level of two-wheel racing. Truly sad – especially considering the U.S. hosts two MotoGP rounds.

Sure, I’m a Vale Rossi fan who’d love to see the old man reclaim his former glory in a last hurrah this season. But that doesn’t mean I’m not into supporting my fellow compatriot at his home rounds in Texas and Indy. Nicky’s not in contention for the championship, so there’s no reason I can’t cheer the guy in the middle of the pack as much as the guy at the front of the pack.

The real issue, though, isn’t the departure of Hayden from MotoGP, it’s the vacuum of American talent, the Mr. Nobody alternate, there to take his place. There’s scuttlebutt about Hayden maybe moving to World Superbike, which would make him the only American competing in that series. If, for some reason, a WSBK ride doesn’t materialize and Hayden retires from MotoGP, we’d be left with no Americans in either world-level series.

I don’t particularly care for pop country music. There’s no stars and stripes streaming from the back of my Japanese pick-up truck. You won’t find me espousing the unfounded virtues of American exceptionalism. But let’s put into perspective the role of American racers competing in both MotoGP/500cc and World Supers.

The competitiveness between fellow American racers Wayne Rainey and Kevin Schwantz in the late ’80s and early ’90s is legendary.

American MotoGP/500cc World Champions
Season Category Rider Constructor
2006 MotoGP Nicky Hayden Honda
2000 500cc Kenny Roberts Jr Suzuki
1993 500cc Kevin Schwantz Suzuki
1992 500cc Wayne Rainey Yamaha
1991 500cc Wayne Rainey Yamaha
1990 500cc Wayne Rainey Yamaha
1989 500cc Eddie Lawson Honda
1988 500cc Eddie Lawson Yamaha
1986 500cc Eddie Lawson Yamaha
1985 500cc Freddie Spencer Honda
1984 500cc Eddie Lawson Yamaha
1983 500cc Freddie Spencer Honda
1980 500cc Kenny Roberts Yamaha
1979 500cc Kenny Roberts Yamaha
1978 500cc Kenny Roberts Yamaha

Our Grand Prix golden age was the years spanning from 1978 – when “King” Kenny Roberts began the American domination of 500cc Grand Prix motorcycle racing – to Kevin Schwantz’s title in 1993. Thirteen championships out of 16 seasons. Kenny Roberts Jr. followed in his dad’s footsteps with a championship title in 2000. Six years later Hayden made his cameo appearance in the hall of champions, but there hasn’t been an American since, and there doesn’t appear to be one on the horizon.

We’re no better off in the World Superbike series. This year’s demise of Larry Pegram’s Team Hero EBR squad was a double whammy that left the WSBK paddock devoid of both American racer and American motorcycle. An emigration for Hayden from MotoGP to WSBK would, at least, keep America represented in a world series, but we’d be hanging by thread.

When WSBK launched in 1988, America’s motorcycle racing talent pool was spilling over. We won five championships out of the first six seasons; 1988 to 1993, while concurrently winning 500cc Grand Prix championships.

American World Superbike Champions
2009 Ben Spies Yamaha

Double World Superbike Champion, Colin Edwards aboard the Honda VTR1000.

2002 Colin Edwards Honda
2000 Colin Edwards Honda
1997 John Kocinski Honda
1993 Scott Russell Kawasaki
1992 Doug Polen Ducati
1991 Doug Polen Ducati
1989 Fred Merkel Honda
1988 Fred Merkel Honda

What happened? Did America squander its motorcycle road racing talent like watering a Las Vegas golf course? Blame it on the Great Recession, DMG’s hostaging of American Superbike racing, Justin Bieber, the removal of artificial colors and flavors from breakfast cereals, I don’t know, blame it on something or nothing. What I do know is we gotta get our motorcycle racing mojo back. Hopefully, three-time 500cc Grand Prix World Champion, Wayne Rainey and his crew at MotoAmerica can resolve the problem and set a course for a second coming of American racing talent.

MotoAmerica Superbike points leader Cameron Beaubier (pictured) and Patrick (PJ) Jacobsen, currently third in the World SuperSport series, are two young American racers with possible MotoGP/WSBK futures.

Which is exactly what Rainey and KTM are doing with the KTM RC Cup. From an interview Troy Siahaan conducted with Rainey earlier this year, Rainey says “One of the other things we’re doing this year that we’re really excited about is that we have this KTM RC390 Cup. It’s a spec cup for amateur racers. It’s the first time, I believe, that in the AMA championship at least, that we’ve been able to have an amateur series involved with a national championship, so it gives the teams a chance to look at the talent coming through. Everybody’s on a spec bike, they’re reasonably priced, and also it gives them the experience to be racing at a national championship.

The man, the legend, the book.

“If there’s one thing we were maybe lacking before,” Rainey continued, “it was giving youngsters a chance to get there [Europe] sooner. We didn’t have that. This is a great idea that KTM came up with, and at the end of the day, the winner gets to go on to Europe and race. So, I think it’s an awesome thing. I’ve said this before: if I was 14 years old, I’d have five or six paper routes, I’d be having my mom and dad do whatever it took to do this. This is going to be great for our series.”

Rainey has been a longtime advocate of motorcycle road racing in America. He was influential in MotoGP’s return to Laguna Seca in 2005, and now he’s holding the reigns to MotoAmerica. If he applies the same determination to making MotoAmerica successful and developing a youthful talent pool as he did to his own racing career (which you have to assume he will), it bodes well that America could regain its lofty position on the world stage of motorcycle road racing.

Wayne Rainey To Be Honored At AMA Ceremony

Let’s also give some much-deserved credit to KTM, for without its RC Cup there’d be no national venue dedicated to grooming the next generation of American road racers. From KTM’s RC Cup Race Guide:

“KTM understands the importance of catering to future riders of bigger displacement models by stimulating the market with smaller displacement sportbikes. With this in mind, the company is ecstatic to be partnering with MotoAmerica for the 2015 KTM RC Cup; allowing the next generation of racers to attack America’s most renowned circuits on the new KTM RC 390 Cup Race Bike.” Amen to that, KTM!

Fifteen-year-olds Braeden Ortt (551) and Anthony Mazziotto III (516) battling for victory in the KTM RC 390 Cup final at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.

The irony here is that KTM is still largely recognized in the U.S. as a dirtbike company. With the roadracing recognition of the RC Cup in the MotoAmerica series, the Super Duke R earning Bike of the Year honors from us, as well as other publications, KTM’s persona is quickly changing.

Hopefully, the efforts of Rainey, KTM and all the unsung heroes of U.S. motorcycle road racing will save the American MotoGP/WSBK champion from extinction. It’s probably going to take a while because, from a world perspective, stock in American roadracing has fallen far, but I’m faithful it’ll rebound. In the meantime, I’m hoping Hayden and Rossi can keep competing for a couple more seasons. No offense to Lorenzo, Marquez, et al., but let’s face it, they’re neither American nor are they Rossi.

The last dinosaur? Nicky Hayden was at Laguna Seca signing autographs during the recent World Superbike round. Was he taking inventory?

Tags: americakenny robertsKevin SchwantzMotoAmericamotogpnicky haydenracingtom rodericktomfooleryWayne Raineyworld superbike championshipwsbk