Does enthusiasm only exist outside of the US?
A little over a month ago I plunked myself down on the couch in front of the T.V. on a Tuesday morning for a rare spare few minutes before I headed off to the ol’ keyboard. Flipping over to Speed, I was able to catch the last 40 minutes or so of what I recall was the Estoril round of MotoGP. It was a spectacular race, one that saw constant lead changes and plenty of excitement. At times the lead group consisted of three and even four riders battling neck-and-neck for first place like a bunch of Preakness hopefuls.
As I scanned the background I noticed the legions of racing fans; each turn or particularly good viewing spot held a color-coordinated enclave of people cheering on their favorite warrior. If you’ve watched more than a handful of GP races you know that there’s nothing especially unusual about that. Yet, as I watched that familiar scene I had an epiphany: these fans are extremely passionate. What really drove that revelation into my thick skull was the fact that the race wasn’t the spectacle that usually sees Vale Rossi, or this year Casey Stoner, basking in the adoration of those thousands of fans. No, this was the humble 250cc two-stroke battle.
Then another observation crossed my mind. No race that I’ve ever been to, or the countless I’ve watched on television that took place in America, has ever had anything close to the level of enthusiasm like we see in the rest of the world. Have you really paid attention to those crowds? If you didn’t know that it was a motorsports event you could easily believe that it was a fanatical uprising of tens of thousands of ardent followers of any number of religions or political causes.
Recent experiences support my asseveration about American roadracing fans: this year’s U.S. GP at Laguna Seca, and the season-closer of the AMA Supersport race held at Laguna in September of this year. First off, let me be clear that I’m grateful to have any GP in the states. But the fact is that attendance was actually down this past July (2007) for what was only the third Grand Prix held in the United States since the series last came here in 1994. Sure, there were still over 143,000 people over a three-day span, and you could argue that the first year MotoGP came back to Laguna was a logistical nightmare, with traffic (both vehicles and people) rivaling that of any greater Los Angeles freeway. And 2006 saw sweltering temperatures. My point is that even with good numbers on paper, I just didn’t see the excitement that I usually see in Spain, Italy or even Turkey for that matter.
The other race(s) that really showed U.S. race fan’s true colors was the final round of AMA Superbike and Supersport at Laguna. What did I see on Speed’s same-day broadcast? A thrilling, drama-filled battle for overall points champ in Supersport. This one had it all; paint was being swapped, lighthearted trash was being talked, crashes, signage blowing across the track, and a restart. The other thing you could’ve seen if you bothered to pay attention for more than 20 minutes was a dearth of people. At one point it looked as if no more than a couple hundred fans were scattered in the grandstands on the front straight. (I don’t think attendance was any better this year.)
Someone once commented to me that we see so many people attend races in other countries because they don’t have much else beyond omnipresent soccer. If true, that’s a substantial counterpoint.
It’ll be interesting to see if in roughly 11 months from now the Indianapolis round of MotoGP will present the American race fan with a new opportunity to meet or exceed the degrees of devotion our motorcycle brethren from around the globe have for roadracing. Until then, I just haven’t seen the same passion at home that I do almost every other place on the planet.
(Did the American roadracing motorcycle fan do us proud at Indy this year? I know it was rainy, but if you were there let me know what you think of Indy’s turnout and vibe in the stands.)