Whatever: I, JB, Racing Snob

John Burns
by John Burns

All motorcycle racing is not created equal

Strange how some people who call themselves motorcyclists like some forms of racing and not others. When I was a kid dreaming of my first motorcycle, it was a KX125 or a Hodaka Combat Wombat or something like that, and my heroes were the exotic characters in the magazines who raced them. This was before pavement racing had been invented I think. Now, I have to admit that while I think outdoor MX is pretty entertaining, given my choice between attending a Supercross or roller derby, I’d probably go with the skaters.

I totally respect the skills of the kids who race Supercross, but it’s a frightening sport to watch. I’d like to snag a ride on Rossi’s 200-mph M1, but I would be disabled at the first double on a SX course, and that kind of squelches my enthusiasm. Personalities like Barry Sheene and Kenny Roberts and Rossi are thin on the ground in roadracing lately, but any glimmer of character was totally absent the last time I watched a post-race SX interview. I need a little personality in my racers, a little glamor for God’s sake. (That’s Paul Smart and Bruno Spaggiari celebrating their 1972 Imola 200 Ducati 1-2 finish in the lead photo.)

Supercross GOAT Ricky Carmichael hands out the trophies at the Catalan Grand Prix, 2015. Enough said.

The riders seem as interchangeable as the bikes. Hurricane Hannah, I believe, was the first MXer to really pay attention to conditioning and training, but he tried to keep it on the down-low. Now, work out and train is all the home-schoolers do: work out, stay on (brand) topic, and proselytize. When they’re not recovering from injury.

For me, ogling the hardware is as important as the racing. In roadracing, we’ve got V-Fours, V-Twins, Triples and Four-cylinders in all sorts of interesting packages, with the Italians mixing it up against the Japanese – sometimes the Germans and British. It’s nice that KTM is involved in Supercross, but the bikes are still mostly interchangeable. One cylinder is all we get? It was exciting when Yamaha turned its engine around, putting the intake in front! Maybe they’ll put it on the side someday just to liven things up again, why not?

This has nothing to do with today’s theme, but I found it looking for underwear ads from the ’60s.

There are some supposedly fantabulous collections of vintage MXers around me here in SoCal, but now those bikes are just about as interesting as women’s underwear ads from 1960s Sears catalogs, which were the other things that used to get my heart racing. So, ahhhh, rudimentary. Like 19th-century farm equipment.

Supermoto is back this year. It was going to be the thing that resurrected motorcycle racing a decade ago, as people could watch it by stepping out from whatever Reno, NV, tavern they happened to be in – the only time you could ride your dirtbike on the street! Supermoto died an ugly death, not because the racing wasn’t pretty entertaining but supposedly due to mismanagement and the Great Recession.

The revived series is doing a great job of keeping itself out of sight so far in 2016. Looks like they had a race through downtown Sturgis in July that I heard zero about, and one in Canada, but they have been mostly driven out of town and back onto kart tracks. The next one’s in Tucson October 22. The Supermoto they put on here in Long Beach in Queen Mary park 10 years ago was epic.

Jeff Ward, 45 years old(!), clinched his second AMA Supermoto title at the Queen Mary round in 2006. (Riderfiles photo)

But I have no plans to make the Tucson round… and people have mercifully stopped asking me if I want to go to Speedway in Costa Mesa to watch 60-year old guys ride Jawas older than them. Yes it’s a good excuse to drink margaritas, but the fumes, noise and gray ponytails ruin it for me.

It’s like the old George Carlin bit about the difference between baseball and football. Going to a nice road race is a trip out into the country, including a nice pastoral hike if you’re lucky enough to be going to someplace like Road America, Road Atlanta or Barber. Heck, even Willow Springs was beautiful if you caught it on the right day – there are three or four of them a year. Pack the picnic basket, mama! Roadracing is speed and grace with a taste of Continental sophistication; Supercross is flatulent mechanical insects jumping around at random waiting to be rammed by Bubba Stewart, inside a crowded stadium full of hopped-up monster truck drivers.

Lately, though, there’s been a really pleasant middle ground I’ve been able to get behind: flat track racing! You’ve still got your flatulent grasshoppers in the GNC2 feeder class, which keeps costs down and lets more people participate. But in the big-boy GNC1 class, you already had a Kawasaki Twin beating up on the vintage Harley XRs, Ducatis, Triumphs and a couple of others, and that was before Indian announced its seriously serious effort to reignite the H-D wars this past weekend at the Santa Rosa Mile.

Bryan Smith racing to the win at the 2015 Pomona Half-Mile. He just traded in the Crosley Kawasaki for a new Indian FTR750.

Not only does Indian have a brand-new high-tech bike, it’s got newly crowned AMA Champ Bryan Smith to ride it (buh-bye, Kawasaki, thanks for the no support), along with Brad Baker (23 year-old ex-H-D GNC champ) and multi-time champ Jared Mees. Unless the new FTR750 with its Swiss-built V-Twin is a total POS (doubtful), 2017 may be more Little Big Horn than competitive race season. (Has anyone told Harley about the new Indian yet?) But then flat track racing is an inscrutable venue, where experience and treachery often triumph over superior engineering and good intentions. (We’ll know a lot more about the new FTR soon thanks to MO’s ride on it the day after the race with seven-time GNC Champ Chris Carr; look for that story soon.)

Sac’to Mile 2015 Main

Along with Indian’s re-entry, the AMA is making a push to reinvent the entire series, changing its name now to American Flat Track (AFT), changing GNC1 and 2 to AFT Twins and AFT Singles, and even simplifying the race format. AMA Pro Racing CEO Michael Lock is nobody’s fool, having served as Ducati North America’s CEO for a decade, among other positions.

AMA Flat Track CEO Michael Lock at the 2015 Sacramento Mile.

No Country for Middle-Aged Men: Troy Bayliss at the Sacramento Mile

The 2017 season will kick off March 16 with an all new Daytona TT, to be held on a track with turns in both directions (!) that’ll be constructed inside the Superspeedway. As for the rest of the season, there aren’t many better places to spend an evening than in the country’s old horse racing venues. Some of them are really magical places, not too far removed from population centers but still with that gentle manure fragrance hanging in the air that takes you back to your roots even if you’re a city kid.

Unlike most things in the modern world, flat track racing remains affordable and approachable. The racing is often incredible, and you never know who you might bump into. I’m going to have to advise everybody to check the calendar and get off the couch when these guys are in the neighborhood.

Ed Lawson says he doesn’t get out much, but he made it to the Pomona Half Mile in 2015 (with his pal Wayne Rainey).

PS: Just when you’re feeling all positive about a thing, two kids get killed doing it. Our deepest condolences to the families of Charlotte Kainz and Kyle McGrane, who lost their lives in separate incidents at the season-ending Santa Rosa Mile last weekend.

John Burns
John Burns

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  • John A. Stockman John A. Stockman on Sep 30, 2016

    I love many different forms of 2-wheel racing and even the sidecar rigs...watched an MX-style sidecar race, loved it!. Some only watch "Super"bikes, and say "meh" to the smaller classes like Supersport and Moto2/3. Do I like that the smaller MotoGP classes are nothing more than a spec race with the same engine and a few different frame constructors? No. Then it becomes individual skills and physical/mental athletic talent, so maybe not that bad in that context. A change of perspective was in order for me. Motorcycle racing is still ignored as an extremely physical athletic endeavor, even more so when factoring in the mental aspect of focus and concentration. An example of ignorance here in the Seattle area, Flat Track was "allowed" on the Emerald Downs horse racing track for a short time. A mile, perfect for that activity and centrally located for residents from Olympia, Tacoma, Seattle, Everett, etc. When the Seattle mile was being run in the 90s, the local sports media, meaning ball sport media ( newspapers, TV and radio), vilified the fact that motorcycles were racing on their beloved horse track, and that the bikes would ruin it and attract the wrong crowd. They also cried "foul" when SX was going to be held in the old Kingdome, then transferred to the new Quest, now Century Link, football stadium. Would they even give two words of coverage about it or maybe the results? Never. I support many forms of motorcycle racing and do agree that the usual babble from the podium has become bland and script-like. Especially SX and Outdoor MX. Now that beIN Sports has locked up motorcycle road-race broadcasting in this country, the only way I can watch MotoGP and WSBK is through those series' Video Passes. MotoAmerica is out for me, not even on-line anymore because if you don't have beIN in your channel line up, you cannot access beIN's on-line race content. I can only hold out hope that MotoAmerica follows through with something I read about, that they are looking at a track on the west coast, possibly The Ridge in Shelton, WA, as a place to add another race on the calendar. As long as beIN has cornered the broadcast and on-line viewing in this market, it's going to be the only way I can actually watch MotoAmerica for the foreseeable future, and the best way by seeing it in person!

  • Mugwump Mugwump on Oct 01, 2016

    Pikers one and all. I'm betting none of you are watching "Herbie" Hancock live from Torun.