MO Vacation: World Superbike/MotoAmerica Laguna Seca 2018
Wondering where the (American) lions went?
Not many of the kids racing World Superbike and MotoAmerica last weekend were born the first time I went to Laguna Seca in 1988 for the return of Grand Prix motorcycle racing in the USA. Eddie Lawson won that one. Wayne Rainey had taken pole position and finished fourth, ahead of Kevin Schwantz in fifth. Mike Baldwin finished tenth to make it 40% Americans in the top ten. Meanwhile in the 250s (what would be Moto2 today but much cooler because two-strokes), Arkansas’ own John Kocinski took the 250 pole, while fellow American Jimmy Filice took the storybook win in the race. Long story short, Americans from Kenny Roberts on dominated top-level road racing.
Kocinski went on to win the World Superbike championship for Honda in 1997, a cool deal for certain but not a particularly unusual one since Americans had won five of the first nine WSBK titles. Post-Kocinski, aside from Colin Edwards’ excellent championships (2000 and 2002) and Ben Spies’ championship (2009), Americans have been thin on the grid. With the sad death of Nicky Hayden went all our national hopes in WSBK, and in MotoGP the situation is even more grim. Since Nicky’s 2006 MotoGP championship, it’s been – aside from Australian retiree Casey Stoner’s two championships – nothing but Spain and Italy ever since. When Nick left MotoGP after 2016, there weren’t any more Americans competing in the premier series. How did this come to pass, and would any of us have ever even gotten interested in motorcycle roadracing if not for guys like Lawson, Rainey, Schwantz and Nick Hayden?
What happened to all the Americans?
“I think we got complacent as competitors,” says three-time 500cc GP champion, Wayne Rainey. “In the ’80s, we had the top competitors in the world wanting to come here to race in our series, including on serious two-stroke GP bikes – and we somehow got away from that. Our class structures became compromised after the Recession, which caused some of our manufacturers to leave the series.
“But way before that, big media got involved in international racing, and along with big media came big money. Once Dorna came into GP racing, big sponsorship followed. [Repsol is the Exxon Mobil of Europe, Movistar is a huge telecom company, Philip Morris is still Ducati’s title sponsor.] Now that all that sponsorship money is in place, racing is all organized and promoted from mini-moto on up in the countries we compete against. We haven’t got anything like that. Their kids are getting a lot more seat time.
“Obviously that big media company and those sponsors are Spanish, so why wouldn’t they favor Spanish riders or at least European ones all other things being equal? I mean, there’s a reason Pedrosa had that Repsol Honda ride for such a long time.
“Meanwhile, half our manufacturers left our series, so we’ve got less teams and less top-level seats for our guys to aspire to, fewer chances for our best riders to show what they can do. Ever since we [MotoAmerica] took over the series three seasons ago, we’ve been really working to make our series as attractive as it used to be, to make it a thing people want to be a part of and sponsor. Ideally we’d get to the sponsorship level some of the Europeans have – but we’ve got to be able to put people on that world stage.
“I mean, when was the last time an American team won the Suzuka 8 Hours, or even raced there? That’s a huge international event, and I don’t even know if we’re even represented anymore.”
[Colin Edwards and Daijiro Kato won in 2002!, as did Edwards and Valentino Rossi the year before that.]
“So now, I think the talent is definitely still here, but it’s hard for it to reveal itself. This weekend, the Yamahas can compare themselves to the World Superbike Yamaha team – but even that can’t be a direct comparison since they’re on different tires. But look at Josh Herrin on the Attack Yamaha, two guys in a truck.”
[Ok, well, an 18-wheeler truck. Herrin broke Ben Spies’ 11-year old lap record, with a 1:22.908, to take the MotoAmerica Superbike pole, on a Dunlop qualifying tire. He finished second in the first MotoAmerica race on Saturday, then on Sunday crashed out of a heated battle on lap 16 with eventual winner Cameron Beaubier. Both those races were on the schedule right after Herrin had competed in World Superbike races, on the same Attack Performance Yamaha R1 on WSBK-spec Pirelli tires instead of MotoAmerica Dunlops. On the unfamiliar Pirellis, he could only manage a 1:24.182 lap, which put him 15th on the world grid. Herrin (who you’ll recall was AMA champ in 2013), pulled out of the first WSBK race toward the end, but finished the second one right where he started – 15th.]
WSBK is a tough crowd. Meanwhile, MotoAmerica is clawing its way back to making U.S. racing relevant again.
John Ethell honed his innate mechanical skills working for the stars in Honda’s race department for years, among other places, before opening Jett Tuning in Camarillo, California, while also tuning JD Beach to yet another win in MotoAmerica’s Supersport race.
Why are there no Americans, John?
“It’s money. In the ’80s, it was a U.S. economy. Everybody wanted into the U.S. economy and spent money to be here. Now, it’s a world economy. They don’t need an American rider anymore to get the big sponsors; for the biggest sponsors, it’s better if you’re not an American.”
JD’s Yamaha R6 has an EXUP valve on it. Who knew?
Wait, here’s an American, with the bike he won five AMA 250cc championships upon, and which many may soon not recognize – the Yamaha TZ250 two-stroke. Rich Oliver pulled the TZ out of mothballs for display, and also ran some “exhibition” laps in which it sounded like neither he nor the TZ had lost a step at all. We should all snap up a TZ before the world wises up and they become unobtainable.
Sadly, neither Rich nor Thad Wolff ever quite made it to the world stage, so I didn’t ask either one what ever happened to us internationally? I didn’t want to start into politics. Thad would like to point out, though, that that’s the original “S” sticker on the seat of his ’82 GS1000 Superbike he recently rescued from a barn in the desert, and it drives him crazy when people lean their elbows on it to wind up and start droning on about the old days. If you must drone, please, respect the sticker.
That’s me and MotoAmerica Race Director Doug Chandler, who won two World Superbike races in 1990 in addition to his first (of three) AMA Superbike championships that year (in addition to four years racing 500cc GP in the early ’90s – his best season being fifth place on the Suzuki in ’92). In those days, it was fairly common for AMA riders to podium and win as wildcard riders in World Superbike events – like Vance & Hines Ducati teammates Ben Bostrom and Anthony Gobert also did in 1999 at Laguna. It kept the Euros in their place.
Doug was nice enough to tow me around Laguna for a few laps at a Pirelli-sponsored track day after the WSBK event. More about that in a day or three. He cheats to stay in shape by riding mountain bikes around all the time, from his shop here.
Is there any hope for the future?
Yes there is, and his name is Jake Gagne, who broke into the top ten of WSBK at Laguna for the first time, with a tenth on Saturday and a ninth place on Sunday, in his first season of WSBK competition. Gagne actually did get a bit of that Euro training, already having won the Red Bull Rookies Cup in 2010 against an international crowd, raced in the Spanish CEV championship and as a Moto2 wildcard rider – all that before returning to the AMA in 2014 and winning the AMA Pro Daytona 600 class, followed by the Superstock 1000 championship in MotoAmerica’s first year (2015).
Jake will turn 25 years old in August. Jonathan Rea is now an old man of 31. Valentino Rossi is 39.
The other American out there in WSBK is PJ Jacobsen on the TripleM Honda. Good luck to him as well; he’ll have a harder row to hoe as his motorcycle does not have big “Red Bull” stickers on it like Jake’s. Speaking of Jake’s bike, Jonathan Rea couldn’t do much with the Ten Kate Honda either, but became the first man to win three straight WSBK titles beginning with 2015, the year he moved to Team Kawasaki. Possibly the bike has something to do with it… (and this just in: PJ is at least one American who’ll be at Suzuka next month, racing for three-time 8 Hours winners MuSASHi RT HARC-PRO).
That’s almost all I’ve got for now, except to observe that there were quite a few more people at Laguna Seca WSBK 2018 than the last time I was there five years ago. Things are looking up a bit, Dorna is supposedly looking at ways to get non-Spanish riders back in the mix, and I hope it sticks. I’m not sure I’d ever have become a fan, to be perfectly honest, if my choices had been Marquez or Lorenzo. And I love the British, but their commentators are insufferable enough without yet another all-UK podium like this weekend. Please, Gagne, make it stop!
More by John Burns