Drawing The Line - Motorcycle Roadracing - A Tale of Three Series

Up To Speed

By James Parker, Photography by Brian J. Nelson

Charles Dickens started his novel A Tale of Two Cities with the lines, "It was the best of times. It was the worst of times." That's where we are now with motorcycle roadracing.

The 2009 World Superbike Championship was spectacular from any point of view. The year began with full grids, two new factory teams (Aprilia and BMW) with competitive equipment, and the title wasn't decided until the last race of the season.

Not only was the racing close and exciting, but a Hollywood writer couldn't have scripted a more compelling screenplay than the story of Ben Spies, who was new to the series, unfamiliar with most of the tracks and on a bike (Yamaha YZF-R1) and tires (spec Pirellis) he didn't know. He dominated Superpole qualifying, but certainly didn't dominate the racing. At one point 88 points behind Ducati's Noriyuki Haga, he clawed back to take the title in a thriller.

The coming 2010 season looks to be strong for SBK as well. Aprilia and BMW will be back, both stronger than before. KTM may enter select rounds after competing in the '09 German national series. And Kawasaki has announced a more serious effort after weak recent results.

World Superbike offers a stable, strong program. Manufacturers know what to expect in terms of rules, costs, television, print exposure and publicity benefits. Seven factories (eight with KTM) see those benefits. Even in economic hard times, in SBK it's the best of times.

In MotoGP, there isn't much stability right now. The 800cc formula will reign for two more years, to be replaced in 2012 by a revival of the 1000cc limit. Other than four cylinders and an 81mm maximum bore, detailed rules haven't been worked out. World Champion Valentino Rossi and others are pushing for a big reduction in electronic aids-he's calling for 70 percent less "help." A reduction will certainly reduce costs, but how much will change is a question now. Costs are MotoGP's biggest problem. Kawasaki has dropped out of the series completely and Suzuki is on life support, leaving only Ducati, Honda and Yamaha in relative good health. Each of these three will provide bikes for satellite teams, but the field will remain thin, even with the arrival of FB Corse with a new but undeveloped bike of its own.

For MotoGP, rapidly changing rules and high costs mean that while it's not the worst of times, it's not the best either.

Superbike racing in the U.S., on the other hand, is facing the worst of times. The Daytona Motorsports Group (DMG) has announced purses for the Superbike class that are nothing short of shocking. For 2010, the weekend purse totals $6500, paying only through third place. In comparison, a Superbike race in 2002 paid $74,000, awarding first through 20th.

DMG has put its weight behind the middleweight Daytona Sportbike class, which will be allotted almost five times the Superbike payout: $30,500 per weekend. It's obvious that nothing without the word "Daytona" in it is going to prosper with DMG. It's a question of branding: The France family, which owns Daytona (and other racetracks), is behind DMG, and it's all Daytona, all the time. Honda and Kawasaki have both announced that they won't be competing in the series in 2010, leaving only the Suzuki and Yamaha factory teams.

Can American motorcycle roadracing continue as an outgrowth of a single track that has never been friendly to motorcycles? The high speeds possible on Daytona's high banks tax tires, requiring motorcycles that compete in the annual 200-miler to be slowed by first a chicane, then a revised course layout and ultimately a reduction in displacement (from 1000cc to 600cc fours). Daytona is unique, yes, but its uniqueness has distorted the entire U.S. roadracing scene. And the latest sacrifice on the altar of Daytona is American Superbike racing.

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