Superbike vs. Superbike: What it Means

Henny Ray Abrams | June 27, 2008

BROOKLYN, NY, JUNE 26: Can the American market support competing road racing championships? That’s the question after the Motorcycle Industry Council (MIC) announced that they were planning to investigate launching a series to compete with the Daytona Motorsports Group’s 2009 AMA Superbike Championship. And if history is any judge, at least the history of open wheel racing, the answer is a resounding ‘no.’

The MIC, which is a not-for-profit, national trade association for the motorcycle, scooter, and ATV industry, issued a statement late Thursday afternoon saying that they were “evaluating whether to issue a request for proposal seeking a series promoter and sanctioning body for a premier professional road racing series in the United States.” Essentially, it was a call for a series to compete with the 2009 AMA Superbike Championship as envisioned by the DMG.

MIC President Tim Buche said the MIC “members are better served by having alternatives to the changes for the AMA Superbike Championship that the Daytona Motorsports Group has so far described.” He continued. “We fully appreciate the expertise, hard work and connections the DMG may bring to motorcycling. However, the independent interests of the manufacturers call for a racing series that helps promote specific motorcycle brands. Historically, motorcycle makers have boosted bike sales based on their success in racing. It makes little sense for bike manufacturers to heavily invest in any competition that highlights sponsors and teams and downplays the machines themselves, as well as their technological development. So we are obliged to investigate alternatives that could do a better job of meeting our members’ respective marketing needs. This is especially true given that it’s now late June and there is still uncertainty over the DMG’s 2009 rules.”

The decision was made at a meeting of three of the four American distributors of the Japanese manufacturers at the MIC’s Irvine, California headquarters on Wednesday. Representatives from American Honda, American Suzuki, and Kawasaki U.S. attended. Yamaha didn’t send a representative.

“They’re looking at three or four classes; a 600 class, an entry class, and a Superbike class would do it,” someone briefed on the meeting, who requested anonymity, said. “Maybe they could have a one manufacturer class if someone would fund it.” The Superbike rules will be similar World Superbike rules, he said.

DMG CEO Roger Edmondson wasn’t aware of the statement when reached in Porto Alegre, Brazil, where he’s on Grand-Am business and where Internet access is spotty. After being read the first paragraph and part of the second paragraph, he responded by saying, “I don’t know Mr. Buche, I’ve never spoken with him, so I’m not sure of his qualifications to speak to our suggestions since he never asked for specifics. However, in a country like America, where we have a free enterprise system, bring it on.” Edmondson added, “I’ve got no problem with their announcement that they may do something. It’s not meant to sound militant, just my belief that in a capitalist society you can have a different point of view and if you’re willing to make the investment, you’re free to do so.”

American Suzuki vice president Mel Harris has been the most vocal opponent of the DMG takeover of road racing. Harris has said that under the current rules proposal Suzuki would not only not take part, but wouldn’t support road racing in any form. The rules don’t allow for any development of the motorcycle, which has been a hallmark of Suzuki’s success. The Yoshimura Suzuki race team has won eight of the last nine AMA Superbike Championships. And the Rockstar Makita Suzuki team, run by Yoshimura R&D, has won every Superbike race for more than a year.

American Honda vice president Ray Blank said in a Thursday interview on the Cycle News website that he didn’t see a place for Honda to participate. Blank tipped his hand by saying, “In looking at the Daytona Superbike program, I don’t see where there’s manufacturer participation, frankly from anyone, because to me it has more of a Supersport kind of feel.”

Kawasaki has been the most moderate of the companies, but seems to have been persuaded to join the Suzuki-Honda bloc.

Attempts to reach senior representatives of the three companies on Thursday were unsuccessful.

Edmondson originally agreed to the 2009-2010 rules formulated by the factory teams, but with the caveat that each manufacturer guarantee four Superbikes on the grid. Cost considerations caused Yamaha race boss Keith McCarty to suggest a more economical formula. Edmondson agreed and circulated a progress report asking each of the Japanese manufacturers for their choice. Yamaha and Kawasaki responded in the affirmative almost immediately, Honda had a negative response a few days later. Suzuki chose not to answer. Based on those responses, Edmondson went ahead with the new rules.

The revised 1000cc class rules – 185 horsepower and 375 pounds – didn’t sit well with the factories. Aware of Suzuki’s displeasure, Edmondson, through an intermediary, sent a revised proposal to Suzuki, but none of the other factories. His purpose was to see if they wanted to “participate in the formulation of the rules, because my belief is that a company with that much of an investment and that much experience should certainly ring in before the rules are finalized.” There was no response, according to Edmondson. He said he didn’t send the proposal to American Honda, “simply because Honda has not responded to anything else we’ve sent.”

In the same Cycle News interview in which he spoke of not having a place to participate, American Honda’s Blank said that, with the exception of two meetings with DMG’s Edmondson, one the day before the Daytona 200 and later during the DMG sweep of southern California, “we haven’t heard anything. That remains the same today.”

Formerly called Literbike, the class that now be called American Superbike, to partner Daytona Superbike, which cause some confusion. The technical rules are based on the Superstock 1000 FIM Cup, though with some engine and chassis modifications. Superstock 1000 rules allow for virtually no engine modifications and little in the way of chassis changes. The DMG rules, which are a work in progress, may allow aftermarket triple clamps and shock linkages, and some engine changes.

In contrast, the 2009-2010 rules currently favored by the factory teams are virtually identical to current Formula Xtreme rules, but with stock connecting rods and pistons. Camshaft duration can be changed, but not lift. The crew chief of one of the factory teams said of the 2009-2010 rules that “it’s basically a stock engine with a ported head and a camshaft with duration. You could take a stock 1000 and probably add 15-18 horsepower. You’d fill in the head, not port it. Add a good exhaust system, some good ECU tuning. That would put you close to the 200 horsepower range.”

Some see the MIC statement as posturing, a bargaining tool to extract more concessions out of the DMG. Edmondson said there was no more negotiating.

“Once we publish a set of rules, those are our rules that we intend to run by,” he said. “We haven’t published any yet. We’ve put out several that are works in progress.” He added that he didn’t want to be “doing this forever,” then said, “There comes a point in time that we have to run our own business.”

Whether the MIC could create an entirely new series in such a short time frame is questionable. They’d need infrastructure, a rule book, a sanctioning body, personnel, television, riders, a series sponsor, and race tracks. Most of the tracks have ties to either NASCAR, the International Speedway Corporation, or Grand-AM. DMG is partly owned by Jim France, the vice chairman/executive vice president of NASCAR and chairman/CEO of International Speedway Corporation (ISC). In addition to Daytona International Speedway, ISC owns Auto Club Raceway. And NASCAR runs a round of the Sprint Cup Series at Infineon Raceway. Those three tracks wouldn’t be missed. Daytona is the most dangerous track on the calendar followed by Fontana. Infineon, though millions have been spent on safety, continues to have serious safety issues.

Grand-Am also races at Infineon, as well as the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, Virginia International Raceway, Barber Motorsports Park, and Miller Motorsports Park. The SunTrust Moto-ST series runs at VIR, Barber, and Road America. Whether these tracks would be forced to choose between the two competing championships could go a long way to determining the makeup of their schedules, and the viability of the series’. Though not as disgruntled as the OEM’s, track principals have previously said they’ve been left out of the loop on the DMG takeover. At least one current track had a significant increase in its sanctioning fee.

Open wheel racing essentially killed itself when Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George announced the formation of the Indy Racing League (IRL) on March 11, 1994. The split with the Championship Auto Race Teams (CART) came at the start of the 1996 season when the competing series first went head to head. What was once the dominant form of motor racing in America became fragmented, allowing NASCAR to ascend. The combination of NASCAR’s ascent and the open wheel descent changed the face of car racing in America forever. Cooler heads finally prevailed and the competing series agreed to a merger earlier this year, but the damage was done. Given that 17 of the top 20 spectator events in the U.S. are Sprint Cup races, and that it’s second only to the National Football League in television ratings, should tell you who won.

In road racing, each of the championships would have rider and support problems. If the Japanese manufacturers pulled their support from the DMG, they wouldn’t homologate motorcycles, and therefore would pay no contingency money or support any satellite teams. Jordan Suzuki, Attack Kawasaki, Erion Honda, Graves Motorsports Yamaha and others would have no choice but to follow the money to the MIC series. That would leave the DMG with a field of mostly European manufacturers, and none of the factory stars. But with a $50,000 top prize, and $5000 for second through 20th place, in Daytona Superbike, a number of privateers, and smaller manufacturers, would be wise to take part in the DMG series.

And if the factories refused to support the DMG in road racing, would they show up for the Daytona Supercross?

There’s also the question of television. SPEED, which currently broadcasts the AMA Superbike Championship, would have to choose between the two series, depending on the status of their contract. With the contract due for renewal, and SPEED looking for a commitment that would allow them to invest in a high-definition production truck, they proposed a three-year deal. Edmondson was looking for a one-year deal. He told SPEED, which also broadcasts Grand-Am, that “perhaps because of the lateness of the hour it might be best if we just renewed on the same terms for an additional year. Their response back was that they wanted to go to hi-def, as did I, and to get a deal on a hi-def truck, they needed a three-year deal.” Edmondson said more talks are needed. “I quite clearly think this thing needs to be hi-def.”

Whatever is going to happen has to happen soon. July is days away and the season ends in about three months. Soon afterwards, testing will begin on the 2009 machines. What they are and where they’ll race is a long way from being decided.

Henny Ray Abrams | Contributing Editor

Abrams is the longest-serving contributor at Cycle News. Over the course of his 35-some years of writing and shooting photos, he’s covered events from MotoGP to the Motocross World Championship - and everything in between.