Lowside | Game On, Boys!
I have many, many memories of staying up late on Sunday night, watching whatever racing was being beamed into the family living room. Sunday was race night, given Australia’s eight-hour time advantage to Europe, with mum, dad and I awake way past our bedtimes every week.
In the mid-1990s, grand prix racing was quickly becoming the sideshow. Mick Doohan had a grip on the 500cc Championship like Stalin in 1940s Russia and, following the departure of the great Kevin Schwantz, the world’s premier racing series lacked personality until a young Italian with initials VR rocked up on a yellow Honda in 2000.
The racing to watch in the ’90s was the World Superbike Championship. This was the UFC of motorcycle road racing—Slight, Edwards, Haga, Corser, Fogarty, Gobert and, for a short but hugely successful period, the mercurial John Kocinski—bashing into each other like Spartans and partying like college kids at each meeting’s conclusion (well, all except for Kocinski).
The World Superbike Championship of the ’80s and ’90s was the way racing was meant to be, and is almost completely unrecognizable to what we have today. The U.S. enjoyed considerable racing success in those early years, with Fred Merkel taking the first two WorldSBK titles (1988 and 1989), then Doug Polen with a double in 1991 and 1992, Scott Russell in 1993, Kocinski in 1997, and finally the Texas Tornado, Colin Edwards, in 2000 and in that classic, glorious title-deciding race against Troy Bayliss at Imola in 2002. That Italian epic is one of the all-time great motorcycle races, never mind superbike races.
Ben Spies backed himself in 2009, rocked up to round one at Phillip Island on a factory Yamaha, and blew the doors off everyone in race two, setting the scene for what would be his only year in the FIM WorldSBK Championship. I was in the PI media center that day, and I remember speaking to former WorldSBK rider and then-current commentator, Aussie Steve Martin, saying he’d never seen a talent like Ben. He’s still the only rider to ever nail the big one in his first year of WorldSBK—Kocinski took two years, so did Corser, but no one else has had such a short but immediate impact on WorldSBK racing as “Elbowz” did that magical year.
America has also enjoyed some stunning wildcard appearances over the years—Mat Mladin (yes, he’s an Aussie, but he was U.S. based, so…) smacking that year’s champion Neil Hodgson around at Laguna Seca in 2003; Ben Bostrom and Anthony Gobert doing the same in 1999; Mike Hale and Miguel Duhamel putting it on the box in second and third in race two at Laguna in 1995. They were indeed good times for American road racing, as they showcased not only the talents of the home-brewed riders but also the might of the U.S. motorcycle industry at a time when it was at its mightiest.
Times have, however, changed in a massive way.
American riders have had a hard time of it in WorldSBK since Spies left for greener pastures in MotoGP. The late Nicky Hayden never really got to show his speed, especially when he was given the task of developing a brand-new bike from scratch before fate tragically intervened last year. I have no doubt the Kentucky Kid would have eventually made it to the front on a much more regular basis once the CBR1000RR SP2 was properly sorted, but sadly, we will never know. A sole victory for him around his old MotoGP stomping ground of Sepang was scant reward for such a hero of American racing.
But there is light at the end of the tunnel, with Jake Gagne fittingly taking Hayden’s vacant seat in the factory Red Bull Honda WorldSBK team after doing some marvelous things on what was nowhere near the level of bike Cameron (Beaubier) and Toni (Elias) were riding in MotoAmerica last year.
Californian Gagne is fully deserving of his place among the fastest production racers in world. A Red Bull athlete for many years (indeed, Gagne won the 2010 Red Bull Rookies Championship alongside MotoGP), Jake would probably have had a full-time ride in either grand prix or WorldSBK a long time ago if he had a different passport. For an American, getting in and staying in with the big guns in Europe is not as easy as it was—the Euro riders have not just caught up, but now lead the game—and if you don’t believe me, look at the success of Toni Elias (who, it must be said, is at the tail end of his career having been pro since 2000) since arriving in the U.S.
Jake knows, however, that sentiment and the desire of series organizers Dorna and his personal sponsor Red Bull is to have a U.S. rider in the championship will only go so far. He has to deliver the goods, especially given he has a very fast and very experienced teammate in Leon Camier on the other side of the garage. If the results don’t come, he’ll be out. It’s exactly what happened to former MotoGP rider Stefan Bradl last year, the rider Camier replaced.
Gagne will also have to get re-adjusted to living in Europe, a subject that has derailed many a top rider who wasn’t born on the continent. I for one hope to high hell he gets the results his amazing talent deserves, for both himself and to shine a light back on American racing and show the European teams that they don’t have to only look in their backyard to find the next star.
It’s a different story for America’s second rider in this year’s WorldSBK series, PJ Jacobsen. The New Yorker has been racing in the WorldSSP series for years, as well as stints in England in the British Superstock Series. He’s Euro hardened, but it won’t be easy for him on a privateer Honda against the might of the steamrolling Kawasaki Racing Team, not to mention Gagne himself. If Jacobsen can get regular points-scoring finishes, all power to him.
WorldSBK starts this weekend at the world’s greatest racing circuit, Phillip Island (I can say that, being an Aussie and all). This series doesn’t get the recognition it deserves in the U.S., and with two full-time American riders in the championship, there’s more reason than ever to either get a subscription to WorldSBK.com or watch it on BeIN Sports. It’s going to be a great year, and here’s hoping Kawasaki doesn’t walk off into the distance without a challenge like they have the last three years.
For Jake and PJ, it’s time to show the world what you’re made of and bring some glory back to U.S. road racing on the world stage. Game on, boys! CN