American Honda’s Road Race Plans

Henny Ray Abrams | June 25, 2008
Will American Honda take part in the 2009 AMA Superbike Championship? The answer isn’t a simple yes or no, which isn’t surprising given the current state of affairs between the Daytona Motorsports Group, the AMA, and the Japanese factories. And no one knows when there might be a resolution.

“I wish I could tell you that there was a plan,” American Honda vice president Ray Blank said in a phone conversation said when asked of the road racing plans of the largest motorcycle distributor in the U.S. “As it is right now, frankly I don’t see a place for us to participate. 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. It appears as though it’s for club racing. The formula itself basically is kind of a club racing formula, where there are horsepower and weight limitations and spec tires and spec fuel. So I don’t see that as factory racing.”

He later added, “What we would prefer to do at Honda is to say what we’re going to do, and not what we’re not going to do. So when the time comes when we’ve made a decision as to what we’re going to do, we’ll make that public.”

And the most recent information on the Literbike class isn’t encouraging, he said, since it appeared that the rules “were going in the same direction” as Daytona Superbike after originally conforming to agreed upon 2009-2010 rules. “And I really don’t have any clarity on Literbikes either. But again, from a factory standpoint, We have factory Superbike riders with Neil (Hodgson) and Miguel (Duhamel). There’s no Superbike right now that we see. So I can’t tell you that we really have a plan for next year at this point. Unfortunately, it’s pretty late too.”

The Literbike rules are at the heart of the matter. Originally, DMG proposed keeping the 2009-2010 AMA Superbike rules, but with a mandate that the manufacturers guarantee four machines each. When Yamaha suggested that it would be cost prohibitive to ensure four proper Superbikes, a second proposal was made, with rules similar, but not identical to Daytona Superbike, with horsepower and weight restrictions. That proposal was offered in a progress report e-mail sent by Edmondson to the four Japanese manufacturers on May 6.

The Literbike limit would be 185 horsepower, while allowing almost unlimited engine modifications. Those “basic” rules were announced during the combined AMA/World Superbike weekend at Miller Motorsports Park more than three weeks ago. Since then, there’s been no communication, which leaves the factories in the dark with time running short.

“We keep thinking that there’s going to be some understanding of that on the DMG side and perhaps even they’ll add a class of real Superbikes to the weekend venue, perhaps instead of Moto-ST or something like that. But I have to tell you, to this day, with the exception of” two meeting with DMG CEO Roger Edmondson, first 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.”

The positions of the various factories is mostly clear. American Suzuki vice president Mel Harris said his company would not support racing in any form under the current rules. Yamaha seems to support the concept, after getting a positive response to reducing the level of modifications allowed in the Literbike class. Kawasaki also seems agreeable to the rules, though it hasn’t been stated publicly.

Two days after he received it, Honda’s assistant vice president for motorcycle marketing Bob Gurga responded. About road racing specifically, Gurga wrote that “we desire continuity in the rules. We believe that continuity of the rules, where radical changes won’t occur and technology is not restricted in order to artificially level the playing field, provides the foundation for the participation of the maximum number of OEM participants.” Regarding Moto-ST Gurga wrote, “since we don’t produce a qualifying product, it’s not a viable alternative to either of the Superstock classes, Supersport or Superstock, from our perspective. Therefore, replacement of the SS classes with Moto-ST doesn’t address our concerns. It only reduces the value of weekend from an OEM’s marketing perspective.

With regards to spec tires and fuels and rules imposed to limit weight ratios, “we believe these items will not change the results of the race, but only put more riders at the risk of being injured or worse.”

The American Honda position is based on safety. Blank understands the concept of “rubbing paint” in NASCAR, but doesn’t believe it’s appropriate for motorcycle racing.

“We think that part of the reason why motorcycle racing on pavement, road racing, has a relatively good safety record, is due to the fact that the rules have caused some stair stepping,” he said. “Stair stepping on the way up allows riders to become adjusted to increasingly higher performance levels of the product until you get all the way up to the factory level. At the same time it doesn’t make too big of a bunch in one area.. We look at NASCAR and we see the biggest excitement to the NASCAR crowd is that they are four abreast. Well, that may be very exciting momentarily in motorcycle racing. We think on a prolonged basis that can be dangerous. So that’s the reason for the position.”

The response that American Honda got back from Edmondson was, “I was unsuccessful in eliciting a response that led to a discussion of possible class structures.” That referred to Suzuki’s failure to respond.

When they originally met in southern California, Blank told Edmondson “the reason we support the current scenario is that with the 600 and 1000, Supersport and Supertock, we have an entry to racing, appropriate for club to novice racer and a chance to escalate from 600 to 1000. And with FX (Formula Xtreme) to Superbike we have the chance to build technical team proficiency, higher performance leading to the ultimate, Superbike. We have always tried to support that hierarchy. That’s the reason we support the current structure. If you can present us something that gives that for us today, then we can give it some considerations. But remember, racing is a marketing platform for motorcycles and there’s no reason to participate unless we see the return on investment in racing that we get out of the current battles we have.”

Blank understands DMG’s ability to sell and promote the series. Blank said that “we certainly understand that one of the benefits can be the marketing expertise of DMG to bring motorcycle racing to a whole new level. I guess our real position is, ‘What’s wrong with the current rules that we couldn’t do it under that scenario? And why do we have to make these changes?”

The DMG’s ability to present motorcycle racing to a general audience is a “wonderful potential benefit,” Blank said. “On the other hand, we think that for us to be able to participate at the level that we had before, we must be able to have certain advantages that allow us to be on this even playing field that we see, without having the dialing in of performance potentials by a horsepower to weight ratio as deemed by another party.

“We want to race by displacement class. It’s the reason why the current AMA rules are the way that they are, at least from any influence that the OEM’s have.

“But under the new scenario, another party makes what they believe is the level playing field and it’s difficult to say that we really agree with that kind of tactic.

“Our current Superbike rules are pretty straightforward rules. And I think if there was really an advantage in all of this, it would be a change to reconsider the possibility of a global Superbike rule. Because if there was a global Superbike rule and WSB (World Superbike), JSB (Japan Superbike), BSB (British Superbike), and DMG used the same Superbike rules, then we might find with, even with the broader array of OEM’s, we would have greater manufacturer participation. Because a lot of what you may be able to do on a weekend in Europe is transferable to the bike that you race in the United States. And you might find that all the factories would be more interested. I mean, right now you can understand many of the factories’ positions.”

By limiting the horsepower, Edmondson believes it will foster closer racing. It could also mean that the Rockstar Makita Suzuki team, which has won every race for more than a year, wouldn’t be as dominant. But Blank doesn’t want to use legislation to beat his friend Mel Harris and the Suzukis.

“I want to chase down Ben (Spies) and Mat (Mladin) with our own machines and our own riders and that’s what our riders want to do. I don’t want to have to do that by a dumbing down of rules that puts everybody into a club racing situation.”

From an OEM side, there are two reasons why Honda races, Blank said. “One is that it’s the philosophy of this company. Number two is that it’s a marketing platform that shows my bike is as good or better than the other guy’s bike. Those are the two reasons why I do that. If I have to participate in a series that doesn’t allow me to showcase my product, what’s the sense? I’ll find a series that does. I’ll find a series that wants my marketing money and support.

“And perhaps because of the great resources that DMG has, they don’t need us. Well great. If they’re going to sell motorcycling, I’m all for it. But I’ve got a certain way of presenting motorcycling from an OEM side that includes the opportunity to showcase our product in the best possible light. Well, now somebody may say, ‘Gee, DMG is really going to help in the current Honda vs. Suzuki thing in Superbike.’ I don’t want it like that. I just don’t want it like that. I want it fair and square and be right out there.

“Honda is based in no small part on competition, on racing, and that’s what we want to do. Of course we want rules to be fair, but we don’t want the rules to be such as to push down a large clot of the field all traveling around together. We think it’s dangerous. We think it’s inappropriate.”

Following the DMG/AMA news conference on the eve of the Daytona 200, Edmondson said of the rules that “Within 90 days (the factories) are going to know and, again, if we believe there is a new way to do it wouldn’t make sense for us to approve any rules or institute any rules that required any investment in the old rules or the old format.” But the timeline was later amended. The class structure was announced at Barber Motorsports Park on Thursday, April 17. Edmondson said he expected the rulebook to be released within a week to ten days after that. Now, nearly two months later, the rulebook hasn’t been released, which worries Blank.

“I think it’s very, very late,” he said. “Too late? Given the resources of Honda, it might not be too late, but it’s very, very late. And it certainly is going to have impact on whatever decision we make for the 2009 racing season. Again, there is ambiguity that we’re dealing with. And this is kind of where we started out. I haven’t seen anybody come out and say ‘Here’s what we’re going to do, final edit, said and done.’

“If I was to act upon each one of the rumors as they came up in this scenario I’d be doing this and I’d be doing that and I’d be doing something else. Part of the reason why we’re sitting on our hands here is it doesn’t appear that there’s any finality on this. I know where Mel (Harris) stands. I have no qualms with the position he’s taking. It makes sense to me.

“But I haven’t seen a final rules package, I haven’t seen an official document. I’ve heard rumors, I’ve heard statements.” Blank went to Miller Motorsports Park “expecting to hear something or for someone at least to say, ‘Hey Blank’s here, maybe we can talk to him, maybe we can come to some kind of an agreement among the OEM’s.’ I haven’t heard that.”

And there is also a lack of information about the consummation of the AMA/DMG agreement.

“Imagine being us. You don’t know what’s going on, you don’t know who holds the reins, because you keep hearing that the contract’s not done. You don’t know the specifics of the contracts. For all I know, maybe the AMA is going to retain some of the rights. I don’t know. If you’re in my position and you ‘re tasked with spending millions of dollars on road racing, you have no information, you have no official rulebook, you have a tremendous of controversy, you have nothing to make your decision on. And everybody asks ‘What are you going to do?’ I’m going to sit here and wait until I see something in print from someone and then I’m going to say, ‘OK, here’s what we’re going to do.’ And I think anybody in my position, of somewhere between what Mel has said and the position that we’re taking, would probably play about the same course. Some would say that Suzuki rushed to judgment, but based on what they knew I don’t know that it was so much of a rush. And they could always change their mind if things change.”

There has long been speculation that the factories might organize under the auspices of the Motorcycle Industry Council. The purpose would be to give them the same power as the MSMA (Motorcycle Sport Manufacturers Association), the collective body of motorcycle manufacturers, which is part of the quartet that governs the MotoGP World Championship. IRTA, the International Road Racing Teams Association, the FIM, and Dorna, the commercial rights-holders, are the others. Such an agreement raises two questions: Would the DMG recognize it? And would it present anti-trust issues in dealing with the DMG? Blank believes that with an MSMA the question could be easily resolved through a document that states the purpose of the organization.

“The United States is not the only country that has strong anti-trust rules,” Blank said. “And since the FIM, which is a global organization, recognizes MSMA and an MXMA (Motocross Manufacturers Association), I would have to believe that it is organized under such a structure as to not violate even the simplest of anti-trust rules. So I would think you could certainly do something like that here.”

So, until there’s some clarity in the rules, Blank, like everyone else, waits.

“I would be working on an AMA picture right now, which I would do at this time,” he said. “I’m doing nothing, because I don’t have anything to do. Bad position to be in. Bad time. Bad time.”

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.