The FIM North American Road Racing Championship, otherwise known as MotoAmerica, continues to push forward to create the series we all want. We sat down with several the paddock’s top players to check in on the state of American road racing.
As any business owner will tell you, starting a successful venture takes time, effort, and a little luck. However, revitalizing a business that was once on its knees is much harder.
Under the KRAVE organization consisting of Chuck Aksland, Terry Karges, Richard Varner and fronted by three-time 500cc World Champion Wayne Rainey, MotoAmerica is now in its fifth year of operation, having taken over the reins of the American Superbike Championship in 2015 from the Daytona Motorsports Group (DMG).
Those proceeding four years have seen the series on a slow but steady growth level, with stacked grids in the Supersport, Stock 1000, Twins Cup and Junior Cup championships. Even if the Superbike grid still has a way to go before we, once again, see the days of 30+ riders fronting the start.
Photography by Brian J Nelson
The State of MotoAmerica
The 2019 season has marked a turning point for KRAVE. At the end of 2018, KRAVE took over the commercial and broadcast rights of the series and created a live streaming service that opened the racing to a much broader range of customers. Previously, the only way you could see a MotoAmerica race was if you had cable television and the beIN Sports channel.
“You look at any business startup, and you have to ask yourself, how long will it take to get it from just an idea to something that’s profitable?” says Richard Varner. “For us, that was five years. After the first season, we got everything pulled together, and we said, strategically, where do we need to be over the next three to five years? I think that we’ve hit all the major things, including the TV production.”
Taking the production and commercial rights in-house brings with it the added benefit of controlling the narrative much more. Varner admitted the shared platform of the previous three years saw a plateau in the overall progress of the championship.
“We can rent a track and take all the risks, we can just get paid to show up and bring the circus with us, or we do a rev-share [revenue share] in the middle,” Varner says. “Those are the three models. The first season, everything was a rev-share. We’ve gone from having nothing to now controlling everything and all of the rights, and now we’re seeing in the long term the progress that’s being made. I think for a while, it plateaued in years three and four. This year we’re coming back up.”
In 2019, MotoAmerica claims to have increased its ratings by 105 percent over 2018, with the average viewership now sitting at 170,000 per round. Part of the improved reach of the series comes down to the new MotoAmerica LivePlus live streaming app. In addition, for the 2019 season, to complement the Fox Sports 2 and NBC coverage, in which every practice, qualifying, and race session is live, and on-demand, the app opens up the commercial aspect of the series to an international audience. This gives international sponsors more bang for their buck. Combined with the television coverage, the streaming, and Video On Demand (VOD), the viewership is up 190 percent compared to this time in 2018.
“The app has exceeded our expectations,” says Chuck Aksland. “We had goals with it set from the beginning of the year, and it passed them by race two. The feedback is good. It’s a high-quality production. We have a lot of Europeans that subscribe and have the choice to watch it whenever they want. I’m kind of surprised by the number of people—maybe I shouldn’t be because I’m kind of a gearhead myself for motorcycle racing, but the number of people that watch five hours on a Saturday and five hours on a Sunday over a weekend is pretty amazing.”
Aksland also noted the championship has been experimenting with running full races on the MotoAmerica Facebook page. Due to television contracts with Fox and NBC, these races need to be shown three weeks after the conclusion of the meeting. However, by leveraging the followers from 14 MotoAmerica sponsors, including Dunlop, EBC Brakes and VP Racing fuel, MotoAmerica has the potential to reach five million sets of eyeballs for one race—and it doesn’t have to be Superbike.
“The Supersport race in Utah we had 130,000 views in total,” says Aksland, but this was because the race was streamed on MotoAmerica’s Facebook page only. “We had a contact at Facebook who suggested leveraging the partners’ followers, so we will be doing that for the Laguna [Seca] round where we’ll show the Stock 1000 race and another Supersport race. The good thing is we know the view times—they are not 15 minutes, but more like 30-40 minutes.”
With more eyes than ever scrutinizing the series, it’s lucky the racing in 2019 has been consistently good across every class, even if it’s the same four of Cameron Beaubier, Josh Herrin, Toni Elias, and Garrett Gerloff at the head of the Superbike field.
This puts into focus MotoAmerica’s insistence to implement World Superbike-spec rules and the expense of building such a bike, with the aim of getting an American back into the world championship—be it in Superbike or Grand Prix competition.
“We follow what the FIM does,” says Wayne Rainey. “When we made an agreement with all the manufacturers, that’s what they preferred. It was easy for us. We know the BSB (British Superbike), Australian, and Japanese rules (are different), but we want to develop riders to go to the world championship. With electronics being such a big part of that, if there’s nowhere to learn, they’re going to go over (to Europe), waste a year trying to figure it out, and then possibly blow their opportunity. Their results won’t be good. They’ll have one shot, and they won’t be familiar with all that stuff, and then they’ll get kicked out and come home. [The rules] will help the riders at the end. Hopefully, it will bring more manufacturers to our paddock as well.”
That last point is a sore one for not just KRAVE but U.S. racing as a whole. The last time we had an American series with factory teams other than Yamaha and Suzuki was 2013 with KTM and EBR. Ducati hasn’t competed in an official factory capacity since 2010, Honda since 2006, and Kawasaki since 2003. Incredibly, the last time we had a champion on anything other than a Yamaha or Suzuki was when the late Nicky Hayden (Honda) defeated Suzuki’s Mat Mladin for the title in 2002, setting himself up for his golden ticket to the big time with Repsol Honda in 2003.
Hayden’s success is something MotoAmerica is trying to replicate. However, the one area in which an American is most likely to succeed on the world stage might not come from the rules, but the breeding ground.
MotoGP rights holder Dorna has made a concerted push in recent years to develop junior talent via series like the British and Asia Talent Cup, and the recently announced Northern Talent Cup for Northern and Central European riders. Unfortunately, there’s one glaring area missing in this grand international plan—the United States.
“We know that,” says Rainey. “We haven’t really announced it yet, but we think there would be [an American Talent Cup]. If we did something like that, we’d probably do it in the wintertime. We’d probably do it in California. We’d do it over four to six weeks. It would be free to the riders that it would be presented to. Our idea would be that we would pick two or three kids and see which one we thought [was god enough], and then try to send them over to the European championship with our own team. So, there’s a big plan there.”
Rainey admits the future of American road racing in terms of sheer riding talent is bright, with M4 ECSTAR Suzuki’s Sean Dylan Kelly and Ninja400R.com Kawasaki rider Rocco Landers the breakout stars of 2019. Both riders have European experience who want to get back into the world championship.
That’s something Rainey admits the rider must have—the want and determination to compete at the highest level.
“As far as going overseas, I think the rider has got to want to do it first,” Rainey says. “If you look at where the American riders were before we started, and now having the opportunities that are presented here, now these guys are going to have to go abroad and make their faces known. They’re going to have to try to push to ride the Suzuka 8 Hours. I think the riders, they’re going to have to show that they want to do it, and they’re going to have to make the attempt to go over there. If they do that, they’ll get the opportunities.”
Regardless of whether a rider wants to go to WorldSBK or not, the fact is it is becoming harder and harder to make a living as a professional motorcycle racer. MotoAmerica runs the Superbike Premier Entry program, which provides $4000 per weekend guaranteed to riders who sign up for the whole series and have a significant presence in the paddock (i.e., hospitality area, transporter, etc.). However, their efforts to provide a sustainable championship are incumbent on manufacturer support. Even if there is a lack of factory involvement, companies like Kawasaki, Suzuki, and BMW have stepped up with attractive contingency programs to at least keep riders on their brand happy (hence the Stock 1000 series seeing most its riders on Kawasaki machinery, the same with the Junior Cup). The only competing manufacturer without a contingency program is Ducati; however, they have only two riders in the whole MotoAmerica paddock in Superbike star Kyle Wyman and Twins Cup racer Michael Barnes.
Manufacturer support is essential to the growth of the championship. With rumors circulating the paddock of two new manufacturers joining the series in an official capacity, the future of MotoAmerica—as far as the KRAVE organization is concerned—is a bright one.
“From our perspective, things are going great,” Varner says. “We’re all trying to pay this thing forward, and this is what we got. We’re all doing the best we can, and we have to earn our money every day.”
The State of MotoAmerica | Tuned Racing’s Mike Pond
Tuned Racing represents one of the most extensive private entries in the MotoAmerica paddock. Headed by Mike Pond, the team has riders in Stock 1000 and Supersport championship, with Pond noting a change in approach to the content created makes the series more appealing to outsiders.
“The one thing I have to compliment MotoAmerica and the current media people is that for the first time they’re focusing more on the riders,” Pond says. “They’re trying to build the characters, which with any story you’ve got to have characters. In the past, it seemed like they were more advertising and pushing the series, and the series is nothing without characters. So now that they’re doing that, I think that’s going to be a huge improvement. That’s how you get the mom and pop and the 90-year-old granny that wants to see the drama between JD Beach and whoever. When they started getting attached to that reality TV side of it, then we’re going to have more people start following the series. We’re going to get better TV packages and hopefully more money.
“I’m happy with the effort being put in. It seems like they [MotoAmerica] are listening to the teams and putting effort in that direction. Obviously, there are plenty more changes that need to be made, and we need more money to run this show. I’ve been here since 2012. This is my second rig I’ve purchased for this stuff. Eventually, I have to get to where it [Tuned Racing] can fund itself because at this point it can’t. But if we can get it to that point, then I’m in for the long haul.”
The State of MotoAmerica | KWR’s Kyle Wyman
Kyle Wyman is a man seriously invested in MotoAmerica. He runs his own team, chases his own sponsors, and races in Superbike—much like Australian David Anthony—and wants to see the series grow to be a sustainable entity.
“The biggest thing for me that’s a positive is the Premier Entry,” Wyman says. “Not just posting a purse based on how you finish, but actually allowing teams that have it together and have a nice presence to have show-up money that they can plug right into the budget.
“That’s huge for me, especially early on. Now it’s becoming a smaller and smaller percentage of the budget just because I don’t know how I’ve gotten to this point, but we’re spending a lot more money now and finding it somewhere. But MotoAmerica seems to be receptive to anything we ask for. They’re willing to try different stuff. Not just trying to copy what other series are doing or whatnot. With the rules, especially for superbike, it gets really tricky, but I’m happy.
“I like that we have World Superbike rules. I’m not really the guy that’s going to say, ‘This would be better for me and me only, so this is what I want.’ I see the big picture. I want to be on the coolest, best shit. Maybe I’d like to go race World Superbike. It’s a lot more likely that I’m able to do that since I’m on the same electronics system as the World Superbike team, and we’re getting experience with the same spec motorcycle. We’re adding parts as we go and we’re sneaking our way towards that, but for me, I think it’s the best thing for our series.”
The State of MotoAmerica | M4 ECSTAR Suzuki’s Chris Ulrich
By far, the most prominent presence in the MotoAmerica paddock is the Chris Ulrich-run Team Hammer—an American racing institution, and one that fields riders in every class bar the Junior Cup (as Suzuki doesn’t have a competitive Junior Cup race machine).
“In terms of the actual operation and execution of the events and the implementation of the rules and everything, they are the best we’ve ever had in the United States,” Ulrich states. “Very fair. Very level when they do something. They have some great team programs in terms of Superbike and Supersport that helps support that through the Premier Program that you can buy into, but then you also get some support back.
“I’m a big fan of the control-tire rule. I’ve been on both ends of the tire spectrum. We have worked with a tire brand that gave us quite a bit of tires and financial support. Those years we won one or two races. The spec tire era in the United States especially, the first season that happened, collectively we won 14 races.
“I think they [MotoAmerica] are doing a good job. I think they’re trying now to help teams find sponsorships. They’re providing the materials that they need. We can always improve. That is a good example of those guys listening, paying attention, and having a good discussion.
But the superbike class needs some help. I think a good, hard look at the rules and a good, hard look to reduce costs would probably do well.
“I personally like the 2015-2016 rules where you were running standard forks, running standard swingarms, and kit ECU’s. Currently, swingarms are $9000, and forks are $12,000-$15,000, instead of just having internals that cost $2500 per set. In superbike, all the way through the field, through 10th or 15th, they’re very, very fast motorcycle racers. They’re on very expensive, very good equipment that requires a lot of maintenance and care. I think backing off the rules could be a way to reduce costs and lower the barriers to entry in the class.”CN