VH. Another Look at British Superbike

Posted Nov 19, 2017

In an earlier blog page (https://paulritterblog.wordpress.com/vt-wsb-becoming-bsb) I noted that the 2016 World Superbike Series was dominated by ex-British Superbike racers, and wondered how that happened. There were well thought-out replies from Steve McLaughlin and Kent Kunitsugu. Steve said “Let me suggest the following reasons for BSB’s success and the rise of Brit riders on the world stage: 1) BSB has a televised series in a country where the races are about as far apart distance wise as driving from LA to San Francisco at worst, 2) England has a great history of racing and strong fan base, 3) although the importers support the series the series isn’t dependent on the importer or manufacturer’s money, 4) the series has sourced numerous sponsors and helps the teams with sponsoring.”

Kurt summed it up thusly: “BSB thrives because of its home country’s passion for racing, the short distance needed to travel to those races, and the series’ well-honed sponsorship-garnering skills.”

The British did it again in 2017. Brits took the top three spots and five of the top ten. I thought it would be worth taking a closer look at the BSB series advantages.

There is no doubt about the British racing tradition – Duke, Surtees, Hailwood, Read, Sheene. We should have a similar tradition with Roberts (Sr. and Jr.), Lawson, Spencer, Rainey, Schwantz, and Hayden (RIP). From 1978 to 1993 the 500cc GP Championship, the most coveted title, was won by an American rider thirteen times. U.S. riders also did well in the World Superbike series, from Merkel to Spies. This success never developed into a national tradition, and road race fans are still a very small percentage of the U.S. population.

What about travel? The 2017 BSB schedule included eight race meets at seven venues (they did Brands Hatch twice). The farthest north track was Knockhill in Scotland near Edinburgh; the farthest south was Thruxton. The distance between the two is 450 miles (725 km) by road. The whole Kingdom, England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, can be put in a box 650 miles by 500 miles (1050 x 800 km). If you lived in the right part of England you could go the whole series and never need to book a motel room. By comparison, Laguna Seca to Virginia International Raceway is a butt-numbing, cash-eating 2,700 miles (4,300 km). I did the full AMA schedule in 1978, from California to New Hampshire to Florida. For a privateer in the U.S. racing travel was, and still is, brutal and expensive.

Television? MotoAmerica now has a live broadcast deal with beIN Sports. Kudos for KRAVE for getting that done. I like the beIN announcers but it’s hardly a major network.

Sponsor support? MotoAmerica is working to find sponsors for their race meetings (e.g. Honda Championship of the Monterey Peninsula), but does any of that filter down to the race teams? In the 1970s race promoters advertised huge purses, believing it would increase attendance. Most of the prize money went to the factory riders, but some of it got to the privateers. I’m told today prize money is small; promoters never brag about a huge purse, and racers are expected to find their own sponsors. When a winning rider gets interviewed and thanks a stream of seven or eight sponsors, it sure looks that way. I mean, Broaster Chicken? Really?

Sigh. I remember a period in the 1980s when manufactures offered contingency money for Club Races. Doug Polen figured out he could travel around the country, winning club races and collecting enough Suzuki contingency money to make a living. According to Polen’s AMA Hall of Fame entry, “… Polen took home an incredible $90,000 in contingency money in 1986 as a club racer.“ You can see Polen’s HoF entry at http://www.motorcyclemuseum.org/halloffame/detail.aspx?RacerID=446.

Is there any way we can create the same conditions as BSB in the U.S.? I’ve thought about it a bit, and talked to a couple of retired racers. The short answer is no. The U.S. is a big country and for MotoAmerica to claim to be a National Series it needs to run events nationally, which means venues all over the country.

I don’t know what might be done about television, sponsors, and the like. Those topics are simply beyond my areas of expertise. We need to clone a young Steve McLaughlin and get KRAVE to hire him.

Maybe something could be done to lessen the travel burden. I’m going to think about this a little more and talk to a few more people and hopefully get something together for the next blog entry.