It's becoming increasingly apparent that 2009 may be the last year we see large, factory-backed teams in the AMA Superbike series.
A number of riders are in the last year of their current factory contracts, including Mat Mladin, Neil Hodgson, Ben Bostrom and many others. Whether these contracts will be renewed, of course, remains to be seen, but seemingly there are no Japanese or Italian factories currently in the series that have committed to it for 2010.
Regardless of how the factories feel about the direction of the DMG-led series, simple economics will certainly enter in to the decision on whether to continue in 2010 or not. A recent Motorcycle Industry Council press release stated that new motorcycle sales are down thirty-percent from just last year. Kawasaki attempted to pull out of MotoGP after the 2008 season ended but existing contracts with Dorna forced them to re-think that move. No one will be "lawyering" anyone into staying in US Superbike; there are scant few 2010 contracts between the US factories and their current riders, crew or sponsors.
DMG isn't terribly interested in keeping the factories, it seems, and presumably wants to usher in a new series where private teams and more production-based motorcycles are the focus, and outside industry sponsors fund the operation. The trick will be staying viable after turning their back on several of the more powerful entities of the motorcycle industry, many of them already bitter at having the 1100cc, 150 horsepower Buell "rammed down our throats" in the Daytona Sport Bike class.
DMG reportedly told interested parties at Barber Motorsports Park last Friday that television ratings for their "AMA Pro Prime Time" Speed telecast are up. Race promoters infer that ticket sales are down, significantly at some events, however the series has most of the '09 season yet to play out.
AMA Pro Prime Time is clearly focused on the casual motorcycle racing fan; judging by our mail, hardened race fans probably find it about as entertaining as an episode of Speed's stunt bike program. One very pro-DMG "analyst" inferred that fans of US racing "need to be re-educated".
Inane statements by shills notwithstanding, it's becoming difficult to obtain a critical first-person opinion of the series or its future while in the paddock, and not because most are falling in lock-step behind the former AMA-owned sanctioning body. Rational fear or not, many riders will not make their critical views known to the press, as they fear retribution from the sanctioning body for speaking out. This has been the case since Jamie Hacking was suspended after the Fontana round, although he was subsequently re-instated.
Much has been written about how NASCAR's founders chased Detroit out of their series and how that was an instrumental development to their eventual success. Assuredly, that's a gross oversimplification of what actually happened, but it has degrees of truth, just as it took anywhere from twenty to forty yearsafter thatfor NASCAR to develop into a world class sporting entity. It wasn't a simple process. Just as shooing most of the Japanese factories out of the series won't translate into unequaled success in motorcycle racing overnight.
Motorcycles have been raced by thin, cocky men with a desire to go faster than the other guy since, essentially, the second one was produced. Motorcycle racing will exist as long as there are motorcycles. It's just that if you come to the races to see factory machines and teams, the US's racing future seems murkier than ever before.
Possibly the quote of the year in regards to all this belongs to Evan Williams, who said yesterday, consolingly, "DMG bought the series, not the sport."