When Ben Spies retired from racing last October, the future of the American MotoGP rider had the rug pulled out from under it.
Spies, just 29 and a former World Superbike champion and Grand Prix winner, had proven himself at the top level of global racing. The Texan's racing career could have lasted, reasonably, through 2016. Instead, Spies retired from racing and due to the severity of his injury, he will probably never make a comeback. After undergoing an unsuccessful shoulder operation, instead of preparing for a title fight in 2015, Spies is instead preparing for a wedding to his longtime girlfriend Patricia, and will possibly be starting a family. Barring a medical miracle, Spies will never race a motorcycle again.
Colin Edwards II announced his retirement--effective at the end of the 2014 season--at the Austin MotoGP event. Edwards is 40 years old and his future is in possibly being a Michelin test rider, running his Texas Tornado Boot Camp and spending more time with his family. Not racing.
Nicky Hayden currently has a two year contract with the Aspar Honda MotoGP team. Other than his recurring wrist issues, Hayden is relatively healthy for a 32 year old rider. If his wrist problems are solved, Hayden could race another three years, or more. Skeptics should remember that Troy Bayliss was 37 when he won the Spanish Grand Prix of Valencia in '06.
With Edwards on his way out and Spies already out of racing, this means that if Nicky Hayden's wrist injury forces a premature end to his racing career, the prospects of hearing a man who can sing--or at least dance to--the Star Spangled Banner racing in MotoGP are not overwhelming, by any means.
Hayden's wrist injury has not given any real indication that it is career-ending, but the relative quick exit of two Americans from MotoGP certainly makes American fans look around and wonder who else could pick up the flag and run with it.
DMG Superbike champ Josh Herrin is racing Moto2 right now, doing the recon a Yank rider needs in order to one day race in the top class. Herrin is enduring a trial by fire season, which isn't making the future American MotoGP rider any brighter. This isn't 2005-2007 when there were multiple American riders in the series, when Dorna and Red Bull were pushing hard for Americans to race, or stay in the series; they've moved on to extreme sports and CEV, the Spanish championship.
American Yamaha rider Cameron Beaubier seems to be the name on top of the "next in Europe" list, at least here in the States. The problem is that in some corners of Europe, reaction to Beaubier is tepid at best and the reasons are hard to pin down--it may be because of Herrin's struggle, Spies' exit from competition, or simply the political climate at the moment; MotoGP teams want the next Moto2 or Moto3 ripper to race their MotoGP bike. Cameron Beaubier has raced in Europe before, and done admirably well. But he was teamed with a guy named Marc Marquez and now it's not Cameron's results that some cite, but that he was once teamed with a "touched by the hand of God" phenom.
At the Austin MotoGP round there was almost universal condemnation of the DMG series, with Edwards, Hayden, Spies and others saying publicly that the series is lacking on so many fronts--from number of rounds, to minimal support, to a very short weekend of racing; it just doesn't offer enough to prepare a rider for an international debut.
Daytona Motorsports Group is owned by Daytona scion Jim France. If interested parties are expecting DMG to groom its riders to do anything in Europe, then you simply don't understand how things work at DIS and with the Frances. While the late Bill France was one of the first promoters of FIM GP racing in the US--in the 1960s--he did so more as a power move against the AMA than because he wanted to give American riders a shot at International racing. Two years ago Dorna sources said openly at the Indy GP that they were no longer looking at the American domestic series for future talent because they felt the series was such a mess and, frankly, mired in mediocrity.
Whether you believe that or not, it's simply undeniable that for most of the history of GP racing, American riders have had a tough time getting a shot in Europe. Sure, in the 1980s American riders were sought out by GP teams because they had the riding skills needed to race a 500, but overall, Yanks have been a bit of a tough sell in GP. For example, if you believe, as most do, that Nicky Hayden was the most eligible American rider of the modern era when he left the US to race GP, it might surprise you that it was actually a very hard process--one fraught with politics and violent shoves--to get Hayden on a GP bike in 2003. With Spies, it was slightly easier, once the Europeans had been forced to watch as Spies humiliated the best riders in WSBK for an entire season, handing Yamaha their first WSBK title.
Now the game has changed in Europe, or has not changed at all, depending on your viewpoint. National federations in Europe--Spain and Italy foremost--have long backed or helped teams race the support classes in Grand Prix and today it's no different. National federations and European teams are supporting teams and pushing their riders into GP. For example, Valentino Rossi's VR46 Moto3 team: when it was launched, Rossi said, "We have joined forces with (sponsor) Sky in order to give the Italian riders the opportunity to be competitive and reach the highest levels."
Now, compare that with the disastrously fragmented racing scene in America.
Does the US federation--the AMA--have any viable interest in pushing an American rider into international racing? Actually the AMA sold off its racing arm several years ago to the Daytona group, and has only minimal interest in amateur racing. DMG's day to day struggle is mostly to fend off becoming just part of the answer to the question "What happened to roadracing in America?", not to promote the interest of Americans and American riders in Europe. Daytona does not come on bended knee to anyone.
There's a popular story from the early days of the DMG takeover that speaks to this. Back then, when we still believed what we were told by DMG and the AMA's Rob Dingman, at an infamous press conference. Laguna Seca's Gill Campbell held a private dinner at her house with the intention of Dorna and DMG getting to know one another better. Among the guests were then DMG head Roger Edmondson and Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta. Suffice to say that perhaps the key moment of the night happened when Campbell, frustrated, went over to Edmondson and implored him to go talk with Ezpeleta. Edmondson indicated that if Ezpeleta wanted to talk with him, he was right here.
Ideally, and obviously, what America needs is its own Moto2 team where the best riders in America would be given the time and opportunity to acclimate to the tracks in Europe, the tires used there and work up to some familiarity with the machines. Even though DMG principle Jim France could buy a Moto2 team lock stock and barrel tomorrow and it would maybe be a rounding point on his bank balance, that's not the way it works at Daytona. It may be called the Daytona International Speedway but they are not interested in the international scene, it seems.
So the AMA and DMG won't help.
It's quite possible that there might be exactly zero Americans racing MotoGP and Moto2 (and WSBK) next season, which is a shame, if only from the standpoint of national pride.
Obviously making it to the level of international competition in motorcycle racing has never been easy, but the surmountable challenges of past decades have gradually snowballed into an avalanche of near insurmountable odds.
This goes the wrong way and America is going to need a hero to fix it. And just who is that going to be?