Before he took his metaphysical jaunt on a Honda and wrote the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, author Robert Pirsig locked himself in a room and didn't come out—for any reason—for months. While inside that room, he would only let his mind ask itself one question.
His question: what is quality?
I'm not any kind of Pirsig devotee, at all, but like old Honda Bob, lately my mind has been fixated on just one question.
The Daytona 200. Is it still relevant?
This question was sparked when I went looking for a photo of Scott Russell the other day--a printed on paper photo that I hadn't yet scanned--and while doing so I discovered a different photo that I hadn't seen in many years. It was a photo of an old rickety motorcycle trailer sitting in a truck stop somewhere in the old South. A large piece of scrap plywood had been lashed to the trailer with bungee cords and at the last moment someone had taken a rattle can of spray paint and written the words "Daytona or Bust" on it.
I know this, because I helped load bikes on that trailer, and I used a couple of cans of my own spray paint to graffiti those words on the plywood. It was March 1987; three friends and I off to Daytona. It was a seminal motorcycle trip. I had never seen an ocean, and at the time had never been further south than Ohio. The racing at Daytona was something I'd read about every year in CYCLE magazine. Seeing the 200 and "Bike Week" first hand was for many years a vison and a journey that my friends and I had day-dreamed about, saved for and worked hard to make happen.
To get there, we four young men packed sparingly. We had to. After loading the trailer with bikes and gear we inhaled deeply and smashed all four of our bodies into a rusty Ford Pinto hatchback and pointed that entire rag-tag contraption south.
In 1987, there was no question of Daytona's relevance. In the two previous years, world champions had won the Daytona 200: Freddie Spencer in 1985 and Eddie Lawson in 1986. Today, you might wonder if Marc Marquez could even find Daytona on a map of the United States. I assume that he could. After all they do have a Supercross race there. However, it has been many years, if not many decades, since a GP world champion thought enough about the Daytona 200 to enter the race.
So, this was four grown men in a Ford Pinto traveling from nearly the top of a large country to the bottom. You'd have to be mad to make a three-hour trip--four up--in an econo-box Pinto, let alone drone along in 55mph America for 28 hours in order to get to Daytona. But we didn't care how long it took, because Daytona was a goal for all enthusiasts back then. If someone you knew was lucky enough to get to Bike Week, or the Daytona 200, they held special reverence in your circle of friends, as they'd experienced the Holy Grail of motorcycle racing in America.
After something like 30 hours four-up in the Pinto, pulling a trailer loaded with bikes, we arrived in Daytona Beach. Over the next seven days we enjoyed the typical Daytona onslaught of entertainment. We slept very little, spent entire days at the track, went to the dirt track at night and the Cabbage Patch on the "Supercross Day". In the paddock, we saw HRC technicians working on former world champion Freddie Spencer's exotic Honda Superbike, and poured over a spec of motorcycle in nearly every class that we'd never see in a showroom or on the street. It was all about Daytona. Leaving the track one day, we noticed that that the crusty Daytona security guards had left a hole in the barriers that pushed spectators across the track and out one of the tunnels. That hole meant the track was ours. Did we suspect we would all be arrested if we took a lap of the Speedway? Suspect? We told the man with the handcuffs he could arrest us again if he let us take a second lap.
In 1987 the Daytona 200 probably was still one of the biggest races in the world. But somehow after that point the race devolved--with exceptions--into being just the biggest AMA race in the world, and then after the calendar passed the year 2000, it slowly became just another race. The reason? No doubt, in part, there was a shift in priorities. NASCAR was exploding; the Daytona 500 was bringing in big money. Motorcycle racing became less important to Daytona and they no longer tried to cultivate the 200 as an international event.
In the past decade, Daytona has been tinkering with this and that, seemingly trying to regain what had been lost--or squandered. A kaleidoscope of changes have ensued: a move to 600s, changing the day of the race, then turning it all upside down with the 200 becoming a night race, only later be made a day race, again. At the same time, first World Superbike and then MotoGP captured the hearts and wallets of the American motorcycle roadrace spectator. Attendance at Laguna WSBK topped 90k and then even that number was superseded by MotoGP: 100,000 people. In the period where Daytona didn't seem to care how they did motorcycle racing anywhere else but in Daytona Beach, other events were cultivated, non-Daytona tracks sacrificed, invested and gambled so that today their events tower over the Daytona 200 in terms of stature and success.
Listen, God love everyone who raced at Daytona last weekend, we salute you. Also, respects to Daytona Speedway President Joie Chitwood, Dunlop's Mike Buckley and the rest who are pushing forward to try and resurrect the Daytona 200 into a fireball of an event by bringing 1000cc Superbikes back for race iron in the 200. It's a bold and brave step.
But I suspect what ails the Daytona 200 today can't be completely healed by Daytona changing its mind--again--and returning things to the way they were before they decided things were intolerable and needed to be changed in the first place. It's 2014 and the issue of relevance is key. Consider this: you're a young man with a bike and you like to go to the races. You have a job and two weeks of vacation, and not an unlimited amount of money. Are you and your pals going to cram yourselves into a Prius pulling a trailer and deftly drive that wobbly mess through the snow in order to see the Daytona 200? Or is that quartet going to instead see a US MotoGP or WSBK round? A MotoGP round where you'll see 250 horsepower MotoGP bikes hurtle through time and space? See Aprilia or Ducati WSBK machines scream over turn one at Laguna? Maybe reach your hand out and brush against Valentino Rossi's arm as he scooters past you at Austin or Indy? During the period when Daytona was becoming less appealing to the race spectator, considerable alternatives to the Daytona 200 were becoming far more compelling options for the average US race fan.
Again, full accolades to everyone who has raced the 200 or has supported the race in any way at all, or is signing on to do their damnedest to make the 200 into a race the world will respect again. Like most things Daytona, DIS have more than enough resources to fix anything they do finally come around to seeing as a problem. How to return the Daytona 200 to a race the world respects, re-invigorate it as the ultimate challenge of the best riders and top machines in the world? The easy answer is for Daytona to open their purse strings and pay Valentino Rossi to race the 200. Unlikley? Yes. Impossible? No, not when you have the resources that Daytona does. But it's well known that's not the way it works at Daytona: Daytona does not come on bended knee to anyone, instead everyone comes to Daytona on bended knee.
In the meantime, and largely because of developments now a decade old, I suspect you are much more likely to see "Indy or Bust", "Austin or Bust", or "Laguna or Bust" spray-painted on the back of a American fan's pilgrimage trailer.