America–the country that sent the first men to walk on the moon–won’t have a rider in MotoGP this season. The American presence in Grand Prix has tumbled out of the top GP class with frightening regularity in the last ten years; first Kenny Roberts Junior retired, then the whole of Team Roberts stayed home and then Colin Edwards II left the sport. The history of Americans in top level GP racing, which started Steve Baker, Kenny Roberts and Pat Hennen, finished itself when Nicky Hayden joined the WSBK series for 2016.
For a brief period, just being a top American rider was enough to at least get you a GP tryout, seemingly, but that only lasted for a few years in the 1980s and 1990s when European riders could not come to terms with 170 horsepower delivered in the spread of about thirty-five hundred rpm. Americans coped better than the Euros.
But it was rarely easy. Sure, King Kenny Roberts’ first world title is celebrated now–success has so many fathers–but at the time he wasn’t really welcomed with open arms by much of the GP paddock, his fellow riders or even Yamaha. He was an outsider, and that would be the lot of a good many American riders. There were exceptions of course; Randy Mamola and Colin Edwards were embraced by the Euros, but Freddie Spencer, Ben Spies and, to some extent, Kenny Junior remained somewhat excluded.
Over the years rights holder Dorna pushed hard for American riders to join the MotoGP world championship and in the final years they financially supported Team Roberts. Dorna was still pushing the concept of the American GP rider in 2013 when they leveraged rounds in Texas and Indy and helped Ducati to hire Ben Spies. Spies was a GP winner and a WSBK champion.
American Spies’ early forced retirement (due to injury)–he’s just 31–really pulled the foundation out from under a long term American GP presence. When Roberts retired, Lawson was there to take his place, and when Lawson saw his career wind down, Rainey and Schwantz were there. Scott Russell, Doug Chandler, Kenny Junior and John Hopkins came up the ladder after and basically hung in there long enough for Nicky Hayden to emerge and become a force in Grand Prix, winning the title in 2006. Texan Colin Edwards II was there as well. However, due to Spies retirement and other unfortunate factors, when Hayden left GP there were no American GP riders behind him to take his place.
The elephant in the room when one considers the fate of the American GP rider is something that happened a million miles away from Mugello, Brno or Phillip Island. And that was the sale of AMA Pro Racing to the Daytona Motorsports Group aka Jim France of Daytona. The quagmire that American racing became after DMG took over seemed to have everlasting effects: no one in Europe seemed to think there was an American rider worthy of a GP tryout. Even Josh Hayes’ hugely impressive wild card performance on a Yamaha MotoGP bike seemed to have little influence. Josh Herrin, DMG Superbike champion, tried to make his way in Grand Prix but was booted from Moto2 before the first season.
So, here we are in 2016 with not a single American rider on the MotoGP grid. Like they said about the real estate market in 2009–hopefully this is the bottom. Wayne Rainey has said it is one of his priorities to get Americans back in Grand Prix.
And if it’s not, then the accomplishments of Americans in Grand Prix, like those American astronaut footprints on the moon, will always be there, testaments to a time when it might have looked easy but it wasn’t. It was impossible, but Americans did it.