It was fitting – some might say inevitable – that Colin Edwards chose the Grand Prix of the Americas in his home state of Texas to announce his retirement. He had just spent the last couple of weeks at home, with his growing kids, doing dad stuff like taking them to gymnastics and baseball and motocross, then hosted a group, including current GP riders and a couple of journos, at his Bootcamp dirt track school. He had had time to mull over his future, then talk it over with his wife Ally, and come to a decision. There wasn't really a much better setting for the double World Superbike champion to announce he was calling it quits than sitting next to former teammate Valentino Rossi, the American he fought so memorably with in 2006, Nicky Hayden, the latest US addition to the Grand Prix paddock Josh Herrin, and with Marc Marquez, prodigy and 2013 MotoGP champion. It felt right. Sad, but right.
You can read the full story of Edwards' retirement here, but his announcement highlighted two different problems for motorcycle racing. One local, one global, and neither particularly easy to fix. The loss of Colin Edwards sees the MotoGP paddock, indeed all of international motorcycle racing, robbed of its most outspoken and colorful character. Edwards was a straight talker, with a colorful turn of phrase and uninhibited manner of speech. His interviews were five parts home truths, five parts witticisms and a handful of obscenities thrown in for good measure. He livened up press conferences, racing dinners, and casual conversations alike.
With Edwards gone, motorcycle racing is a much blander, less appealing place. Though Edwards was always careful not to upset sponsors too much, he refused to toe the line and just spout the politically acceptable line handed down by his corporate paymasters. He spoke his mind, complained when he was annoyed, gave praise where it was due, and always, always entertained. His interviews never contained the phrase 'I'd like to thank my sponsors,' a phrase which has even percolated down to the level of five and six year olds racing as Supercross support classes. Edwards was anything but bland, he may have been loose cannon, but everything he said was memorable. It may not necessarily have been printable, but it was definitely memorable.
With corporate backing and sponsors PR legions sucking the life out of rider statements, Edwards showed that a different way was possible. He was paid well above his performance scale because he attracted media attention. Fans loved him, supported him, the media covered him. Contrast that with the modern breed of riders who mouth nothing but sponsor-approved platitudes, and you can see who will make more of an impact on the visibility of a sponsor's product. Colin Edwards had personality, and sponsors, and most of all the sport benefited massively from his presence. Motorcycle racing just became a much, much harder sell with Edwards gone.
That is a problem which cannot be easily fixed. It requires sponsors not killing off any form of individuality right from the very beginning of a rider's career. It requires series organizers to nurture openness over obedience. That is a risk, but it is one which will pay off in the end. Loud mouths and colorful characters will attract more people to the sport than corporate yes men. This lesson will almost certainly go unheeded, however. It is easier to take the safe, short-term money than to gamble on a big pay off down the road.
The lack of characters in motorcycle racing makes the problem of a dearth of US talent in world championship racing look easier to solve. The loss of Edwards leaves Nicky Hayden as the last American rider in MotoGP, along with Josh Herrin in Moto2, if his contract is extend into 2015. Hayden is no spring chicken – the Kentucky Kid-no-more will be 33 this July – and though he still has a couple of seasons left in him, he is closer to the end than the beginning of his career. Herrin has had a rough start to Moto2, finding himself immersed in arguably the toughest class in motorcycle racing, with 20 riders on the same pace. The future for US fans hoping to cheer for an American rider looks pretty bleak at the moment.
What can be done to fix the situation? I asked Edwards, Hayden and Herrin in the press conference, and there was some pretty broad agreement. 'They need to come up with a good series to bring them,' Edwards said. At the moment, the AMA championship lacked depth of competition. 'Like Josh [Herrin] said, there are four or five guys there. You look at the way the CEV championship works in Spain, it just works. So for it to happen over here, it needs to be something more like that.' Edwards said.
Nicky Hayden highlighted the financial plight of motorcycle road racing in the US as one major factor in its decline. 'One of the problems started some years ago when the economy went down,' Hayden said. 'The young kids with the talent weren't getting the opportunities, because the rides were going to the kids probably with less talent and less desire who were paying for the rides. That wasn't just in America, but the good kids who you thought really had potential weren't coming up with anybody who could pay the bills, and had to go and get real jobs. That's a big problem.'
As for the AMA series, Hayden chose his words carefully. 'I don't want to be too negative, but with only five races, two-day events, that's not going to give a sixteen, seventeen year old kid a lot of experience, so that makes it tough,' Hayden explained. 'And as we know, the competition is what brings out the best in everyone, so if there's three or four fast guys right now, that's not really pushing everyone to the maximum, whereas in Spain you have twenty guys coming fast. And as much as I hate to say it, I think young Americans, they can maybe still come though Superbike, but at the moment, all the fast guys in MotoGP are coming through Moto2. So I think that's probably the best route.'
Josh Herrin backed both Edwards and Hayden. 'We need to have some more rounds in the AMA, and maybe get the racing a bit more competitive,' Herrin told the press conference. 'But kinda like he said, seems like there's a lot of people who pay for rides, and I know a few of them had to go get some real jobs and couldn't afford to go and race, except for maybe one or two rounds. But it's pretty tough trying to come up in road racing in America. It's not as easy as it is over in Europe, that's for sure,' Herrin added.
In an interview with Crash.net, retired racer Ben Spies agreed that having just five rounds in the AMA Superbike series really hurt racing in the US. But Spies pointed to the fact that racing had remained strong in Spain despite the economic crisis. 'I'm a little bit irked by it because the economy is bad, and it was really bad, but look how many Spanish riders there are and look at their economy,' Spies said. That was down to commitment to motorcycle racing, with Spies suggesting that Dorna should take over the AMA, to nurture US talent and provide a refuge for European talent which failed to make the grade initially in Europe.
Spies singled out one rider who he felt belonged in the premier class. Cameron Beaubier, who took Josh Herrin's place at Yamaha in AMA Superbikes, was good enough to take on the best riders in the world, Spies told Crash.net. 'The kid has got massive amounts of talent and I always notice that no matter where he is and what class he is racing in if someone goes faster he finds a way to go faster.'
In conversations this evening, MotoMatters.com photographer pointed out a few poignant facts to counter the arguments put forward by Edwards, Hayden and Herrin. Was a strong AMA series really that important? Did a new series along the lines of the Red Bull Rookies Cup or Asia Talent need to be set up to nurture American talent?
There was such a series: There was a US version of the Red Bull Rookies Cup, run in the US. It ran for two seasons before they had to abandon the series, after KTM withdrew support from their 125 cc bikes. Though that two-year series had brought on talent, none had gone on to win very much.
The same is true for the American entrants for the Red Bull Rookies Cup. The European-based version of the series has already had two American champions, with both Jake Gagne and JD Beach having lifted the crown. Both Gagne and Beach are now racing in the US, Gagne in Daytona Sportbike, Beach in AMA Flat Track. Cameron Beaubier had a rough season in 125s alongside Marc Marquez, struggling with injury, but is now racing in the AMA with the factory Yamaha team. Joe Roberts was another Red Bull Rookie who had some success, though eventually, money forced him back to the US, where he is now racing for John Ulrich's Roadracing World team.
So the problem seems not to lie in competition, or having a strong series, the issue seems to be mainly one of backing. If racing in the US were not an option, teams and sponsors should send their riders to Europe to cut their teeth, and back them on their way through the ranks. Sadly, American sponsors are not interested in long-term projects to bring on talent though multiple years. In a time when instant success is demanded, nobody has the patience to wait out several years for a rider to come good.
The problems of American road racing will not be fixed on Friday. But there will be bikes on track, and for a few blissful minutes, we can forget about the dearth of Young American Riders. But it is a problem which needs to be faced. The USA is the world's biggest market, and any progress with Americans in Grand Prix racing is welcome. Whatever your feelings about the role of the USA, if MotoGP can tap into the vast potential of American TV, then both the US and the sport can continue to grow. Fingers crossed.