Guest Blog: Mat Oxley - MotoGP: an American renaissance?

MotoMatters.com is delighted to feature the work of iconic MotoGP writer Mat Oxley. Oxley is a former racer, TT winner and highly respected author of biographies of world champions Mick Doohan and Valentino Rossi, and currently writes for Motor Sport Magazine, where he is MotoGP correspondent. We are featuring sections from Oxley's blogs, which are posted in full on the Motor Sport Magazine website.


MotoGP: an American renaissance?

MotoAmerica’s Wayne Rainey is working to make the USA a global racing force again

Empires come and go: the Greek, the Roman, the Portuguese, the British... It’s the same in sport, especially sports linked to industry and technology.

America’s grand prix empire reigned from 1978 to 2000: 14 500cc world titles in 23 years, then only one since. And nothing before, either.

Britain’s racing empire lasted longer, from the birth of GP racing until Barry Sheene’s final victory: 358 GP wins in the 32 seasons from 1949 to 1981. In the 37 seasons since then, British riders have won just 24 GPs.

What might explain these strange patterns in racing history?

British riders and manufacturers ruled motorcycle racing from the 1920s, largely thanks to lessons learned at Brooklands and the Isle of Man TT. When the world championships commenced in 1949, British and Italian riders and bikes led the way. It wasn’t until 1953 that another country won a riders or constructors title. And even when the British industry collapsed, foreign brands continued to hire British riders, until other nations got up to speed.

Since then Italy and Spain have become bike racing’s strongest nations. Both had important motorcycle industries, and even though Spain’s industry is no more, powered two-wheelers are still a big part of national culture in these sun-blessed Mediterranean lands.

But how come the American empire crumbled? This wasn’t an industry thing. US racers disappeared from grands prix because racing technology improved and riding techniques changed.

Read the rest of Mat Oxley's blog on the Motor Sport Magazine website.

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As usual. another great article by Max.

I'll give a brief story of where motorcycle racing is in north america, and why it is not even on the map for a clear majority of people here. 

I was visiting my Mom in Dubuque Iowa where she lives in an assisted living community.

In a visit to my mom last summer, as most motorcycle people do I was in the parking lot talking to a guy about his motorcycle. And this being middle America, the guy I am talking with rode a H-D.  There was another bike in the parking lot that was the opposite of his bike, and this bike was gxer 1000 race bike. To make it street legalish, this gxer had a basic head light bolted to the front and a rear brake light bolted to back. He didn't try to hide the wiring. It was a fantastic setup.

This was a race bike - so it didn't have mirrors or a kick stand. The gxer guy would put the jack under the left foot peg to hold it up and then put the jack in his backpack when he took off. 

I had to explain to the H-D guy why the gsxer was set up that way. I explained that the gxer was probably raced in at a few of the local tracks (tracks within a 400-mile radius of Dubuque IA). This H-D rider didn't know that there were race tracks, with left and right-hand turns! I had to explain the basics of racing on short tracks, why people go racing on motorcycles like the gxer, and why they were faster than his H-D...

This harley guy didn’t know that race tracks had left AND right hand turns (closed course short tracks to all of us). I was patient and didn’t slap my forehead once.

Canadians, you're guilty of this as well - I'm embarrassed for all of us in north america. 

Total votes: 15

I grew up in rural America riding motorcycles from a young age.  Motocross and Supercross is big in the USA.  There are many reasons for this, one is they hold the races in a coliseum.  I hate to say it, but U.S. citizens are programmed for coliseum sports.  the Supercross success is also beholden to proper branding and marketing of the sport to include heroes of their day such as Bob Hannah, Ricky Johnson, and the reign of Jeremy Mcgrath.  The sport was brought up properly and built up over a long period of time. Later came Ricky Carmicheal, James Stewart (too fast for his own good), and the current crop of stars. 

However, when I think of defining years within that sport I feel as though Ricky Johnson laid the foundation, and Jeremy Mcgrath took her home for the win.  These were the stars in play when the powers that be were branding and marketing the sport to the masses. Leadership at the top of that sport made good on their stars success.  Then and now it is a popular sport in a country where motorcycle racing is a minority sport (in my humble opinion).  With regards to Supercross, it was brought up right and marketed properly and fit the viewers motus operandi, of loading up the family driving to the coliseum, grabbing beer, hotdogs, drinks, etc. and waiting for the fireworks to start.

Road racing has had a far more turbulent progression and depression.  First the sport is a minority sport and has had poor tv coverage, poor marketing and a brand that was never grown and diminished over time with the different eras and leadership mindset regarding direction of the sport.

For the most part the USA is a car country, not/not a motorcycle country. (IMO)  Superbikes sold to young adults mostly men are looked at as a menace on the road. the rider pulls up next to the minivan with a fast bike and a loud pipe and is instantly labeled a bad boy.  Then there is the Harley culture mostly it is middle aged Americans looking for the sense of freedom and outlaw bravado.  They are by no means the Hells Angels or any other outlaw biker gang. But it gives them a good feeling to get away from the cubicle or factory floor. Harley Davidson has capitalized on that market.

Ok back to road racing it is an expensive sport and most people cannot afford to participate.  The average club racer buys a bike does a track day, maybe starts racing and has a life cycle of 2-3 years then spends 5 years paying off credit cards.  AMA didn't build the sport or capitalize on peaks for success within the market rather choosing to fight with manufacturers which ultimately lead to the sports depressions.  TV coverage is and was poor, sometimes the races coming on days later and at 1 or 2am when everyone is sleeping.  despite this the show went on and there was some level of success because the economy was good and the age-old adage race on Sunday buy on Monday was still attainable. 

2003-2007 when Ben Spies and Matt Mladin raced for Yoshimura Suzuki, were some of the best years of hard-core racing. Truly riding at a World level that the American patrons and World were not even aware of, ask Neil Hodgson. Having come over from Europe and found out the level of racing was very high in I believe 2007. As Ben Spies decided to move up to the world level and NASCAR ownership took over the AMA Pro racing the sport took a double hitter.  One poor leadership and direction for the future of the sport and two an economic depression that hit the manufacturers pocket book.  The manufacturers had no reason to go racing with turbulent tv coverage, poor leadership of the championship, and no one to buy on Monday. 

Matt Mladin stuck around for his seventh title when Ben Spies went to World Superbikes and was upwards of 100 points ahead and in protest skipped a race for safety reasons and also to highlight the poor leadership and direction of the sport, we all loved. America has changed, the sport was not promoted properly and likely many Americans with smaller wallets and a higher cost of living opted for cheaper thrills. The Harley in the garage being the symbol of freedom one doesn't really have and the GSXXER being the menace of the road creates culture and counter culture. In America their currently at odds with each other, whereas when I grew up there was room for all.

MotoAmercia, the rebirth has begun and they appear to be off to a good start with the leadership of a World Champion in Wayne Rainey.  The sport now finally has good tv coverage by Bein sports and this year will be live over the internet on their website just as Motogp and World Superbikes does with its tv coverage.  You have to reach the audience and for so long road racing in America failed to reach and capture the audiences attention.

For those that do have the funding and opportunity to race in the USA, it is very difficult to get to the World level not because we do not have great riders but because of access to opportunity.  If one comes up in the CEV championship he is already a known commodity and likely has a better understanding of how it works across the pond.  U.S. riders will need connections and departures to Europe to fill the seats of moto 3, moto2, motogp for the moment while Mr. Rainey works to rebuild the sport.

Total votes: 4